How compelling is the Social Constructivist account of Global Politics

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Last updated: April 6, 2019

Constructivism breaks the mould with regard to political events in the 20th century. It acts to prove that political absolutes are far from given, states are not states, anarchy is a human creation, and most interestingly, our interests on an international scale define who we are. Whilst this may seem convincing, the theory runs into serious problems and contradictions when empirical evidence is taken into account, it is compelling, but not definitive and certainly not concrete.The Constructivist account of global politics can be split into three core elements. The first is an attitude towards the state. Constructivism does not subscribe to a realist doctrine of international anarchy where states are the prime political units. Constructivists decentre the state as the prime agent of International Relations.

This stems from their belief that understanding the world of global politics in terms of anarchy creating states and their interests is inadequate.For Constructivists anarchy does not impose limitations on state interactions as it is not a defining feature of international relations. Constructivists maintain that state interaction is the core concept responsible for creating the global society. Wendt, a key Constructivist thinker argued that whilst the nation state remains the subject of analysis, it is how the nation state interacts with neighbouring states that is fundamental, not its national interests.He argued ‘rationalist claims presuppose a history of interaction in which actors have acquired “selfish” identities and interests. They have no experience upon which to base such a definition of self and other’ (Wendt 1992:401-402). In relation to the Constructivist account, Wendt it postulating that whilst rationalism makes the mistake of creating innate state interests that presuppose history, Constructivism argues that no such interests can exist prior to history.

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It is the interactions between states that create state interests; they are not ‘pre-programmed’ as such. Many suggest that Wendt is not putting forward a coherent argument in this case. Linklater argues “Constructivist thought highlights the importance of agency at the basis of normative international theorising, as the dominance of norms and values would be impossible without the presupposition that states and other actors have the capacity to overcome structural limitations on ethical action” (Linklater 1998:19)He believes Constructivists are creating this agency with one hand, via the use of concepts such as the Nation State, but taking it away with the other by hollowing state autonomy; creating an actor who is no longer self interested but created through interaction. Constructivists frequently fall foul of this mistake, beginning with the refutation of a theory, then going on to use the areas of it that suit their argument. It creates an image of an illogical argument grounded on premises that have just been disproved, an incoherent account of global politics leaving the reader confused rather than persuaded.Wendt of course responded to such criticism by reminding us that “states and their interests are constructed through international interaction” (Wendt 1992: 392) This argument can be followed to suggest that state identities are not fixed as their interactions with other states are changing constantly and it is those interactions, according to Wendt, which give the state an identity, surely that suggests the state identity can change. Regardless of the logic of this first element of the Constructivist account, to attempt to discredit it is to miss the point.

The main success of this element was the foundation it laid for the theories of Constructivism which still exist. Wendt was revolutionary in arguing that state interests are not fixed, he allowed likeminded scholars to explore the possibility that states are not predefined, they define themselves. Wendt “laid the foundations upon which theories of actually existing global civil society were constructed” (Chandler 2005: 28-29) Once this foundation had been laid further developments followed. The end of the Cold War marked a refutation of neo-liberal and neo-realist ideas.

Neither theory could adequately predict or explain the events that had led to the end of the war. This reinforced Wendt’s view that the study of state interests could no longer adequately explain international politics. This shift in focus from states to their interactions led to further developments in the Constructivist view of global politics. Scholars began to realise that existing methods of explaining the global model were failing to predict events of the 20th Century.

A key event which led to a ‘Constructivist boom’ was the cold war.Reus-Smit noted “the end of the cold war undermined the explanatory pretensions of neo-realists and neo-liberals, neither of which had predicted” the change in global order (Reus-Smit 2001:216) the failure of the two key ideologies to explain the events of the Cold War meant that the path was clear for Constructivism to enter an explanation. As the study of states and their interests could no longer explain international politics emphasis shifted to the power of ideas within the international system.Wendt believed that subjective conceptions were vital as they, along with ideas, enabled an explanation of unpredictable events such as the end of the Cold War. “if the United States and the Soviet Union decide they are no longer enemies the Cold War is over”. Wendt believed that the power of ideas could easily illustrate how such situations diffused, as such Constructivist theories gained credibility as their belief in undefined national interests was being empirically tested and proved. This led to a new emphasis on ideas and identities.

If they are not fixed then this meant that the entire globe could very easily adopt a new moral outlook.Ideas for Constructivists grew to be so important that they outshone past political icons such as military power. Korey developed this point further stating that “this means moral agencies such as NGO’s have a higher influence through the power of persuasion” (Korey 1999). This of course made the Constructivist account of global politics a rather compelling one to follow. The ability for ideas to explain the actions of states not only meant that the theory was free from the constraints that neo-liberalism and realism suffered but all emancipated the global sphere from the shackles of a fixed identity routed in self interested global anarchy.Whilst the events of the Cold War greatly strengthened the Constructivist account of global politics, it also raised serious issues. Whilst the Cold War was explained rather well by Constructivists it was a double edged argument. Yes, the war may have ended due to a change in ideas, but it did not seem that the internal environment had become more favourable which logically is what would have caused this change in national ideas.

This led Wendt to argue that the sudden change in Soviet policy was a direct result of the soviet leaders rethinking their own identity.This of course raises serious questions. In order to avoid a contradiction of his past argument that identities are created though interaction, Wendt argues that the change in identity was the Soviet Union “altercasting its ego” (Wendt 1992:41) this in turn caused the United States to act as if it had taken a new identity. Logically such an account does not seem plausible. Many argue that Wendt was too restrictive by only allowing the concept of ideas overcoming structure in relation to international relations.Such inconsistency is what led to other areas of neo-liberalism being highlighted for their emphasis on non-state actors, a factor Wendt did not take into consideration during his analysis. Whilst many critics (some of whom are Constructivists) agree that Wendt limited himself too greatly with this account, there seems to be a consensus that it does not particularly matter. The fact that neo-liberal principles were drawn upon led to a further strengthening of the Constructivist account of global politics.

The account was extended to include an emphasis on the role of non-state actors and global relations thus reversing the assumption that the international sphere is used to project the national interests of states, infact, Constructivists went on to argue that by virtue of participation in international relations, state interests are constituted. This was reflected in the growth of human rights in the international sphere demonstrating the strength of Constructivism.Risse and Skkink argue that “international human rights norms challenge state rule over society and national sovereignty. Any impact on domestic change would be counter intuitive” (Risse and Skkink 1999: 4) therefore changes do not arise domestically but from influence of international non-state actors. This change in policy is a reflection of the dynamic character of Constructivism.

The theory is so compelling because, just as it espouses, the constantly changes according to the environment in which it is received.However, this new found emphasis on non-state actors may be rather exaggerated by Constructivism. Their account uses empirical evidence to demonstrate a direct link between an increase in the number of NGO’s worldwide and an increase in foreign policy reflecting ethical norms in international relations. For many political analysts this idea is absurd. Keane remarked that such a method was the equivalent of a “numerical theory of global politics” (Keane 2003: 95) He argues that because a correlation exists between growth in both areas that is not to say they are related.It may be true that there has been an increase in both areas but it is not possible for any account of global politics to quantify how the growth has affected incredibly specific policy changes. Primarily that would require some form of criteria to measure the success of policy and considering the Constructivist emphasis on subjectivity; many analysts believe such a leap to be naive.

Furthermore, there are no means of testing whether a certain policy is a direct result of a specific NGO, without that, any correlation between the two is irrelevant.Granted, there is an increase in both the areas of non-state ethical actors and ethical policy in the global sphere but there is no link to show that the actors are bringing about the policies they wish to help to create. Kaldor highlights another key issue effectively in saying “the weakness of both new social movements and NGOs is that although they have widespread moral authority they are largely composed of an educated minority and they lack the capacity for population mobilisation” (Kaldor 203: 100).NGOs may be influential if they possess resources, but the point Kaldor makes is that very few have anything other than a small number of members that do not threaten electoral chances or resources of the political institutions they wish to persuade. The most damaging criticism in respect to this Constructivist emphasis on non-state actors is upon their means of presenting evidence.Chandler raises the point that Constructivists “focus on the success story of impact on policy and history is read backwards to substantiate how global society works” (Chandler 2005:45) a prime example illustrated is that of environmental lobbyists and the World Bank. Whilst the lobbyists managed to influence the World Bank over projects in the developing world they failed to influence the United States to enter into the Kyoto agreements, naturally they omitted said failure from their account of ‘success’.

Constructivist claims to success are inevitably exaggerated; however, it is unfortunate that such claims have clear contradictions in other empirical areas. The main problem for a Constructivist is the fact that these problems emerge from their apparent strengths. Another ‘key success’ of Constructivist is that the theory is able to prove undisputedly the existence of a global civil society and its influence due to a “shift towards ethical foreign policies” (Chandler 2005: 47).However, the irony of is that at the core of Constructivist the relationship between power and morality relies upon the realist thought that the state acts in self-interested terms. Considering Constructivism emerged to prominence as a refutation of such an idea it seems fatal that it relies on the apparent ‘fallacy’.

Constructivism just like realism is unable to explain why some ethical norms are accepted when presented into the international sphere and others are rejected, the issue remains one of much scrutiny but without an explanation.Skkink believes that “for states to act, either the values in question must plausibly coincide with the national interest or the government acting must believe the action is not costly” (Skkink 1998:203). Surely Constructivists would not be comfortable with the assertion Skkink makes, but it would seem that it is the only plausible means of explaining the uninformed acceptance of some ethical policies It would seem that to define Constructivism as a single account of global politics would be ineffective.It seems to be an evolving process which responds to holes which are poked in it. However, the account may explain some actions, but as a political science and an account of global politics it fails to hold water. There is no explanation that does not require constant amendment; there are no absolute rules which can be identified in the international sphere.

As such it seems best to classify Constructivism as a response to international events rather than a means of predicting political outcomes.

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