Use Realism and Liberalism to Explain the United Nations system

Topic: Use Realism and Liberalism to Explain the United Nations system.

  1. Introduction

Realism emphasizes the condition on politics imposed by human nature and the non-existent of international government. Together, they conceded international relations largely a realm of power and interest (Jack, 2000), and liberalism came under the influence of various intellectuals minds and believed that state and non-state actors are partner in the development process and based on democratic principles of a peaceful international order (Aneek, 2010). Thus, realism is a power theory to achieve objectives, and liberalism is balance power which appeared to be more optimistic and cooperative of nation-states.

The existence of the United Nations in the international arena seems to become complexity argumentative. Its effectiveness is being constantly put under debates, with realists and liberals arguing in favor or against it, respectively. The United Nations emerged on 24 October, 1945, which is an international organization maintaining the world peace and security, and the key function of the United Nations is also to develop friendly relations, international economic, social, cultural problems, and so on. The realists’ emphasis on anarchy, it does not mean that they see the international system is falling into chaotic. On the contrary, liberally, they point to balance the power of actor in international affairs, as a source of order in the international system.

Therefore, which one of the two ideologies is appropriated to explain the world politics in the world of 21st century? This term paper aims to answer two important questions of how Realism and Liberalism explain the UN system. By using the secondary data, mostly from research papers of scholars in the United State, England, Germany, and other discussed articles, the two theories: Realism and Liberalism are being used to explain the United Nation system by focusing on the actors of the UN and their interactions. This paper also aims to answer the research question on which one of them best describes the UN system by using our group’s opinions.

  1. Realism to explain the United Nations
  1. The Chair of P5’s power and right in UNSC

Security Council in United Nations is composed of both permanent and non-permanent, elective members and headed by a president, an office that rotates among all member state. The permanent members include the P5 who are the great-victor of the World War II, while ten elected member are selected form and by the UNGA. The P5 possesses an absolute veto power over substantive UNSC decision and allows one member to kill UNSC actions, and could not be overridden.

The current debate among governments about the right of veto resembles very much the debate. Many governments oppose the veto for its violation of the principle of sovereign equality among states (Bardo, 1998). For example, an outbreak of a chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime in 2013 and has heightened tensions internationally, but Russia and China who are the permanent members of UNSC do continue to support a regime. To Russia, there are two main reasons that led to Russia support to Syria because of Economic that Russia is the one of Syria’s biggest arms suppliers and one other is that Russia’s key policy goal is blocking the U.S’s action to shape the region. For China, has said foreign countries shouldn’t meddle in Syria’s internal affairs (Holly, 2013). In this case, to realist Russia and China are one of veto in UNSC agenda; they have played a vital role to support and veto the U.S to take any actions on the Syria for promote the security and human rights as pretenses.

  1. State’s Power and Interests

To illustrate the strong involvement of the UNSC in some crisis that related to realism, Gulf crisis was the good one example to explain. We have to take a look on the resolutions of UN, but there were very soon doubts whether this was a real revival of UN that would be able to solve in the same manner future conflicts. Therefore, the goals of the U.S-Administration in the Middle East changed but the conditions, the allies and the possibilities to realize the interest of U.S were still in flow. After the end of the cold war, Iraqi aggression towards Kuwait, were one of the most remarkable points for revision of means and possibilities in order to create an interest for U.S- strategy. For the U.S administration the unity of the UN, made perfect by China’s decision not to oppose any step against Iraq, brought a big chance to counter the Iraqi aggression under the umbrella of the UN. Here we can see that UN acted as tools for U.S to invade the other country (Stephan, 2006). To conclude, Realism with its emphasis on security completion and war among the great powers, as human being is thinking about self-interests more than others. Those permanents members in United Nations Security Council are also no exception.

Accordingly, United Nations activities were largely shaped by national interests, values and power despite the UN being central to the maintenance of a viable international order and to the development of shared values, norms and standards (Suzanne, 2013). To realist powerful states as permanent members on UNSC rarely need International Organization as United Nations to achieve specific objectives. On the contrary, since turning to an international institution complicate policy-making and entails some loss of autonomy, the powerful to avoid such entanglements, especially in the pursuit of important national interests. Yet this is often not the case: even superpowers routinely channel coercion, including the use of force, through International Organizations despite viable alternatives that offer more flexibility and control-namely, unilateralism and ad hoc coalitions (Alexander, 2009).

  1. Liberalism explaining the United Nation system
  1. Liberal View of International Law

International society consist of states that have, less or more, relations with one another. This relations form an international order which require the international law to create rules. By regulating the states, International law seeks to achieve the goal and value of international society. From liberal perspectives to international law view that international order is created from the bottom up. The processes that contribute to creation of international law begin with norms, moral, rules, and other code of conduct that voluntarily adopted by individual, community, and/or state who operate in an international society and working up through transnational and transgovernmental law to traditional public international law. The liberal approach ensure to avoid the state-centric power by keeping the state disciplined and provide the peaceful way to build the relations with one another.

Mostly, International law was created to solve problem in relationship between states. Liberalists believe that those international problems have domestic roots. When individual and group preference different from the government preference the problem would likely to arise. The relation between state and society have a massive impact on international system, so the international law lie in domestic rule of law.

  1. Liberal view on Economic Interdependent

The liberalists believe that economic interdependent leads to peaceful international relations because they understand the mutual benefit of trade. When the trade prosper, the tied between states are bond with economic dependency. In liberal states, military security is never always the most important point on the state agenda anyway. Economic interdependent increase the value of trade over war, so they interdependent state would prefer trade. Generally, war cost so much of the state resource, while trade gain material benefit. Those economic gains have a huge influence on the government’s foreign policy toward other state. It also influence the state decision to use military force.

The differences between the world today and before World War II would owe to the contribution of the development of technologies which help facilitate the trading process between states. Back then, war seems to be the only means to gain interest, so the war could easily happen. But now, inexpensive fast, and reliable communication and transportation enable people to trade and gain interest, so people would prioritize trade over war.

  1. Sovereignty and equality

International institutions and Laws have become more intrusive, while transnational civil society have become more active, and the central power of state have become less pronounced. This is the process of globalization. It have challenged state to compete with supranational, private, and local actor for the authority over the territory which used to be exclusively under the authority of state.

Inequality is a serious problem for international system, especially in the United Nation, that has been wrongly neglected. As inequality intensified, state sovereignty would be in danger, if the United Nation fail to manage the world order. In international arena, normally, developing states are the weakest if we compare them to the developed state who long to exploit the developing state. The unite nation provides equal footing with the powerful state in many of the organs. As the policy making organ of the UN, United Nation General Assembly allow each state to have the power of equal vote and have a saying in un policy making process. One state one vote apply to all the member of the UN, regardless. Small states form groups to have the bargain power to achieve true multilateral world order. For example, the group of 77 was created with to promote the collective economic interest of developing states and improve the negotiating capacity in the United Nation. With now expanded to 133 members, the G77 play important roles to make sure that the resource in UN would equally applied to all the member. They have the collective power to set agenda to achieve the developing states interest rather than allow the developed state dominant in the Unite Nation system. Social and economic equality are protected by international law and institution who responsible for establishing a framework for economic cooperation and development for both developed state and developing state, equally. For the obvious example would be IMF and the World Bank.

  1. Analysis of Realism and Liberalism

Regarding the emphasis on key actors and conceptions of Realism and Liberalism, each has its own strength and weakness in explaining the actors in UN system and their interactions. For realist’s view on states that they are the principal actors in the international system is somehow true. These can explain the UN system as its actor sought own interest and that the UN is just a marginal actor states can use for achieving its objective through ways including by using the UN to legitimate its actions, using veto power, contributing or reluctance of assisting the UN operation, and so on. In addition, it emphasizes on anarchy that state has its own interest and acquires as much as power through any means, particularly by competing with other states. Notably, realist concepts hold the principle of zero-sum game that has and will create a competitive future. Such competition is the impetus for state to balance the power and further implies that the international system is anarchic and conflictual which likely go to conflicts and wars (John, n.d.).

However, it fails to explain the modern international system that economics is important. For instance, the Soviet leaders realized that pursuit of power cannot totally enhance the state security and believed that to cooperate with the west is the best way to achieve it (John, n.d.). Therefore, we can see that the Soviet Union since 1987 has changed its attitude in the UN by deterring from using its veto power for opposing the West to withdraw its troops from Afganistan, and end the Iraq-Iran War (Karen & Margaret, n.d.).

Further, Realism cannot explain how the UN can ensure peace and security in some cases by preventing interstate conflicts and explain why states come to cooperate one another in international organization and many regional integration to solve world conflicts and transnational problems. This is showing that state is no more anarchic but cooperative, and that non-state actors, in particular multi-diplomacy appears to be important in the international system. For instance, in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, leaders of states were persuade to join with other nations to halt the destruction of natural resources and ensure the healthy planet for next generation (“TheWorldConferences,” 1997).

However, liberalism can explain those that realism cannot. By not ignoring the emphasis on power of Realism, Liberalism seems to be very optimistic as the morality, ideology, emotion, cooperation are improved over Realism as the factors that shape the behavior and preference of states. It also doesn’t dismiss the national interests that states processes, but the interest for Liberalist is achieved by working together with other states through concerts and multilateralism rather than competing. In addition, instead of zero-sum game principle, Liberalism stressed more on win-win situation and this can further implies that liberalists tent to go to war less than realists. Liberalists also found it more effective to tie together politically and socially through trade, economics, and other exchange through international law and cope with democratic peace. However, it doesn’t mean that liberalist doesn’t at all use force; force is used for self-defense and especially in case authorized by the UN as Woodrow Wilson send the American troops to Europe in efforts to make the world safe and as in case George W. Bush invade Iraq in part to foster democracy and peace (John, n.d.). These shows that UN has been a great place for cooperation among states, truly serving peace and security that is generally defined as the state’s national interest, and it appears that liberalism can better explain the UN system and today world’s politics.

  1. Conclusion


Jack, D. (2000). Realism and International Relations. England: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Aneek, C. (2010). International Relations Today: Concepts and Applications. India: Dorling Kindersley Pvt. Ltd

Bardo, F. (1998). UN Security Council Reform and the Right of Veto: A Constitutional Perspective. The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.

Holly, Y. (2013, August 30). Syria allies: Why Russia, Iran and China are standing by the regime. Retrieved from website:

Stephan, S. (2006). Gulf War II (1990/91) -Iraq between United Nations’ Diplomacy and United States’ Policy. Germany: GRIN Verlag.

Suzanne, X. Y. (2013). China in UN Security Council decision-making on Iraq. Publisher: Routledge.

Alexander, T. (2009). Channels of Power: The UN Security Council and U.S. Statecraft in Iraq. The United State: Cornell University Press.

John, T. (n.d.). International Politics on the World State (12th ed.). Boston: Mc Graw Hill.

John, J. (n.d.). Realism, the Real World, And the Academy. Retrieved from the website:

Karen, A. W., & Margaret, P. K. (n.d.). The United Nations in the Post-Cold War Era (2nd ed.). George, A. L., Dilemmas In World Politics. Colorado: Westview Press.

The World Conferences. (1997, May 23). Earth Summit: UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992) [Electronic Version]. Retrieved from: