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.

Between anarchy and minarchism: the redistributive state

While sometimes we think of ideologies in strict terms of left and right, more frequently we look at political schemes that incorporate a statism dimension. Big government is possible for both conservatives and progressives; so, maybe, is minarchy. If minarchy is possible, and achievable, it must attain popular support less it be thwarted by revolution or contrarian voting. From this, maybe it makes sense that a minarchism utilize fundamental values from each side, in order to be pragmatic and achieve democratic (and thereby stable) ends. Here there may even be room for an ultraminarchy.

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick defended a minimal state slightly more restrained than traditional classical liberalism. This minimal state arises through natural market forces from statelessness, and serves to enforce contracts and produce monopolistic law. Nozick, although countering his fellow academic Rawls, was also responding to the natural law anarchists, who criticized coercive states for violating human rights — which, in many interpretations, boil down to rights of property.

However, before arriving at the minimal, night-watchman state, Nozick articulates an ultraminimal state, i.e. a private protection agency that claims exclusionary right over the use of force for a given geographical area. It has its voluntary clients; the extension of coverage to others makes the agency a “state” as it introduces taxation.

In ASU the state is an entity formed from an invisible hand to produce heavily libertarian functions of government like protecting rights. Because of this, the minarchist state was a refuge for archist libertarians to claim as their own, relatively consistent with centuries of Western liberal thought. Accordingly, in response, the anarchists question the viability of a lasting minimal state — cue David Friedman in Machinery of Freedom:

“It took about 150 years, starting with a Bill of Rights that reserved to the states and the people all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government, to produce a Supreme Court willing to rule that growing corn to feed to your own hogs is instate commerce and can therefore be regulated by Congress.”

Government grows; modern government grows really, really fast. Minimalism hasn’t seemed to last. So the question is, what sorts of minimal governance could last?

The traditional ultraminimal and minimal state are concerned with, as stated, traditionally libertarian public functions such as police, the judiciary, and possibly roads and maybe even national defense. The problem with these utilities is that they feel wildly inadequate to the modern American used to entitlements, welfare, or a president. The privatization of nearly all federal departments is seen as wild enough for John Oliver to entertain millions of viewers, at the blight of Gary Johnson, and make hardcore libertarianism a losing electoral program. The contemporary world is too complicated, or our enemies are too powerful, or the market is too corrupt for the reinstitution of laissez-faire in the 21st century.

Nevertheless we want a smaller government, or no government, and losing to the tide isn’t a good death; we’d rather fight, and we’d rather win. A lasting minarchism satisfies the purposes of limited governance — liberty, protection, and preserving the benefits of the market — while sufficiently completing basic democratic demands, lest it erode into statism or collapse internally. (Keep in mind that anarchism, at least this week, is not a winning platform.)

Here’s what I think lies between anarchism and minarchism: the redistributive state. We can make a couple assumptions which are likely true: (1) every public service currently offered by the state could be provided (and, maybe, could be provided better) by the market and non-coercive communities instead, and (2) the entitlement theory of distributive justice offered by Nozick is correct, i.e. holdings are just if acquired by peaceful initial acquisition, voluntary exchange or gifting, or rectification of a previous unjust acquisition. Taking these assumptions, and leveraging the fact that the American populace will not currently settle for brutalist governance, the redistributive state (RS) seeks only to collect tax revenues and redistribute money progressively.

Instead of offering vouchers, EBT, or public options like housing, schools, security and roads, a RS would only tax its citizens and reallocate revenue based on some progressive variables like income, net worth or consumption. (These details are less important, for now.) The only administration is something like an IRS, Census Bureau and investigation unit suffused together, with over ninety percent of the current staff eliminated, with tax escapees adjudicated in private courts and sent to private prisons or some other form of punishment.

An RS violates rights based on a Lockean conception; it also does something which sounds pretty socialist to right-wing circles. For this reason, though minarchist, it may not be libertarian. However, the pragmatic element is also highly utilitarian, which may interest bleeding-hearts; and, being essentially one big welfare program, it may intrigue American leftists currently eyeing universal healthcare and socialized education. We would do well to keep in mind that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were not averse to basic income either — a redistributive state keeps a UBI and abandons the active functions of the state. I think it is obvious that, in a situation where we are already giving a person $X in the form of schools, transfer payments, utilities, roads, defense, firefighters, planning, retirement funds, mail service, etc. etc., instead we should just give that person $X to spend however they see fit. If anyone disagrees, they are probably too authoritarian to consider minarchism in any scenario.

The RS has many benefits over our contemporary goverment. In the first case, the reductionist perspective of right-wing anarchists — that the state is essentially a conquer-tax-and-redistribute machine — is validated, and a lot of the mysterious machinery and bootlicking, ivory-tower political philosophy is dissolved. (And mindless political science about the Rousseauian general will collapses.) And, for the Marxists, their critique of the state as a tool of the capitalist class expires, since the state now greatly serves labor more than capital. Some of the income of the upper classes is directly allocated to the lower classes. Also, the state ceases to be paternalistic — it no longer chooses what food is available through SNAP, or issues health and safety warnings; it just straight-up hands out the money without assuming value for consumers. It doesn’t determine what is taught in schools, or what color the roads are, or what country gets bombed on Tuesday.

Perhaps best of all the RS almost completely eliminates bureaucracy. With one small administrative branch which functions like a hyper-specialized agency, there is little room or need for massive proliferation. Likely, all seats will be elected positions along with some underlings, with the marginal tax brackets pre-established constitutionally. But, that can all be figured out later.

Now, there are some obvious flaws for an RS. First of all, the very wealthy have little incentive to stay in a redistributive state. Their money is seized without visible benefit for themselves, like roads or security. They have to buy those things on their own dime. The only solution to this I can think of is that, in a society with less state involvement, community ties will be closer — the rich will want to pay their “fair share.” This is the Hoppean trust in private charity, except that it’s now “forced private” charity. Also, taxes would be much, much lower than the current situation and hopefully tolerable. The taxes are also going directly to other citizens instead of politician’s wallets, oil tycoons and potassium chloride. Furthermore, they’re paying to live in — the government still has a coercive monopoly on land — the freest nation in the world. An RS is significantly freer than the other statist regimes, and less stressful. Government plays no role at all in everyday life.

One other flaw — maybe an inherent flaw of government brightly illuminated by a raw redistributive state — is what Murray Rothbard saw as an eternal tension between net tax-payers and net tax-consumers. To the extent that the RS administration is elected, and to the extent that politicians have platforms, a lot rests on whether or not taxes will be raised/redistribution will increase or not. The left will continually be concerned with income inequality, regardless of whether or not the poor can afford sustenance. The goalposts might keep climbing. Dialectically, the very wealthy will want to keep the maximum amount of their money, regardless of my arguments above. Raw societal tensions like these require a dynamic form of governance, with fluctuations in party dominance, but the RS is too minimalist to feature such parties or other contrivances. The only hope here, I guess, is that the tension will be less than in the current system. And very likely it will be. (Also, the market will correct much of the gratuitous wealth diparity.)

In conclusion, a redistributive state would be baldly organized around theft (in a libertarian interpretation) and using people as means rather than ends. To that extent it is hardly libertarian. It achieves Nozick’s end of minimal government but distorts the typical functions we correlate with small government. Still, it’s ultraminarchical, preserves innovation, balances right-wing virtues like liberty and industry and left-wing virtues like equality and positive freedom, and, for a radical populace not quite keen on revolution, politically viable. It serves welfarist functions demanded by 21st century citizens without the authoritarian, corporatist monster of the present. Also, no one starves. For all of this, even if a redistributive state is not perfection incarnate, it seems far better than the current system, and provides such a culturally-celibate political framework to possibly achieve acceptance in totally disparate societies from the United States. I don’t advocate a redistributive state quite yet, but I think it’s a useful, radical place to look for bipartisan solutions to a complicated and overwhelmingly statist world.

I’m pretty sure I’m the first one to suggest a state organized singularly around redistribution of citizen wealth, either because it’s too stupid or it’s too grossly unattractive, so I welcome all feedback. But, if voluntarist institutions are possible at all, this implies all the state is is a redistributor anyway. The idea of an RS just accepts this conclusion and makes it efficient. Keep in mind I haven’t elaborated on the many complications of UBI, which is an entire field to articulate more extensively. For now the only question is would it work.