First of all, let us state that due to their constant development, international relations have been and should further remain the main subject of analysis of international relations theory. In the 20th century, the positivist theories are considered to be the most authoritative, they are realism and liberalism (idealism). Our task is to analyze the usefulness of the theories under consideration basing on the following criteria: the theory’s ability to explain and analyze the origin and the development of historical changes and its ability to predict and give arguments as for subsequent changes.
Throwing light on the main tenets of realism as international theory, we find it necessary to refer to Jack Donelly, who managed to sum up the key ideas and principles of the theory. According to his point of view, the sovereign state is the main actor in the international arena, the state’s interests motivate its actions and there can be nobody more powerful than the state. There exists constant competition between states and the necessities of policy arise from this uncontrolled competition (Donnelly 7). The success of the state illustrates the efficiency of the policy and it is the main aim of it, therefore, to gain success state may use power and be aggressive if this conduct is required to save and protect the country. This especially makes sense, if we take into account, that any state can never be sure, that some other state would not exercise military aggressiveness against it.
Because of the anarchy of the international system, ethics and moral principles of individuals should not be applied in international relations and relations between states are determined by the amount of their power in the military and economic sphere.
The state is a rational player in the international arena as it acts by the national interests and the “international system is mostly responsible for state conduct on the international scene” (Donnelly 8).
Finally, realists define history as a “sequence of cause and effect” (Donnelly 8) and they claim that imaginative power is not an effective source of its understanding, but an intellectual effort is.
Concluding, let us say that realism highlights “constrains on politics imposed by human nature and the absence of international government” (Donnelly 9).
Speaking about liberalism, its original idea is that all international relations may be regulated and controlled with the help of moral, ethical norms, and principles of law. The main aim of international policy should be the establishment of peace in the world. Liberals put forward “the theme of rational change, careful change” (Linklater 1369). The core of their theory may be formulated in the following way: democratic states should keep peace among each other (Dunne 90). They are sure that the state should be an actor in the international arena, but it should not be the single actor, along with the state they welcome enterprises, organizations, and even individuals to act in international relations, that means that they do not regard political interaction as the only possible international relationship; they also give way to economic ties. Their main aim is peace among nations and this is possible, from their point of view, in the case of cooperation between states. The state is the protector of the rights of the individual, but it should also provide freedom for its individual. Therefore, human rights, individual freedom, individualism, and democracy are the key notions of liberalism. Liberals stand for the international organizations that support cooperation and perform peacemaking functions.
It can be seen from the above-given information that realism and liberalism are opposing theories. Still, this does not mean that they have nothing in common. Some postulates are to a certain extent accepted by both theories. Realists claim that international relations are anarchical, liberals accept this idea with an amendment that anarchy is moderated by international institutions and there are ways of control of this anarchy. Liberals accept realists’ idea about the importance of the state an international actor, but it should not be the only actor. Realists justify the state’s aggression that is connected with national security and national interests and this statement is accepted by liberals, but they claim that successful international cooperation should be the substitute for conflicts. Liberals’ ultimate aim is absolute gain. The main difference between realists and liberals in connection with international cooperation is that the latter find more opportunities for cooperation. Liberals think that if states that are going to cooperate give their partner full detailed information that is required, the cooperation is sure to be successful, but realists contend that it is impossible, because of the necessity of national security. Liberals want to study interactions between slates on a deeper level, but realists claim that in all cases of cooperation states have the only desire – to capture more power.
Now let us throw light on such a global event in the international relations of the 20th century as the Cold War (1945-1991) by international theories of realism and liberalism. The Cold War was a period of intensive and extensive competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Steven Hurst says that
Explaining American foreign policy during the Cold War is a complicated business. The proliferation of books and articles on this most written-about of episodes in the history of US foreign policy presents the reader with what can at times appear to be an overwhelming and irresolvable mass of contradictory arguments (Hurst, 1)
Let us recall that the Cold War started as the result of the division of power after World War II when the USA and the USSR appeared to become the most powerful countries in the world. As a consequence of this consolidation of power, the nations started a policy of containment, armaments drive, economic competition.
Speaking about the causes of the end of the Cold War, it should be mentioned that realism was the key concept in the way in which the majority of governments acted in the global arena since the second part of the 1940s. The policy of the United States has been based “on the importance of “negotiating from positions of strength” (Mansbach 22) that meant that America was trying to strengthen its military and economic basis and to establish its leadership in international relations.
The War ended in 1991 with the fall and collapse of The USSR. The formal sign of this fall was the Destruction of the Berlin Wall (Hogan 1). One more crucial point in the course of the war was the tragedy that took place in the Soviet Union on 26 April 1985. That was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Kyiv region that is still considered the worst nuclear tragedy of humanity because the great territory was contaminated and remains dead nowadays. Then Mikhail Gorbachev had to admit that the USSR had spent too much money on the military development of the country, neglecting, at the same time, other vital spheres of economic development of the country. That is why the economy of the Soviet Union was devastated and Gorbachev felt the necessity of introducing the reforms of “perestrojka” – a system of economic changes and “glasnost” – the policy of giving full truthful information to the population. These reforms bore evident liberal character and they were the evidence of the fall of the USSR. This is proof that the policy of realism in the USSR had to give way to liberal trends. So, one of the theories of the end of the Cold War affirms that liberalism was the power that reorganized the totalitarian regime in the USSR and started its development as a democratic country.
And really, the way the USSR collapsed is a real challenge to the key postulates of realism, because it certainly used to be a super-powerful state that ceased to exist because of its policy, though its first consideration should have been the state’s survival. If it did not manage to survive, that is the evidence of the groundlessness of the theory. The Achilles heel of realism was that it did not manage to explain how internal factors could cause such changes as it happened with the Soviet Union.
One more evidence of the defeat of realism in the Cold War is the following: we have mentioned above that war, aggression, and military conflicts are at the core of this theory, a new era that came with the end of the war was optimistic and realism along with its pessimism and its belief in greediness, aggression, and selfishness is a bit inappropriate.
One more striking fact that should be emphasized is the thing that after the end of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States some adherents of realism stopped calling themselves “realists”, instead they claimed to be called “liberal realists”.
Summing up everything mentioned above, we can say that the theory of realism, as an essentialist theory, may be successfully applied in the description of historical events, but it expressed its narrow-mindedness about the explanation of systemic changes, which was clearly illustrated by the example of the outcome of the Cold War. Moreover, the prediction of future events is also a weak point of realism.
Liberalism is considered to be very insightful when the matter concerns the analysis of past events, but making predictions is his weak point.
Having analyzed the given materials, we find it necessary to mention that based on this study, it can be concluded that liberalism is the preferable theory in international relations. On the example of the end of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, they were given a good number of arguments proving the power of liberalism. The constructivism of liberals’ ideas has also been justified. Still, the following fact cannot be ignored: after the end of the Cold, War realism continued to exist, though it was wounded and the appearance of neorealism cannot remain without attention. Neorealists think that after the end of the Cold War the international situation in the world became more dangerous and any change that has no explanation presents danger in itself. The uncertainness that was connected with the regulation of former mechanisms and functioning of the international relations and traditional balance of power, the appearance of new states, and other participants of interaction on the international stage was widely spread. Neorelists are trying to prove the inefficiency of the U.N.O. and other international organizations in the establishment of new international order, based on the supremacy of universal values and common interests of states. Thus, the fact cannot be denied that neorealists also have sound ideas and postulates. As a consequence of this, a conclusion may be drawn that nowadays new theories of international relations should be formed.
Nowadays constructivism is often regarded as a sufficient alternative that may be chosen instead of realism and liberalism. It should be mentioned that constructivism is a more involved notion in comparison with realism and liberalism. This approach may be considered a post-modernist or post-positivist one.
Constructivism shares some key points of realism, such as the notion of anarchy and the centrality of states in the international system. Here the structure of the system stands on top of everything. Constructivists deny equality of states, they justify the ruling of state’s behavior by its inner nature of the state.
Concluding, it must be said that international relations are very involved and controversial today. To get a clear understanding of the work of the theory of international relations it is very useful to refer to some major political event and to analyze the event by the given theory.
Donnelly, Jack. Realism and International Relations. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Dunne, Timothy, Kurki, Milja, Smith, Steve. International relations theories: discipline and diversity. NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hurst, Steven. Cold War US Foreighn Policy: key perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Linklater, Andrew. International Realtions: Critical Concepts in Political Science. London: Routledge, 2000.
Mansbach, Richard W., Rafferty, Kirsten L. Introduction to Global Politics. NY: Routledge, 2009.