The case for Constructivism in IR

Part one: The fourth debate and the origins of Constructivism

Recently there has been a surge in blogpost dealing with International Relation (IR) theory on this blog. Dr. Rosi stated that he thinks the paradigm of Realism best explains world politics. On the other side, Dr. van de Haar has proven to be an expert in the liberal tradition of IR, putting forward nuanced explanations of different subcategories of liberalism and even making a distinction between liberal and libertarian IR theory (As an IR undergrad I can say, this is not a very common thing to do). Although it seems like kind of a mismatch in the first place, that an undergrad tries to argue against two scholars who have spend a significant time of their life doing research in this particular subject, I at least want to try making a convincing case for Constructivism in world politics. However, I do not want to boil down such a diverse and heterogeneous tradition of thought into a few hundred words, which why I try to do this as a series. After describing the historical circumstances of its emergence, I’d like to summarize the key point of constructivist philosophy and then conclude how this school of thought has developed since.

Constructivism – The origins

While the origins of Liberalism and Realism can be traced back to the beginnings of the 20th century, Constructivism is a quite new school of thought emerging after the end of the cold war in 1990. Looking back, this was one of the most interesting and turbulent times for IR scholars. The peaceful collapse of the soviet union left structural realists and neorealist puzzled: How could the security dilemma be solved peacefully? The end of the cold war caused the theoretical hegemony of neorealism to wane. Contrary, Liberalism as IR theory regained interest culminating in the liberal manifesto of Francis Fukuyama, who proclaimed a bloomy future for liberal democracy by conflating Hegel’s historical dialectics with democratic peace theory.

Simultaneously, the inter-paradigm debate (or arguably the 3rd big debate in IR) had gained momentum and showed that IR scholars saw a significant barrier in the neorealist – neoliberal distinction inhibiting actual research progress. Instead, it became clear, that scholars looked for a via media approach which would focus on predictions and results instead of a sharp theoretical distinction, leading to the so-called Neo-Neosynthesis. Keeping the end of the third big debate of International Relations in mind, it becomes more clear how the fourth big debate unfolded.

Since the 1980’s scholars began to question the positive research agenda as well as their limited methods to explain world politics. Yosef Lapid, Friedrich Krachtowil and Richard K. Ashely published excellent works which directly attacked the determinism of traditional IR Theory. During the next ten years, the criticism got harsher and harsher. Scholars feared a fallback into another sharp distinction of radical constructivist and traditional IR schools – the issue that once sparked the inter-paradigm debate.

In 1992 Alexander Wendt published his well-known paper “Anarchy Is What The States Make Of It”, which eventually became a (or maybe: the first?) catch-phrase in IR. If I would have to choose one essay in order to understand IR after 1990, It certainly would be this one. With this essay, Wendt effectively tries to build a bridge between the newly emerging tradition (radical constructivism) and the traditional schools of thought (namely: liberal institutionalist).

In Order to differentiate Constructivism from other IR schools of thought, it is useful to recall how they conceptualize anarchy. Although we firstly might associate anarchy with total chaos, it basically just describes the absence of a centralized authority, which basically all main schools agree on as state of the art in world politics. However, the conceptualization of anarchy is the key to the distinction of these schools of thought.

Power and the construction of anarchy

Contrary to the deterministic construction of anarchy in Realism, Liberalism and Marxism, Constructivism introduced anarchy as a dynamic variable in the international system. As stated in the title, “Anarchy is what the states make of it” refutes anarchy as an axiom from which we can derive theories. Instead, Alexander Wendt pronounces the vital moment of the “first contact” between states from which in a process of ego-alter construction an anarchic international system is constituted. The key is that the intersubjective perception of the “other” determines whether we are friendly, hostile or neutral towards another state. Hence, anarchy operates not every time in the same way. Wendt instead distinguishes at least three kinds of anarchy:

  • Hobbesian anarchy – States perceive each other as predator, no international cooperation
  • Lockesian anarchy – States perceive each other as neutral, constant adjustment of the balance of power operates as a regulatory principle
  • Kantian anarchy – States perceive each other as beneficial allies, international cooperation becomes possible and international organizations emerge.

In the real world, we can observe (at least in Europe) how the international system went through all of these stages: The pre-1648 Europe basically was a Hobbesian playground until the peace of Westphalia manifested a respected international system of sovereign nation-states from which we got into Lockesian anarchy. In the early 20th century the globalization began to gain momentum and suddenly international organizations and institutions began to flourish, hence heralding Kantian anarchy. this development, of course, does not prevent states from states self-interested behaviour, but it puts effective constraints on such acts by complex interdependent relation. Although I do not share the optimism (?!) of scholars to whom this development indicates a future transcendence into a Kantian-like world state, it is nonetheless remarkable how humankind has “tamed” (or at least constrained) anarchy in the international system.

This development goes hand in hand with the conceptualization of power. In the eyes of realists, power is determined by brute factors revolving mostly around military force. It was not until Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane introduced the complex interdependence theory that soft factors such as culture, ideology and identity of states were considered to be influential to international politics. The wide concept of power was subject to constant changes due to a process of “complex learning”. State identities are not stable but rather fluently dependent on institutional changes. Thus, states are able to learn and adapt to their political environment. Early constructivist (or moderate constructivist)  thought sought to build a bridge between liberals, who were convinced that state identities were not stable but could change due to institutional changes, and early radical constructivist thoughts, who clearly despised the positivist research agenda of traditional IR schools.

When we analyze power in the real world today, it becomes clear that a narrow focus on military force fails to capture real power politics. What is more dangerous for the US, 50 nuclear missiles in North Korea or 50 nuclear missiles in Canada? What is perceived to undermine western values in a more significant way: 50 Buddhist preachers or 50 imams? Power cannot only be measured in quantitative ways but one rather has to take soft factors into consideration and put the brute facts into a cultural context.

To conclude my first takes:
Traditional schools of thought in IR fail to recognize anarchy and power as heterogeneous and dynamic variables. Constructivism points out this blind spot and seeks to connect new concepts with a post-positivist ontology, epistemology and methodology.

In the next part of the series, I want to differentiate moderate Constructivism from Radical Constructivism, Postmodernism and Poststructuralism and demonstrate what new fields of research have opened up in the course of a constructivist approach.

5 thoughts on “The case for Constructivism in IR

  1. Something wrong with sentence: “Traditional schools of thought in IR fail to recognize anarchy and as heterogeneous and dynamic variables.” Missing word? bad translation? Petr Beckmann taught us how to detect totalitarian syntax and vocabulary. Hegemony, from Greek, is preferred in Chinese communist rhetoric over “predominance.” But Hegel?! man of particular and universal altruism as a source in a 21st-Century discussion of political thought? Is that the best you can do?

    • Indeed, a missing word! I remember restructuring this sentence a few times and forgot to add “power”, thanks for pointing that out.
      And I do not really understand what your remarks on Hegel imply. Do you not consider Hegel to be a crucial figure especially in the 21st-century discussion of political thought?

  2. Speaking as someone who is on the opposite political end of the spectrum of what I take to be the general tenor of this blog, I think you’ve done a good job on this. I’ve tried very hard to explain constructivism to my students in my IPE class so I think its good when a student can explain this to me. But whatever one’s ideological perspective is or isn’t , i confess to still not quite getting the whole point of Constructivism. I don’t see what problems or issues that Constructivism raises aren’t already addressed by people like Susan Strange or many others, regardless of ideology.

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