Realism emphasizes assumes that all nation-states are motivated by national interests, or, at best, national interests disguised as moral concerns. Realism seeks to preserve political autonomy and territorial integrity of nation-states.
Once basic interests are secured, national interests may take different forms. Some states may have an interest in securing more resources or land; other states may wish to expand their own political or economic systems into other areas. Generally speaking, national interest must be defined in terms of power.
National power has an absolute meaning since it can be defined in terms of military, economic, political, diplomatic, or even cultural resources. For a realist, power is primarily a relative term: does a state have the ability to defend itself against the power of another state? Does a state have the ability to coerce another state to change that state’s policies?
The realist conception of the international system is an anarchical environment. All states have to rely upon their own resources to secure their interests, enforce whatever agreements they may have entered into with other states, or to maintain a desirable domestic and international order.
For a realist, there should be no authority over the nation-state. Realism tries to describe politics rationally, not on the basis of morality, but there is no universally acceptable definition of power. Realists also think there is a constant struggle of power as power is the ultimate aim for all states, which is not necessarily the case. Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger are famous realists.
“Realism”, as Robert Gilpin once observed, “is founded on a pessimism regarding moral progress and human possibilities.” From the realist perspective, incompatible goals and conflict are the defining features of world politics. Without enforceable international rules, decision makers have little choice but to compete with other states for security, status, and wealth. The competition is expected to be difficult, since the others are also likely to view their power resources and security positions in relative terms.
Tenets of Liberalism
Liberal and or neo-liberal theorists try to identify a common basis for international cooperation and interaction. Liberal theorists think that multiple actors are important to understanding outcomes in international system: states, MNCs, NGOs, etc. (these actors are not necessarily unitary or rational).
Economic, social and military goals motivate these actors to act and multiple means are used to achieve their goals. For liberals, the anarchic character of the interstate system does not imply that policy makers face an unchanging situation of international conflict. The prospect of economic, technological, and cultural benefits may give policy makers reasons to cooperate with other states. These include asymmetries in interdependence, military or issue specific power (where different states have power on different issues, e.g. OPEC countries have power with respect to oil prices not political issues)
According to liberal theorists, the anarchic international system is mitigated by norms and rules of international law and trade. Governance without government is the ideal system for global organization according to liberals. Liberals are particularly against the interference of the government in economic processes.
Idealists regard realism as a passing phase of history. They envision a world free of power politics and violence. Idealists have great faith in international organizations and universal education in achieving this end. But crushing totalitarianism with democratic principles is not easy. Idealism can be frustrating given the lingering turmoil evident in the world. Rousseau, Kant and Woodrow Wilson were famous idealists.
Anarchy: lack or absence of political organization
Interstate: between states
Assume: to take for granted
Lingering: ongoing or continuing. Global poverty for example is a lingering problem.