The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory
The article clarifies constructivism’s claims, outline the differences between conventional and critical constructivism, and suggest a research agenda that both provides alternative understandings of mainstream international relations puzzles and offers a few examples of what constructivism can uniquely bring to an understanding of world politics. Since constructivism is best defined in relation to the issues it claims to apprehend, the author presents its basic claims.
Actors and Structures are Mutually Constituted
To the extent that U.S appeasement in Vietnam was unimaginable because of U.S identity as a great power, military intervention constituted the U.S as a great power. U.S intervention in Vietnam perpetuated the international intersubjective understanding of great powers as those states that use military power against others.
Actors develop their relations with, and understandings of, others through media of norms and practices. In the absence of norms, exercise of power would be devoid of meaning.
Constitutive norms define an identity by specifying the actions that will cause others to recognize that identity and respond to it appropriately. Since structure is meaningless without some intersubjective set of norms and practices, anarchy is meaningless.
Anarchy as an imagined community
Given the anarchy is structural; it must be mutually constituted by actors employing constitutive rules and social practices. Then we can think of the possibility of thinking of anarchy as having multiple meanings for different actors based on their own communities of intersubjective understandings and practices. This leads us to think that multiple understandings of anarchy are possible. International system may be more or less anarchic to some states.
Self-help is a structurally determined behavior of an actor only to the extent that a single particular understanding of anarchy prevails.
Identities and interests in world politics
A world without identities is a world of chaos, a world of pervasive and irremediable uncertainty, a world much more dangerous than anarchy. In telling you who you are, identities strongly imply a particular set of interests or preferences with respect to choices of action in particular domains, and with respect to particular actors.
Constructivism treats identity as an empirical question to be theorized within a historical context. Neorealism assumes that all units in global politics have only one meaningful identity, that of self-interested states. Constructivism and neorealism share the assumption that interests imply choices, but neorealism further assumes that states have the same a priori interests.
Power of practice
Neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism assume that material power is the single most important source of influence and authority in global politics. Constructivism argues that both material and discursive power are necessary. The power of social practices lies in their capacity to reproduce the intersubjective meanings that constitute social structures and actors alike. The meanings of actions of members of the community, as well as the actions of others, become fixed through practice. Social practices have the power to reproduce entire communities, including the international community, as well as the many communities of identity found therein.
Change in world politics
Since constructivism implies that there are different understandings of anarchy in the world, state actions should be more varied than only self-help. These different understandings of anarchy are still rooted in social structures, maintained by power of practice. Constructivism offers an account of how and where change may occur.
Constructivism’s conceptualization of the relationship between agency and structure grounds its view that social change is both possible and difficult. Neorealism’s position that all states are meaningfully identical denies a fair amount of possible change to its theoretical structure.
Constructivism: Conventional and Critical
It becomes conventional constructivism to the degree that it creates theoretical and epistemological distance between itself and its origins in critical theory.
Conventional constructivism is a collection of principles distilled from critical social theory but without the latter’s more consistent theoretical or epistemological follow-through.
Conventional and critical conservatism do share theoretical fundamentals:
1) Both aim to denaturalize the social world, discover and reveal how the institutions and practices and identities that people take as natural or given are produced.
2) Both believe that intersubjective reality and meanings are critical data for understanding the social world.
3) Both insist that all data must be related to, and situated within the social environment in which they were gathered in order to understand their meaning.
4) Both accept the relationship between power and knowledge, the power of practice in its disciplinary, meaning-producing, mode.
5) Both stress mutual constitution of actor and structure.
6) Share positions on some issue: mutual constitution of actors and structures, anarchy as a social construct, power as both material and discursive, and state identities and interests as variables.
Conventional constructivists wish to discover identities and their associated reproductive social practices, and then offer an account of how those identities imply certain actions. But critical constructivists also wish to surface identities, not to articulate their effects, but to elaborate on how people come to believe in a single version of a naturalized truth.
Critical constructivists realize that the actor and observer can never be separated. Conventional constructivists ignore this injunction, while largely adopting interpretivist understandings of the connectivity of subjects with other subjects in a web of intersubjective meaning.
Conventional and critical constructivism also split over the origins of identity. Conventionists accommodate a cognitive account for identity, or offer no account at all, while critical constructivists are more likely to see some form of alienation driving the need for identity. Conventional constructivism accepts the existence of identities and wants to understand their reproduction and effects, but critical constructivists use critical social theory to specify some understanding of the origin of identity.
Constructivist Research Agenda
In this section, Hopf offers constructivist perspectives to research issues which are strgonhold of realist scholars. He believes that constructivism can provide alternative accounts of some issues in IR research agenda.
Balance of Threat
Neorealism tells us that states ally against power. Later, Walt empirically showed that states ally against threats. Distribution of power cannot explain the alliance patterns that emerged after WW II; otherwise the U.S would have been balanced against, not the Soviet Union. Instead the issue must be how France, Britain, Germany and the U.S came to understand Soviet military capabilities and geographical proximity as threatening.
Whereas the U.S saw the third world during the Cold War as an arena for battling communism, as in Vietnam, Europeans very rarely understood it in those terms, instead regarding third world states as economic actors as former colonies.
Security dilemmas are the products of presumed uncertainty. They are assumed to be commonplace in world politics because states presumably cannot know, with sufficient certainty or confidence, the intentions of others. We don’t see much evidence of security dilemmas among many pairs of states.
States understand different states differently. Soviet and French nuclear capabilities had different meanings for British decision makers. But of course certainty is not always a source of security.
Constructivism can provide an understanding of what happens most of the time in relations between states. By providing meaning, identities reduce uncertainty. Constructivism’s empirical mission is to surface the background that makes uncertainty a variable to understand, rather than a constant to assume.
Constructivism shares neoliberalism’s conclusion that cooperation is possible under anarchy, but offers a very different account of how that outcome emerges. A constructivist approach might begin by investigating how states understand their interests within a particular issue area. The distribution of identities and interest of the relevant states would then help account for whether cooperation is possible.
Neoliberalism has concluded that an important part of ensuring compliance with agreements is the development of reputations for reliability. Identities subsume reputation;
being a particular identity is sufficient to provide necessary diagnostic information about a state’s likely actions with respect to other states in particular domains.
If democracies do not fight each other, then it must be because of the way they understand each other, their intersubjective accoutns of each other, and the socio-international practices that accompany those accounts. But constructivism could offer a more general account of zones of peace, one not limited to democracies. Different periods of the histories of both Africa and Latin America have been marked by long stretches of little or no warfare between states. These pacific periods are obviously not associated with any “objective” indicators of democracy.
Constructivism assumes, a priori, that identities are potentially part of the constitutive practices of the state, and so, productive of its actions at home and abroad.
Promises of Constructivism;
1) Return of differences among states. Identities offer each state an understanding of other states, its nature, motives, interests, probable actions, attitudes, and role in any given political context. Understanding another state as one identity, rather than another, has consequences for the possible actions of both.
2) Moving beyond the typical binary characterizations: Since constructivism expects presence of multiple identities for actors in world politics, this leads us to study world politics with different units. Move beyond typical characterizations such as democratic-nondemocratic, great power-minor power, north-south, etc.
3) Return of culture and domestic politics to international relations theory. Constructivism does not envision a division between IR and comparative subfields. It also has no focus on “second image” accounts of world politics. Any state identity in world politics is party the product of the social practices that constitute that identity at home. In this way, dentity politics at home constrain and enable state identity, interests, and actions abroad.
Promise of constructivism is to restore a kind of partial order and predictability to world politics that derives not from imposed homogeneity, but