Background To International Relations Theories Politics Essay

This paper seeks to ascertain the historical background emergence of the international relations theory of constructivism. The paper will also identify the assumptions of constructivism as well as discuss the contributions made by Nicholas Onuf, Friedrich Kratochwil and Alexander Wendt as leading constructivist theorist.

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Background to International Relations theories

The inquisition of political philosophers and theorists to detail and explain the actions of states, territories and empires as the primary actors on the international scene (depending on the era), has existed before the formal development of an independent academic discipline of international relations. The historical writings of Thucydides (460-c. 390), wrote on the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta is an example of literature on an international level. Other evidence exist in the works of Immanuel Kant’s 1795 Perpetual Peace and that of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, each having its influence on further international theories.

In 1919, at the conclusion of World War I, the independent academic discipline of international relations was created in the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, Wales. It was led by David Davies, a Welsh industrialist, who saw the Department of International Relations as a means of developing theories and normative prescriptions on the prevention of war. (Baylis et al 2011: 3).

A theory as defined by Baylis is “a kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which facts matter and which do not”, however the term theory in itself comes with different meanings for different people’s perspectives about what constitute a proper theory. This intellectual conflict of theory structure is located in the fourth debate of international relations which can be characterised as a debate between explaining and understanding, positivism and post positivism or between rationalism and reflectivism (Kurki and Wight 2010:20). The fourth debate raises questions about whether the international theory of constructivism is a theory in the positivist sense.

Emergence of Constructivism and its Assumptions

For most of the life of the academic discipline of international relations two main thoughts dominated the theoretical space. The theories of realism and liberalism, more specifically their progeny, neo-realism and neo-liberalism respectively, since the mid-1980s, have been the mainstream theories used to explain international phenomena with the ‘neos’ having a more scientifically (positivist) approach to their theories (Lamy 2011: 116). The positivist position of the neos theorised the relationship of the causal variables in the international system (Waltz’s third image of analysis) and its effects on states behaviour as the primary actors in the international system.

Constructivism’s emergence can be marked from the early 1980s till the end of the Cold War (Firke 2010; 178). The Cold War in its concluding years brought pressing questions to the table about the theories of the assumptions of the neos, specifically Waltz’s neo-realism. This War marked period of the neorealist balancing of power between two ideologically opposes blocs led by the United States of America and the Soviet Union with the buildup of nuclear weaponry on either side. The explanation of the arms race that existed between the two great powers was effectively located within the neorealist thought and assumptions of the states want to survive in an anarchic international system. However with the anticlimactic conclusion of the Cold War questions were being raised about the failure of the neorealist theories to predict such an outcome and other international relations studies began to question the assumptions and the scientific methodology of the neorealist international theory (Firke 2010; 178).

The criticism of the neorealist and by extension the neoliberal institutionalist theory (that shares the scientific approach and assumptions as neorealist) in the 1980s by the constructivist has been developed into a “robust research program” (Viotti and Kauppi 2010; 276). The materialistic emphasis and lack of focus on the value of thoughts and ideas in the dominant scientific theories was cited as its failures to effectively understand the Cold War, it was believed by constructivist that the inclusion of such thoughts and ideas would create better a theory of the international system (Jackson and Georg 2010:161).

The term constructivism was coined by Nicholas Onuf in 1989 in his work A World of Our Making. Although Onuf was the first to come up with the concept of constructivism, the work of Alexander Wendt has been very popularly known of constructivist theorist and has afforded constructivism recognition.

Constructivist theory which has been developed in the latter part of the 20th century, according to Michael Barnett has been created by “two main factors”, one being theoretical and the other sociological. The sociological concept of structuration by Anthony Giddens (1984) was employed by concept employed by Alexander Wendt to introduce the agent-structure problem as well as the critical theoretical perspectives that emphasise the roles of ideas, norms, rules and how they influence state identities and interest in the international political arena. Other concepts of intersubjectivity of ideas, holism as opposed to individualism and the role of science in social sciences has been influential in shaping the constructivism; the writings of the constructivist Kratochwil.

The constructivist theory is cited by Viotti and Kauppi as having political, sociological and philosophical thinkers of Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber as intellectual precursors (Viotti and Kauppi 2010:278-280). Kant’s influence is believed to be the concept of phenomenology about how human consciousness affects our understandings ftjackson. Locke’s constructivism influence is regarded to his view of anarchy which Locked defined as one that is not necessarily the Hobbesian perpetual state of war, had helped shaped Wendt’s Anarchy is What States Make It. Durkheim’s belief that material as well as ideational factors influence social outcomes, which is a central tenet of constructivism is seen another intellectual precursor to constructivism and also importantly Weber’s impact on the interpretive approach to IR theory.

Constructivism however has not been spared the problems of any other theory in IR. Within the school there are conflicting views as to the ontology of constructivism and more divisively the role of science in it. Constructivism can be divided into conventional and critical constructivism (Hopf 1998:181).

Notwithstanding their differences on the issue of positivism, conventional and critical constructivists are on the same side and share theoretical fundamentals. Both the sides aim to denaturalise the social world i.e. to empirically discover those that are considered as natural and given by other theories (Hopf 1998:181-2).They accept the value of intersubjectivity of shared norms, rules, ideas, belief and values by people and its effect upon reality and meaning (Viotti and Kauppi 2010:280). They both share the aspiration of the restoration of agency to humans i.e. the ability of humans to be influenced by and also in turn influence the structure which also is linked to their share in the fundamental of the mutual constitution of actor and structure (Hopf 1998:182).

Conventional constructivism incorporate positivist methodologies into its research program and it sets out to find conditions under which one identity or another would be reproduced, referred to as minimal foundationalism by Mark Hoffman (Hopf 1998:183). Critical constructivism is opposed to positivism and they are interested in “exploding the myths” of identity formation and how identity if formed. They do not share the positivist idea that objective truth can be uncovered in social sciences because there is “no neutral ground to decide about what is true” (Jackson and Georg 2010: 165).


There have been various theorists who write in the context of a constructivist and develop the theory’s explanations such as Richard Ashley, Alexander Wendt, Nicholas Onuf, Friedrich Kratochwil and John Ruggie. Drawing from Maja Zehfuss’ book Constructivism in International Relations (2002), I intend to focus on the contributions of Nicholas Onuf, who is credited with coining the term constructivism and Alexander Wendt credited for his works that have driven constructivism to some form of popularity and they are both defined as “key constructivist scholars” by Zehfuss, (Zehfuss 2002:9).

Nicholas Onuf

Nicholas Onuf was born in 1941 and had attained his undergraduate and PhD degrees from the John Hopkins University. He is interested in international relations, particularly international law as evident by his dissertations entitled ‘The conscious development of international law’. (Griffiths et al. 2002:132). Onuf wrote other articles such as Lawmaking in the Global Community (1983) and The Republican Legacy in International Thought (19887) but his major contribution to the development of constructivism was in his World of Our Making which was produced in 1989.

Onuf in his World of Our Making offered a criticism of the main assumption of the academic field that was dominated by the liberalistic view of anarchy and humans as being pre-social that were assumed to be rational and the only limit on their rationality was that of material conditions (Griffiths et al. 2002:131). He wanted the paradigm of liberal assumptions to give way to “the reconstruction of international relations” which required the discipline to be “stripped of its current pretentions” (Griffiths et al. 2002:131). This concept of reconstruction was referred to as ‘constructivism’ by Nicholas Onuf and as previously noted he is credited for coining this term. (Barnett 2011:153).

The constructivism Onuf proposes is one that has questioned the assumptions of the international relations theories. In the mainstream theories the structures of society was taken as given and humans had no influence upon it but the structure influenced their behaviour. Onuf drawing on Anthony Giddens’ structuration (mentioned earlier) as well as the linguistic theory of Ludwig Wittgenstein was incorporated to explain the construction of the social order and rules. (Griffiths et al. 2002:133). Onuf does not reject the importance of social structures but he points out that social structures are created by people and are not given. Onuf’s World of Our Making further explains that social practices or actions in the social structures are given meaning through rules which Onuf classifies into three categories: assertives, directives and commissives depending on how that rule is to affect the world (Zehfuss 2002:20).

Alexander Wendt

Alexander Wendt is proclaimed to be one of the most influential constructivists in the academia of international relations. Wendt is a German born in 1958. He attained his PhD at the University of Minnesota and is interested in the philosophical aspects of social science with special reference to international relations. (website)

Alexander Wendt has contributed to the agent-structure problem, i.e. how to think about the relationship between the agent and the structure. The agent-structure problem employs Anthony Giddens’ structuration and Wendt argues that an international normative structure shapes the identities and interests of states and through interaction (Barnett 2011:152). The agent structure problem is a concern about the extent to which “state action is influenced by the ‘structure’ (anarchy and the distribution of power) versus ‘process’ (interaction and learning)” (Wendt 2011:109).

Wendt’s Anarchy is What States Make It has created popularity for constructivism within the academia of international relations and is acceptability. The title of this and the content explains the why the balance of power and self-help fails to explain why some states are foes and others are not is due to the norm structure and the beliefs of the states within the international system. Wendt in his Constructing International Politics explains that the social structures contain three elements: “shared understandings, expectations or knowledge”, it also includes “material resources” which “their effects presuppose structures of shared knowledge” and lastly that “social structure exists only in process” (Wendt 2010:300). For Alexander Wendt “idea’s always matter” (Wendt 2010:300)


The constructivist theory is a new theory relative to its rival theories of realism and liberalism and has since managed to push its way into the top echelons of the theories in the academic discipline of international relations. In this paper it was observed that the poverty of the realist theory assumptions to effectively predict the behaviours and final outcome of two the two great powers competing in the Cold War left a theoretical opening for the creation of a more comprehensive theory. Constructivist took up the challenge to better explain the international system and behaviours and thus filled the gap in the theoretical sphere with its genesis in the work of Nicholas Onuf. Thus the emergence constructivism can be accredited to the theoretical poverty of the dominant international theories in the 1980s and 1990s.

The constructivist approach to international relations has contributed to the concept of the agent-structure problem (structuration) i.e. the structure influences the agents and the agents in turn influences the structure, also that agency in international relations should be people and likewise the concept that norms, beliefs, values and ideas influence the creation of the social structures and the meanings and rules attached to them. Major contributors such as Nicholas Onuf and Alexander Wendt have been considered key scholars to the development of the constructivist thought.

Constructivism as a theory has divisions within it, mainly over the role of natural science methodologies in the social sciences and the course that the theory should take. Nonetheless constructivism is regarded as a school of thought to be considered in the field of IR was most scholars continue to contribute to its development.