The position of realists and liberals on security and the likelihood of conflict

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Liberals and realists have very different positions on security and the likelihood of conflict. Firstly they differ on the notion of power. Realists like Mearsheimer believe that the type of power that really matters is military power. If a nation cannot defend itself from potential adversaries, it will never feel safe. This is what they term the ‘security dilemma’, that is the constant accumulation of power to ward off potential aggressors. Security cannot come from elsewhere, but must come from the nation state. Realists like Waltz believes in such an uncertain world, great powers would constantly try to balance power against others. Liberals differ, they argue security can be collective. They critique realism suggesting the individual pursuit of power makes the world a more conflict ridden place. They argue international organisations like the UN Security Council, can maintain peace by safeguarding the sovereignty of all states as was seen in the first Gulf War where over 50 countries came to the defence of Kuwait. Liberals also argue that power in today’s globalised world is more diffused, with economic and soft cultural power as important as hard power. In other words, hard power is much less important and can be replaced by other forms of influence, like that of Germany and Japan. 

Secondly, classical realists observe human nature to be bleak. They adhere to the conservative Hobbesian view that in an anarchical world, life will be ‘nasty, brutish and short’.This human impulse to self-preserve forces one to make selfish decisions and that’s the reality of states. With a rising China, America has opted to reassert nationalism under the slogan ‘America First’ and undermine the rules of international trade because it sees China as a threat to it. Mearsheimer calls it the ‘tragedy’ of great powers and argues the structure of the international system forces states to only think about their own interests and to act in a less cooperative way, this makes conflict more possible. Liberals would differ with this. They adhere to Locke’s interpretation of human nature. They believe that although we are self-interested, humans need to cooperate to get the most for themselves out of a situation. This is conveyed through the Stag Hunt Scenario where Rousseau argued that both hunters will wait to try and kill the stag, as the benefits to each hunter catching the stag would outweigh the benefit to an individual hunter catching the hare. States can choose to cooperate, as this is part of their human nature and therefore conflict is not inevitable. This cooperation can be through liberal institutions like the EU and the Bretton Woods system, that enable states to work together to achieve an absolute sum world rather than to pursue a bleak zero-sum game. 

Thirdly, realists would claim that liberals are more likely to make the world insecure and conflict-ridden. Mearsheimer, a realist, suggests that when liberals universalise human rights and talk of the democratic peace theory, they then attempt to curate the world according to their ideal. Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Afghanistan (2001) were all wars to help enable democracy flourish but all left a legacy of death, destruction and opened up a vacuum where terrorism has grown. Realists claim that liberal interventionists pursue wars that are not in the narrow national interests but to spread zones of peace, linked to the Lockean notion that democracy spreads peace. Liberals argue that when Japan, Germany and South Korea turned away from authoritarianism and became liberal democracies, they became less aggressive. Thomas Friedman calls this the ‘Golden Arches Theory’. Realists argue that such idealism turns the west into ‘crusaders’ that use war for higher aims. They point to the Middle East that is much more dangerous today, with the spread of ISIS terrorism and failed states. This reflects the Hobbesian view that stability and security, even under a dictator like Saddam Hussein, is better than insecurity and instability. 

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