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Realism vs Liberalism Essay – Free Essay Example

The comparison between Realism and Liberalism


When considering realism and liberalism in terms of international relations both these theories can be regarded as useful. However, these two theories can be used as tools for exploring and explaining what are the subjects. According to Bayliss and Smith (2005:186) Realism as a theory is the “natural party of government and Liberalism (as) the leader of the opposition”. The purpose of this essay is to distinguish between realism and liberalism and apply these theories to South Africa. This paper is structured as follows: it consists of two parts whereby part 1 differentiates and part 2 applies.

Part 1


Realism’s natural home is mostly focused on tensions and conflicts in terms of international relations. Realism is a mechanism used to understand how/is the conflict-led with the ordering of the world. The most recent is the Trade War between USA and China because China developing a 5G network over the USA. Martin (p.3) states that Realism has three types:

“Classical Realism focuses on the inmate desire for humans to dominate one another and extrapolates this view to states. Neorealism suggests that all states are seeking to survive within an international system, but as the system is anarchic in nature each state must survive on its own. The latest addition to Realism is the Offence-Defence Theory, which suggests that war was more likely when states could conquer each other easily”. However, this means a state will attack another state when it has a belief that it could win.

Realism can also be measured in terms of its machinery in the military and as well as its successful conflicts. Therefore, state military and state dominance are the key focus of Realism. In state, these two are regarded as life objectives. Realism is all about states seeking power so they can be powerful. In terms of Realism, when there is no higher government above states, states rely on themselves for protection and to sustain their independence, therefore, their only option is the use of power. Therefore, this nation-on-nation conflict will strengthen Realism and weakens what is Liberalism in states. In Realism where there are states, conflict is bounded to happen.


Liberalism focuses on peace and compromise between states, it also elaborates on the side-by-side international system that it is whether ordered or stable – liberalism is driven by peaceful coexistence among states. However, this is not what realists are against, but mechanisms and institutions are what liberalists see as a solution rather than conflict. Martin (p.5) states that “Liberalism espouses an international system constituted of institutions which combine multiple states, where Realism only sees anarchy in and conflict inevitable between states”. The interdependence of the economy will minimize conflict which will bring about damage to both. Therefore, when states are satisfied economically this will mean less level of motivation into risking their prosperity.

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According to Martin (p.6) “starting a conflict in an economically interdependent system would be equivalent of ‘biting the hand that feeds you since you would be destroying a combination of the supply and the demand of the economies involved”. Liberalism does not mean freedom or peace per se, but it is unlikely to experience conflict. By this good states will not go into conflict with each other but good states (democratic) will into conflict with bad states (dictatorship or authoritarian). For example, the US government killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in 2020. International institutions such as the UN, AU, and NATO make it difficult for their member states to start a conflict/war. Martin (p.7) states that “without the liberalist view that the anarchy can be solved through institutions, globalization would not have been possible”.

The comparison between Realism and Liberalism

An optimistic future and progressiveness are the representatives of Liberalism. International organizations like International Monetary Fund or United Nations exist because of liberal thought. Realism has become too expensive for states to take part in. Realists believe that the state-on-state wars have been suspended temporarily because of international mechanisms and institutions. And that probably trade negotiations have become more non-aggressive wars. For example, the trade war between Washington and Beijing. Liberalism sees the failure of other states as a threat rather than their success. The importance and the use of power are not fully considered by Realism and Liberalism. However, in this sense Liberalism uses soft power (that is according to Nye (2011:20) “the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing agenda persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes”) and Realism uses hard power (that is according to Nye (2011:27) “states are caught in a zero-sum game where it is rational to fend for themselves because they cannot trust others”). Realism is designed in that a claim that sees the world as is. Liberalism sees the world as one gigantic market-free universe. While realists see the world as taking short-term advantage due to the endless struggle.

Liberalism takes to mind that free trade is the immune system of the world. Liberalism believes that where there is prejudice there is a high risk of war on states. Realism believes that lack of understanding does not cause war but the clashing of state interests does. Furthermore, if the aim is avoiding war, then the best method is complete isolation of the nation. Roggeveen (2001:31) states that “Realism is ultimately too pessimistic and maybe even too relativist for the liberal disposition”. Realism is not just taken as a subject of understanding the universe but it is also used to guide policies. Prescription, explanation, or guide for policy are actors in Realism. For example, after World War II states like the USA, China and Russia acted as realist states in terms of international relations. Liberalism has accepted the anarchic international system. Therefore, the anarchic structure of international relations can be weakened by interdependence. To liberalists, international institutions matter rather than realists. Liberalism believes that anarchy was dampened by cooperation arenas like SADC, AU, EU, or World Trade Centre and solving problems together rather than as individual states. Also, power managing and responding to what is treated by contributing to tackling resources.

Part 2


South Africa as a liberal state under the administration of Mandela (1994-1999) saw itself as a human rights defender and as well as defending democracy throughout Africa and the World at large. Mandela’s foreign policy was favored by charisma on the platform of international relations. For example, Mandela took the role of a mediator (1997) in a Northern Ireland conflict. During the administration of Mbeki (1999-2008) South Africa’s foreign policy towards African countries was mostly based on the initiative of governance. Mbeki fought for African development, which was seen by the universe as a ‘global governance architecture’. For example, Mbeki was an architect in Africa’s framework of development which is known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001. The administration of Zuma (2009-2018) in terms of international relations it preferred the cooperation of south-south African states, which also favored the importance of the diplomacy of the economy. For example, South Africa obtained membership in BRICS in 2010.

South Africa as a Liberalism state uses soft power in the international system. It prefers to balance the relationship between its international and domestic actors. South Africa in international relations supports non-aligned autonomy of strategic policy and independence. However, in this context, South Africa strengthens its priorities of domestic and foreign linkages.. Creates a bond between state and non-state actors so to strengthen its international relations. For example, investing in African states and creating cooperation. South Africa as a liberal state in promotes interdependence as it is a member state of the United Nations, African Union, SADC, and BRICS. For example, because of interdependence, Germany donated two million Rands in March 2020 to South Africa to buy testing kits for COVID-19.

South Africa as a Liberalism state promotes peace and freedom. For example, assisting with military personnel in the Central African Republic conflict. Another example is when Nigerian citizens attacked the South African embassy in 2019, instead of South Africa responding with force it decided to radical and avoid conflict between these two states. Even though South Africa is driven by keeping peace and maintaining freedom, there are instances where it uses relative power to pursue its national interest. For example, the DRC peacekeeping (1997-2005) was an intervention that was to build the image of South Africa. South Africa is for state multilateralism and sovereignty and believes that state intervention should be done under the watchful eye of the United Nations or regional blocs such as the African Union (UN) or Southern African Development Community (SADC).

South Africa stiffly promotes diplomacy as the mechanism for disputes and non-violence rather than states using armed force or imposing sanctions. For example, the use of diplomacy for swift transition in Sudan. South Africa continues to have strong measures/relations with countries that are in violation of their international commitment including economic weight and as well as military.

South Africa enforces cooperation in Africa to eliminate or minimize what is intervention from non-African states. For example, it excluded it from AFRICOM, which is a continental affairs interference that is designed from the Americas. Even though, at times it puts interests first by having relations with developed states, for example, taking part in the US African Growth and Opportunity Act and also taking part in the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. However, with these, it is criticized by one of its regional blocs SADC for having compression size against manufacturers from Zimbabwe. South Africa maximized its interdependence after the apartheid government and became of the top investor and traders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.


South Africa as a Realism state tends to dominate Southern Africa or it tends to use its power over Southern Africa or other African countries. It tends to invest in other African countries but those same rarely invest in South Africa as it has the power to dominate. For example, Shoprite is spreading across Africa as a South African institution. This Realism power that is used by South Africa towards other African countries is what Nye calls hard power. For example, other African countries do not have much impact in terms of investing in South Africa like Botswana. Looking at the coup of Lesotho (1998), South Africa intervened because of economic national interest where they had to protect the Katse dam which supplies electricity to South Africa. South Africa did the very same by intervening in Zimbabwe in 2008 even though there is a mass influx of Zimbabweans. Furthermore, even with its intervention in DRC (1997-2005) which was seen as a balance of power under the guise of peacekeeping, however, all these were Realism acts from South Africa. However, with the intervention of Lesotho AU did not act toward South Africa as it was one of the strongest economies in Africa. Even though, South Africa used relative power against Lesotho. This is what Liberalism is against, using power/force against another state to protect its interests. On the other hand, Realism agrees that a state can use whatever force/power to protect its own interests.

South Africa’s intervention in DRC was more of proving a point to the international community because it was just after apartheid when it was denied international participation. This behavior by South Africa is seen as a national gain. Waltz states that “in the anarchy of international politics, the relative gain is more important than absolute gain” (Waltz, 1959:198). South Africa with so much power tends to dominate SADC which is a regional bloc, where it also protects its interests. South Africa keeps increasing its Africa’s dominance of the economy. Therefore, South Africa used structural power to dominate other African countries or developing economies. Structural power is defined by Strange as the power “to decide how things shall be done, the power to shaper frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises” (Strange, 1988:25). This is because of the quest of continental leadership. However, most leaders use South Africa for their own personal interests and gains. For example, Cyril Ramophosa is the Chairperson of the African Union. Realism under Mbeki’s administration (1999-2007) wanted to showcase South Africa’s power in the continent. By exploiting its standing, because of the democratic regime (transition). This means that South Africa’s international relations are set according to the interests of the nation rather than regional or global Interests.


To conclude, Realism believes that states can use force or power over another state to sustain their interests, and that conflict is the only way. Liberalism is all about promoting peace and interdependence, and another state’s failure is a threat rather than a success. South Africa as a liberal state promotes peace, and freedom and believes in multilateralism. However, as a Realism state, it uses other African countries for its own interests.

Reference list

  1. Amoa, O.B. 2019. The foreign policy and intervention behavior of Nigeria and South Africa in Africa: a structural realist analysis. South African journal international affairs, 26(1):93-112.
  2. Dunne, T. 2005. Liberalism in the globalization of world politics. J, Baylis & S, Smith ed. Oxford: OUP.
  3. Martin, R. Anon. Does liberalism provide a viable alternative to realism as a theory of international relations? Date of access: 16 Mar.2020.
  4. Muller, N.B. 2012. Nuanced balancing act: South Africa’s national and international interests and its African agenda. Occasional paper, 120.
  5. Nye, J. 2011. The future of power. New York: Public Affairs.
  6. Pustovitovskij, A. & Kremer, J.F. 2011. Structural power and international relations analysis: fill your basket, get your preferences. Institute of development research and development policy, 191.
  7. Roggeveen, S. 2001. Towards a liberal theory of international relations. The Centre for Independent Studies, February 2001.
  8. SAGE edge. Powerful ideas: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism. Date of access: 16 Mar.2020.
  9. Strange, S. 1988. States and markets: An introduction to international political economy. London: Pinter publishers.
  10. Van Staden, M. 2019. The liberal tradition in South Africa, 1910-2019. Econ journal, 16(2):258-341.
  11. Vale, P., Swatuk, L.A. & Oden, B. ed. 2001. Theory, Change, and Southern Africa’s future. New York: Palgrave.
  12. Waltz, K.N. 1959. Man, the state, and the international system. New York City: Columbia University Press.

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