Terrorism Liberalism Realism

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            Since September 11, 2001, terrorism has captured the attention of Americans to such an extent that it is the main force driving our nation’s foreign policy.  The Bush doctrine, which seeks to justify pre-emptive strikes against threats to American security, cites the incredibly devastating impact a single terrorist attack can have upon our country’s safety and the welfare of its citizens.  Terrorism, however, is not as cut and dried as some would suggest.  Rather than being simply a clash of good vs. evil (with “terrorists” being unequivocally evil and its victims being unequivocally innocent), terrorism is fundamentally a political problem.  Simplified accounts of terrorism that suggest terrorists simply “hate freedom” fail to capture the fundamental political aspect of targeting innocents.  In this essay, I will explore the nature of terrorism, define the problem, and then evaluate how the differing international relations theories of realism and liberalism perceive the best way to address this phenomenon.

            Terrorism is extremely difficult to define.  This is partly due to the fact that the term terrorist is a term laced with normative connotation; terrorists are generally perceived as those who willingly incite terror in innocent populations to achieve certain ends, but that definition includes a certain demonization of the subject.  This becomes problematic, because one person’s terrorist may be another’s freedom fighter.  To the Vichy regime in France during World War II, the French resistance was a terrorist force, though it is currently regarded as a legitimate band of freedom fighters waging war against an oppressive occupier. While the subjectivity of terrorism makes it difficult to pin down, one common definition coined by Caleb Carr is frequently cited in the terrorism literature: “warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable” (Carr, 2002).  However, beyond this, terrorism is often carried out by non-state actors against a much more powerful adversary.  Al-Qaeda, for example, is not a branch of any government, and it would not stand a chance attacking America in conventional warfare—thus, it resorts to terrorism as a violent way of promoting its political platform.  Terrorism is thus not simply a series of random attacks against civilian populations for the sake of killing.  Rather, terrorism is an avowedly political project that derives its tactics from power asymmetries between actors in international or domestic affairs that prompts vicious, brutal, and nontraditional targeting and tactics.

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            Just as defining terrorism is difficult, it is also difficult to craft a single interpretation of terrorism, and it is not easy to craft a single response to terrorism.  International theorists perceive and react to terrorism depending upon their ideology.  Among theorists, the two most popular theories are realism and liberalism.  Though there are large divergences between both camps, neither ideology is well equipped to appropriately assess and respond to terrorism.

            Realism was the dominant international relations theory from the inception of the discipline, especially during the Cold War era.  For realists, states are the most important unit in the international system and the primary commodity that each state endeavors for is raw power (defined as the ability to coerce other states and achieve desirable outcomes).  For prominent realist thinkers like Mearsheimer, power is a zero-sum game; when one state gains power, it draws that power from other states who find themselves in a weaker position than they previously occupied (Mearsheimer, 2005).  As a result, states are constantly engaged in a competitive and combative system—even when states work together or collaboratively, one state still inevitably gains power relative to the other, which loses.  Realism thus views power as the central component of an international arena composed of state actors.

            This viewpoint informs realist interpretations of terrorism strongly.  For realists, terrorists are only as powerful as their state sponsors and they are simply another tool used by states to attempt to sap power from their more powerful adversaries.  Clearly, terrorism is invoked by actors that would have no chance at leveraging their minimal power in conventional ways, such as state-to-state warfare.  As a result, weak states may sponsor terrorist movements as a tactic to lay the blame on non-state actors (terrorist groups) while avoiding the blowback of an attack.  As prominent Israeli politician Benjamin Netanyehu claims, “International terrorism is the use of terrorist violence against a given nation by another state, which uses the terrorists to fight a proxy war as an alternative to conventional war” (Netanyahu, 2001).  Thus, because realism sees the state as the only real actor in the international arena, terrorism is necessarily classified as an outgrowth of rogue states who seeks to weaken another state by asserting and expanding their own power.

            This interpretation of terrorism as a state-linked force necessitates a state-based response.  For realists, rooting out terrorism requires rooting out state support.  In other words, to destroy terrorism, powerful states must target the rogue states that support and shelter terrorists.  If state support did not exist, realists argue, terrorists would be marginalized and ineffectual.  This was the rationale the Bush administration used in the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11th.  Because the Taliban sheltered Al-Qaeda, the reigning Afghan regime was responsible for the attacks and needed to be eliminated, according to the Bush administration.  Thus, for realists, terrorism fits into their conception of international relations: terrorists are simply extensions of the state vying for power in the competitive international arena.

            Liberalism differs considerably from realism.  Liberal theorists see the international stage as a fundamentally collaborative space, one in which states are most successful when they cooperate with each other.  For liberals, power is not a zero-sum game; instead, cooperation in areas such as trade can bring mutual gains that are absolute rather than relative.  Thus, while realists are criticized at being overly cynical and pessimistic about international relations, liberals are often criticized for being overly naïve and optimistic.  Moreover, unlike realists, liberals acknowledge that non-state actors exist on the international stage and that they must be taken into consideration.

            Thus, for liberal theorists, terrorism is distinct from the state system.  While terrorist groups may receive support from states, terrorist groups can still successfully wreak havoc without a state sponsor and thus must be treated separately.  Yet at the same time, liberals have difficulty folding terrorism as a concept into their political ideology; after all, terrorists are not at all oriented toward cooperation and shared prosperity between states.  Even more difficult is applying the liberal ideals to dealing with terrorism.  Liberal ideology emphasizes international institutions in dealing with international crime, yet using international criminal institutions to stem and deter terrorism seems laughable.  Additionally, because peace is central to liberalism, liberal theorists are somewhat tied when it comes to advocating military action against terrorists.  Therefore, liberalism differs from realism in its interpretation of terrorism because it recognizes it as a feature of non-state rather than state actors, though liberalism has trouble identifying the motives of terrorists because they do not fit with its model of cooperation and shared prosperity.

            In the end, however, neither ideology is equipped to interpret or deal with terrorism.  Treating terrorists as pure extensions of the state (as realists may do) misses the point.  Likewise, assuming that economics or institutional law may be effective in combating terrorism (as liberals may do) is equally absurd.  A hybrid of the two ideologies is thus necessary to defeat terrorism.  Violence alone will not address what is fundamentally a political problem.  Instead, an effective response must incorporate tenets from realism and liberalism: the use of force against terrorists and their state sponsors and cooperation with states over the long-term to secure shared prosperity in pursuit of eradicating the factors that create breeding grounds for terrorists.

Works Cited:

Carr, C. (2002). The Lessons of Terror. New York: Random House.

Fiala, A. (2002). Terrorism and the Philosophy of History: Liberalism, Realism, and the Supreme

Emergency Exemption. Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 3, April 2002. Available on the World Wide Web: http://www.humboldt.edu/~essays/fiala.html.

Netanyahu, B. (2001). Fighting Terrorism. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

O’Brien, C. (1996). Liberalism and Terror. National Review, 4/22/96, Vol. 48 Issue 7, p29. Retrieved from

Ebscohost database on the World Wide Web: http://ebscohost.com.

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Terrorism Liberalism Realism. (2017, Feb 02). Retrieved from


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