by Harry Gilson

A realist foreign policy entails limited cooperation with other states, a focus on security, establishing a balance of power and above all, protecting the interests of the state. This essay will compare the applicability of a realist foreign policy with its theoretical counterpart, liberalism. A liberalist foreign policy has a number of focusses: interdependence and cooperation, spreading of liberal ideals such as democracy and freedoms and the protection of rights, both within the state and internationally (Smith, Hadfield, Dunne, 2016). The essay will compare the applicability of realism against liberalism by discussing studies of interdependence, security and international intervention and conclude that realism is limited in applicability, as it relies too much on hindsight.

One of the core concepts of realism, as described by Heywood (2014), is the idea that people who govern a state are self-interested, which reflects in the foreign policy decisions. According to realism, the only reason for a state to cooperate with other states is if it is in their self interest. For example the free trade agreement between Sri-Lanka and India exclusively benefits both their manufacturing and technology sectors (Kelegama, 2006), therefore cooperation is advantageous and fulfilling the states’ self-interest. From a liberalist perspective, this self centred attitude to cooperation has been shown to cause security problems in the past, and is highly inapplicable in the current global environment (Smith, Hadfield, Dunne, 2016). Liberalists might use the historical example of the UK’s unwillingness to integrate fully with the European Union to show how a realist attitude to foreign policy did not benefit the UK. It was not in the UK’s (short term) interests to join the European Coal and Steel Community partly due to the fact that it did not want to sacrifice its own power for the good of the European community (Menon, Minto and Mincott, 2016). However, some liberalists would argue that the UK joining the European Coal and Steel Community at that time would have been beneficial for both parties, as the UK could have experienced and contributed to the large amount of economic growth felt during the 1950s and 60s (Kenealy, 2016). In addition to the historical example, it has been argued that self interested realist foreign policy can not work in the current international environment: states are becoming more cooperative, from military agreements such as NATO, to trade deals such as NAFTA, meaning that interdependence is currently unavoidable (Oldemeinen, 2011). In contrast with its realist counterpart, liberalist foreign policy would dictate that the only way to achieve peace , as well as political and economic union, is cooperation and interdependence (Heywood, 2014).

Realists and liberalists have differing ideas about security: a realist foreign policy would reflect distrust and suspicion of other states, whereas a liberalist foreign policy will seek to build alliances, and form relationships (Heywood, 2014). The realist approach is criticised by liberalist theorists due to the fact that it can lead to the security dilemma (Smith, Hadfield, Dunne, 2016)). The security dilemma is a consequence of a school of realist theory, defensive realism, which explains how, due to the self interested and suspicious way that states conduct their foreign policy decisions, it would be in their favour to militarise themselves for protection (Taliaferro, 2000). The security dilemma becomes apparent when all states start to do this, and a very militarised and volatile international environment appears (Montgomery, 2006), endangering the state which initially intentioned to protect itself. This highlights the difference between the application of a liberalist and realist foreign policy, as the state’means of achieving security will have an impact on global security. A realist foreign policy  could create more conflict, in a less securitised global environment, if applied to security policy. Liberals argue that to bypass the security dilemma that realism creates, states could cooperate politically, arbitrating disputes through IGOs, use collective security pacts to discourage aggressive acts and create economic interdependence through mutually beneficial trade agreements

A realist foreign policy would  only advocate intervention, military or otherwise, if it is in the intervening states’ self interest.(Heywood, 2014). This is reflected by the realist theorist, George Kennan (1954, p48), who said, ‘“The process of government… is a practical exercise and not a moral one”. Reaffirming the idea that states with a realist foreign policy would not intervene in another state for alturistic reasons, only selfish ones. On the other hand, Thomas Paine, the traditional liberalist, advocates military intervention in order to spread democracy and freedom (Walker, 2008). He argues that because political change happens so quickly, it sometimes has to be forced, and in such cases, military intervention may be not only justified, but necessary (Walker, 2008). Wolfowitz (2009, p66) echoes Paine’s perspective on intervention when he wrote that, “elections, even flawed ones, can be positive catalysts for change in autocratic states”. An example of this was the successful 2011 UN intervention in Côte d’Ivoire, where French troops with a mandate from the UN pressured the president, Gbagbo, to relinquish power. After two weeks, which is short for a military intervention, Gbagbo was overthrown and a regime change followed (Oved, 2011). However, there are contesting opinions about military intervention within the liberalist tradition. Immanuel Kant argues there is no place in liberalism for interventionist policies, due to the slow moving nature of political change (Walker, 2008). The realist critique may be that the success of liberalist interventions are varied and have had adverse effects on a state, such as conflict, and continuing political instability in states like northern Iraq, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia in the past (Roberts,1993). Both schools within Liberalism have the same objectives, despite the contradictions between methods: “individual rights, elected representation, rule of law, and separation of powers”, (Walker, 2008, p451). The issue with realist foreign policy therefore, is not whether to intervene or not, but the lack of motives for carrying out an intervention, which make it less applicable than liberalist foreign policy.

To conclude, in comparison to liberalist foreign policy, realist foreign policy is only applicable to a certain extent. There are three reasons identified in this essay: interdependence, attitudes to security and intervention. Firstly, realist theory implies that states should not cooperate with other states unless it is in their own interest, which contrasts the liberalist ideal of global interdependence. This is not a realistic goal in current international conditions, where globalisation is facilitating interactions between states which are not only beneficial to the global community, but may also bring advantages for the state. Secondly, the defensive realist attitude to security can cause the security dilemma, which makes it dangerous and inapplicable. A fully defensive realist foreign policy is not applicable, as it would lead to all states consecutively arming themselves due to the distrust they have for other nations, creating a world which is more militarised, and more dangerous for the citizens they were initially attempting to protect. Finally, a realist foreign policy would not allow for any international intervention, which is not only a dangerous approach, but one described by some liberalist theorists, to be immoral. Although realists could counter the liberalist method of intervention by noting the many international interventions in the past which have been unsuccessful, the theory is less applicable than liberalism in this situation because it does not provide any solution to combat internal difficulties in another state. In light of globalisation, especially the increasing interdependence in the world, a realist foreign policy is focused too much on hindsight, and does not offer enough solutions to the new problems the world is currently facing.



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