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 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.

Nightcap

  1. And?
  2. Should he?
  3. Can globalization be reversed? (II) John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
  4. Buchanan and de Jasay David Gordon, Modern Age

Theories of International Relations: Realism

Someone (I don’t remember who) said that International Relations is the academic discipline of disagreement. Internationalists disagree on mostly everything, beginning by how to view their object of study. With that said, the discipline of International Relations has been historically dominated mostly by two theoretical schools, Realism and Liberalism. Some other minor schools, such as Constructivism and the English School also have significant influence. With that in mind, I believe it might be useful to post something here about the theory of International Relations.

Although the chronology is highly disputed, it can be defended that Realism is the first theory of International Relations, going back to Thucydides in Ancient Greece or to Machiavelli in late medieval/early modern Europe. In any case, Realism is arguably the most influential theory of International Relations, partially for its influence in actual statecraft (in opposition to academic thinking). Realists come in many shapes and colors, but I believe that most of them present some core characteristics:

The first thing that most (or in this case, all) Realists believe in is that the international system is anarchic. Actually, this is something that virtually any student of International Relations believes in, because… it is! When we say that the international system is anarchic, we are not saying that it is a mess or a state of permanent war. In international relations, the definition of anarchy is more simple: it means that there is no formal hierarchy of power between countries. Of course, countries have a clear hierarchy of power, with some being much more powerful than others. However, all countries are formally sovereign and independent. Countries recognize themselves as their ultimate authority. Each one of them.

A second thing that Realists believe is that countries (or in the more technical vocabulary, states) are the main actors of the international relations. Although we can speak of international corporations and international institutions, in the end, the actors that really matter are countries, especially great powers. That is so mainly because they have military capabilities. Coca-Cola may have lots of money, but not an army.

Finally, Realists believe that countries have a relationship of competition. They tend to see each other as potential enemies. Maybe not actual enemies, but certainly potential ones. Because of that, countries have to defend themselves against one another.

There are many more characteristics that we could add to this list, but I believe that these are the essential points of realist thinking in International Relations. Realists call themselves realists because they believe they see reality as it is, not in an idealized manner. I tend to agree. I believe that history proves that unfortunately, International Relations work in a realistic way. And this is something that, I believe, is key for at least many realists, and that is too often misunderstood: realists are not saying that international relations should be this way. They are saying that [sadly] they are this way. If you analyze international relations objectively, you will find out that countries (even the ones you like) and politicians (even the ones you believe are so nice) act in very selfish ways.

Realists are accused of leaving little or no room for change. But is this a fair assessment? I wish! But most other schools of International Relations fail to present plausible ways in which the international system could be improved, leading to more peace and prosperity for all.

Nightcap

  1. Why Hannah Arendt is the philosopher for now Lyndsey Stonebridge, New Statesman
  2. Does IR really have a “culture problem?” Peter Henne, Duck of Minerva
  3. The Kosovo War in retrospect Goldgeier & Grgic, War on the Rocks
  4. The final treasure from the Tolkien hoard? Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Review of Books

Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative

There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published in April 2018 by the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos, and Djibouti) where the level of debts are unsustainable.

Apart from the red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka has also resulted in problems with the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries is drawing more attention.

The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir, alluded to China’s trade relations with poorer countries as ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over $20 billion (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link, as well as two gas pipelines).

Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.

Italy to join BRI Continue reading

A short note on India’s air strikes in Pakistan

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, while issuing a statement with regard to India’s air strikes on a training camp of the dreaded terror group Jaish-E-Muhammad (JeM) in Pakistan on February 26, 2019, dubbed these as pre-emptive ‘non-military strikes’. The Foreign Secretary stated that the Indian Air Force hit the largest training camp of the JeM, which is in Balakot, Pakistan, and a large number of JeM terrorists were killed in the strike.

The rising tensions between both countries have understandably caught the world’s attention.

JeM had claimed responsibility for the dastardly terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14, 2019 in which over 40 CRPF soldiers were killed. While efforts have been made to designate JeM chief a ‘global terrorist’ at the UN, China has blocked such moves.

The Indian side also made it clear that these air strikes were neither targeted at civilians nor at the Pakistani military. This served two purposes; one it would prevent further escalation and second, it could give some space to Imran Khan’s civilian government.

The international community was quick to react to the attacks by the Indian Air Force (IAF), and asked both sides to de-escalate. The US, while asking Pakistan to take action against terror groups on their soil, also stated that both sides should de-escalate. In a statement issued on February 26, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also asked Foreign Ministers of both countries to resume direct communication and avoid any ‘further military activity’.

A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson also spoke in favour of India and Pakistan exercising ‘restraint’ and the need for peace and stability in South Asia. Even during Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Beijing, a day after the strikes, China, while condemning terrorism, emphasized on the need for reduction of tensions. It did not change.

Domestically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received full support from the opposition, including the Congress Party. The President of the Congress Party was quick to tweet and congratulated the Indian Air Force. Even other prominent political leaders supported the IAF.

The Indian PM did not miss the opportunity to mention the IAF’s action at a political rally. While speaking at a rally in the Indian state of Rajasthan, Modi paid homage to the para-military troops who died in the February 14 terrorist attack, and also made a reference to the action of the Indian Air Force:

…I want to assure you that the country is in safe hands.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also met with opposition leaders from different political parties on February 26, 2019. This was in stark contrast to the surgical strikes in 2016 on terror camps in Uri (located in PoK).

Some BJP spokespersons also made unnecessary uncalled for statements. (The BJP did issue instructions to its spokespersons to not issue any uncalled for statements).

Risks of escalation and Indian media

Sections of the Indian electronic media went overboard as usual, something which has been witnessed post 26/11.

While media channels may believe they are raising patriotic fervour, pushing the PTI government led by Imran Khan and the Pakistani army into a wall may not be a very smart move. As mentioned earlier, the usage of the word ‘non-military’ strike was meant to give space to the Pakistan government.

Post the attack, Imran Khan was criticised by the opposition and will be under pressure. His immediate reaction was that Pakistan would respond at a time and place of its choice and also asked the Pakistani nation to be prepared for all eventualities.

Post the Pulwama attack, a well-known Indian strategic analyst had made an important point:

The Pakistani army might be more likely to start a war if its image takes too hard a beating in the eyes of the Pakistani people, than if it suffers physical damage outside the limelight.

It is not just the electronic media, but the narrative on social media which further raises tempers.

Bobby Ghosh, a prominent journalist, made an interesting comment on Twitter:

People keep saying the India-Pakistan conflict is more dangerous now because both have nukes. But other new weapons greatly increase the risk: Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp… and hyper-nationalistic TV networks.

Conclusion

Not just the international community, but even sane minds in India and Pakistan realise the costs of conflict, and have been pitching for de-escalation. Apart from the role of the international community, a lot will also depend upon domestic narratives in both countries. While the Modi government received the support of the opposition post the Pulwama terror attack, it needs to focus now on not just taking all political players along but also ensuring that tensions do not rise further as things could go out of control. The media on its part needs to be more responsible, and as for the social media, a lot of it is driven by the views of the political leadership. The political leadership will thus need to change the direction of the narrative, so that tempers are calmed down.

Should the US intervene in Venezuela?

With the ongoing troubles in Venezuela some commentators ask for a humanitarian intervention, by the US. Intervention by other countries, for example Brasil, seem to be out of the question. And of course the US has long regarded Central and South America their backyard, going back to the Monroe doctrine. What would be a liberal perspective on this? Basically, there are three answers.

Most people who call themselves liberal in the US have a favourable attitude towards humanitarian intervention. Or used to have this over the past decades (until it went wrong -at least in their view- in Iraq and Afghanistan). Their motives differ, but they would probably argue that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of the suffering majority. This moral duty, however defined in detail, is seen to exist when grave abuse of human rights take place in failed state situations, people’s lives are under threat, when a danger of genocide exists. The intervention may take place unauthorized (without United Nations Security Council mandate), or authorized. Dangers of intervention are recognized by liberals, as for example the potential for abuse by the intervening state is ever present. Liberals are less concerned about the duty of the governments of intervening countries towards their own citizens.

Classical liberals start by pointing out there is never a moral duty to intervene, because, as Adam Smith wrote, for humans there is only the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends, country. This is not to say there is never a right to intervention in the classical liberal view. For sure, this right should be exercised in very rare circumstances, as international relations is more about preserving order than about achieving justice for all, and more about the importance of sovereignty for individual liberty than about obligations or rights following from a shared humanity. Yet prudent leaders do have some room for manoeuvre in international politics, according to classical liberals. However, intervention can only take place if they are able to explain to their voters and countrymen how the intervention would promote natural liberty. Foreign intervention is often counterproductive, and only an option when international disorder is seriously under threat. However, most often, the benefits of nonintervention outweigh the costs of attempting a universal protection of even a limited set of rights. Interventions start with the best intentions, but will often have unforeseen, negative consequences, which only in rare cases will be justified.

Libertarians normally have the most straightforward position: the anarcho-capitalists will not allow their private armies to conduct foreign adventures, while most minarchists (Rand excepted) are of the same opinion in case of (partly) publicly funded armies. So for them it is easy, no troops to Caracas.

How about the classical liberal and social liberal (as I continue to call them) position towards Venezuela? First of all: there is no question the situation is bad for large groups of Venezuelans. Maduro is a rotten and corrupt leader, standing on the shoulders of his socialist fairy tale teller predecessor – who was by the way democratically elected by those same Venezuelans, in very large numbers. Closing borders is the common instrument of autocratic leaders without any societal support. Inflation is high, the oil sector is in peril, basic medical services are beyond the reach of millions. There is a contending president, Guaidó, yet he appears to lack the support of the army and other crucial actors. The Catholic church refuses to take a position, for example.

Yet the costs of an intervention are high and the outcome uncertain. The military part might not be so easy, and will cost lives and lead to tremendous economic damage, both in Venezuela and the US. Guaidó, who now seems the reasonable alternative, is basically a young and unproven guy, without any track record. No certainty exists that he will lead the country in the good direction, even if he wants too. To reconstruct the country will almost certainly demand billions of dollars, which will not be easily recouped once the oil sector is on its feet again (remember that argument from the start of the intervention in Iraq?). It will take years before US troops on the ground can return home.

Needless to say this analysis is incomplete and lacks sufficient detail for any policy decision. Still, all in all, I would advise against intervention. Despite the bad situation, the proposed cure seems worse, not least from the perspective of the intervening country.