Constructing International Politics
What unites critical theorists is a concern with how world politics is "socially constructed," which involves two basic claims: that the fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material (a claim that opposes materialism), and that these structures shape actors' identities and interests, rather than just their behavior (a claim that opposes rationalism).
Wendt addresses four issues: assumptions, objective knowledge, explaining war and peace, and policymakers' responsibilities.
Indeed, one of his main objections to neorealism is that it is not structural enough: that adopting the individualistic metaphors of micro-economics restricts the effects of structures to state behavior, ignoring how they might also constitute state identities and interest. Constructivists think that state interests are in important part constructed by systemic structures, not exogenous to them; this leads to a sociological rather than micro-economic structuralism.
Where neorealist and constructivist structuralisms really differ, however, is in their assumptions about what structure is made of. Neorealists think it is made only of a distribution of material capabilities, whereas constructivists think it is also made of social relationships. Social structures have three elements: shared knowledge, material resources, and practice.
a) Social Structures are defined, in part, by shared understandings, expectations, or knowledge. A security dilemma, for example, is a social structure composed of intersubjective understandings in which states are so distrustful that they make worst-case assumptions about each others' intentions, and as a result define their interests in self-help terms.
b) Social structures include material resources like gold and tanks. In contrast to neorealists' desocialized view of such capabilities, constructivists argue that material resources only acquire meaning for human action through the structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded.9 For example, 500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons, because the British are friends of the United States and the North Koreans are not, and amity or enmity is a function of shared understandings. Constructivism is therefore compatible with changes in material power affecting social relations.
c) Social structures exist, not in actors' heads nor in material capabilities, but in practices. The Cold War was a structure of shared knowledge that governed great power relations for forty years, but once they stopped acting on this basis, it was "over." Asking "when do ideas, as opposed to power and interest, matter?" is to ask the wrong question. Ideas always matter, since power and interest do not have effects apart from the shared knowledge that constitutes them as such. The real question, as Mearsheimer notes (p. 42), is why does one social structure exist, like self-help (in which power and self-interest determine behavior), rather than another, like collective security (in which they do not).
Mearsheimer suggests that critical theorists do not believe that there is an objective world out there about which we can have knowledge. This is not the case. There are two issues here, ontological and epistemological.
The ontological issue is whether social structures have an objective existence, Social structures are collective phenomena that con- front individuals as externally existing social facts. The Cold War was just as real for me as it was for Mearsheimer.
The epistemological issue is whether we can have objective knowledge of these structures. Constructivists, however, are modernists who fully endorse the scientific project of falsifying theories against evidence. In an article cited by Mearsheimer, I advocated a scientific-realist approach to social inquiry, which takes a very pro-science line.
3) Explaining War and Peace
The relative frequency of realpolitik, however, has nothing to do with "realism." Realism should be seen as an explanation of realpolitik, not a description of it.
Missing from Mearsheimer's account is the constructivist emphasis on how agency and interaction produce and reproduce structures of shared knowledge over time.
Wendt focuses on the "hard case" of why states sometimes get into security dilemmas and war, that is, why they sometimes engage in realpolitik behavior.
On the agency side, what states do to each other affects the social structure in which they are embedded, by a logic of reciprocity. If they militarize, others will be threatened and arm themselves, creating security dilemmas in terms of which they will define egoistic identities and interests. But if they engage in policies of reassurance, as the Soviets did in the late 1980s, this will have a different effect on the structure of shared knowledge, moving it toward a security community.
If past interactions have created a structure in which status quo states trust and identify with each other, predators are more likely to face collective security responses like the Gulf War. History matters. Security dilemmas are not acts of God: they are effects of practice.
Mearsheimer thinks it significant that in anarchy, states cannot be 100 percent certain that others will not attack. Yet even in domestic society, I cannot be certain that I will be safe walking to class. But the fact that in anarchy war is possible does not mean "it may at any moment" occur.
Anarchy is not a structural cause of anything. What matters is its social structure, which varies across anarchies. An anarchy of friends differs from one of enemies, one of self-help from one of collective security, and these are all constituted by structures of shared knowledge.
The problem becomes even more acute when neorealists try to explain the relative absence of inter-state war in today's world. If anarchy is so determining, why are there not more Bosnias? It streches to think that the peace between Norway and Sweeden, and Nigeria and Benin, and the U.S and Canada are all due to material balancing.
An important virtue of "False Promise" is that it links neorealism and its rivals to the ethical responsibilities of foreign policymakers. These responsibilities depend in part on how much it is possible to change the structure of shared knowledge within anarchy. If such change is impossible, then Mearsheimer is right that it would be irresponsible for those charged with national security to pursue it. On the other hand, if it is possible, then it would be irresponsible to pursue policies that perpetuate destructive old orders, especially if we care about the well-being of future generations.
To say that structures are socially constructed is no guarantee that they can be changed. Sometimes social structures so constrain action that transformative strategies are impossible.
A key issue in determining policymakersf responsibilities, therefore, is how much "slack a social structure contains. Neorealists think there is little slack in the system, and thus states that deviate from power politics will get punished or killed by the "logic" of anarchy. Institutionalists think such dangers have been greatly reduced by institutions such as sovereignty and the democratic peace, and that there is therefore more possibility for peaceful change.
Indeed, what is so striking about neorealism is its total neglect of the explanatory role of state practice. It does not seem to matter what states do: Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Zhirinovsky, what difference does it make?
To analyze the social construction of international politics is to analyze how processes of interaction produce and reproduce the social structures-coopera- tive or conflictual-that shape actors' identities and interests and the sig- nificance of their material contexts.