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. Free speech for me but not for thee Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  2. Religious freedom in the Islamic world Daniel Philpott, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. Religious and other freedoms James Robinson, Cato Unbound
  4. Why we need analytical Marxism Chris Dillow Stumbling & Mumbling

Nightcap

  1. Trump’s wall and the legal perils of “emergency powers” Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. Can Trump spin a wall from nothing? Michael Kruse, Politico
  3. In defence of conservative Marxism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. We must stand strong against the men who would be kings Charles Cooke, National Review

Nightcap

  1. Global poverty decline denialism Ronald Bailey, Hit & Run
  2. Wishful thinking: too much, and too little Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Marxism as religion Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. When the Space Race was a dead heat Rick Brownell, Medium

Debating a Marxist: An invitation

This week, I thought it might be fun to take a break from the series on the state and education and instead to introduce the topic of up-close and personal encounters with some very interesting people: Marxists. My reason for writing on this topic is simply that I’m curious to see if other people have had similar experiences and what the Notes on Liberty community thinks of this breed.

In my experience, there are two archetypes of modern Marxist. The first is the “cultural” one. This one is to my mind the more preferable of the two. This one conscientiously reads all the literature associated with Marxism and its derivatives, normally discards much of the economic aspects, and embraces the social and intellectual pieces. They tend to not think too highly of The Communist Manifesto but are crazy about Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoléon. The result is that they cerebrally focus on class struggle, disenfranchisement, social inequality, etc., all while happily stipulating to all of the horrible famines, massacres, breadlines, general deprivation, etc. that occurred under Marxism. Their attitude is similar to a person who uses an old, long unpracticed religion as a form of social identification, e.g. “I’m Catholic (though I haven’t been to Mass in 40 years and support causes frowned upon by the Church).”

The standard response when asked about the fruits of Marxism tends to be a variant of “That wasn’t true Marxism; Marxism done right wouldn’t have caused that,” or “it just wasn’t implemented properly.” I have even heard one along the lines of “That was communism, not Marxism.” The cultural Marxist is easy to get along with. Because he tends to be a genuine intellectual and honest academic, when faced with reputable sources, he will graciously concede the point. Since this type respects skill and knowledge, there is a shared framework in which to debate. He is happy to debate anything and never views any author or source as particularly sacrosanct.

As a result, the cultural Marxist is reasonably open-minded and eager to find some common ground. My personal encounters with this type tend to be positive and normally end with everyone buying everyone else coffee and leaving the meeting as friends. They also tend to be pragmatic; during my time at Columbia (it’s reputation should be well known vis-à-vis Marxism), there was one faculty member who could only be described as fiscally capitalist and socially Marxist. Dovetailing with debates on class structure, we also received exhortations to secure our financial futures and received step-by-step instructions on how to invest in Vanguard mutual funds! It was slightly surreal, but I later discovered that this hybrid attitude is fairly typical among cultural Marxists. For them, it’s not about the money; it’s about the ideas. But because they mix and match ideas to create a personal worldview, they are neither invested in any particular aspect of Marxism, nor overly interested in practicing it.

The other archetype is the rabid ideologue who believes everything from Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and, variably, Ivan Trotsky, Josef Stalin, or Mao Tse-tung is gospel. Unlike the cultural Marxist, the knowledge of ideologue tends to be constrained to a limited number of sources and works. The existence of The Eighteenth Brumaire can come as a surprise to these people, though they can quote The Communist Manifesto practically verbatim. Encounters with this type disintegrate to name calling and ad hominem attacks within a matter of minutes, in my case usually when their source foundations have been abolished in debate. The hallmark of their mentality is a fixed belief that if they personally are incapable of something, then no one else can do it either.

As an example, a group of students, including myself, went to a performance of La Traviata at Opéra Bastille in Paris. One of our number turned out to be a Marxist ideologue who spent the evening denigrating the entire affair. I recall one particularly embarrassing moment during an intermission when the person loudly ranted about how none of the attendees were there through love of music, being only drawn through an affected desire to show off and appear cultured. All attempts to inveigle the person to return quietly to our seats failed. Never once did it occur to the person to observe that evidence of genuine music appreciation was present just within the student group.

Recently, I tangled with a self-identified Marxist-Leninist ideologue online. Somehow the conversation careened from the original topic to his insistence that I couldn’t possibly have functional fluency in six languages (classical musicians have to be able to read and work in the five languages of music – English, French, German, Italian, and Latin – and I studied Ancient Greek through college). The only justification for his doubts appeared to be that he only had knowledge of three languages. The pivot and then ad hominem doubt is all par for the course in dealing with this type of person, but what struck me is that in all my history of engagements only ideologue Marxists have used the “you can’t possibly be or do X because I’m not or can’t” argument. This is where there is a real divergence between ideologue Marxists and cultural Marxists: all of the latter I have interacted with are highly capable people who go to the opposite extreme and assume that others are informed and thoughtful as well. On a side note, there is nothing quite as entertaining as watching a cultural Marxist debate an ideologue; it inevitably ends with a scorched earth defeat of the ideologue.

Since all of these interactions are anecdotal, they may be sheer personal experience and could very well be due to ideological ignorance. At this point, I invite members of the NOL community to relate their personal stories of brushes with Marxists and what most struck them about their mentality and approach. What is the most irrational thing you have heard on this topic? Were you able to reach a state of détente?  Did the discussion end in a draw, or a meltdown? Are there any archetypes you might add?

Notā bene: I am entering an intensive language course in preparation for doctoral studies. As a result, I may not be very present on NOL for the summer. I will do my best, though, to monitor comments and to be part of the conversation.

Nightcap

  1. TV’s third “Golden Age” BK Marcus, FEE
  2. The life and death of North Africa’s first superstar Chris Silver, History Today
  3. The Pope that came from the South Avedis Hadjian, FOX News
  4. Globalization and Marxism JN Nielsen, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

Is it always wrong to be angry?

Recently it was brought to my attention a text by a Brazilian journalist “chocked with the anger the Brazilian middle-class has for Lula,” evidenced in the celebrations over Lula’s imprisonment. Honestly, I couldn’t finish reading it because I have better things to do, but in the first lines, she questions how people can be so angry and at the same time rejoicing while Brazil goes through such a turbulent moment. In her understanding, Lula represented the aspirations of millions of Brazilians, and these aspirations are now failing.

Ironically, I believe I know where her frustration comes from. Marxism is nothing but a Christian heresy.  Marx belongs to the group of 19th-century intellectuals who declared that God is dead. However, Marx was not able to get rid of all the Christian ethos. He simply transformed the working class into the suffering Messiah, the socialist intellectuals (like himself) into prophets and the future communist society into Paradise. Classical liberalism has its roots in Christianism, and Marxism is one step further away from it.

One of the most basic Christian teachings (expressed by Jesus himself) is “love your enemies.” Maybe this doesn’t sound controversial today, but it certainly was in 1st century Palestine. My understanding is that, as a deformed form of Christianity, Marxism is questioning how people in Brazil are failing to love Lula, their enemy.

However, Jesus didn’t simply say “love your enemy.” He went on to explain what he meant by love. Love in a Christian sense is less a feeling (although it is also a feeling) and more an attitude. It is mostly to follow the 10 commandments in our relationship with God and with other people.

The love Marxists preach lacks definition and as so lacks meaning. Therefore it is open to abuse. The love Christians preach is deep and complex, and not always easy to understand or to put into practice. But it is certainly not shallow. It is possible, Biblically speaking, to love your enemy and at the same time rejoice with justice.

Some may argue that this is not necessarily due to Christianity. Some philosophical school that predates Christianism (such as stoicism) preached something similar. I’m not going to argue about that. I’m not doing the most scholarly argument here, so you can’t take it or leave it.

Some may argue that the journalist I’m referring to is not a Marxist. To those, I quote John Maynard Keynes (who was not always a very good economist, but sometimes was very accurate in his observations about life):

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

As a Christian, I don’t hate Lula and I don’t rejoice in his suffering. But I’m certainly rejoicing with justice. It may be hard to understand or to accept, but while I love my enemy I don’t necessarily approve his actions. And I certainly don’t consider my enemy my friend. It’s complex. As C.S. Lewis put it “people who have never been to Narnia find these things hard to understand.”