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Realism VS Idealism in Foreign Policy

Realism VS Idealism in Foreign Policy

Scholars and academics have always tried to provide a comprehensive explanation on the dynamics that rule the relations among States and the possibility of cooperation among different countries. The basic assumption behind the construction of the major IR theories is that we live in an anarchic world. The lack of a centralized government or enforcement mechanism has posed many challenges to the definition and the support of international cooperation. In fact, while international institutions have flourished and international law has become more comprehensive, there is still no “international governance”.

Let us think about this concept for a moment: within a country, there is a government, a clear set of laws, a judiciary system and an executive apparatus. Conversely, at the international level there is no such thing as a superior centralized government, able to dictate rules and to enforce them. In the realm of foreign policy, relations are among States, and there is no guarantee that international rules and norms will be respected.

Indeed, in the international scenario, institutions and rules to regulate the dynamics among States have been created. The main ones are:

  • International organizations: United Nations (UN), International Labor Office (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), International Office for Migration (IOM), European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), among others;

Such institutions deal with security, development, human rights, humanitarian assistance, and provide (or should provide) a common, neutral ground where negotiations and discussions among Members States can take place. However, States willingly give up part of their sovereignty and autonomy to become parties to such organizations and to abide by their rules.

  • International treaties encompassing both economic and political issues; and
  • Bilateral or multilateral agreements.

Yet, despite the existence of such bodies, the lack of a centralized government or enforcement mechanism has posed many challenges to the definition and the support of international cooperation.

The Security Dilemma

The major difficulty that the world anarchy presents is the “Security dilemma”. This term refers to a situation in which actions by a State that aims to increase its security (i.e. creating alliances or increasing its military strengths) are perceived as a threat by other States. Such dynamics and perceptions lead to an increase in tensions that may result in a conflict.

The Security Dilemma can be articulated in three main points.

  1. Countries fear that other countries could cheat: the absence of a unitary central mechanism to control countries’ behavior could result in cheating as countries will not incur in any repercussions for their dishonest behavior;
  2. The Security Dilemma is based on a subjective perception of vulnerability; therefore, States could misinterpret other countries’ behavior because of their own biased judgment.
  3. The balance between offensive and defensive weapons is at the core of the balance among countries. Yet, as it is not easy to distinguish among defensive and offensive arms, mistrust and tensions easily arise.

Many scholars have dealt with the assumption of an anarchic world and the consequent insurgence of the Security Dilemma. It is interesting to note that from the same starting point, opposite outcomes have been reached. The two main opposed perspective are realism and idealism (or liberalism) – that have, then, evolved into neorealism and neoidealism (or neoliberalism).


Hobbes[1], Machiavelli and Moregenthau – the most prominent realist scholars – had a clear and pessimistic view of the world. In fact, classical realists viewed States – and human beings – as selfish and egoistic entities whose only goal was power and survival in an anarchical society. For instance, according to the classical scholars, States lived in a status of war against each other and every action was dictated by self-interest and struggle for power.

In the realist perspective:

  • There can be no cooperation among States:
  • In order to maintain peace within a country and to dominate the egoistic and brutal instincts of the citizens, the government must act as a strong and merciless power;
  • States and human beings have the same corrupt and selfish nature;
  • Just as human beings want to prevail over other human beings, States wants to prevail over other States;
  • There can be no trust among States; and
  • Anarchy cannot be controlled.

Classical realism also rejects the possibility of creating international institutions where negotiations and peaceful debates can take place. Indeed, this assumption has changed with the passing of time when international institutions (both governmental and non-governmental) have begun to play a more important role in the international scenario. Realism has evolved into neorealism.


While maintaining the skeptical stance of the realist perspective, neorealists accept the existence of an international structure that constrains States’ behaviors.

They affirm that:

  • The international asset is achieved through asymmetrical cooperation; and
  • The international structure reflects the distribution of power among countries.

The exponential growth of international institutions is undeniable and under everyone’s eyes. Therefore, neorealists cannot claim that the possibility of creating international organizations is an illusion. Yet, they believe that institutions are a mere a reflection of the distribution of power in the world (based on self-interested calculations of great powers) and that they are not an effective way to solve the world’s anarchy. On the contrary, according to the neorealist perspective, the institutionalized structure of our anarchic world is the very reason why States are egoistic and selfish.

Idealism and neoiedalism:

Idealism (or liberalism) has a more positive perception of the world of international relations and, according to this perspective, international institutions play a pivotal role in the creation and maintenance of a peaceful international environment.

The idealist theory has its roots in Kant’s belief that there is the possibility of perpetual peace among States[2]. According to Kant, human beings can learn from their past and their mistakes. In addition, he believed that an increase in trade, in the number of international organizations and in the number of democratic countries in the system could lead to peace.

In other words, Kant (and the idealist perspective) believe that:

  • Human beings and States are not necessarily selfish, brutal and egoistic;
  • There is no need to have a strong and merciless power to maintain peace both within the country and among different countries;
  • There are elements that can increase the possibility of having peaceful relations among countries:
  1. Increase in trade (both bilateral and multilateral);
  2. Increase in the number of international institutions;
  3. Increase in the number of democracies in the international system – such assumptions links back to the democratic peace theory that assumes that democracies are less likely to initiate conflicts with other countries; and
  • Global cooperation and peace is possible.

As in the case of realism and neorealism, neoliberalism (or neoidealism) is the recent elaboration of classical idealism[3].

Again, the main difference between the classical and the new form is the idea of structure. Neoliberals think that the structure of the international system fosters the creation of international organizations that are information providers and reduce the likeliness to cheat. In this case, the structure of the system itself implies the possibility of cooperation.

Keohane, one of the main scholars of the neoliberal tradition, identifies the three main strands of this perspective[4]:

  • International regimes: defined as the spontaneous emergence of international norms around specific issue;
  • Complex interdependence: the growing complexity of international relations inevitably leads to the creation of strong and tangled ties among countries; and
  • Democratic peace: just as in the classic perspective, democracies are believed to be less likely to initiate conflicts.

As we can see, the three pillars of the neoidealist perspective are an elaboration of the Kantian’s theory.


The different approaches used to analyze International relations offer quite different interpretations of the dynamics that regulate States’ behavior in the international environment.

It is important to note that both realism and idealism attempt to deal with the anarchy of the international system. The main problem of an anarchic system is the Security Dilemma: the absence of a centralized government implies that countries fear other countries may cheat and the lack of reliable information leads to a subjective vulnerability. As we have seen, the two perspectives have the same starting point but their outcomes are very different.

The first entirely refuses the idea of cooperation and peace among States. Global harmony cannot be reached because of the very nature of countries and human beings that are seen as egoistic, brutal and selfish entities. Even the neorealist perspective – that accepts the existence of international institutions – believes that the structure of the international order is a mere reflection of game powers among countries, and not a genuine attempt to create peaceful relations.

Conversely, the second accepts the possibility of a global cooperative environment enabled by the increase in trade and by the creation of international institutions that play the role of information providers and that reduce the likeliness of cheating.

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References :

[0][1] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. A&C Black, 2006.

[1][2] Kant, Immanuel, and Ted Humphrey. To perpetual peace: A philosophical sketch. Hackett Publishing, 1970.

[2][3] Harvey, David. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.

[3][4] Keohane, Robert, “After Hegemony : Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economyf”, Princeton University Press, 2005


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