Realist and Liberal International Political Economy

I came across various theories while reading about the International Political Economy. My goal in this paper is to outline the Realist and Liberal theoretical approaches to the International Political Economy. I will do this by comparing and contrasting the two theories. I will base my arguments on East Asia’s political economy. I will discuss the social structures that affect the country’s international relationships.

I will also describe how political leaders influence their countries’ economic growth. To achieve my goal, I have organized my paper into six main sections. The first section is the introduction. In the second section, I provide a background that explains the origins of the International Political Economy. In the third section, I describe the Realist theoretical approach. I state its pros and cons. In the fourth section, I describe the Liberal theoretical approach. I also state the pros and cons of this particular approach. In the fifth section, I argue in favor of the more persuasive approach. I end my paper with a brief conclusion outlining the importance of political theories.

The International Political Economy is a school of thought that describes international relations with reference to a society’s political economy (Ulrich 32). It is also known as the Global Political Economy. International Relations is the study of countries and states with regard to the roles they play in the global field of political economics. There are three theories that can be used to describe the International Political Economy.

They include Marxism, Liberalism and Realism. These theories are often used to describe the relationship between politics and the economy. Society has become a global village. These theories enable scholars to monitor political and economic changes around the world. They tend to focus on political conflict on both domestic and international levels (Dunne 36). Donnelly (11) describes the International Political Economy as ‘who gets what, when and how’. Ulrich (27) describes it as a branch of political science that seeks to analyze the foreign policy of particular countries.

Businesses that were restricted to particular regions are now obsolete. Society’s political structure is dynamic. The world economy is constantly changing. Globalization has given rise to changes in the public policies of several states.


The origins of International Relations date back to 1648, in Westphalia, where the Modern State System was developed (Ulrich 34). During this period, Medieval Europe’s political system consisted of a vague religious order and a monarchy (Dunne 65). The people of Westphalia created a system of sovereignty, which dictated the rules used to govern the state. This system gave rise to independent states. It encouraged diplomatic relations among several countries. This system of diplomacy and independence was later adopted by countries like Asia, Africa and America. This was done through the process of colonialism.

After the Second World War, there was little economic interaction between Asian Pacific countries. There was no even distribution of political power. Powerful states did not interact with poor countries. Liberal models have since been adopted. Asian Pacific countries are securing their economic development through economic interaction. During the Cold War, some countries integrated the modern system through the process of decolonization.

One valid example of a contest between realism and liberalism is the International Political Economy of East Asia. Scholars have argued that a liberal approach to East Asia’s political economy can result in national unity and inter-regional harmony. The liberal approach draws its influence from traditional pacifism. Other scholars have argued that a realist approach to East Asia’s political economy draws its influence from power struggles and security concerns (Donnelly 42). Both these theories base their arguments on the fact that they have the potential to influence the country’s political economy.

Realist Approach

Realism is a school of thought that draws its opinions from conflict and competition (Dunne 48). According to the Realist approach to International Relations, the major players in the global economy are the states. Realists believe that countries are selfish in nature. They argue that governments will do almost anything to achieve social and political power. The Realist approach is based on the fact that a country’s national interests outweigh those of its trade partners.

Realism is divided into three major aspects; the state, self-reliance and survival. The state represents a sovereign nation. Self-reliance is represented by a country’s ability to secure its overall needs. Survival is represented by a country’s ability to overcome adversity. Some realists recognize the existence of ethics in international relations (Ulrich 47). This comes about because there two types of realists: classical and radical or extreme realists. Both classifications embrace the concept of national interest (Donnelly 23).

Realism is based on the premise that international relationships are governed by conflict and power struggles. It is a conservative ideology. It is based on the assumption that countries would not participate in trade if they were self-reliant. Realism describes the international political economy as unavoidable. Conflict in developing countries can lead to deprivation of human rights. A report by UNICEF states the following:

Claiming children as “zones of peace” has become an important concept of humanitarian relief programmes. Commitment to this principle by all warring parties has taken various forms. In El Salvador, beginning in 1985, Government and rebel forces agreed to three “days of tranquillity” during which 250,000 children were immunized against polio, measles, diptheria and other diseases, a process that was repeated annually for six years until the end of the civil war.

In Afghanistan in 1988-1989, health teams were permitted to operate in both Government and rebel-held areas, raising vaccination levels in some areas above 80 per cent. In the case of Operation Lifeline Sudan, arrangements were made for “corridors of peace” so that relief supplies and vaccines could be delivered during relative lulls in the conflict.

One of the most immediate effects of armed conflict is the disruption of food supplies. Farmers, who are often women and older children, become fearful of working on plots of land too far from their homes. They reduce the area under cultivation, and their water sources, systems of irrigation and flood control may also be destroyed. Restrictions on movement limit access to such necessities as seeds and fertilizers and stop farmers from taking their produce to market. Most households in developing countries, including many farm households, rely on market purchases to meet their food needs. Economic disarray heightens unemployment, reducing people’s ability to buy food.

Sometimes, damage to food systems is deliberate. For example, in the early 1980s in Ethiopia, the Government’s scorched earth policies destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of food-producing land. In many countries, landmines prevent the use of agricultural land. In contravention of international law, warring parties may block relief supplies or divert them for their own use. Feeding centres for children and vulnerable groups are frequently bombed or attacked.

Warfare also takes its toll on livestock. This creates particular problems for young children who rely on milk as part of their basic diet. In the Kongor area of Sudan, the massacre of cattle reduced livestock from around 1.5 million to 50,000 (Machel 6).

Realism emphasizes on the competitive struggle between states (Dunne 13). It is a theory that describes the international political economy as a never-ending power struggle. Realists believe that the state is the deciding factor in the realm of the political economy.

Realists believe that a country’s citizens should support their government in the pursuit of power. The state represents the people. The state is also driven by its growing need to assert its authority. Developed countries like the United States of America are more affluent in the global economy because they hold a great deal of power. Their military is exceptional in nature. Their economic growth is fast and their technological progress is substantial.

Ulrich (26) argues that these factors have led to a new form of imperialism where such countries dominate the markets of weaker nations. They do this through foreign investments. They claim to provide employment by creating jobs in developing countries. However, the foreign income that they generate is used in the development of their own countries. Realism was also evident in the Cold War. Countries that had access to nuclear weapons bickered to no avail. Powerful countries clashed with no possible end in sight. Nothing was gained from the empty threats that were exchanged.

Realism is anti-progressive. It is based on the assumption that sovereign states are selfish in nature. Realism favors a conservative approach to development. It encourages nations to rely on their own natural resources. This is not practical. The world’s natural resources are not evenly distributed. A single nation cannot survive on its own. International relations offer new possibilities and realism stands to stifle them.

Realism is also a theory that holds a double standard. It speaks against society’s legal institutions while creating its own set of rules and regulations. Realist scholars are non-conformists. Nevertheless, they expect society to conform to their school of thought.

Realism creates a system of guidelines that inhibit international unity. Realism argues that states have to prioritize on national security with little regard for other more important issues. In the grand scheme of things, Realism is an obsolete theory that has to be revised to meet the needs of the people it influences.

Donnelly (18) argues that most developing countries are crippled by insecurity. This is a result of political instability. The Realist approach is dominant in third world countries. This is because developing countries are mainly concerned with protecting their personal interests. This is why third world countries tend to suffer from internal conflict. Their primary concerns revolve around domestic concerns (Dunne 17).

Developing countries base their international relationships on culture and morality. They deal with foreign nations when they have something to gain. They do not feel obligated to meet the needs of other nations unless they somehow benefit from such interactive processes.

Ulrich (12) argues that third world countries adopt the Realism approach because they are generally exposed to various forms of internal conflict. The 2007 post-election skirmishes in Kenya forced people to adopt a sense of Realism. Prior to the skirmishes, a politician who belonged to a particular ethnic group was elected as president under unscrupulous circumstances. This led to a nationwide onslaught that encouraged several ethnic groups to commit acts of violence.

Civil wars are evident in developing countries. Rebels often seek a sense of independence from the state. Oppressive regimes often employ the Realism approach to strengthen the state in spite of its people.

Cambodia is a third world country that has adopted the realist approach. As a result, the people of Cambodia generally live in abject poverty. Their government has failed to develop structures that can be used to secure the people’s wellbeing. The country is prone to floods but the government often relies on international aid to save the victims.

Liberal Approach

Liberalism is a school of thought that encourages the even distribution of resources among the more common members of society. Liberalism is associated with classical economics (Donnelly 24). Liberalist scholars assert that public freedom should outweigh the needs of the government. Liberalists also believe that the government’s economic power should be distributed among the members of society. According to Donnelly (26), the government often restricts a country’s economic growth. Liberalists believe that the government should support the private economy.

Liberalism is modeled after the work of Kant and Rousseau (Ulrich 14). Kant was the first scholar to clarify the democratic peace theory. Liberalism is also known as Idealism. The Liberal approach to the political economy originated shortly after the First World War. Ulrich (24) argues that the Liberal approach was a response to the degenerative effects of the war. (Dunne 26) asserts that many countries adopted Liberalism for the sake of mutual benefits that could be achieved through diplomacy.

China is a country that has adopted the Liberal approach in order to integrate itself into the international political economy. The Chinese government has encouraged innovation among its people. It has established structures that cater to the needs of its citizens. China has worked with several other countries to ensure its economic growth. By employing the liberal approach to development, China has secured a place in the global economy.

The people of China have not lost their national identity. Their culture is still strong and vibrant. They build roads in foreign countries, thereby securing a steady flow of foreign exchange. China and Japan were once economic rivals. Now, it seems, both countries have put aside their differences. They have done this in pursuit of international relations. The liberal approach encourages enemy states to share the resources at their disposal. This ensures international harmony.

China’s primary focus is on economic development (Dunne 14). The United States has often neglected the economic needs of China. Nevertheless, China has employed the Liberal approach to development in order to stay ahead of the competition. It currently has the strongest economic growth in the world.

(Donnelly 64), a liberalist scholar, argues that the government should ensure that there is an even distribution of resources among its people. Liberalists encourage the government to provide free medical care to its taxpayers. They believe that education should be free. Liberalists assert that economic power should not be restricted to government officials and aristocrats.

South Korea is not divided by ethnic differences (Ulrich 27). It is a democratic state. It has adopted the liberal approach to integrate itself into the international political economy. The country’s economy is relatively stable. Taiwan has also adopted the liberal approach to economic development. Its government has applied the laws of liberal economic practices. Taiwan is therefore a country that encourages innovation. Both public and private companies facilitate trade. Taiwan is free to communicate with the western world.


From examining Dunne’s (16) research, I can say that liberalism is a more effective approach to international relations. Liberalists implore the state to cater for the needs of its people. On the other hand, realists expect the people to cater to the needs of the state.

Realism is often associated with anarchic idealism (Donnelly 56). Realism is a concept that encourages countries to violate the rights of other sovereign nations in favor of their own. Iraq invaded Iran in the late 80s under the guise of national interests. This is one example of realism in action. It is a hostile concept that belittles weaker nations. It reduces foreign policy to a game of cat and mouse.

Realism can be used to generate misconceptions about the pursuit of power. It can be used to justify the exploitation of another country’s resources. Realism is demonstrated in the diamond mines of South Africa. Western nations exploited South African miners in order to capitalize on cheap labor. Western nations justified their actions by claiming to contribute to their countries’ economic growth.

Realism inadvertently crowns the state as the collective voice of the people (Ulrich 32). Realists sacrifice democracy for the sake of national security.

Liberalism is an appropriate approach to the international political economy. It speaks against the oppression of weaker states. It supports a system of national unity. Liberalism conforms to the standards of the United Nations. Liberalists prefer democracy to oppression.

Works Cited

Ulrich, B. The Cosmopolitan Perspective: Sociology of the Second Age of Modernity. British Journal of Sociology. Scotland: Edinburgh, 2000. Print.

Donnelly, J. Human Rights: A New Standard of Civilization. International Affairs. New York: Saxton, 1998. Print.

Dunne, T. & Wheeler, N. Human Rights in Global Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Machel, G. Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. United Nations Report. [Expert Of the Secretary General of the United Nations], 2003. Print.