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Comparison between Realist and Liberal Views on Security

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Security Theory Essay

“On balance, do you tend to favour a realist or a liberal vision of security? Why?”

For years, theorists have sought to find a conceptual framework upon which, international relations can be studied and provide a lens with which to view the world. The most notable of these theories being that of realism and liberalism. This essay shall attempt to answer the question on whether one tends to favour a realist or a liberal vision of security? This will be done by providing a brief description of both theories and their limitations before a conclusion to answer the question. Before that, one must first deal with the issue of security. What is security? For the purposes of this essay, a working definition from Booth (2007) will be utilised which stems from the idea that security is understood to be the alleviation of threats from cherished values which left un-monitored risk the existence of a referent object. Booth has named it as “survival plus” where the plus refers to freedom from life-deciding risks. This definition has been used as there is not one single universally agreed definition of the term because each such attempt is met with criticism from various parties clamouring to get their part in. As such, the definition to be utilised covers the key concepts of security, allowing one to focus a variety of matters which can be regarded as a security issue. The first theory to be dealt with is Realism.

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Realism is a school of thought that emphasises the competitive and conflictual side of international relations (Antunes & Camisao, 2018, p. 15). With many sub-schools of thought under it, all have the same three assumptions (Wohlforth, 2010, p. 9)The first, is that of Groupism, wherein political dealings are between groups, which in turn, are strengthened by cohesion of the people within the group. That conflict and cooperation between groups is the lifeblood of international politics where nation-states comprise groups and Nationalism represents ingroup cohesion. The second assumption is that of Egoism, that groups and people alike are propelled by self-interests when acting politically. The third assumption is that of power-centrism, that human dealings are fraught with disparities concerning, social influence and resources.

Realism utilises all assumptions to form the argument that since human affairs are governed by the assumptions, then politics will be conflictual unless a central authority exists to restore order. Though there are many sub-schools of realism, all agree that the states’ character of relations has remained constant. Where a shift occurs, it does so in recurring cycles (Elman, 2008, p. 16). State conduct, as Elman argues, is propelled by a leader’s shortcomings, or by the anarchical system’s preventative repulsiveness. The supposedly unending continuation of conflict and domination may be explained by the desire for dominance and the want for security in a self-help world. It would additionally be inappropriate to utilise phrases that begin “Realists states…” or other related sentences since Realism and its theorists are not monolithic, constantly disputing each other, let alone other theories.

One of the more prominent branches of Realism is that of Neorealism. Waltz (1979) deviated from its persuasive yet unprovable presumption concerning human nature. His hypothesis was dubbed “structural realism” or “neorealism”. Instead of state conduct stemming from human nature, they came to a straightforward principle. Firstly, is that all nation-states are limited by a pre-existing anarchic international framework. Secondly, any strategy undertaken is entirely depended on a state’s relative power compared to different nation-states. In this way, Walt proposed a form of Realism that suggested researchers inspect the traits of international systems for answers as opposed to defects within human nature which resulted in the utilisation of social scientific methods as opposed to philosophical strategies. The variables proposed by Waltz may be empirically measured as opposed to human nature which cannot be estimated similarly (Antunes & Camisao, 2018, p. 17).

Despite this, Realism is not perfect and has weaknesses most recognised by Waltz as analysis at the state and human level. Initially, Realism has depended on a bleak perspective on humans due to their allegedly invariable and violent nature. Such perspective stems the subsequent shortcoming: a propensity to regard intra and inter-state politics as including constant challenges for gains. Which is why Realism critics contend that the theory is a self-fulfilling prophecy; propagating the tumultuous arena being depicted and expecting the obstinate state of humans, goading state leaders to act on grounds of doubt and strength. Thirdly, Realists lack theoretical arguments on how states – and any other actor – decide actions. The final shortcoming comprises both international and state analysis levels and comprises a deficiency in regarding the recently expanded impact of non-state actors. The continued strength of Realism, however, arise from the interest given to the structure and procedure at the international system level. Though it limits the decisions of states and other actors alongside shaping the results of their dealings, it doesn’t precisely regulate the options of states (Peterson, 2018, p. 157). Hence, world leaders can hardly free themselves from the truth of power politics. For Realists, confronting the truth of one’s problem isn’t negativity but rather judiciousness. Realists view of international relations emphasizes on that the probability of non-violent alteration is constrained and for a state leader to depend on such thinking would be foolish (Antunes and Camisao, 2018, p. 17).

Realism critics additionally centre around the theory of the balance of power. In this situation, nation-states consistently choose to heighten their competencies at the expense of other nation-states. Should a state actively endeavour to be all-powerful, such as Nazi Germany, a conflict would ensue as various states will band together to defeat it and re-establish balance. Such a power balance system is a factor on why anarchy permeates international relations. No state has had such dominance over all other states. Therefore, Realism advocates the significance of adaptable alliances as a survival method which are governed more so by vacillating companions rather than social or political likenesses. This may clarify why the US and the Soviet Union were allies during the Second World War, seeing the threat of a rising Nazi Germany. But within a few years of the war’s conclusion, both had become adversaries and the balances of power shifted into what became the Cold War

While advocates of the balance of power theory depict it as a reasonable technique to deal with an uncertain world, critics consider it a method for legitimizing war and animosity (Antunes and Camisao, 2018, p. 18).

The weakening of Realism in the 1990s was enhanced by global occasions which provided endorsement for different theories. The Soviet Union’s downfall; the integration of Western Europe free from The Cold War; democratization and financial liberty in the developing world and the unlikelihood of conflict between powerful state actors all contributed to Realism’s supposed obsolescence (Jervis, 2002). It further suggested that liberal schools of thought may perhaps acknowledge and clarify the progressions occurring internationally more effectively. Though post-9/11 Realism is unsurprisingly viewed as more appropriate to tackle national security threats (Elman, 2008, p. 20).

An alternative school of thought is that of liberalism. This Theory is grounded on the ethical contention that securing an individual’s rights is the most significant target for governments. Subsequently, liberalists underline an individual’s welfare as an essential factor in a political system. A system with unlimited power like monarchies and authoritarianism cannot be said to protect its denizens (Meiser, 2017, p. 22). Thus, the principal interest of Liberalism is the establishment of institutions which secure individual liberty through the restriction and observation of political power. Though these may be regarded as domestic issues, the International field is also significant to liberals as a states’ foreign activities have a strong impact domestically particularly concerning aggressive foreign stratagems. The main issue is that an amassing of military power is imperative to a conflict can also be used to repress its own people. To balance this, liberal states frequently restrict such powers by having civilian control on the armed forces

A strong contributor to Liberalism is the Democratic Peace Thesis (DPT). It argues that Liberal states do not wage war against each other for several reasons (Navari, 2008, p. 36). One of which is that Liberal institutions incorporate wide establishment of liberal nation-states and the requirement to secure widespread support; the separation, checks and balances of powers inside democracies; and elections which causes liberal rulers to be wary and avoid risk (Russett 1996, as referred to in Navari, 2008, p. 37). Yet liberal establishments prefer to repress all conflicts whilst liberal nation-states have fought against non-liberal countries. Another contender is the liberal idea of culture, suggesting that liberal states tend to trust similarly liberal states and overcome conflict through discourse and negotiation. Inversely, liberal states view illiberal states cautiously and often suppose that war against them is within the national interest (Owens, 1996: 153).

From a perspective of security, the suggestions of the DPT are that security is reliant on empowering liberal establishments with the spread of liberalism as the long-term goal of any security strategies. Such strategies must also protect liberalism in the short term especially such grassroots movement in illiberal states. Doyle (1983, p. 229) contends that liberalism has faced shortcomings in safeguarding its fundamental preconditions under an evolving international framework.  It is also in this perspective that argues that the course to peace is the endorsement of democratic frameworks, the advancement of civil communities and adherence to human rights

DPT limitations

Brown (1992) has noticed that liberal nation-states during democratisation faced strong opposition from illiberal states. The existence of such opposition against liberalism has mutilated historical record. One cannot know the paths states maay have taken without such opposition. It can also be argued that in an anarchical society liberal states will more readily ally themselves to similar states, a phenomenon known as the Liberal Alliance Thesis. One must also consider the situation that several liberal countries are assimilated in trade through the European Union – a variance of the Douce Commerce Theory (Navari, 2008, p. 38). Spiro (1996) has also suggested that liberal states not fighting each other as not statistically noteworthy as historically, few such states have existed.

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Whether liberal countries are characteristically more tranquil is controversial (Elman, 2008, p. 38). Kant argued that republics would be peaceful to each other and in general, however, the empirical work is uncertain due to its concentration on conventional state-on-state conflicts as opposed to interventions which could likewise be regarded as inherently aggressive as it utilises power beyond one’s domain. Previous such attempts at spreading liberal democracy – Iraq – caused concern that liberal foreign policy may possess propensities to conflict as opposed to peace.

Limitations of liberalism?

A keystone in liberalist theory is that consolidations of unreproachable power are a risk to human freedoms and as such ought to be restricted by means of institutions norms both nationally and internationally. Establishments in the global theatre restrict the strength of states by endorsing cooperation and enforcement of sanctions on states who have broken agreements. Financial organisations are viable at encouraging dependencies due to the advantages of monetary interdependence. Additionally, liberal norms contribute extra restrictions on the utilisation of power by controlling which behavioural conduct is deemed suitable. At present, Meiser (2017) argues that Liberalism is not an idealistic hypothesis depicting a perfect world. Meiser argues that it gives a reliable rejoinder to realist theory which is ingrained in empirical evidence and theoretical tradition.

Overall conclusion

While both theories and subsequent sub-schools provide solid propositions for peace in IR theory, both have their shortcomings concerning their contentions for peace.

The fixation liberalists had concerning normative agendas like human rights has enabled them to dismiss the autonomy of non-liberal states (Fukuyama, 1992, p. 42). Another such weakness is the suggestion that Liberal Democracies are the end point or culmination of human civilisation – it cannot be improved.

Fukuyama’s additional claim that Islam poses a significant threat to liberal states due to the idea that some value systems are difficult to process have had a negative effect on the preservation of peace in areas of the world where liberal democracies have attempted to spread the ideal of individual liberty by means of deceitful and aggressive means (Fukuyama, 1992, p. 44).

Since 2011, millions of people have become displaced from Syria due to the civil war there. This has been exacerbated by migration flows coming from other states in Africa and the Middle East due to various political and economic circumstances. By 2015 the issue had been declared a crisis in Europe – the destination for many of the migrants. Focusing on this crisis might not seem to be an obvious choice, but many realists were refugees or migrants themselves. Indeed, Herz (1984, 9) characterised himself as a ‘traveller between all worlds’ and Morgenthau was even a ‘double exile’ (Frankfurter 1937) after his expulsion from Germany and later Spain before arriving in the United States in 1937. Beyond this point, realism provides useful insights into this crisis as we can investigate the conditions for a peaceful coexistence of differences. This is important, as the refugee issue has been identified as one of the reasons why the British public voted to leave the European Union (EU) in the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum. It has also been implicated in the rise of right-wing parties throughout Europe and the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Refugees and migrants are clearly being pictured in security discourses as a threat – and to measurable effects.

Relating the work of mid-twentieth century ‘classical’ realists to this modern development enables IR scholarship to understand that security is established in a discursive context, making it dependent on spatio-temporal conditions. This means security has different meanings in different contexts and therefore it is transformative (Behr 2013, 169). This puts realist thought into affinity with the critical theories that ostensibly seem opposed to it. Given that both groupings found stimulation in the same sources, one of which was Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1929), this is unsurprising. One of the key concepts in Mannheim’s book is the conditionality of knowledge. This means that knowledge is always bound to the socio-political environment in which it operates, stressing that universal knowledge is impossible. Applying this notion to the current refugee crisis, we understand that perceiving refugees as a threat to security is the result of human will and political agency. For example, the refugee crisis was one of the dominant drivers of British Brexit-discourses, although the UK received fewer than 40,000 asylum seekers in 2015. By comparison, approximately 890,000 refugees chose Germany as their destination the same year, making Germany the European country that accepts most refugees in relation to the overall population.

This is not to say that this process always takes place consciously as we can never be entirely sure how our writings or actions are perceived by others, but classical realism can help us to understand that humans are not only the objects of security but also its subjects. In public discourses, people have the opportunity to redefine the substance of security, instead of leaving it to international foreign policy elites. These discourses can evolve violently, as they include the interests of all involved people. To avoid this looming danger, realists stress the possibility of dialogical learning, as current scholarship calls it, to increase the potential to morph these discourses into a common good. This form of learning is based on continuous possibilities of exchange between refugees, migrants and local people and it requires all groups to demonstrate open-mindedness and empathy as well as the willingness to challenge one’s own positions. As a result, security can be redefined and what is perceived to be a crisis can be eventually understood as an opportunity to create something ‘which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination’ (Arendt 1961, 151).


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  • Doyle, M., 1983. Kant, liberal legacies, and foreign affairs. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 12(3), pp. 205 – 235.
  • Elman, C., 2008. Realism. In: P. Williams, ed. Security Studies: An Introduction. Oxon: Routeledge, p. 17.
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