What is a threat? When does a threat become really threatening? And why do some threats take precedence over others in terms of being harmful to a state’s security? These questions have dominated the theoretical debates in the field of International Relations (IR) for more than half a century. While no definite answers have yet been found, different theoretical approaches have been offering powerful insights into certain elements of this puzzle particularly through a focus on the anarchical nature of the international system. For most of the 20th century, debates about the major sources of security threats to states became an axis of contention between realist and liberal scholars.
The debates were originally triggered by different conceptions of human nature but the question of the extent to which states’ behaviour is influenced by the structure of the international system captured center stage during the cold-war period. Does the distribution of military capabilities or the absence of a world government make states play competitive power politics? Is the Westphalian nation-state system inherently conflictual? These questions were also used by IR scholars and policy experts to predict future developments in global politics.
While divergent in nature, both the liberal and realist schools of international relations thought agree that anarchy is inherent in the international system. In addition, the lack of a central authority is keenly felt by both paradigms because it encourages states to generate a self-help system and act unilaterally.
Anarchy, the central fact of the international system, derives from the view that the absence of an overarching legitimate global authority in the Westphalian nation-state system leaves states with no option but to resort to war to resolve their mutual disputes. Thus, scholars agreed that anarchy was the single most important characteristic underlying international politics and any understanding of global politics must flow from an understanding of the anarchic international structure.
In 1991, Alexander Wendt, professor of Political Science at Ohio State University, revolutionised the field of IR by publishing a journal article titled ‘Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics’. Ever since the times of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, IR scholars treated anarchy as a ‘structural constant’. Wendt re-contextualised the whole field of IR by problematising the very concept of anarchy and questioned the theoretical foundations shared by all pre-existing theories.
What in anarchy is given and immutable, and what is amenable to change? Wendt asked this question to contend that anarchy is not inherent in global politics but a culture constructed from the social interactions of states. All variables of interest to IR scholars – military capabilities, international organizations, or trade relations – are important because of certain social meanings attached not to them and not because they are objective facts. Moreover, he argued that we should not treat identity and interests as given. They interact with one another; give rise to new ideas and so on.
In 1999, Wendt published his seminal book ‘Social Theory of International Politics’ expressing a constructivist approach to the study of international politics. This book was critical of both realist and liberal paradigms because they emphasised the role of material power as opposed to social norms and shared values. By the end of the 1990s, Wendt had also emerged as the most influential IR scholar in the US and constructivism was established as a unique approach in IR.
Constructivists contend that the intersubjectively shared ideas are as important as military capabilities in any empirical analysis. Realists stress the role of the balance of power in global politics to minimise the possibility of future wars. While the theoretical approach rests on the idea that security is enhanced with an equitable distribution of military capabilities among nations, the equilibrium of power among all major powers in the world is generally very difficult to achieve. States, subsequently, resort to employing different tactics to sustain the balance of power and achieve their desired strategic goals.
On the contrary, constructivist scholars argued that power and anarchy do not define whether the international system is peaceful or conflictual at a particular point in time; instead, it is a function of shared culture created through discursive social practices.
In the constructivist account, social meanings are constructed from a complex mix of history, norms and the way different leaders understand state behaviour. Wendt said, “a fundamental principle of the constructivist social theory is that people act towards objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.” For instance, the nuclear weapons of Israel and North Korea can be equally destructive but they will have different meanings to the US that ultimately evoke different responses.
This is very important because if constructivist scholars are correct, states do not have to worry about relative power and security dilemmas. International politics should be guided by shared values and intersubjective norms held by both state and non-state actors. This focus on the intersubjective dimensions of knowledge makes the structure of the international system look like a causal force because of the proposed role of values as an ideational structure determining the strategic behaviour of states.
In a socially constructed world, this ideational structure has both a constitutive and regulative effect on all actors in the international system. Because the changed structure of the international system makes states redefine their identities and interests through a process of social interaction. Thus unlike realist and liberal theorists, constructivists do not hold identities and interests constant to understand how ideational structure determines the way all actors identify their position and interests in the international system.
This leads to a very interesting question of the ‘agent-structure problem’ in international relations theory. Realist scholars define ‘international structure’ in terms of the observable attributes of states as primary actors and how structure constrains the choices of state actors. On the other hand, constructivists believe that both actors and structure(s) co-determine and even constitute each other. In their view, ideational structures constrain the behaviour of actors in terms of their identities and interests, but these ideational structures are also created through the discursive practices of agents.
Wendt believed that we could not treat identity and interests as given because they also keep changing with the passage of time. As a result, state sovereignty should also be considered a social construct. And there are no objective threats because they are always socially constructed.
There is little doubt that constructivist scholars have come to dominate many theoretical debates in the field of IR in the post-9/11 period. However, despite the strength of their arguments, the constructivist approach has not been able to emerge as a major challenge to the realist paradigm because it fails to take into account the problem of ‘uncertainty’ in international politics. Moreover, many of the claims made by constructivist scholars cannot be empirically verified or tested because of their abstract nature.