Constructivism in International Relations

Constructivism (International Relations)

For decades, the international relations theory field was comprised largely of two more dominant approaches: the theory of realism, and liberalism/pluralism. However, in recent decades, there has emerged a new theory: Constructivism in international relations is one of the more recent theories in the field, and comes at the heels of existing international relations theories of realism, liberalism, and marxism (economic structuralism). Constructivism takes issue with realist and liberal assumptions about anarchy and the international system. As we shall see, constructivism focuses on ideas of norms, the development of structures, the relationship between actors and said structures, as well as how identity influences actions and behavior amongst and between actors (Reus-Smit, 2005: 188), as well as how norms themselves shape an actor’s character (Reus-Smith, 2005:198).

There are a number of arguments that constructivists make that differs from realists and liberalists. One of the key points of departure stems from how these different theorists view anarchy. It is true that all three theories recognized that the international system is anarchical; there does not exist an overarching power to govern world affairs. However, scholars of these theories disagree on state behavior in this anarchical system. For example, realists view anarchy as a condition that leads to state competition for resources, security, and power. Liberalists/pluralists, on the other hand, view cooperation through international organizations as possible under an anarchical system; these institutions can help bring about positive gains for state and non-state actors; they are not constrained by the “negatives” of an anarchical international system.

Constructivists also focus on the idea of anarchy, but they depart from prior positions on the anarchical system. Specifically, constructivists disagree with the realist position that anarchy inherently leads to competition and war.As one of the foremost scholars on constructivism, Alexander Wendt (1992), in his seminal article Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics, says, “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from anarchy and that if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not structure. There is no “logic” of anarchy apart from the practices that create and instantiate one structure of identities and interests rather than another; structure has no existence or causal powers apart from process.” Self-help and power politics are institutions, not essential features of anarchy (394). He goes on to say that “Anarchy is what states make of it” (394).

Thus, to constructivists, the anarchical system is whatever the actors want it to be. Thus, there is no reason that anarchy brings about war, or peace. The actors play a major role in how they interpret the system. Furthermore, their positions can evolve and shift over time. Thus, unlike realists and liberals, constructivists allow for attention regarding the “making” of the conditions (Ruggie, 1998: 877); actors do not respond to “given” conditions, they create them. 

In the classic international relations example of the stag hunt, where hunters are all going after the stag, realists argue there is little incentive for these different actors to work together to cooperate, and that each should look out for herself/himself and go after smaller game that will satisfy their survival, even at the expense of other or a larger benefit through cooperation. The reason: one cannot trust the actions and motivations of other actors, and thus, in this “self-help” system with no overarching power, one must do what is best in order to survive. However, constructivists take issue with this position. They argue that at the beginning of the game, there is no reason for states to think of others as threats, or as cooperative partners, for that matter. As Wendt (1992) explains, “We…assume too much if we argue that, in virtue of anarchy, states in the state of nature necessarily face a “stag hunt” or security dilemma. These claims presuppose a history of interaction in which actors have acquired “selfish” identities and interests; before interaction…they would have no experience upon which to base such definitions of self and other” (401-402). He goes on tot say that “To assume otherwise is to attribute to states in the state of nature qualities that they can only possess in society. Self-help is an institution, not a constitutive feature of anarchy” (401-402).

As constructivists in international relations explain, states often act differently based on the identity, interests, culture, and relationship that the states may have with one another. As Alexander Wendt (1992) explains, “[s]tates act differently towards enemies than they do toward friends because enemies are threatening and friends are not” (397). Speaking on this, he says in more detail:

“Anarchy and the distribution of power are insufficient to tell us which is which. U.S. military power has a different significance for Canada than for Cuba, despite their similar “structural” positions, just as British missiles have a different significance for the United States than do Soviet missiles. The distribution of power may always affect states’ calculations, but how it does so depends on the intersubjective understandings and expectations, on the “distribution of knowledge,” that constitutes their conception of self and others. If society “forgets” what a university is, the powers and practices of professor and student cease to exist; if the United States and Soviet Union decide that they are no longer enemies, “the cold war is over.” It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions” (397).

Adler (1998) says similar when he states that with people, “Where they go, how, when and why, is not entirely determined by physical forces and constraints; but neither does it depend solely on individuals preferences and rational choices. it is also a matter of their shared knowledge, the collective meaning they attach to their situation, their authority and legitimacy, the rules, institutions and material resources they use to find their way, and their practices, or even, sometimes their joint creativity” (321). Actions are just actions, it is through the interoperation of these actions that matter for constructivism.

Thus, constructivists are focused on how one forms an identity based on interactions (Ruggie, 1998). Through “interactions” with one another, one who prior had no reaction or relationship to a state, now, over time, can become friends, enemies, or continue to be neither. The same goes for individuals. As Wendt (1992) explains,  there is no reason for two people first meeting one another to have a pessimistic relationship, if the interactions doesn’t lead in that direction. However, if their interactions are conflictual, then over time and over additional tense encounters, this is exactly what could arise.

He gives an excellent hypothetical regarding humans and potential alien life. I have quoted the paragraph below where Wendt (1992) says:

“Consider an example. Would we assume, a priori, that we were about to be attacked if we are ever contacted by members of an alien civilization? I think not. We would be highly alert, of course, but whether we placed our military forces on alert or launched an attack would depend on how we interpreted the import of their first gesture for our security-if only to avoid making an immediate enemy out of what may be dangerous adversary. The possibility of error, in other words, does not force us to act on the assumption that the aliens are threatening: action depends on the probabilities we assign, and these are in key part a function of what the aliens do; prior to their gesture, we have no systematic basis for assigning probabilities. If their first gesture is to appear with a thousand spaceships and destroy New York, we will define the situation as threatening and respond accordingly. But if they appear with one spaceship, saying what seems to be “we come in peace,” we will feel “reassured” and will probably respond with a gesture intended to reassure them, even if this gesture is not necessarily interpreted by them as much” (405).

As Wendt (1992) points out, over time, these back and forth actions “will create relatively stable concepts of self and other regarding the issue at stake in the interaction” (405). Thus, the way the international system will look will depend on interactions, and when the interactions take place; it is all to be created by the actors in the international system.

And any institutions or conditions in the international system are only due to how we have conceived them. As Adler (1998) says, “they are reified structures that were once upon a time conceived ex nihilo by human consciousness; and that these understandings were subsequently diffused and consolidated until they were taken for granted” (322).

Thus, for constructivists, it is not that a system cannot be interpreted as “self-help” and pessimistic, or “cooperative” and positive (Adler, 1998), but rather, that whatever the system is, it is because of interactions and interpretations of events in a way that leads to viewing the world in that said way.

Constructivism and Norms

Thus, constructivists look at how these norms develop, who presses these norms, and who sets up different norms from the ones currently set (Adler, 1998: 338). Constructivists do this in everyday international relations settings, or in more particular contexts such as the development of norms in international organizations. This notion of norms is one that has occupies international relations for quite some time (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). However, partly due to constructivism, there has been a more direct attention to these ideas once again, with attention to the development of international norms, both in international and domestic political spaces (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998). Thus, scholars look at how norms emerge (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, how they effect states and non-state actors (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998) (as well as how these norms are then implemented by states internally (Risse, 2000), and “which norms will matter and under what conditions” (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998: 894). As Reus-Smith (2005) explains, “identities are constituted by the institutional norms, values and ideas of the social environment in which they act” (199).

One case that constructivists have pointed to to help support their theory was the events that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. To the former theories, they had difficulty explaining the shift in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, to constructivists, the role of the individual (in this case President Mikhail Gorbachev) was critical; his willingness to focus on norms such as “common security” (Walt, 1998: 41). Gorbachev’s shifting of the Soviet Union’s policy from one of security concerns to working with other states towards this “new” norm is explained by constructivism. 

One could argue that the more recent (and colder) relations between the United States and Russia are not because of innate distrust or hatred, but rather, actions between one another (whether it is NATO expansion, Putin’s rights abuses and violations of sovereignty in the Ukraine, etc…) have moved the US-Russian relationship to their current conditions.

I have listed some of the classic works on Constructivism and international relations theory. I have also included the references list below.

Constructivism Books

Alexander Wendt: Social Theory of International Politics


Stephano Guzzini & Anna Leander, Constructivism and International Relations: Alexander Wendt and His Critics

Vaughn P. Shannon & Paul A. Kowert, Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance



Adler, E. (1998). Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics. European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 3, No. 3, pages 319-363.

Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. (1998). International Norm Dynamics and Political Change. International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 2, pages 887-917.

Reus-Smit, C. (2005). Constructivism, Chapter 8, pages 188-212, in Theories of International Relations, Third Edition. Burchill, Scott, & Linklater, Andrew, editors. Palgrave.

Risse, T. (2000). Lets Argue! Communicative Action in World Politics. International Organization, Vol. 54, No. 1, pages 1-39.

Ruggie, J. G. (1998). What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge. International Organizations, Vol. 52, No. 4, pages 855-885.

Walt, S. (1998). International Relations: One World, Many Theories. Foreign Policy, No. 110, pages 29-46.

Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics. International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2, pages 391-425.

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