Since the 20th century, Idealism and Realism has become very important schools of though and conceptionally rival theories for understanding International Relations. International relations also known as “world politics” is related to how states engage with each other, the international law and various other things that come with it like international law and diplomacy.
idealism and realism are the two main theories in this field of study. The fundamental idea behind the two theories are that idealism is always optimistic and believe that humans are essentially good. While on the other hand, realism is more pessimistic and believes that human by nature is sinful and aggressive.
Unlike realists, idealism always views things as how it should be rather than how it really is. In this essay I would compare and contrast the main differences between these two theories. Before that ill be focusing a little bit on the history of how the they came into the picture of international relations. Idealism was dominate in the interwar period but it was first promoted as an educational thought by Plato in 400BC. Hedley Bull first documented the existence of “idealists” in this article entitled the theory of international politics 1919-1969. Idealist believed that peace can be achieved through good intentions and re-organizations.it was because of the idealism school of thought that the treaty of Versailles was signed at the end of the first world war. The league of nations was also based on idealist principles.
Its goals were to promote peace and most importantly prevent a second world war from erupting. But we saw it collapsing and an outburst of a second world war. Many scholars say that it’s a result of too idealist ideologies. Realism has been there since 424BC.
And this educational thought was endorsed by Plato’s student, Aristotle. It was however from the 1930s that the ‘realists’ came into wider picture opposing the principles of idealism and their ideologies on governing the world. Realism always highlights on promoting one’s own power and influence and the struggle of power among states. The historic cases such as the Persian wars (479-500BC) is a good example of that. The Persian war was a result of colonization that brought the Greek city states in conflict with each other both wanting more power than another. Realists are as concerned as idealists when it comes to maintaining peace but they are pessimistic about the effectiveness of the international law and cooperation. Hence, they decided to do it a different way in which they think will be effective and that is by balance of power. Realists believe that it will bring peace to the international system.
The realists have an assumption that the relations between states exists fundamentally in an anarchic state of nature basically meaning that there is no government and international law to govern them. And in this state of nature people has a right to enjoy equal status however they wish to since there is no government and a higher authority above the states that can punish them even if they do violate laws. States struggle to gain more power and try to take advantage one another and this could create a condition where war is inevitable. Idealists however say that war is not inevitable and the defects in the anarchy of states can be solved with proper demeanor and good institutes. Realists says that sovereign states are the only principal actors in international relations while idealists argue that both the state and non-state actors should be considered as actors. Kenneth waltz, a neorealist leader, views the non-state actor unimportant even though he has identified their existence. Waltz stresses on the fact that the whole point of anarchy is states having to rely on themselves for their own security so there should not be any division of labor or functional differences between them.
Idealists in contrast with this says that it’s important for state actors and non-state actors to work together in today’s world system. It has always argued that if a lasting peace is to be maintained in the world, its very important for the governments to work hand in hand with the institutions like the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations as well. When it comes to national interests, the realists believe that the national interests should be based on the fact that states should always consider survival as it’s top priority. Taking this into consideration it is said that the national interest should be based on the state’s position the international system. However, the idealist’s point of view on what national interests should be based on is very different from realists. For an idealist the culture and domestic society is what national interests must be based on.
European philosopher Hans Morgenthau saw national interest as “interests defined in terms of power”; meaning that everything is a way to gain more power than the other. Idealist sticking to their optimistic beliefs disagree and say that while perusing the national interests helps to form long term alliances with other states and due to this increased cooperation, it will in turn lead to the creation of peace. The limited availability of resources has build up a competition and both idealism and realism has identified this as a primary reason for war making it as a key issue to be addressed in international relations.
However, both the theories choose to address this issue differently. Hans Morgenthau argues that the availability of resources is a result of how power is distributed between states. Powerful states in order to gain more resources, take it from other states which then results in an unequal distribution of resources and series of other event eventually leading to war. In today’s word most of the wars being fought are for this reason and this provides evidence for the statement of Morgenthau. Even though idealist agree that this unequal distribution of resources is a primary cause of war, they being their optimistic selves believe that war can be prevented through proper cooperation between states technological advancements and the regulations of the markets. Balance of power is an important theory that realists believe in international relations that will bring peace to the world.
It basically means that the power and military capabilities should be distributed among the states equally in a way that no state is either too powerful or weak. This will prevent states trying dominate other states. According to Thomas Hobbes “states struggle to gain power for their own security” ( leviathan XIX4). He also identifies 3 natures of humans that causes quarrelsome behavior. That’s is competition, the need for self-defense and reputation.
Some states increasing its powers by building a strong military is for their safety and to be always ready for war while other states simply do it because they want to maintain the reputation of a powerful state and to conquer others. Because of the aforementioned reasons, to avoid war, balance of power is highly necessary and realists like Morgenthau insists that it is the only kind of foreign policy that could avoid wars and create an international stability. On the contrary idealists say that balance of power is not necessarily needed to create peace but a more effective way would be a well-established diplomacy based on normative considerations. Idealists believe that wars don’t necessarily happen because of a state’s fighting to peruse power but its more because of unorganized power politics. And in this case also idealist’s stresses on the fact that peace can be achieved when states work with non-governmental organizations to build cooperative arrangements. Even though both idealism and realism is viewed in different perceptions and are rival theories their main aim is to avoid wars and maintain a lasting peace in the world. Principles and ideologies of only idealism or realism has not proven effective.
Among the reasons why a second world war erupted was because they tried to prevent it by means based on idealist principles. So in my opinion if we want peace to be maintained we have to be both idealist and realist. A mix of the two could bring about a good change. And as we all know what the consequences will be if another world war happens, it’s a responsibility of the whole world to try and prevent it from happening. We need a peaceful world for all.