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Realism vs. Liberalism

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The concern about possession of weapons goes back to the period between the world wars and has been a continuous concern since the early 1950s. After World War II The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated. “The NPT prohibited additional states who did not have already nuclear weapons from acquiring them and required current possessors from aiding in the in the spread…made them promise to reduce and eliminate their own.” (Snow, 2008:189) Throughout history, some states have felt the need to possess weapons for protecting themselves while others seek to show their power, for example the U.S.A and the USSR during the Cold War. For decades, power and security have been the major issues, but through time, the economy has become increasingly important in the agenda of states. The aim of this paper is to explain two major international relations theories, realism and liberalism, and how these theories try to argue for the need and possession of nuclear weapons in the contemporary era. Realists have four main arguments: the main actors, in the international system, are sovereign states; the international system is in a state of anarchy; states must be concerned with their own security; and states are rational unified actors. (Viotti, 1999:188)

Realism based its arguments on the Cold War, during this time, security and power were the most important concerns for the states, mainly for the United States and the USSR. Due to the history of this theory, it is not a surprise that some realists support the idea of the states possessing nuclear weapons to balance power and protect themselves, in case they feel threatened. The realist Kenneth Waltz, states that “we should expect war to become less likely when weaponry exist to make conquest more difficult, to discourage preemptive and preventive war, and to make coercive threat less credible…nuclear deterrence and nuclear defense improve the prospects for peace” (Waltz, 2008:260) Therefore, from his perspective, proliferation of nuclear weapons is a matter of security. On the other hand, there is Kegley’s realist argument stating that “disarmament and arms control have served throughout history as vehicles to maintain (not eliminate) the balance of power…the distribution of military might is critical to the preservation of the balance of power…” (Kegley Jr, 1995:246) For him, arms control is path towards balance of power, and therefore, peace.

These two authors exemplify the main argument of realists that arms, in this case nuclear weapons, maintain the balance of power and as a consequence peace is achieved. But even when realists state the positive impact of nuclear weapons, there is still the problem of what countries are allowed to posses, in other words, exists the problem of how to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Due to the importance of controlling nuclear weapons, state’s authorities become authoritarian and secretive. At the same time, some potential nuclear states are not strong and stable enough; therefore, theses countries cannot be trusted on control of their weapons and the decision to use them. (Waltz, 2008:163) The fact that some states posses nuclear weapons and are not reliable turns into a weakness in the realist theory because then states’ security is threatened by nuclear weapons, instead of being preserved and guaranteed. In contrast there are the liberals, who assume that in the international system there are different international actors that pursue different objectives, like international institutions.

At the same time, they argue that in an anarchical system, like the international, there is no higher authority that controls other units in the system, therefore, units interact as equals. (Vinci, 2008:41) Taking into consideration that the international system is anarchical, one could say that the balance of power and the achievement of peace depends an all the international actors, not only on the sates. Liberals also believe that international relations and especially international political economy offer opportunities for everyone to gain at the same time. (Viotti, 1999:185) From the liberal perspective, the competition among states to possess nuclear weapons reduces the security of individual countries and international instability. For liberals like Mark Zacher and Richard Matthew “open trading system influence the prospects for peaceful politics …once the country opens its markets to the world, democracy follows.” (Kegley Jr, 1995:248) Liberals strongly believe that arms just generate war and that the only way to avoid it is by international cooperation through an open economy. Another important liberal argument is about the democratic values; Michael Doyle has the idea that liberal democracies do not fight other liberal democracies. (Nye, 2007:48)

This happens because in a democratic country people have the choice whether to choose or not to choose going to war, and this public consent legitimizes the battle, in case there is one. But the purpose of the liberal is to avoid war via democracy, because when there is democracy there is chance for negotiation, which in the end can prevent war without the need of arms. Nevertheless, this liberal argument about liberal democracies not going to war with other democracies only applies to those countries who have a democratic form of government and leave outside those who have other type of regimes, which in the in the end have the potential to go to war with other countries. Realist and liberal theories have contrasting arguments; one is based on state power, while the latter focuses on international economy, civil society, and democracy.

In the case of the liberal theory, it has the advantage that it is newer and is more consistent with today’s world, where the economy has become vital for states, civil society has influence in international affairs, and democracy is strong in countries like the US. Realists, like Waltz, believe that the possession of nuclear weapons will enhance the state’s security by balancing power, while other thinkers like Kegley argue that the not only possession, but control of nuclear weapons is the path towards world peace. But what theses authors and some relists do not consider is the risk that the proliferation of nuclear weapons may cause in case they are used, especially when possessed by countries that are not reliable. On the other side, liberals are aware that nuclear weapons are a threat to the world’s peace; they believe that cooperation among states and international organizations along with ideas of liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, they do not tackle the fact that differences arise between states and that the international economic system would not be able to avoid conflict in case it emerges. During the Cold War era, realism had a lot of followers since world power was split between two strong countries, USSR and US. During this time, the possession of nuclear weapons, to some extend, stopped these two countries from starting a Third World War. Nowadays, liberals statement about international cooperation ad democracy is possible because, even when there are stronger countries than others, the international actors like civil society and international organization have the faculties to get involved in international affairs and influence the powers decisions, as well as the public opinion has the power to influence in their governments decisions.


Cimbala, S. J. (2004). Nuclear Proliferation and International Systems. Defense & Security Analysis, 20(4), 321-336. Consulted Agust 31st, 2011 on http://0-web.ebscohost.com.millenium.itesm.mx/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b80eb504-62d4-4e2b-b115-a1214a4778af%40sessionmgr112&vid=2&hid=123 Kegley Jr. C (1995) Controversies in International Relations Theory. Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge. Belmont, US: Wadsworth Magnarella, P. J. (2008). Attempts to Reduce and Eliminate Nuclear Weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Creation of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones. Peace & Change Consulted Agust 31st, 2011 on http://0-web.ebscohost.com.millenium.itesm.mx/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=d69fba83-877f-488e-a354-3556cb0fb85a%40sessionmgr112&vid=2&hid=123 Nye, J. (2007) Understanding international Conflicts. An International to Theory and History. Sixth Edition. New York , US: Pearson. Salmon, T. (2000) Issues in International Relations. New York, US: Routledge. Snow, D. (2008) Cases in International Relations. Portraits of the Future. (3rd) United States: Pearson Sutch, P; Elias, J. (2007) International Relations. The Basics. New York, US: Routledge. Vinci, A. (2008) Armed Groups and the Balance of Power. The International relations of terrorist, warlords and insurgents. New York, US: Routledge. Viotti, P; Kauppi, M. (1999) International Relations Theory. Realism, Pluralism, Globalism, and Beyond. (3rd) Needham Heights, US: Allyn and Bacon. Waltz, Kenneth (2008) Realism and International Politics. New York , US: Pearson.

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