Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

2.1 & 3.1: Liberalism and realism (Kat)

On the second day of class, the professor noted that by using the term "realism," realists are implying that theirs is not a particular subset of IR theories, but a way of looking at the facts; in other words, the connotation of the word "realism" is "looking at things realistically." Sterling-Folker notes that realists have a "pessimistic conviction that there are severe limitations on human reason and its ability to achieve the progressive, liberal goals that most of us take for granted as moral truths" (13). In contrast, as Sterling-Folker observes, liberals (or liberalists, in this context?) define themselves by "a faith in at least the possibility of cumulative progress in human affairs" (55) and "a belief in the human capacity to reason [and] the possibility of uncovering untainted universal truth" (55). Here we have the idea of progressing beyond what exists now; the underlying idea seems to be that liberalism is a philosophy that seeks a better future than the present.

In other words, if realism can be, for the moment, reduced to thinking realistically, liberalism can be reduced to active optimism. This is a gross oversimplification, of course, but is useful for understanding the basic tenets of the philosophies and why they diverge.

Consider the possible realist and liberal reactions to a hypothetical warlord who is systematically slaughtering the weaker citizens of his country. A liberal, who is optimistic and believes in the possibility of progress, would look at this crisis and see a moral truth -- some form of aid, military or otherwise, must be given; these people must be helped. The underlying assumption, which as Sterling-Folker observes is somewhat built into the theory, is that progress is possible, and that these people can be saved. The liberal can therefore turn his attention to how to go about it.

This idea that progress is possible is not a natural assumption for the realist, whose belief in the "might makes right" principle will lead him to a more realistic question: "Do I have the necessary might to accomplish this goal?" and "Is it in my self-interest to intervene?" Unlike the liberal, the realist will not take the idea that something should be done as a guarantee that something can be done. This is a completely different line of thought; the realist is amoral and self-interested, while the liberal is concerned with moral imperatives.

--first impressions after reading the assignment


Blogger Johnny B. said...

I disagree that you can characterize liberalism as inherently optimistic and realism as inherently pessimistic. It's true that scholars who advocate for liberalism tend advocate more touchy-feely, koom-bi-yah, "we're all in this together" policies and realists advocate more unilateral selfish policies that often involve blowing stuff up.

However, theories don't advocate for policies, they only try to explain how the world works. If we are going to talk about IR theory the most important thing is not what is the policy prescription but why is this occuring?

From what we've read I think the liberals would have an easier time explaining what is going in the hypothetical country because it believes in the power of domestic groups, althouth I am sure some realist has come along and discussed intrastate actions and how governments relate to their people.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Kat said...

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12:02 AM  

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