Constructivism in International Relations

Explain and discuss how constructivism in IR attempts to re-shape discourses on security away from materialistic conceptions of power politics and towards a conception that takes account of power of ideas.

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Since the end of the Cold War, security studies in international relations have witnessed an overwhelming emergence of new academic literature reflecting the changes in international political environment. Concept of global security has evolved throughout the history going back as far as ancient Greece but arguably never been challenged and re-structured to the extent that it was in post Cold War era. Critical theories in general and constructivism specifically added a new dimension to the international relations studies with focusing on influence of social elements such as norms and ideas and rejected the notions of purely materialistic approach to world politics and security. [1] Collapse of the Soviet Union, following the suspension of the activities of the Communist Party by Supreme Soviet, the parliament of the U.S.S.R on August 29 1991, validated and renewed the International relations scholars’ concerns about the methodology of the international relations study and the extent in which it had played a role in the production of international powers. [2]

The aim of this essay is to identify and discuss how constructivism influenced the concept of security in international relations with emphasising on the role of social elements and the extent in which constructivism has criticised the materialistic approach. In doing so this paper explores the structure of global security from the standpoint of constructivism and its core elements regarding the power of idea in response to the materialistic view of power politics. Furthermore, it will analyse the constructivist response and effort to alter the discourses of security in international politics theory by studying the process of social interaction in forming identity and role of norms and ideas in global security. Finally, concepts of “Human Security” and “Collective Security” will be looked at from both viewpoints.

The end of the Cold War came as a surprise to the classical dominant scholars, who failed to predict or explain the changes in global politics, whilst simultaneously providing the opportunity for further development of critical thoughts, which were around since the mid 1980s. Realist theory and positivist methodology in international relations were criticised for their materialistic approaches by constructivism, which quickly flourished and was recognised as a theory that emphasised on the social dimension of international politics. This advance towards the possibility of change equipped the theory to capture important features of the world’s relations [3] .Among the many aspects of mainstream presumptions and beliefs in world politics, which were challenged by constructivism, was the pessimistic view towards peace and over-deterministic nature of these theories about the conflict, threat and the world security. Constructivism challenged the theory of power politics, dominant perception of the threat and struggle in global politics and took a completely different approach in studying the transformation of the security dilemma by focusing on subjects such as evaluation of security factors, construction of the threat, and appropriate responses. [4]

Constructivism’s approach to the subjects of threat, conflict and security in global politics originated from their fundamental emphasis on the social dimensions of international politics, thus it defined them as socially constructed elements in the process of identity formation under the influence of the norms and shared values of society. Over the years and especially after the Cold War, constructivism positioned itself as a major critique of the dominant theories in international politics by addressing issues such as balance of power, democratic peace and the re-introduction of the phenomena of collective security, security community, human security, human rights and many other social elements to the field of security studies of international politics.

One could argue that most of the constructivists work was formed around their aim in explaining the changes in world politics in the period towards the end, and after the Cold War when dominant international relations theories failed to predict the sudden change in the global politics and old security regime. These changes to the international political environment, which occurred in the 1980s, raised questions about social construction and the methodology of international relations theories and their involvement and effects in the production of international power.

The term constructivism was introduced by Nicholas Onuf in 1989 and identified simply as “people and societies construct or constitute each other”. [5] According to Wendt, constructivism assumes that the fundamental structures of international politics are social and these structures shape actors’ identities and interests. [6] World in constructivists term is constituted by both knowledge and material factors and moreover as a social theory, it is concerned with the relationship between agents and structures. Furthermore, all constructivists share a common concern when explaining how international structures are defined by ideas and how identities and interests of the states and non-state players are shaped by the structures. [7] It is at this juncture when a comparison is needed to understand the differences between mainstream international relations theories and constructivism in security studies. As a result, it is crucial to see global security from realism’s point of view to fully understand the role of the elements such as threat, response and survival in constructing the realists approach to the security dilemma. Likewise, it is necessary to analyse constructivism’s view of ideas and knowledge and to study the relationship between structure and agency as well as the construction and identification of threat.

Security studies is a multidimensional subject in the field of international relations and has changed and evolved throughout history. This evolution was impacted, probably more than any other subject in international relations, by recent technological advancements and historical events. However, as far as history goes the core concern of security studies has centred on the states’ strategy to defend and protect its borders against external threats. Attempts to understand security and provide an answer to security dilemmas can be traced back to Greece in fifth century BC when Thucydides theorised the violence and war and describe the security dilemma based on Peloponnesian war. Many centuries later Carl Von Clausewitz and Thomas Hobbs devoted much of their time and work to define these contemporary security dilemmas. By following the work of these scholars we reach the conclusion that despite the differences in language, economical development, social and political intuitions, religious and cultural beliefs, states faced almost identical threats and suffered from the same security dilemmas throughout history.

Here a comparison is needed to understand the differences between mainstream international relations theories and constructivism in security studies. It is crucial to see the global security issue from realism’s point of view to fully understand the role of the elements such as threat, response and survival in constructing the realists approach to security dilemma. Similarly, it is necessary to analyse constructivism’s analysis of idea and knowledge in order to study the relationship between structure and agency as well as construction and identification of threat.

In recent decades critical schools and other theories of international relations have challenged the traditional materialistic approach to security study, which focused on politics and power. Among them constructivism played an important role in developing an ideational approach that emphasised the effect and role of norms and ideas in global security. [8] Norms are produced through social practice as intersubjective beliefs about social and the natural world that defines the identity of the players, their roles and the possibilities of their actions. [9] Thus actors and their meaningful actions are constituted by the norms on the basis of their social roles and environments. These norms could also balance the actor’s behaviour by defining the appropriateness and effectiveness of their action. [10]

Constructivism’s approach differs with regard to the actors and social structures of the international politics in comparison with the rationalist’s view. The political environment in the Realists and Neo-liberalists view is comprised of rational actors, whose actions are self-interested in order to maximise their ultimate goal of survival and relationship between these actors, and is structured by the balance of material power. [11] In contrast, constructivism focuses on the actors and structures in a dynamic context, where actors are influenced by the environment and social elements and structures and are produced and reproduced by the actors. [12] On the other hand, in the constructivists view ‘idea’ plays an important role in forming the actors and their actions. [13] This means that when ideas become norms, they can constrain the actors’ behaviour and reactions but at the same time they constitute actors and legitimise their action by opening the space for them to act and influence the social structure. [14]

In essence, constructivism criticises the rationalist approach of ignoring the role of social factors in interaction between players in International relations. The constructivists “critique of neo-realists and neo-liberalists concerns not what these scholars do and say but what they ignore: the content and source of state interests and social fabric of world politics”. [15] According to Paul Kowert, “rationalist theories explain how states should choose or how they should bargain. They offer answers to some important questions about when states should cooperate and when they might be expected to fight. Yet they say nothing about who the actors are or how their interests were constituted.” [16]

Constructivism believes in the dynamic nature of international politics and promotes the vision of change. In doing so it criticises the rationalist view of static material and considers the system of self- help, power politics and threat as socially constructed elements of international politics. Alexander Wendt notes, that “self-help is an institution, one of the various structures of identity and interest that may exist under anarchy.” [17] In examining the subject of security in international politics, constructivism concludes that threats are constructed in the process of social interaction in the process of formation of identity and interests. In such an environment therefore, norms and shared values play a role in improving the cooperation between actors by forming the economical and political structures that promote peace between the actors in international politics. [18]

The constructivist account of identity formation in the process of social interaction in security studies attempts to answer the important question of how threats are formed and how international actors act against this threat. Both traditional and defensive realists share the view that threatening forces are formed around the phenomena of the balance of power, and states’ reactions are determined and guided by the state-centric system of self-interest and the anarchic nature of international politics. However, they engage in a different view when defining the kind of reaction states portray, as traditional realists believe that states balance their power against threatening forces whilst the defensive realists maintain the view that states form allies to increase their capability and security against the common threat. In contrast to this opinion, constructivists developed the idea of legitimacy and demonstrate that states’ reactions to threatening forces are influenced by social elements such as norms and shared values in the process of interaction, and are directed by the logic of appropriateness. In other word, norms and shared values define the legitimacy and appropriateness of states actions, as opposed to the traditional view of logic of consequence.

Another aspect of global security is the phenomenon of security dilemma, which can be defined as a states’ uncertainty in evaluating and assessing the intentions of others. Hopf argues that while the security dilemma is an important factor to understand the conflictual relationship between the states, it may not be relevant to many others which face less or no conflict and have many common interests. [19] The constructivist’s account of security dilemma is quite different to that of the realist. In constructivism’s view “the reality of the world, which includes the world of international relations, has been socially constructed via a complex of inter-subjective understanding… . In other words, anarchy as the prime structural feature of the international sphere around which all considerations of security and insecurity revolve is not an autonomous phenomenon that generates its own inescapable logic. This also means that the security dilemma, for example, does not exist before any interaction between states but is in fact a product of social interactions of states.” [20] In addition, Hopf notes that norms can reduce uncertainty: “by providing meaning, identities reduce uncertainty”. Enabling states to recognise their enemy may not result in security, but identity can replace the uncertainty with certain insecurity. [21]

Constructivist security theory has also addressed the absence of war between liberal democracies or namely, the concept of ‘democratic peace’. Here liberals believe that democracies do not oppose each other since “norms of compromise and cooperation prevent their conflicts of interest from escalating into violent clashes”. [22] This can be interpreted in various ways first; it could be argued that these norms are bound to competition and constituted by domestic democratic principles, [23] or second, that they can be seen as the product of domestic institutions and their effect on states’ behaviour. [24] One could also argue that domestic principles and practice work together and therefore are mutually constituted. In constructivist ideology, the important aspect of peace or absence of conflict among the democratic states is the role played by norms within this context. Thus without accepting or rejecting any of the above arguments it could simply be stated that democratic peace could be made possible with the concept of norms playing an important role in preventing conflict. [25]

Constructivist interpretation of global politics as a socially constructed structure provides the necessary means, for the theory under examination, to respond to another important subject in international security study namely that of ‘security community’. The concept of security community was introduced by Richard Van Wagenen [26] in the early 1950s and further developed in a study by Karl Deutsch and his associates in the same period. [27] Theories and ideas evolved around this concept by attempting to explain the states’ actions in the face of a security threat from a different perspective than the rationalist view of balance of power. One theory included the idea of formation of a security community developed around the concept of collective security with the focus on the states’ effort to strengthen their own security by acting together. The distinctive feature of the security community idea, which set it apart from the traditional concept of democratic peace, was in its emphasis on the states’ security and not on the democratic structure of the states. Lawson commented on this approach by adding that in a constructivist approach the idea of community is not limited to democracies. [28]

The study of collective security and the constitution of the security community aim to explain how states react when facing threat and insecurity in the international political environment. In other words, a group of states identify a common threat and form a relationship to defend themselves by acting as a unified whole. Formation of such communities, based on a collective knowledge of a common threat not only improves the security of the states against the threat, it also results in peace between the members of such a community. More succinctly, those who are acting as one against the common threat would not fight each other for the same reason. As Deutsch illustrates, the security community as a group of states come together to the degree that they feel “real assurance that members of the community will not fight each other physically, but will settle their disputes in some other way”. [29] He identifies the state’s sovereignty as the point of differentiation in formation of two types of security communities and explains that a pluralistic community forms when states retain their sovereignty, whereas in an amalgamated type states formally unify in order to form a community security. Despite the earlier references to collective security by traditional international relations theories such as liberalism, the modern concept of collective security and states acting as a community against a common threat is a relatively new idea and has only been seriously considered subsequent to the Cold War in both academic and practical senses.

The fact that the Cold War almost ended without serious confrontation between the two blocks has positively changed the international political atmosphere. A move towards a more peaceful future has been attained as well as an enhancement of the influence of theories, which have emphasised the role of identity, norms and social basis of the structure of international politics. Moreover, states once again saw the opportunity for constructing a new foundation to achieve a peaceful and stable international order. [30] Meanwhile, the social elements of international politics have received much more attention accompanied by friendlier treatment from politicians and Deutsch’s original ideas of shared understanding, transnational values including the possibility of peace, which were brought back to attention again. [31] In his observations Adler tried to address the issue of the circumstances where states are more likely to agree on forming a security community in the face of threat, and noted that, those who realise the devastating effects of the insecurity of war on the economical, political and social aspects of a democratic system will agree on coming together in order to defend themselves and promote peace and stability. He believed that such an agreement was founded on shared values and actors’ identities and notes: “security communities are socially constructed because shared meaning, constituted by interaction, engenders collective identities. They are dependent on communication, discourse and interpretation, as well as on material environment.” [32] Almost all the literatures about security community agreed on the critical and centric role of identity, and identity formation processes in the construction of the collective security and formation of a security community. Identity in this case, is the distinctive characteristic of one group against another. Unlike the mainstream theory’s approach to actors’ identity as a static and pre-defined status of the states, constructivism defines identity as a variable factor, which changes with time and is associated with cultural, political, historical and social contexts.

As stated before, the introduction of collective security and security community can be traced back to the 1950s. However, despite Van Wagenen and Deutsch’s efforts to develop the idea, it did not receive much attention until the end of the Cold War. It can be argued that the dominance of the realist paradigm during the Cold War in the realm of global politics on the one hand, and the hostile circumstances of bi-polar structure of global security on the other hand are to blame for the states’ lack of interest in any security arrangements other than one which could guaranty their survival. The United Nation’s failure in bringing the sovereign nations together from both sides in order to form a pluralistic security community at an international level also added to the uncertainty of the nations in considering any order other than a bi-polar system.

Following the Cold War, international politics has witnessed a new wave of ideas and theories which have found a voice in an attempt to theorise the new world order in global politics. At this time it can be said that the concept of security community and collective security has benefited from the critical theories’ emphasis on social dimensions of international politics and their special attention to social norms, culture, identity and shared values. For many decades realism and neo-liberal institutionalism were dominant forces in global politics and security studies and consequently played a major role in defining international politics. Whilst both of these theories assume that war is inevitable and always expected, realism identifies the distribution of material power as the defining element of global politics and relationships between states following with the conclusion that, factors such as the balance of power, the role of superpowers and alliances are only the means for preventing war and not for creating peace. Neo-liberal institutionalism shows more interest in finding the means to encourage cooperation between the states and focuses on the role of institutions in enhancing cooperation between self-interested states in order to prevent conflict. As it appears in both paradigms, war and material capability remains inevitably at the centre of these theories about war and conflict, which continues to dominate global security in both theory and practice until the end of the Cold War. [33]

Peaceful change and the idea of achieving long term peace and global security, not on the basis of material capability and deterrence but based on the concept of identity-formation processes and the role of norms and values, became the feature of critical theories in the mid 1980s. This notion was developed further with the rise of constructivism as an international relations theory. Constructivism explained how ideas and identities are created and how norms and shared values shape the states’ affairs, strategies and reactions to global security. Since it is unrealistic to ignore the power of material in the backdrop of international relations and security studies, constructivism complemented the existing theories by adding the social dimension to the international relations field and emphasising the importance of collective identities and shared values in developing security in particular, and the idea of collective security in general. [34]

Human security is a relatively new subject in international relations and has dominated an integral portion of international security studies after the Cold War. Human security in its current form is the product of the shift from state-centric views of security and power politics towards accepting the role of social elements in global security. [35] The phenomena of security in the area of international relations has traditionally been limited to the military defence where states compete with each other for gaining or improving their security and survival in an anarchic system with their focus on military power. In such an anarchic structure national security becomes equally as important as defending the territory against external military threat. [36]

The more modern approach in security studies accepts the crucial role of traditional views in protecting the states but does not believe that it is sufficient to protect human welfare, whether within the states’ borders or internationally. Basic human needs are the focus of modern security studies in the context of human security and as such the 1994 Human Development Report of the UN Development Program stressed that: “for most people today, a feeling of insecurity arises more from worries about daily life than from the dread of cataclysmic world events. Job security, income security, health, environmental security, security from crime – these are emerging concerns of human security all over the world.” [37] The changing context of state security, especially after the Cold War, opened the space for the critical ideas to challenge state-centric, power-based systems of global politics that gave priority to ‘high politics’. It has also increased the opportunity to address transnational issues around the globe such as HIV/AIDS, the control and management of weapons of mass destruction, illegal arms and rug trades and environmental and population problems. [38]

Widening the boundaries of security studies following the introduction of social and economical elements, which were not traditionally considered as part of the field of security, was not received well by the mainstream classical theorists and attracted criticism from traditionally dominant theories in international relations. The key argument against the critical thinkers and constructivists was that security should only engage with issues centred around the use of force and threats thus, elevation of the social and economical issues to the study of security and the promotion of non-military issues to the same level of real security elements is a threat to the coherence of the subject. Therefore, the broadening of security studies was criticised by a wide range of traditional scholars. On one side of the spectrum were those who believed that only military power and threatening force were subject to the field of security studies, and on the other side were scholars who could see the need for change. Furthermore, while they endorsed the conventional view that the military is the primary factor in security studies they also accepted the fact that especially in post Cold War era there is a need for opening the international studies to non-military cases of conflicts as well. [39]

For traditional thinkers such as Chipman, opening the concept of security to non-military issues was only acceptable if they played the role in a context of utilised force and threats between political actors. He noted: “the structuring elements of strategic analysis must be the possible use of force”. [40] The essential point in Chipman’s hypotheses is that he acknowledges the role of non-military aspects of security but at the same time emphasises that the use of military force should remain at the core of strategic analysis.

Despite the shift among the traditionalists of moving away from the state-centeric system towards the wider approach to security, some traditionalist thinkers never accepted the idea of social elements playing a role in security and strongly argued against it. One of the most strongest traditionalists Stephan Walt, defines security as studying the threat and use of military force and opposes the widening of security fields and the inclusion of issues outside the miliary domain into security studies. He argues that, “(it) runs the risk of expanding security studies excessively; by this logic, issues such as pollution, disease, child abus