The Case for Constructivism in IR Pt. 2

After a not so short break I took from blogging in which I submitted my Bachelor Thesis and took some much-needed vacations, I finally got my hands back on writing again. Before opening up something new, I first need to finish my Case for Constructivism in IR.

In my first post, I described how constructivism emerged as a school of thought and how the key concept of anarchy is portrayed. In this part, I want to discuss power and the differences between moderate constructivism, radical constructivism and poststructuralism.

The social construction of… everything? Where to draw the line.

The connection between moderate constructivism and radical constructivism is more of a flowing transition than a sharp distinction. Scholars have further developed the idea of social constructivism and expanded it beyond the realms of the international system. Not only the international system but also states, tribes and nations are socially constructed entities. Thus taking “states” as given entities (as moderate constructivist do) in the international system neglects how national identities are constructed. Why do nations act so differently although they are subjugated to the same international system? The implications of these findings have been the subject of many influential works, notably Francis Fukuyama’s latest book “Identity” or Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization”.

The most important component which radical constructivist brought into consideration was language. The linguistic turn induced by Ludwig Wittgenstein disrupted not only philosophy but all social sciences. For decades language has been portrayed as a neutral mean to communicate between the human species which evolved from spontaneous order. Wittgenstein dismantled this image and explained why we so often suffer from linguistic confusion. Friedrich Krachtowil further applied Wittgenstein’s findings to social sciences by dividing information into three categories: Observational (“brute”), mental and institutional facts. All these three dimensions need to be taken into account in order to understand a message. The institutional setting of spoken words directly builds a bridge between speaking and acting (speech act theory). If I say, let’s nuke North Korea, I might get a weird look on the streets, but nothing significant will happen. On the other hand, if the president of the USA says the same, the institutional setting has changed, and we might have a problem with the real-world implications of this statement. The social construction of the institutional setting is highlighted by paying special interest to language as a mean of human interaction. However, how far one can go with analyzing the results of a socially constructed language without losing the bigger picture out of sight remains a difficult task.

While the radical constructivists first established a connection between language and physical action, the poststructuralists sought to discover the immanent power structures within social constructs. Michel Foucault (one of the most prolific sociologists of the 20th century with some neoliberal influence) brought the discourse and moreover discursive action into perspective, whilst Derrida or Deleuze focused more on the deconstruction of written texts. Contrary to many poststructuralists, moderate constructivists avoid being constantly fooled by Maslow’s Hammer: While it is irrefutable that power relations play a vital role in analyzing social structures, an exceedingly rigid focus on them conceals other driving forces such as peaceful, non-hierarchical cooperation for example.

Why Constructivism at all?

Moderate Constructivism puts special emphasis on the institutional setting in which certain behaviour is incentivized. This setting, however, is subject to permanent changes and perceived differently by every subjective actor in the international system. Thus, the driving problem of IR remains a coordination problem: Instead of simple state interest directed to maximize their share of the Balance of Power (as Hans Morgenthau, the father of modern IR theory, proclaimed), we must now coordinate different institutional settings in the international system resulting in a different understanding of key power resources. None of the traditional IR schools of thought hypothesizes that ontology may be subjective. Moderate constructivism manages to integrate a post-positivist research agenda without getting lost in the details of language games (like radical constructivist) or power analytics (like poststructuralists).

Hong Kong protests: justified but futile in the end

The world is closely watching the developments in Hong Kong. Brave youngsters are testing the limits and patience of the Hong Kong authorities, first protesting against the extradition law, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be sent to China in case of serious allegations, and now with much broader demands for several kinds of liberties. Anybody with who cares for personal and political freedom can only watch in great sympathy, knowing that this is a modern day version of a number of small Davids against the towering power of the Chinese autocratic Goliath, with the Hong Kong authorities as its stumbling middle man.

I happened to be in Hong Kong for a few days, just for touristic purposes, in the first half of the past week. Arriving from mainland China on Monday, we encountered the protests a number of times. The protests caused major traffic jams, making it impossible to leave the train station in the regular way. Yet a small detour on the metro sufficed to reach our hotel. Later that night, we tried to reach one of the night markets, which turned out to be impossible: not only had the traders already packed their stuff, because a prominent protest location was just around the corner, students had also blocked the road and made sure our taxi returned nicely to where it came from.

protest 3

In the hotel we could watch live footage from confrontations between the police and the protesters, with the latter throwing stones and rocks against a police station just a few hundred meters from our hotel in Kowloon City. At times, it seemed there were as many journalists as there were protesters, which is of course an encouraging sign from the perspective of press freedom. The next day we went to Hong Kong University, but only the Student Union was in full protest mode, there were no visible signs of other unrest at the campus.

There were lots of protests at night though, as the coverage in the main Hong Kong quality paper South China Morning Post made clear.

One of the main questions this week was whether the Chinese army or police force would interfere. The local Chinese army commander hinted at it, while about 12,000 policemen gathered in nearby Shenzhen, just across the border in the mainland. The Hong Kong authorities, notably executive leader Carrie Lam and several police commanders, emphasized they were perfectly capable of handling this situation themselves. Given the developments in the past months one can question this, but the hesitation of Beijing to interfere is comprehendible. They do not want unrest, in the wake of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while they know that direct action will make it impossible to get realigned with Taiwan in the foreseeable future, which has been a main goal of any Chinese leader since Mao, current leader Xi Jinping in particular.

Lam hinted at a press conference that the protests only foster the quick termination of the ‘one country two systems’ situation, agreed as part of the handover Treaty with the British in the nineteen eighties. One of the important elements is that Hong Kong keeps its own liberal laws and regulations for the first 50 years after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

Earlier protests died down, without much change achieved, mainly because the protesters did not succeed in broadening their movement to the wider public in Hong Kong. Although there was a supporting demonstration of public servants last Friday, this may happen again. On Wednesday, small traders already complained about the income they lose due to all the protests. And there are the mysterious groups of men in white t-shirts who beat up the protesters.

However, in the midterm, the protests will be futile. In the end this is an internal Chinese issue. Sure enough, there will be international protests, and depending on the outcome of the current crisis, perhaps also economic sanctions against China, if it just ends the protests by police or army action. These international protests are mainly symbolic though. Economic sanctions are the instruments of the impotent, not the powerful. Never have they worked to change a regime, or to make live very miserable for the leaders of a country. They do hit the population, but his and her concerns are easily overlooked in the international arena. The sad but undeniable truth is that no foreigner is going to die for Hong Kong. The great powers will treat this an internal Chinese affair. The USA already said so. No foreign power will intervene in China if the terms of the Sino-British Treaty are tampered with. At present, it is far more likely that Hong Kong will lose its special status, perhaps also earlier than the 50 years agreed, than that China will change into the liberal direction. The world may protest, but in the end the Chinese will have their way.

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.

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