Realism and Liberalism on the United States Decision to Attack Iraq



The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and its allies is surrounded by a lot of controversies. The events that preceded the war at the United Nations, positioned the US as a country that would go to any lengths to protect its self-interests, including disobeying international law as set by the UN. The UN was of the view that Iraq had complied with the Resolution 1441 as established by the UN Security Council. Despite no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the US was having none of it. The US Congress went ahead and enacted the Iraqi resolution in October 2002, authorizing military force against Iraq. This enactment presented a conflict between the US law and the international law. To rectify this scenario, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the UN on February 5, 2003, to prove that war with Iraq was urgently necessary. The US did not succeed in changing the UN resolution on the issue. They, therefore, proceeded with the war declared as illegal by the UN Security Council, together with a few allies such as the UK. The big question raised, therefore is, why did the US choose the address the UN, knowing very well that the UN would never back a preemption plan against Iraq? This paper answers this question using the theories of Realism and Liberalism to explain this behavior of the US.



Realism and Liberalism are theories that attempt to explain international relations. Different nations tend to lean towards one of the theories in the actions that they undertake. However, at times, the theories share similarities hence are both applied. Liberalism is viewed as the ethical alternative to realism which is considered amoral (Gismondi 4). However, in their defense, realists argue that the ends of realist policies are indeed moral. Even with this argument, the realists have been found to be pessimists whose most significant concerns are their self-interests.


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The Case of the United States

The United Nations is charged with the mandate to maintain international order. Its membership stands at 193 nations. The different countries possess different schools of thought as demonstrated in 2003. The resolution on Iraq was viewed as a conflict between nations which identified themselves as liberals and those who were realists. The United States was at the center of all this issue. The decision of the US to address the UN on an issue that had been widely agreed upon demonstrates the stand of the US. The US believed it was entirely right in its action. In fact, Powell himself, later on, stated that he regretted his speech on that day at the UN, citing that the government believed that they were correct in their policy towards Iraq. Considering the Realism theory, the US was in fact justified in their actions and move towards the UN. The US unlike most of the UN members was not so much concerned about the morality of the issue, but instead, they were focused on the positive outcomes at the end of the Iraq war. It would, however, be wrong to argue that the move was purely a realist one as the two theories do in fact interrelate. Also arguing from a realist point of view, the US primary motive was to preserve and even expand an American influence to a region which was of great significance to American national interests (Deudney, Daniel, and John, 8). With such a high conviction, the US found the courage even to stand alone. One of the schools of thought in realism is the balance of power realism, which maintains that for an order to be there in the world, it is necessary that there be a balanced configuration of power. Other schools of thought such as the hegemonic realism tend to believe that concentration of power is essential for an order to thrive (Deudney et al., 10). The US actions to defy the UN can be viewed as a move to demonstrate its position as a superpower. In such a case, then the US can be classified as realists who belonged to the hegemonic school of thought. The politicians believed that for there to be order in the world, it was necessary to establish themselves as a more powerful nation.

As stated earlier, when Powell stood to address the UN, he knew very well that changing the minds of the liberalist nations from a realism point of view was next to impossible. The fact that he was able to convince several nations to side with the US, and even managed to harden the tone of UN towards Iraq, required him to appeal to them using a Liberal tone. The punchline was one word – terrorists. The US knew that the Liberals could not stand aside where terrorism was involved. Their moral stand could not allow them. Colin Powell went to great lengths to explain how Saddam Hussein’s administration supported terrorist networks such as the Al-Qaeda. However, only a few countries allied with the US as the speech was not completely convincing. The US move to the UN was thus a tactical one. It brings a controversy on whether the move was inspired by realists or liberalists to many who ponder over the issue. This insight into the matter, however, shows that the US address to the UN on that day was pure realism under cover of liberalism, with the aim of getting the UN Security Council to change its stance on the Iraq war issue. The proof is in the outcome of the war as no weapon of mass destruction was found in Iraq. Also, as with all realists, the US managed to reaffirm its position as a superpower as well as protect its interests in the Middle East. On the other hand, Iraq was destroyed, and the war also gave rise to more terrorist organizations. Many scholars have viewed the war as a catalyst for the 9/11 bomb attack.


The US move to address to UN on the Iraq war issue, despite the strong UN stand shows characteristics of realism. However, most of the UN members were liberals who believed that there was a peaceful resolution for Iraq. For this reason, the US, through its Secretary of State Colin Powell, had to address the UN in a liberal tone, in a tactical measure meant to change the liberals’ decisions.


Works Cited

Deudney, Daniel, and G. John Ikenberry. “Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War.” Survival 59.4 (2017): 7-26.

Gismondi, Mark D. “Ethics, Liberalism and Realism in International Relations.” (2010).


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