Liberalism vs. Realism

What's the Difference?

Liberalism and Realism are two prominent schools of thought in international relations that offer contrasting perspectives on how states should interact with one another. Liberalism emphasizes the importance of international institutions, cooperation, and diplomacy in promoting peace and stability. Realism, on the other hand, focuses on the inherent competition and conflict between states, prioritizing national interests and power dynamics. While Liberalism advocates for collective security and multilateralism, Realism argues for a more self-interested and power-based approach to foreign policy. Ultimately, the debate between Liberalism and Realism highlights the complex and multifaceted nature of international relations.


View of human natureBelieves in the inherent goodness of humansBelieves humans are inherently self-interested and competitive
Focus on international cooperationEmphasizes cooperation and diplomacyEmphasizes self-interest and power dynamics
Role of international organizationsSupports and values international organizationsViews international organizations as secondary to state interests
Approach to conflict resolutionPrefers peaceful negotiation and dialogueMay resort to force and power to resolve conflicts
View of state sovereigntyBelieves in respecting state sovereigntyMay prioritize state interests over sovereignty

Further Detail


Liberalism and Realism are two prominent schools of thought in international relations theory. While they both seek to explain and predict the behavior of states in the international system, they have distinct differences in their assumptions, values, and approaches. In this article, we will compare the attributes of Liberalism and Realism to better understand their key differences and similarities.

Core Assumptions

Realism is based on the assumption that the international system is anarchic, meaning that there is no overarching authority to enforce rules or maintain order. States are seen as the primary actors in the international arena, and their behavior is driven by the pursuit of power and security. In contrast, Liberalism assumes that cooperation and interdependence are possible in the international system. Liberals believe that states can work together to achieve common goals and that international institutions can help facilitate cooperation.

Values and Goals

Realism places a strong emphasis on state sovereignty and national interest. Realists believe that states should prioritize their own security and survival above all else, even if it means competing with other states for power and resources. In contrast, Liberalism values cooperation, human rights, and international law. Liberals believe that states should work together to promote peace, democracy, and economic development on a global scale.

Approaches to Conflict

Realists view conflict as an inherent feature of the international system, driven by the competition for power and resources among states. Realists believe that states should be prepared to use force to protect their interests and ensure their survival. In contrast, Liberals believe that conflict can be managed and resolved through diplomacy, negotiation, and international institutions. Liberals advocate for peaceful conflict resolution and the use of soft power to influence other states.

View on International Institutions

Realists are generally skeptical of international institutions, viewing them as ineffective or biased towards powerful states. Realists believe that states should rely on their own capabilities and alliances to ensure their security and advance their interests. In contrast, Liberals see international institutions as valuable tools for promoting cooperation and resolving conflicts. Liberals believe that institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization can help create a more stable and prosperous world.

Role of Morality

Realists tend to downplay the role of morality in international relations, arguing that states should prioritize their own interests and survival above all else. Realists believe that the pursuit of power is a natural and necessary aspect of state behavior. In contrast, Liberals believe that morality should play a central role in international relations. Liberals argue that states have a responsibility to uphold human rights, promote democracy, and protect the environment in their interactions with other states.


In conclusion, Liberalism and Realism offer distinct perspectives on the nature of the international system and the behavior of states within it. While Realism emphasizes power, competition, and self-interest, Liberalism focuses on cooperation, morality, and international institutions. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, and scholars continue to debate the merits of each. By understanding the key attributes of Liberalism and Realism, we can gain insight into the complexities of international relations and the challenges of promoting peace and security in a rapidly changing world.

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