September 18, 2021

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Liberalism versus Realism : the status quo of international relations

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This article is written by Vedant Saxena from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. The article explains the intricacies of two grand theories of international relations, and their relevance in light of the current scenario. 

Table of Contents

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Realism and liberalism have been at daggers drawn since time immemorial. While the realists possess a gloomy and pessimistic view of human nature, the liberals choose to consider the other side of the coin. Realists believe that no matter how incumbent individual freedom may be, it cannot supersede national security. They believed that complete cooperation and harmony between states is a utopian ideology, and therefore, some form of conflict is always inevitable. On the other hand, liberals believe that no matter how hard it may be, international peace and harmony is very much possible. According to Robert Keohane, cooperation is “when actors adjust their behaviour to the actual or anticipated preferences of others, through a process of policy coordination. Just as in the case of conflict, cooperation may occur either between 2 states, or a plethora of states.”

Humanity has been ravaged by a number of wars over the centuries. After the end of the first world war, there were several attempts made in order to establish peace and harmony between states. The League of Nations was an international organisation established through a treaty between a number of states, who had realised the importance of harmonious relations. However, the terms of the treaty did not eliminate realism in toto. According to Article 12 of the covenant, any dispute arising between the parties would be settled in one amongst 3 ways: arbitration, judicial settlement or inquiry. Article 15 said that in the event of the league of nations failing to resolve a dispute, a report would be published, consisting of the facts of the case and recommendations made in the interests of justice. If the report were to be passed unanimously, the Members of the League were not to go to war with any party to the dispute which complies with the recommendations of the report.

However, if it passed by a mere majority vote, the members were at liberty to employ any technique that they considered to be in the interests of justice. In other words, the countries were well within their rights to enter into armed conflicts with one another. The failure of the league of nations became evident with the commencement of the second world war- considered the most destructive war in history. A third world war had been on the cards during the 1980s, on account of the rising tensions between the 2 world powers: the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). George Orwell in an article published in 1945 summed up the intensity of the 45-year long period of geopolitical tension in the following statement: “Two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds.

As stated above, realists believe that under no circumstances could liberty be given impetus over national security. They possess a pessimistic view of international relations and believe that distorted versions of nationalism would eventually encourage states to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most prominent names in the field of Indian literature, was an arch critic of nationalism.

According to him, people had grown selfish over time, and nationalism was being used as an instrument of oppression rather than a symbol of love and compassion. He considered Western concepts of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism to be the chief architects of this concept of nationalism. Tagore could be considered a realist, for he believed that if such distorted versions of nationalism were to stay afloat, the world would be engulfed in violence and destruction. The 2 world wars worked as solid proof of Tagore’s realism.

Post-war era

The theory of realism gained widespread prominence after the culmination of the second world war. Although there have been several criticisms to it, including the peaceful culmination of the Cold war, the theory continues to keep its ground. There are 3 subclasses of the theory of realism: classical realism, neo-realism and neo-classical realism. Classical realism essentially reflects Thomas Hobbs’s concept of the state of nature that human beings are inherently selfish and brutish, and for the sake of their selfish desires, they would mercilessly kill each other. Neo-realists consider power as the most important factor in international relations.

They believe that law is meaningless unless and until there is an effective machinery for its enforcement. It is the remedy that makes the right real. Since in international law all states are at par with one another, there is no concept of sanctions. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), the International Criminal Court (ICC), etc are all merely dispute-resolution bodies. They came into existence as a result of treaties between states, and thus are only applicable to the member states. Moreover, and with the absence of a higher body, their decisions are of mere persuasive value. One of the prominent examples would be Hitler’s breach of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

On Aug. 23, 1939, shortly before the onset of the second world war, arch-rivals Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stunned the world by entering into a nonaggression pact, thereby promising not to engage in military action against one another for 10 years. Taking into account Germany’s dominance and the likely outcome of another war, Joseph Stalin considered the pact as an invaluable instrument of maintaining peace with the Nazis. The reason why Germany had entered into the pact was to ensure an unopposed invasion of Poland. The pact was breached in June 1941, with the Nazis invading the Soviet Union. Another example of the ineffectiveness of international law would be the existence of colonialism, considered as a relic of the past, in the 21st century. 

Explaining the concept of social dilemma, the feelings of mistrust and insecurity between states due to the absence of a higher body of law, Collins writes: “The Security Dilemma is the notion that in a context of uncertainty and bounded rationality perceived external threats (real or imagined) generate feelings of insecurity in those states that believe themselves to be the targets of such threats, thereby leading those states to adopt measures to increase their power and capability to counteract those threats (alliance creation, arms build-ups, and so on) Therefore, if a particular state were to suddenly start increasing its military power or engage in activities threatening to disrupt world peace, the other states too would start equipping themselves for the sake of their security. 

The varying views of realists 

There exist several differences even among the realists. For instance, while the offensive realists consider the hollowness of international law as an inevitable medium of war, the defensive realists believe that conflict depends upon the states involved. For instance, in the case of 2 like-minded states, there exists a greater chance of mutual cooperation rather than armed conflict. Thus, according to defensive realists, conflict is not always an inevitable phenomenon, and more often than not, security in the context of international relations is plentiful. 

However, no matter what number of petty issues divide them, realists share one common grand belief, i.e., all entities are inherently selfish and would place their needs before others’. Owing to the incompetence of international law to act as a true body of law, there exist a lot many possibilities of threats to international peace and security, and thus states must lay greater emphasis on personal security rather than individualism and liberty. While most of the contentions laid down by the realists seem plausible on account of their practicality, there do exist a few illogical points. For instance, by laying excessive emphasis on the indispensability of a higher sovereign body and sanctions, the realists have completely ignored the self-limitation concept- the imperative factor motivating nations not to engage in another global war. 

The seeds of liberalism in international law were first sown after the culmination of the first world war. Europe had been so ravaged by the war, that the governments of various states began seeking ways to promote and maintain international peace and security. For instance, Woodrow Wilson, the then president of the United States jotted down fourteen points, which were used as the basis for peace negotiations. The points declared peace to be established through covenants openly arrived at, diplomacy to be done in full public view, freedom of navigation upon the seas except in cases involving enforcement of covenants, etc.

However, the fourteen points proved to be futile with the dawn of the second world war, merely 20 years after the declaration of peace through the Treaty of Versailles. After the second world war, most jurists remained sceptical of the liberal theory, until the end of the cold war in 1991. In Spite of heightened tensions between 2 world powers, there was minimal usage of weapons all through the cold war. Thus, the liberal theory had achieved major success and gained widespread prominence in the years henceforth. 

There are many differences between the views of the liberals and those of realists. While the realists considered human beings to be inherently savage and brutish, the liberals considered human beings to be rational and peace-loving. They believe that although people are self-interested, they are rational, and respect the basic rights of one another. Thus, they possess a fairly optimistic view of the world. They believe that the reason why international peace falters is due to the absence of an adequate number of international institutions. If the international institutions were to engage in the propagation of harmonious state relations by effectively promoting peaceful change, disarmament, etc, mutual cooperation would be much easier.

A state bound by and obligations is bound to obey it, for 2 reasons. Firstly, if it does not abide by international customs and treaties, other states may cut off social, political and economic ties with it. Secondly, most states are aware of the fact that engaging in armed conflicts would bring about a significant loss of life and property to all states involved (self-limitation). The liberals, in contrast to the realists, laid heavy emphasis on the roles of transnational actors and non-governmental organizations. They believed that such entities would play a quintessential role in promoting cooperation and integration between states, thereby leading to a harmonious international environment. 

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The importance of democratic institutions

Liberals consider democracy to be an extremely important institution for the promotion of world peace. Liberty thrives in democratic institutions. The people elect the government of their choice, which possesses power for a fixed number of years. Therefore, on account of their limited power, democratic states seldom perceive each other as threats, and more often than not cooperate with each other. Maintaining harmonious ties is not just desirable, but also beneficial to the democratic states. For instance, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade. The WTO describes itself as:

“[…] the only global international organisation dealing with the rules of trade between states. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading states and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.”

The liberals also discuss the significant contributions of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the promotion of world peace. For instance, they credit the EU for its role in establishing democracies in 27 major European countries, including the former Soviet Union, which were authoritarian regimes and thus threats to international peace and security. 

Deficiencies 

There are a number of shortcomings evident within the liberal theory of international relations. The liberals argue that most states are readily willing to cooperate with one another. They seem to have hopped past the concept of self-interest, which motivates states to enter into treaties that specifically benefit them. The United Kingdom, in spite of being a member of the EU, is not accepting the euro as the common currency. According to the government of the United Kingdom, the euro fails to satisfy the five critical tests that would be necessary to use it. At the end of the day, it is states who possess power, for the international institutions were themselves borne out of treaties between states. Secondly, establishing democracies in obdurate authoritarian regimes is not a mere walk in the park. For instance, America’s attempt to establish democracy in Iraq was a big failure, which led to nothing but disruption and turmoil in the country.

The arguments of both the realists and the liberals have materialised in the real world. For instance, the liberal view of mutual cooperation and self-help has been prominent ever since the second world war. A test-ban treaty, signed on August 5, 1963, between the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States prohibited the right to test nuclear weapons except for underground testing. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been signed by 191 countries, including the 5 nuclear states, prohibits the acquiring of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states. The New Start treaty, signed by the US and Russia in 2010, limits the number of long-range nuclear warheads that each side can possess. On 22nd January 2021, the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was brought into force. Although the United States and 8 other nuclear powers have not signed it, it still has been ratified by 51 states, and by prohibiting states from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territories, is expected to play a major part in the enforcement of world peace. 

On the other hand, the realists say that on account of a number of states possessing nuclear warheads today, international peace has never been more compromised. The growing tension between Indian and China is an unambiguous manifestation of this statement. The 2 Asian giants have been involved in a border dispute of late, which involves them competing for building structures across the Line of Actual Control (LOC). Ever since their clash in the Galwan valley, their first fatal confrontation since 1975, relations have continued to deteriorate. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash with Chinese forces in a disputed Himalayan border area, Indian officials say.

In today’s world, security tensions do not exist merely between states. Ever since the infamous 9/11 attacks, which involved 3,000 casualties, the world has been living in constant fear of militant terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In a recent terrorist attack that occurred in Nice, France, a 60-year old woman was virtually beheaded, and a 55-year old man’s throat was slit. However, Nice was no stranger to such incidents. 4 years back, it witnessed a terrorist attack that involved a Tunisian driving a truck into massive crowds celebrating Bastille day. How is an entity supposed to brace itself for something unknown?

In light of the status quo, security is an indispensable criterion. Knowing the enemy has become a challenge. Trust has proven to be a major issue. Therefore, in the present day, both the realist and liberal theory of international relations need to be taken into the account. While it is unlikely that a country would commit acts in order to spark off another global war, states need to be aware of the fact that all entities are self-interested and thus would place the needs of their people first. This may also be achieved at the cost of other states’ rights. Delivering his maiden speech as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump had said: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern… it’s going to be only America first, America first” Moreover, new threats are emerging from unknown entities each day. Therefore, in the present day, both the realist and liberal theory of international relations possess relevance.


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