Theoretical Approaches to International Relations: Realism, Liberalism & Marxism

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  • 0:04 International…
  • 1:14 Realism
  • 2:57 Liberalism
  • 4:49 Marxism
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will look at the major approaches toward international relations, namely realism, liberalism, and Marxism. We will learn the differences between these approaches and how they each impact foreign policy.

International Relations Overview

In this lesson, we will be looking at some of the theoretical approaches involved in international relations. International relations, of course, is the study of how nation-states interact with one another within an international system. As you can imagine, there is a lot of room here for differences of opinion. For example, our current President, Barack Obama, holds different ideas about international relations than did his predecessor, President George W. Bush. And of course, someone like British King George III, who ruled over the American Colonies in the 18th century, would have held vastly different views than either of these two American Presidents. And then there's Karl Marx. Oh, boy! Yeah, we'll talk about him later. So we see there is a whole spectrum of views about international relations. In this lesson, we are going to explore the three major approaches. They are called realism, liberalism, and Marxism.


Realism, in regard to international relations, is the approach that emphasizes the self-interest of the state within a competitive system. Don't worry, I'm going to break this down. The realism approach regards the international community as more or less competitive, meaning each state acts in its own best interest at the expense of others. This sounds reasonable, right? The United States does what is right for the United States; Canada does what is right for Canada; Great Britain does what is right for Great Britain, and so on and so forth. The states themselves are the main actors, and there is no authority above the states to regulate their behavior. The international system is considered to be anarchic, which in this sense basically means competitive. The realism approach recognizes that state-on-state antagonism is natural and that the desire to accumulate resources is natural. Basically, in a nutshell, a foreign policy realist would tell you each state is looking out for number one.

Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli were leading pioneers of realist theory. While there is considerable debate over this, many historians regard the Founding Fathers' foreign policy as rooted in realism. Many historians argue realism was the predominant American approach until World War I. George F. Kennan, a Cold War Era U.S. ambassador and leading political theorist, is widely considered a realist.

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