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In what ways do realist, liberal and constructivist theory advance

or impede our understanding of interaction between states,

power, interests and international institutions?

International relations as a discipline traces its origin from the establishment of modern state
system in 1648. Over the course of time, it has developed various theoretical paradigms to
explain catalytic events of world politics, the key ones being realism, liberalism and
constructivism. Each of these offers a unique explanation of important variables of
international politics; realism focuses on power politics, liberalism on individual autonomy,
and constructivism on identity and social construction of interests. This paper aims to
highlight the various dimensions through which variables like power, interest and state can
explained. Based on qualitative sources, this paper will describe and analyse the key
differences between these three approaches. Different case studies have been used to provide
empirical evidence. Lastly, a conclusive analysis will be provided to consolidate the
established opinion.


The origins of the discipline of international relations is often traced from the Treaty of
Westphalia (1648); which marks the initiation of the modern state system. Following the
Westphalian Peace, progress has been seen with reference to the codification of governance
laws. Moreover, this development is also crucial because it marks point from which
international politics began to be seen differently. The modern-day state system along with its
features like anarchy, balance of power, persuasion of self-interest and ‘international-ness’
forced the 20th century scholars to develop a new academic discipline; capable enough of
explaining these complexities. In addition to this, two other events of the 20th century were
responsible from freeing IR from the wholesome canvass of political science, economics and
history. These events were havocs like World War I and II. In the aftermath of WWI, several
academic institutions were developed in America and Britain; most of which propagated
idealistic values. The Europeans held that they as a civilization had grown out of their
irrational and barbaric past and now they are on the road to glory and success. However, this
belief of theirs was rectified when the need to apply more relevant approaches to study
human and state behaviour. Moreover, the end of WWI prompted critique of the
liberals/idealists whereby the realists gained more prominence; because they were aware of
certain realities which the idealists tend to ignore. The realists continued to dominate this new
academic discipline till the initial end of the Cold War. The discipline which had been shaped
until now was based on the following five features;

The core of all human The law of the state would

Realism was a universal
behavior was based on be supreme, and no moral
theory; as it could be
egoism and moral laws would be followed in
applied at all times
skepticism such as anarchic world

Realism was ahistorical

Realism provided a factual
and it provides the final
analysis of the world
world on IR related things

Figure: Five basic features of Realism established up till the end of Cold War

Following the end of the Cold War, the scholarly tradition was to focus on ‘positivism’ as a
distinguished approach which beheld that knowledge can only be derived by observation. It

was thought that the application of morals, ethics and norms were subjective in nature while
the positivist theory did not consider subjectivity as true knowledge at all. This was practiced
for a long period of time, until the post-positivists emerged who claimed that facts are ‘self-
interpretive’ i.e. they cannot be studied independently from the global norms. Furthermore,
post-positivists believe that the interpretation of facts is based on the already existing
perceptions of a person; and these conceptions are a consequence of the theories which
prevail around us. These theories/worldviews despite being limited in terms of time and
space, still provide us the framework in which we can study and analyse things. Thus, it is
imperative to obtain knowledge of the existing theories so as to advance our understanding
about the major tenets of international politics.

1.1 Literature Review

Burchill and Linklater (2005) emphasize on the importance of theories by writing that
theories are required for conceptualizing historical events. Since a multiplicity of events have
taken place in history, so a theory helps us to critically evaluate the origins and outcomes of
those events; be it of economic, political or social nature. They also help us logically
connecting the intricacies of each event and the implications which those would have on
international politics. The theories of international relations differ mainly on their object and
scope of study i.e. on what level are they analysing a particular phenomenon; individual, state
or global.

Elman (2007) explains in his book that since the last five decades, realism has been used to
evaluate changes in the international system by getting incorporated in every other debate
regarding international politics. The roots of the realist worldview can be traced from the
ancient works done in Greece, India and China. In terms of Greece, as it is known that the
Peloponnesian War accounted by Thucydides explained state behaviour in terms of power
relations maintaining that the stronger state will always do what it wants to while the weaker
will always have to suffer at the hands of the stronger. Realist arguments are also associated
with Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. The former focussed on those rulers for whom the
major concerns are power and security while the latter considered the ‘state of nature’ to be
anarchic and the people living in it lead a short, brutish and nasty life. Classical Realism
maintains that the desire for acquiring more power is rooted in the flawed nature of the
human beings and since the states are ruled by leaders with similar dispositions, they are
engaged in increasing their capacity and capabilities. The standard bearer of this strand was

Morgenthau’s book ‘Politics among Nations’ in which he explains that wars or conflicts
occur when human appetites are given free reigns in the absence of a world government. He
further illustrates that in 1979, Kenneth Waltz through his publication ‘Theory of
International Politics’ revised the realist school of thought and claimed that systems in
general are composed of interacting units, which have three distinct elements; an anarchical
or hierarchical ordering principle, a similar or differentiated character of the units, and the
distribution of the capabilities of the units. This new strand was known as Neo-realism.

MacMillan (2007) claims that traditionally, the central tenet of liberalism has been to expand
opportunities for collective-security and address problems stemming from the abuse of power
and illegitimate use of force. At the epicentre of liberalism lies the moral dominance of an
individual and the prevalence of the values of freedom and individual autonomy in egalitarian
societies. It is for this reason that liberals promote the republic or democratic political
systems; for they facilitate the practical applications of these values through accountability of
power, grass-root political representation and enjoyment of human rights. Together, this
collective domain of individual freedom and moral unity of the individual provide a
substantial reason to states to not go for war. He further asserts that liberals and proponents of
peace like Immanuel Kant argued that since individuals are the ones who suffer massively in
wars so they desire for a dialogue over conflict/clash. Liberalism talks about rationality,
moral autonomy and democracy embedded in the principles of justice and equality.

Knight (2013) explains in his article that as a critical theory, constructivism proposed by
Alexander Wendt adopts an interpretive approach to international relations concepts. It
rejects the objective nature of the global order and assumes that the structures of the
international system are created by agents and will in return determine the behaviour of these
agents. They pay attention to the importance of identities in determining the interests of the
actors operating in the international system.

Philips (2007) extends this view by saying that the constructivist school of thought is defined
by its immaculate focus on the social characters of actors and their interests in global politics.
It enriched the IR study when a need emerged to revisit the existing paradigms after the
international community was unable to anticipate the 9/11 attack or the fall of the Berlin wall.
The basic premise of constructivism is to assess how non-material factors affect world
politics and their receptivity to notion of transformative change. The origin of constructivism
date back to the third debate between rationalists and critical theorists. Constructivists are

idealists rather than materialists. They do not out rightly deny the significance of material
factors such as nuclear proliferation rather they claim that the behavioural responses of actors
an only be understood by analysing the structures being used to advance these phenomena.
They propose a mutual relationship between agents and structures. They believe that the
variability of the international system raises analytical challenges such as the question of non-
intervention and sovereignty. In the age of globalization, there exists an increased complexity
between international norms making it difficult to explain the behaviour of agents and

1.2 Aims & Objectives

This study has the following aims;

 To explore the dimensions through which power can be explained from the realist,
liberal and constructivist perspectives.
 To study the ways in which the notion of ‘interest’ in explained in realism, liberalism
and constructivism.
 To determine the different ways in which international institutions are explained by
realist, liberal and constructivist schools of thought.
 To investigate the realist, liberal and constructivist opinion on the issue of interaction
between states.

1.3 Research Questions

This study is based on the following research questions;

 How is the concept of power explained by realists, liberals and constructivist

 In what ways, can ‘interest’ be defined in realism, liberalism and constructivism?
 How do realism, liberalism and constructivism offer competing explanations of
international institutions and their functions?
 What is the realist, liberal and constructivist opinion on the issue of state-to-state

1.4 Research Methodology

The conducted research is qualitative in nature. Descriptive and analytical method has been
used to explain and unfold the given topic. Books and scholarly articles have been used to
achieve valid, reliable and replicable results.

1.5 Significance of Study

This study signifies the importance of studying theoretical explanations of political variables
in order to advance their understanding. Theories help us contextualize catalytic events so
that we are better able to comprehend the intricacies of the global system.

1.6 Plan of Research

This research paper comprises of five main sections. The first section focuses on the
introduction and the research questions which would be answered in the next sections. The
second, third and fourth sections offer explanations regarding the mentioned variable through
the use of empirical evidences. The last section provides a conclusive analysis and list of


2.1 Power according to Realism

Despite being a theory based on power politics, there exist certain variations in the way
realists conceptualize power. Over the years, many critics have commented over the
ambiguities and lack of consensus among the realists on the issue of defining and measuring
power (Schmidt, 2005). The classical, structural and modified realists offer competing
version of realism and thus of power.

What is Power? Where is Power How to measure How does power

located? Power? effect state
Classical Material resources States & individual Combine qualitative Pursuance of
Realism actors & quantitative national interest
Structural Resources Power is relatively Culmination of all States maximize
Realism (economic/political) distributed among national attributes of their security in an
(Defensive) states a state anarchical world
Structural Resources Power is relatively Military power of States maximize
Realism (economic/political) distributed among the state their power to
(Offensive) states ensure their
Modified Material resources Relative State strength is States aim to
Realism distribution at measured through maximize their
individual, the utility of the influence
domestic & global decision-maker &
level his decisions

2.2 Power according to Liberalism

Contrary to the realist belief, liberals explain the distribution of different types of power
including military, economic, social and cultural. The basic principles of liberalism are not
only based on the notions of freedom and equality, rather they also provide an in-depth
account of the concept of power. Liberals connote that arbitrary use of power is tyrannical

while constrained use of power by an official or a state proves to effective in boosting inter
and intra state confidence. Liberalism’s analysis of power is threefold;

to restrain the power of the despotic

enlarge capacities of the youth/individuals

establish laws for ensuring the legitimate use of power

2.3 Power in the light of Constructivism

Constructivist scholars like Peter Morris argue that the concept of power differs with the
change in approach used to study it. However, there exist three main manifolds of power
(Guzzini, 2005);

Moral Practical Evaluative

As far as the moral context is concerned, intentions play a crucial role; while in the practical
context, non-intentional aspect is key to consider. The evaluative aspect of power adds more
value to it in its relation with social theories. Moreover, keeping the ‘faces of power’ debate
at hand, the fourth debate argues that diffusion of power occurs through discourses and that
power could be understood by the social meaning which is attached to them. This
constructivist perspective views power as a discursive process which studies how agents and
their interests were produced in world politics (Mattern, 2008). In other words, world politics
basically refers to the study of those social processes which create a certain environment in
which the actors will function.

2.4 Empirical evidence: Arab Spring (2010) & Democracy

In the light of the above-mentioned competing visions of power, the case study of Arab
Spring with reference to the installation of democracy in the Middle East will be taken into
account. Since the three faces of power have been discussed and it has been established that
power is defined as the capacity to influence the working of another entity through a variety
of means. From the realist perspective, Arab Spring is viewed as an attempt of the extra-
regional forces to consolidate and maximize their relative influence over the Arab states. On
the contrary, the liberals highlight a somewhat optimistic picture by saying that the

installation of democracy would free the people from the rule of tyrant autocrats who had
been ruling since decades. Moreover, democracy would bring along a system of
accountability so as to constrain the power of the ruler. It will also ensure a system of
governance whereby the legislation done would in favour of the general public and would
prefer the legitimate show of power by the state officials. However, in contrast to the realist
and liberal thinking, constructivist analysis of the Arab spring highlights the moral and
intentional aspect of power. This social movement was basically carried out in an
environment which was facilitated by the interaction of a group of people sharing common
beliefs and norms. This implies that the social structure is flexible and so a rigid approach of
power is not appropriate to explain world events.

Liberal face of power Constructivist face of

Realist face of power

•Power in terms of tangible •How states exploit their •Power is not an exercise
and material resources; positions in liberal but a process which shapes
actual & potential international institutions? the structure for social
•Arab Spring: attempt of •Arab Spring: installations
external players to display of liberty and democractic •Arab Spring: power in
their physical strength by power terms of social identity and
aiding the protestors. common beliefs



3.1 Interest and Realism

Interests which motivate states to behave in a certain way are motivated by material resources
and states are constructed by material interests. Realists like Stephen Krasner argue that the
basic interest of a state is either its survival or maximization of its power. This claim was
furthered by Hans J. Morgenthau in his articulation ‘Politics among Nations’. He believes
that each state pursues its national interest which is defined according to the power it has. He
further added that interest and power as considered as social forces deeply rooted in the
human nature, and are bound to transform with the changing trends of time (Pham, 2008).
Other realist scholars add that it is one of the moral obligations of a state to further its own
interest i.e. it is a question of realist ethics.
3.2 Interest and Liberalism

The concept of interest as defined by liberals in two-dimensional. Liberals believe in a

pluralistic society and argue that each societal group has the right to do what it feels like but
they should be in line with the larger interest of the state. Secondly, they also presume that
states are dominated by their economic interests i.e. the stronger the economy, the powerful
the state is. Liberals argue that states have the potential to cooperate and will only do so after
they have given up the idea of ‘self-help’. Instead in this complex and interdependent world,
it is imperative for states to aim for collective security and maximization of economic wealth.

3.3 Interest and Constructivism

Constructivism focuses on the social context of international relations (Hurd, 2008), and thus
views ‘interest’ in the same context. They believe that interests are constructed by
‘endogenous’ forces and not implicated from the outside. States define their interests on the
basis of their identities and their social environment. This implies that being an international
political theory, constructivism relies on social interaction between states as the main source
of interest formulation.

3.4 Empirical Evidence Iran’s Nuclear Program

Iran’s decision to pursue its nuclear program has been a matter of great debate in the ongoing
decade. Considering its rapid economic progress and gradual rise as the regional leader, has
become a source of worry for the West and US in particular. The realists argue that the rise of
Iranian power is a direct threat to the interests of US and its Middle Eastern allies; Israel and
Saudi Arabia to be specific. In doing so, if Iran continues to develop its nuclear arsenal it will
lead to a nuclear arms race in the region which would threaten international peace and
security i.e. the interests of the global society at large. If seen from the perspective of
offensive realists, nuclear weapons are likely to enhance Iran’s power in the presence of non-
state group like Hezbollah and Hamas. They would help Iran in maintaining the status quo.
Simultaneously, Iranian interest in developing nuclear weapons was stimulated by exogenous
forces like global nuclearization, sectarian strife and rising frustration against the western

From a liberal perspective, the basic interest of Iran is to maximize its economic potential.
Liberals hold the opinion that Iran is most likely to use nuclear weapons for civilian purposes
i.e. for hydroelectric use or to deter the threat of economic sanctions in future. This implies

that its main focus is on ‘self-reliance’ in wake an unfortunate future. Moreover, if Iran
becomes a nuclear power it would get an edge in its bargaining position; something of
immense relevance in this world controlled by economic forces. However, the constructivist
would approach this issue in the light of the statements issued by Khamenei in the earlier
2000’s whereby he claimed the possession of nuclear weapons as immoral and unethical
(Witherspoon, 2013). Constructivists question that how have these religion-based interest
diverged the national policy of the Iranian state? Although constructive in nature, such
questions are most likely to adopt a realist direction in the future.

Realism Liberalism Constructivism

• Interests are • Interests are shaped by • Interests are

exogenous (outside domestic dynamics constructed by
imposition) endogenous forces
which prevail within
the society



4.1 Realism and International Institutions

These international structures, as claimed by Morgenthau and other realists, are instruments
of great power influence. The main façade behind the creation of the ‘soft bodies’ in the
fulfilment of one’s own interest. Neo-realists like John Mearsheimer argue that since gains
are relatively pursued by states which could be converted into military advantages so this acts
as an impediment in the way of state-to-state cooperation. Powerful states provide the weaker
states with limited and constrained benefits to which the latter have to agree. The theory of
realism is rooted in the assumption that international institutions are based on the interaction
of power and interest at the international front (Martin & Simmons, 2012). Furthermore,
institutions are also used to achieve geopolitical and security objectives of the great powers.

4.2 Liberalism and International Institutions

Liberalism entails that the human species is capable of acting positively in social and political
spheres for the greater good. For this reason, the liberal internationalists believe in the
formulation of international institutions for the purpose of governing this anarchical world

and for maintaining peaceful interaction between states. In the aftermath of WWII, the
liberals argued that an ‘institutional mindset’ was needed to construct these key drivers of
human progress. This approach was a counterforce to the realpolitik version of international
politics; an approach grounded in morals and ethics for ensuring the prevalence of justice in
the international order (Lawson, 2015).

4.3 Constructivism and International Institutions

The constructivist school of thought views international institutions in the social context.
According to its approaches, constructivism assumed that the framing of rules and norms
have deeper meanings attached to them. In international institutions, the key players are
defined by their rules and laws which regulate or constrain their behaviour (Martin &
Simmons, 2012). Scholars of this paradigm argue that institutions can alter state interests
during the course of their interaction with each other within the presence of certain rules and
norms. Most constructivist consider international institutions to be ‘socializing agents’ who
would ensure state compliance with its key mechanisms and the legal codes to which the state
has to abide by. Furthermore, constructivism holds legitimacy as an important feature of
these instruments i.e. to what extent are social goals and norms considered while formulating
the code of the institution.

4.4 Empirical Evidence: European Union & Agency-Structure Relationship

International institutions are primarily a manifestation of the integration theory, with EU

being its prime successful example since many decades. Known for its common security and
foreign policy as well as common currency, the integrative model of Europe has been sought
after by nearly all other regions. However, in the light of the three mentioned theories, there
exist different ways of analysing it. On the realist front, EU had for many decades been used
as an answer to the realist question of the impossibility to have convergent interests. But the
recent episode of BREXIT has brought the realists back into the debate who pursue that
institutions are basically a tool of great power hegemony; aim is to increase relative gains.
The liberals, on the other hand, laud the EU for it brought two arch rivals Germany and
France together for the sake of economic well-being. This effort was materialized, again, by
the ‘institutional mindset’ which is propagated by the realists. The liberals believe that EU
has trade relations with nearly all countries and can thus be constituted as a global actor. In
addition to this, state behaviour is constrained because they are presented with limited options
from which they have to choose their most preferred and ideally beneficial.

In contrast to both these explanations, social constructivists argue that structures and agents
have a mutually beneficial relationship whereby the outside structure shapes behaviour of the
actors and vice versa. In terms of European Union, constructivism explains the importance of
identity as an important constituent of integration i.e. only those states would be attracted to
join the EU who consider themselves European. Moreover, at the decision-making level, the
EU member states are most likely take the decision which they think is most likely to be
‘right’; hence involving the question of legitimacy (Risse, 2005). Constructivism focuses on
behaviour guided by norms and the EU member states also have to follow certain norms of
appropriateness in order to be called an EU member. The member states are also not only
known as European but also as EU member states i.e. an addition to state identity.



5.1 Realism and state-to-state Interaction

The realist explanation of the international system is based on the ordering principle of
anarchy. This principle, while emphasizing on the state as a primary actor, offers a
pessimistic analysis of the world. Realists claim that since states are the ultimate sovereign
entities, they cannot submit their sovereignty to any other supranational body (Mir, 2014). As
far as interests are concerned, states will only cooperate when it would be of benefit to them.
The assumption of anarchy basically regulates the state-to-state interaction i.e. world politics
is an ever-continuing struggle between the exploiter and the exploited. This implies that
interaction between states is grounded in the assumptions of anarchy, self-interest and
prospects of conflict. Moreover, realism considers state to be the unitary rational actor in
global politics and thus presents only a unidimensional perspective.

5.2 Liberalism and interaction between states

Liberals offer a more optimistic version of state-to-state interaction by claiming that every
state is embedded in a structure of civil society, whereby the voluntary and individual groups
functioning within that system restrain state behaviour. In contrast to realism, liberals argue
that the main actors in global politics are individuals and not states; each of which has a
distinct set of preferences that consequently shape state behaviour. Moreover, liberalism also
highlights the economic interaction between the states by arguing that; in a complexly
interdependent world like today, states are mutually dependent on not only states other but
also non-state actors who have now emerged as a great source of economic opportunity.

5.3 Constructivism and interaction between states

The constructivist explanation of global state interaction differs from the aforementioned
concepts on two grounds (Hurd, 2008);

• States interact with other states on the basis of their shared

Counter-argument ideas and practices. These ideas change with the passage of
for materialism time and states continue to interact according to the meanings
attached to other states.

• State units view each other as 'rivals' which is a socially

Various versions of
constructed relationship. At the inter-state level, conflict arises
due to socially constructed rivalry between two groups.

5.4 Empirical Evidence: ASEAN as a means of interaction

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in 1967 by five
South-east Asian nations with the aim of lending support to each other’s norms and values.
The basic premise was to foster economic growth and social progress while maintaining the
principle of equality and joint partnership. This implies that states had to ‘interact’ with other
to develop a mutually beneficial environment. The realists, by keeping in view their balance
of power’ theory assume that the establishment of ASEAN was basically an attempt to
balance the presence of external actors in the region e.g. China and India. Liberals, on the
other hand, argue that institutions like ASEAN where states can interact with one another are
a key way of promoting peace and economic development; for when economic interests are
inter-twined, conflicts are less likely to erupt. This perspective is countered by the realists as
they point out the inability of ASEAN to control the damage done by the 1997 Asian
Financial Crisis, hence weaknesses exist. In terms of political stability, the realists contradict
the liberal point view by saying that religious difference exist between countries like
Malaysia and Singapore, which consequently disturb the entire region.

Apart from these two approaches, constructivism argues that ASEAN is an example of a
successful interactive pattern between states as it is built on the principle of consensus and
shared practices. The organization is working to establish a community of nations based on
shared values and norms like non-intervention and non-interference (Anonymous, 2011). The
constructivists claim that despite progressing at a slow rate, ASEAN is still on the right track
in providing a reasonable means of interaction to all the states in South-east Asia.

International theoretical perspectives like realism, liberalism and constructivism have through
many ways advanced our understanding the key variables of international politics including;
power, interest, international institutions and interaction between states. Despite offering
different explanations, the three theories often tend to converge at some point or the other. In
other words, constructivism incorporates itself into the realist/liberal domain because the
former in itself is no other theory, rather a culmination of various approaches. Power has
always been and will always lie at the heart of international relations. Each theory has its own
way of conceptualizing it; realism offering an extreme stance while liberals tend be a little
soft in their approach. The constructivists in contrast focus on endogenous variables like
identity and norms. All these variables are somewhat inter-connected as power means
maximization of interest which can only take place through interaction between states/units at
several bilateral and multilateral forums, commonly known as institutions. Thus, it is very
difficult to compartmentalize them conceptually. On the theoretical front, however, different
scholars depending upon their orientation tend to offer different perspectives to dissect these
variables. Realistically speaking, it is held that realism tends to dominate and overpower all
other variants of theoretical explanations. This is primarily because realism is known to be a
theory based on realpolitik and will always address actual intentions of the states through
their practical steps. While liberalism and constructivism often sound as idealistic because of
their utopian and less practical explanations.


Realism, liberalism and constructivism form the core of positivist international relation
theories; each of which offers diverse explanations of political variables. While realism
focuses on the state as the primary actor working to fulfil its national interest, liberalism
highlights and optimistic version of international politics and state behaviour. They shed light
of pluralistic and economic aspect of politics based of individual autonomy and free will.
Constructivism, being on the edge of positivism-post positivism debates offers a non-material
explanation of world politics by bringing into limelight the once ignored elements of identity,
norm and shared beliefs/practices. Despite their evident explorational differences, all the
three theories advance understandings of power, interest, international institutions and
interaction between states; giving us the opportunity to enrich our minds with a plethora of
analytical perspectives.


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