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It’s been argued that the cold war represents the best practical example of realism in action. The arms race, preoccupation with national security and the struggle for power were all in evidence here. However in the 1970’s as the cold war “thawed” and the advent of the oil crisis persisted, scholars of international relations shifted away from national security towards issues of trade and environment at a time of détente in what was seen as Liberalism. In the mean time, others scholars moved towards globalization theories as an alternative to theories of Realism and Liberalism.

In this essay, the author seeks to establish the difference between the three perspectives of international theory and in doing so, will establish whether Globalization Theories differ from Realism and Liberalism, and if so, whether the difference is that radical or are these theories in fact mutually exclusive?


Globalization theories are a radical challenge to traditional Realism and Liberalism. Do you agree?


1.0 What is Realism?

Machiavelli once wrote in “Prince” that the sole aim of a politician is to seek power by all means irrespective of moral or religious considerations. In similar rhetoric, Thucydides in his historical narrative of the 'Peloponnesian Wars' stated that the battle for power and the fear of losing it were at the heart of the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta.

Power according to both Machiavelli and Thucydides is the ultimate goal of states and politicians. These were some of the historical theoretical assumptions that gave birth to Realism in contemporary politics.

Realism is an ideology of international relations, especially quite dominant in the early-cold war era, whose overriding assumption is that state power and state interests determine the constraints under which world politics operate. It’s based on four basic assumptions which according to Viotti and Kauppi (1999) are as follows;

The first assumption is that states are the principal or main actors in international relations and as such non-state actors such as multinational corporations and international bodies and intergovernmental institutions like the UN are not important or only play a minor role. The state is and should be the dominant actor.

Secondly, the state is seen as one unitary actor that speaks with one voice and presents solidarity and a common stand to the outside world. Although dissent or difference of opinion arises, it is corrected and dealt with by higher authorities in an effort to present an integrated unified voice.

Thirdly, Realists view the state as a rational unitary actor that fulfills state objectives using rational means of decision making that take into account all feasible alternatives available to the state to arrive at the best possible decision that maximizes utility.

Although Realists affirm that the decision making process might be tinged with bias, uncertainty or lack of adequate information, they still declare that a states’ choice, will at least be perceived as the satisfactory one, if not the best.

The last and fourth assumption of Realists is that at the heart of the international relations between states, national security is the number one priority. Realists focus on actual or potential conflicts between states, the use of military force to resolve such conflicts and prevention of territorial violation. Realists view national security and military issues as stuff of “high politics” and issues such trade, social or environmental problems as “low politics” (Viotti and Kauppi 1999, pg 7 )

In a nutshell, Realists believe that other states are inherently anarchic, and aggressive with a sole aim of territorial expansion that is only constrained by opposing powers. It is view made famous by Thomas Hobbes who viewed the state of nature as inherently aggressive, anarchic and gladiatorial hence prone to war. This was the main ideology that dominated the cold war era, justifying subsequent arms races and war itself. Realism in essence is as far removed from idealism as one would imagine.

 However, this “state-centric” ideology didn’t explain the state of world politics as states became more increasingly co-operative in areas such as trade, and even the military at the time of détente. As states realized they had more to gain through co-operation, economic issues became just as important as security matters and another ideology emerged explaining the new international system. This was the emergency of Liberalism.

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