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Explaining the Divisions Between Liberals and Realists Concerning Conflict

Realism is the belief that states are the most important and authoritative actors in global politics, and their primary goal is to protect their own interests. Liberals believe that the states interests in global politics are linked and interdependent, and best advanced through states working closely with each other to achieve a common goal.

Realists are skeptical about interdependence because of their pessimistic view of human nature; everyone acts in their own self-interest. In the same way, realists would argue that state should act in the interests of its own people, this advocating for isolationism. We can see this in Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Accords, as he claims he is prioritizing American industry over other interests. Thomas Hobbes summarized this mentality in his state of nature; however liberals would disagree with Hobbes and the decisions made as a result of his theories. Liberals instead believe global cooperation is necessary to achieve collective solutions between states. While realists believe in a state sovereignty as an absolute concept, liberals would argue sovereignty must be compromised in cases of common crisis, such as the global environmental crisis (because of which many states have accepted the power of UNFCC).

For Hobbes, the state of nature is characterized by the “war of every man against every man,” a constant and violent condition of competition in which each individual has a natural right to everything, regardless of the interests of others. Existence in the state of nature is, as Hobbes famously states, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and  short.” The only laws that exist in the state of nature (the laws of nature) are not covenants forged between people but principles based on self-preservation.

For realists, conflict is an unavoidable feature of global politics, as realists possess a profoundly practical view of political motivation. This practicality justifies the need for national defense and security because as highlighted by Machiavelli in The Prince, since states reflect the ruthless ambition of humans, other states can only hold them in check by being as strong, if not stronger than them, because everyone is a potential threat. Liberals oppose conflict and violence, and believe Intergovernmental Organizations such as the United Nations offer a forum for resolution. Conflict goes against the liberal thinker John Rawls’s veil of ignorance; under which we must ensure that the lives of the most unfortunate in society a the best possible, as it might become our own situation through any sequence of events. Realism’s self-preservation does not coincide with this liberal altruism, and therefore realists do not support liberal economic cooperation that attempts to limit conflict, like the EU.

Liberalism focuses on the establishment and preservation of human rights as a moral imperative in politics; a sense of common humanity. Meanwhile, morality is not considered in realist political decisions as realists do not believe in a Utopian peace of natural harmony. In this sense, military intervention and participation are realist actions, such as the sale of arms.  This does not, however, mean realists are immoral or selfies, rather as contemporary realist John Mearsheimer would put it, “forever vigilant.”

So which ideology do you most align with?

Photo: rawpixels via Unsplash

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Srabosti Basu
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Student from England with an interest in human rights and journalism.

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