Globalization, Realism and Liberalism Essay

Globalization, Realism and Liberalism Essay



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


Executive Summary

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?



LDC-Least Developed Countries

UN-United Nations

NGO-Non-Governmental Organization

MNC-Multinational Corporations

UN-United Nations


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.


What is Liberalism?

Liberalism was used to underline the shift in international relations at the time of détente. Liberalism also has a number of basic assumptions on which it’s based.

The first is that non-state actors such as international institutions, multinational corporations and NGOs are also important and dominant actors in international relations. They assert a considerable amount of influence when setting the political agenda on the international stage. In an increasingly interdependent global economy, MNCs have also come to play a vital role in international relations and in some cases shaping political events in host states.

Secondly, the state is not a unified entity as realists declare but is disaggregated into various competing components, bureaucracies and interest groups that are attempting to influence foreign policies. There is “competition, coalition building, conflict and compromise” as one would expect in politics. As such these actors are not impermeable to external influence as realists assert. The complexity of politics ensures that state actors are constantly subjected to external elements that include other states as well as non-state entities (Viotti and Kauppi 1999 pg 7; Martin 2007).

Thirdly, Liberalists challenge the notion that the state is a rational actor. This arises from the logical fact that the state is not seen as unitary in the first place. Decision making that is subject to coalition and counter coalition building, bargaining and compromise may not yield a best or optimal decision. It might yield a decision with minimum consensus from a minimum winning coalition but this hardly means the decision process is rational. The very process actors go through means there will be bias, misperception, uncertainty, stress and other factors all of which undercut the idea of a rational decision making process. Realists such as Hans Morgenthau have nevertheless defended the rationality argument stating it’s simply the starting point for analysis rather than a concluding statement.

The last point is that in Liberalism, other factors such as economic, social, environmental or other constantly changing world issues should also dominate world politics alongside military/national security issues.

However, another school of thought has recently emerged that challenges both the Realist and Liberalist view.


What are Globalization theories in International Relations?

Globalization has been described as the “The process of increasing interconnectedness between societies such that events in one part of the world more and more have effects on peoples and societies far away” (Baylis & Smith 2001 pg 8).

Globalization theories have four key concepts that underpin the ideology and indeed their outlook on international relations in fundamentally different ways from the other two.

The first concept is that unlike Realism and Liberalism, Globalization theories assume that the starting point for debates on international relations is “the global context within which states and other entities interact” (Viotti and Kauppi 1999 pg 8). To understand the behavior of states in international relations, one needs to analyze the global environment within which such behavior occurs. The emphasis here is to examine how the global structure and system conditions and shapes the external behavior of states inclining them to behave a certain way instead of looking at internal factors.

Second, Globalization theories assert that history plays a very important role in how states relate to each other. It dictates the current environment within which international politics takes place. The defining characteristic of the international system is that it’s capitalist. As such this requires the study of its origin in 16th century Western Europe, its effects, changes and expansion to a point of global domination. As such the main benefactors have been the original capitalist states with first mover advantages while other states haven’t benefited from it. As such globalization theories assert that it’s imperative to study how the capitalist system has conditioned and constrained behavior of all states and societies and how its evolution may have even contributed to the creation of states, not just their behavior (Viotti and Kauppi 1999; Kofman and Young 1996).

Thirdly, Globalization scholars realize the importance of states-as-actors, transnational corporations and international bodies and other coalitions but their emphasis is on how these entities and factors act as mechanisms of domination by some states, classes or elites benefiting from the capitalist system at the expense of others. More important is the development and maintenance of dependency relations among the industrialized developed nations (North America, Europe and Japan) and LDC states in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The key argument here is that the global political economy has progressed--intentionally or unintentionally-- in a way that kept the latter states underdeveloped. Although most LDCs are part of the world capitalist system and are fully integrated and integral to it, they are underdeveloped and most remain so. This integration according to globalization scholars is the problem. It’s parasitic to LDCs because their integration only enriches the industrialized nations by providing them with cheap labor, raw materials and markets for their goods. This integration means they cannot choose their own autonomous path of political and economic development Keohane and Nye 1989; Viotti and Kauppi 1999; Martin 2007).

Lastly, Globalization theories as already evidenced place far greater emphasis on the importance of economic factors when it comes to analyzing the workings of the international system. This is in stark contrast to realism which doesn’t even consider them important. Liberalism does argue that it’s an open question although they do reject the high versus low politics stance typical of the other two theories.

It’s imperative to declare that all three theories are not mutually exclusive in all respects.

Some scholars of Realism don’t deny the importance of economic factors rather they differ from Liberalism and Globalization theorists in how much relative importance is attached compared to military security issues.

Some scholars of Globalization also recognize the role of states in global politics but prefer to attach significant emphasis on economic factors and class relations.

Similarly, supporters of Liberalism place their greatest emphasis on non-state actors as well as transnational, socioeconomic factors that are seen as reducing the autonomy of the state actor.

All three perspectives are not mutually exclusive and each has its strengths and weaknesses. The relative utility of each theory in generating helpful insight will vary depending on the particular theoretical question one may be asking. One can argue on the relative merits of using any of the three theories to answer political pressing questions but there is no one right dominant perspective. The more fundamental concern is the framework within which each perspective is used. None is more radical than the other but each simply offers an alternative lens through which to make sense of what we observe in the international political system.



So in conclusion, one can argue that Globalization theories are simply a theoretical alternative to both Liberal and Realist perspectives. They might seem radical in a sense that they throw out everything to do with the other two theories. As seen earlier, some Globalization scholars such as Wallerstein recognize the importance of states as actors as some Realists and Liberals recognize the importance of economic factors. The difference comes down to the relative importance each theory attaches to particular factors. Thus for Realists, states and state interactions are the most important factors. For Liberals, transnational interactions through communication via various entities is a central focus; and for Globalization theorists, issues of class (haves and have not) or North-South relations of dominance or dependence are crucial.



Viotti, P. & M. Kauppi, International Relations Theory: Realism, Pluralism, Globalism, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999, chapter 2.

Keohane, R.& J. Nye, Power and Interdependence, London: Harper Collins, 1989, chapter 1.

Keohane, Robert O., ‘International institutions: Two approaches,’ International Studies Quarterly, 32(4), 1988, pp.379-396.

Kofman, E. & G. Youngs (eds.), Globalization: Theory and Practice, London: Pinter: 1996.

Baylis, J. & Smith, S. (eds.) The Globalisation of World Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, Introduction and chapter 1.

Martin, Lisa L. “Neoliberalism,” in Dunne, Tim, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith (eds.) International Relations Theory. Discipline and Diversity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 109-126.

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