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Liberalism vs Structural Realism: A comparison of the EU and China

The relationships between states have been analysed to attempt at creating a consistent explanation for the way that international relations function. Today, the two most prominent theories which are used to explain the goal of power between states are known as structural realism and liberalism. Structural realism believes that states should aim to gain as much military, political, and economical power as possible, and pursue regional hegemony (dominance over neighbouring states). Liberalism, on the other hand, argues that states are so connected that the pursuit of hegemony would be hypocritical, and states should therefore focus on cooperation and mutually benefitting deals. The two contradicting theories have very different approaches to power relations, but they have both been proved through political events that have occurred in the past decades.


Liberalism is often considered the more positive view towards international relations, as it is based on the idea that states should seek peace and harmony through cooperation and unity. Liberalism views a state’s pursuit of power as a secondary objective, and it often goes back to the idea that states are not unitary actors, and so they will function better when they are working together. One of the most prominent examples of this kind of liberalism can be seen through the cooperation between European countries in the formation of the European Union. The EU’s main goal is that of creating a peaceful and cooperative long-standing alliance between its member states, and to use said alliance to bring security and peace to its citizens. The European countries share a currency, have open borders, and have economic agreements which allow them to easily and freely trade with each other. Although all countries in the EU are independent state actors, and they each have their own sovereignty, all the treaties agreed upon in the union are negotiated and agreed upon by all the EU Member States. This liberalist union has not only brought remarkable economic gains and considerably raised living standards in Europe, but it has also ensured the avoidance of large scale European wars, and it has brought solid alliances and a sense of unity between its member states. This is a prime example of the power of liberalism. Through collaborating with other states and prioritising mutual help instead of individual gain, states are able to grow both financially and economically, and avoid conflicts which would otherwise have had grave costs.


Although liberalism mostly aims for the avoidance of conflict, it can often lead to the opposite effect. This is because it can sometimes prove to be ineffective when dealing with countries which refuse to cooperate in peaceful talks. Having a hegemony and a large and powerful military or economy which is able to overpower other countries with ease becomes crucial when dealing with threatening and menacing states. One case of this which has polarised political figures in the past decade is that of North Korea. North Korea has long been ruled by a strict dictatorship. North Korea has at its disposal a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which it threatens to use against states which it deems as threats to its national security. Although peace talks and peace negotiations have been launched in the past to achieve unilateral nuclear disarmament, almost all have resulted in little to no results, and the country is still expanding its nuclear arsenal today. The only thing that has seemed to threaten North Korea has been the nuclear strong power of other powerful countries (most notably the US). It is through this example that the weakness of liberalism can be seen - although it offers a positive and idealist relationship between countries, it is ultimately only effective if the states involved are willing to engage and cooperate.


Structural Realism, the view opposed to liberalism, offers a different perspective on the distribution of power within states. According to realist theory, states should prioritise their own self-interest and focus on their state’s dominance and military might. Since other states can oftentimes not be relied upon, realism suggests that states should work independently. It therefore emphasises economic and military supremacy, as well as the idea of reaching a state of hegemony by becoming stronger than its competitors. Realist theory has perhaps been the most prominent view in the past century, and it has been enacted in many of the world's most powerful countries. A more recent case of structural realism bringing great progress to a nation is the case of the rise of China in the past decade. China has risen to become one of the world’s leading superpowers, mostly through its economic might. Instead of focusing on collaboration and unions, like in the cause of the EU, China has focused on expanding its economic, political, (and to a certain extent) military power. In the past decade, China has been seeking to maximise the gap between itself and its neighbours, (especially Japan and Russia), and It is now increasingly closer to becoming a regional (and perhaps global) hegemon. The rise of China is a testament to the effectiveness of the structural realist method. By focusing on its own self-interest, a country is able to significantly grow in power.


Structural realism brings with it some disadvantages, the most notable being its ineffectiveness in facing rival powers. When a country becomes a hegemon, or gains too much power on a regional or global level, other states will automatically join forces to thwart said state’s power. These natural balances will allow rival states to subside the hegemony’s power and restore a balance. This has happened multiple times throughout history, most notably in the economic conflict between the US and China. Both countries are simply motivated by the fact that they have to be more powerful than the other, and this has led to year-long tension between the two. This is a model example of how structural Realism often encourages high levels of competition between states, which can often prove to be dangerous for all involved.


Both liberalism and structural realism offer views on how power should be handled and distributed between countries. In the current political order, many states are aligning themselves liberalism, as the world today is too interconnected for any one state to act independently without damaging its own well-being and the well-being of other states. However, realism remains a powerful power theory, which, as seen in the case of China, can prove to be dangerously effective.


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