[The following was written when I was an undergrad student at Temple University, Japan Campus in Fall 2018.]




In this essay I set out to answer, ‘Over the past century, how has the tension between realism and idealism affected the United States’ international role?’[1] Answering this question is important now, more than ever because according to many recent articles published in journals like International Organization and Foreign Affairs, Chinas’ power is growing and there is growing interest in an alternative to the Eurocentric international order (Callahan 749; Allan 839; Goddard 763; Allison 80). In answering this question, we will analyze the two biggest changes to the international order of the last century. First, we will analyze the failed US international policy in the early-1900’s, examine why it failed, and look at the lessons learned. Then, we will briefly analyze the next major shift in US international policy that happened in the mid-1900s and is currently the foundation of our international order. With the analysis of both events as evidence, I will argue three things. Firstly, US foreign policy needs to be balanced between realism and liberalism. Secondly, anarchy will always be in the international system and no policy, even liberal policies, will change that. Thirdly, there is a serious problem emerging in the international order because Americas’ dominance is facing inevitable self-inflicted demise from its intensity liberal foreign policy. These three arguments will support my conclusion that the US needs to rebalance towards realism.


The introduction of liberalism into the anarchic international order was revolutionary and eventually led the United States to world domination, but it also made realism largely unattractive. Realism has ancient origins going all the way back to 400BC and has prominently endured since the 20th century. This ideology champions the states’ own interests above any other state based on national security. Realists do what they must to protect themselves, even at the expense of war. They recognize the anarchic state of the international system or the presence of no higher power to enforce order and justice. However, profound changes to the statuesque occurred during the early 1900s with the implementation of liberalism in the world order. This ideology formed international institutions that fostered openness, cooperation, and rule-based order. In realism, states are independently working to be the most powerful; however, when liberalism is added (or when realism is replaced by liberalism) then states become more powerful concurrently which allows the weak to rise up. The former says, only one can win, and the latter says, we can all win. For this reason, in our current highly liberal international order, too much liberalism for too long will inevitably cause the United States to lose relative dominance over the world. This is a serious problem because the international order is hypocritically founded on unipolarity, where one state, the hegemon, dominates the rest. The inevitable self-inflicted demise of the United States threatens the foundation of the international order. As such, it is crucial for the rebalancing of the realist order that has been weakened by the intensifying concentration of liberalism.

Wilsons’ Attempt to Replace Realism

The former US president, Woodrow Wilson, believed that realism historically caused wars. With this thought in mind, he traveled to France to attend the post-war peace conference. At the conference, Wilson was in a unique position to substantial influence what would later be called the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. He convinced other world leaders to idealistically believe they were on the cusp of ending future wars. He told them the problem with the proceeding four centuries of international order was that it was based on a realist theory called the balance of power theory which is when states have no permeant friends or enemies, only permeant interest. Moreover, this means, a war against the more powerful or alliances is necessary to level the playing field. Denouncing this theory, the US president said, the Great War has discredited the old and evil balance of power theory, it’s “a thing we can do without in the future” (Nye 117). Wilson thought the unnecessary balance of power theory, from the realists’ school of thought, made war inevitable.

Wilsons’ resolve continued a year later with the replacement of realism with liberalism. He believed that the international order could mirror the domestic order of higher power (i.e. the accountability of citizens to the domestic government as the accountability of countries to international order). With his resolution in mind, he founded the first international institution that guaranteed peace, called the League of Nations. The goal of the League was to provide collective security or in other words international law. One law even outlawed state aggression or being offensive in war (Menand). Wilson wanted the League to be a platform where states must discuss international policies openly. One potential caveat from a truly liberal institution is that all members needed to agree on the policy for its implementation (because even bilateral international policies affect third-party states). Wilson made it clear that an attack on one member or disobeying international laws enacted by the League was considered an attack on the whole league. Wilson thought his founding of international institutions would eliminate anarchy as domestic governments do but, in reality, this didn’t happen.

Wilsons’ founding of the first international institution which was supposed to guarantee peace failed because it downright replaced a necessary ingredient, realism. His failure is noted in post-war reconstruction leading to a string of failures in the 1930s that unsuccessfully prevented aggression and then eventually lead to the atomic bomb and one of the most destructive wars in human history (Schild 26). Scholars claim that the failure was not due to the idealist idea being the end goal, but Wilson just lacked the means of realism to get him there (Riegg 4). In this sense, liberalism is like salt and just the right amount is needed, or it ruins the dish but do without salt entirely and the dish could be better. The time preceding post-Great War reconstruction has made evident that there must be international policies better than pure realism. The time after post-war reconstruction has made evident that international policies of pure liberalism just doesn’t work. With these two lessons in mind, it is good that the US has since realized that a combination of liberalism and realism is best. Former Secretary of State, Ms. Rice said, the US has married ‘power and principle— realism and idealism’ (Riegg 4). The failure of Wilsons’ liberalism shows that a combination of liberalism and realism in US foreign policy is the best policy, as soon recognized by a proceeding president.

An International order Achieved through the Means of Realism: The Origin of the Current International Order

The Second World War brought forth lessons recognized by former US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. This time, leaders in the post-war reconstruction era had more information to create a better international order and nobody wanted to repeat the failure of the League. So, the stakes were high, and he had two options, he could build-on or reform the international order that Wilson started or totally abandon the idea of international institutions. Roosevelt, preferring the latter, recognized that anarchy could, at the very least, be mitigated with collective security. Both Woodrow and Roosevelt thought collective security was the ultimate guarantee of national security (Schild 27). They also saw the benefits of being the leader in an international organization and the positive impact it would have on the US’ international role. So, with FDR’s determination to practically implement liberalism in the international order he called world leaders to San Francisco for the founding conference of the United Nations. The conference in Versailles would be different than San Francisco’s because Roosevelt had a few things different things in mind.

Firstly, Roosevelt believed if liberalism is to work then the international order needed policemen, a realist idea. The problem with Wilsons’ League of Nations was that the 50 members, whether being a small or big state, constitutionally had the same power. To Roosevelt, the League ‘did not go far enough in mandating the behavior of the small states,’ nor did it go far enough in ‘forging the alliance among The Big Four’ which were England, Soviet Union, China and the US (Schild 33). Roosevelt thought that an organization, especially an international organization in the midst of anarchy, could not function without a hierarchy; there needed to be states that had more power. Hence, FDR creates the Security Council, the most powerful body within the United Nations (Paul). This allowed for the five more powerful states to have the most weight in decisions made in the UN.

Secondly, FDR pointed out that military power is needed to back-up liberalism. In 1942, he said in an interview that security ‘rest with the powers who have the military force to uphold it’ (Schild 29) FDR is pointing out that the Big Four are in outstanding positions because of their relative power over all other states. As such, an international organization based on collective security should naturally put the states that have the power to uphold security at the top of the hierarchy because, in the real world, smaller states are dependent on them (i.e. in a realists’ point of view international organizations should mirror the natural hierarchy already manifested in the real-world dynamics).

These two differences particularly set the League of Nations apart from its successor the United Nations. This time the US president recognized the anarchy of the international order, that is, he accepted the fact that states act self-interestedly; the UN not only recognized but accommodated the fact that states act in their own interest. Wilson had the right idea and got the ball rolling and Roosevelt was able to build-on on it.

But Now there Is Too Much Liberalism

Since Roosevelt, however, liberalism has grown stronger and stronger and realism is being displaced. Now more than ever, this calls for the rebalancing of the realist order that has been weakened by the intensifying concentration of liberalism. A realist foreign policy will realign America towards continued world denomination. For the past three decades, America has been the most powerful country, but China is now reviling America in ‘every arena’ (Allison 1,5). China has had an advantage over all other countries, especially the US because they embrace realism and are inclined to do just about anything to get ahead without justifying their behavior in international law or ethics (Allison 5). Despite Chinas’ engagement in the international order and their dependence on it, nonetheless, they still act in the name of realism. If America is to stay ahead of China, then they cannot let them continue having this advantage. Because the fact is, “the United States is no longer the hegemon…; instead, it is living in a more multipolar one, with greater competition” (Schweller 2). Not to mention, America’s denomination is good for developed and developing countries. America’s re-strengthening dominance with realism would indirectly be in other state’s interest. It is through Americas’ power and prowess and balance of hard and soft power that the international order is stable; if the US no longer is the most powerful then the foundation of the international order is threatened.


The best way for America to move forward is to not treat anyone form of international order as the ‘gold standard’ rather, we should continually reform our foreign policies. Wilson had the right idea to courageously dispose of the old and reinvent the international order. Then post-WWII reconstructionists had the right idea to reforming what Wilson already started. Wilson did not implement the perfect international order, far from it, but he got the ball rolling towards further change (keep in mind that the international order prior to Wilson was idle on the balance of power theory starting from post-thirty-year war). Getting the ball rolling, itself is a groundbreaking feat. It is time for realism to re-grasp parts of what liberalism has displaced over the decades. Current liberal institutions are great and should be maintained but the US needs to be mindful of other growing powers and rebalance towards realism so that the US can maintain power and enforce international order.



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  1. I will be placing a greater importance on liberalism instead of idealism in this paper, sometimes the terms are interchangeable in this essay.