The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Realism and constructivism

September 26, 2005

A while back, Marc Lynch threw down the gauntlet and declared the last decade of international politics a vindication for the constructivist approach to international relations.

Warning: what follows is a very long post, one that will be primarily of interest to people who care about academic International Relations (IR)

Marc wrote:

Back in the 1990s, the International Relations subfield of Political Science was consumed by the so-called “rationalism-constructivism” debate. Constructivism argued that mainstream Realist, Liberal, and formal modeling approaches to IR drastically under-stated the role of ideas, discourse, and identities in explaining political behavior. Constructivists attempted to demonstrate that identities, ideas, and discourse mattered even in the ‘heartland’ of security studies (as in this influential volume edited by Peter Katzenstein, or in this volume on the Middle East edited by Mike Barnett and Shibley Telhami). Many Realists countered that these ‘soft’ and ‘fuzzy’ factors mattered only at the margins, or in relatively insignificant areas of political life: if ideas or moral norms mattered, it was only because of the strategic insignificance of the issue, or because the norms coincided with the interests of powerful states (as in this influential rejoinder written by Michael Desch). While this debate was never fully resolved (are they ever?), many saw the possibility for a synthesis by using Stephen Walt’s ‘balance of threat’ ideas, or Realist models incorporating domestic politics.

After reviewing the “rationalist-constructivist” debate, Marc argued:

Constructivism has won, at least in the security policy realm. The key tenets of its research program have become the conventional wisdom in the public realm: that ideologies and ideas (such as Islam) matter, that the significance of ideas can not be reduced to material power, that norms (such as a norm against terrorism) matter, that public arguments and discourse (such as Muslim condemnations of terror, or the ‘war of ideas’) matter. Given that constructivism was long dismissed as too soft and fuzzy, insufficiently rigorous, and lacking in policy relevance, this has to be a surprising outcome (but see my note at the bottom of this post).

Marc goes on to discuss, in greater detail, why each of these developments demonstrates the ascendence of constructivism. According to Marc, neoconservativism is best understood as a variant (in academic IR terms) of constructivism.

Like constructivists, and unlike Realists, they believe that ideas matter, they believe in moral argument (at least for public consumption), they believe in the possibility of progressive change (spreading democracy). That’s why so many Realists opposed them.

There’s something to this, but it raises some interesting questions.

First, is “neoconservativism” a conservative variant of constructivism? It would seem to follow (and I think this summarizes Marc’s position well) that academic constructivism is liberal. Although the two positions are not exclusive, Marc’s reading provides a different perspective than the standard view of neoconservativism as “Wilsonsian with teeth,” i.e., a “neo-Reganite” synthesis of Wilsonsian idealism with a more hard-headed recognition of the importance of, and transformative potential of, military force.

Second, what precisely is constructivism? Marc’s description captures the current state of constructivism as a “research program” in IR. When we talk about “constructivism” in IR, we generally have in mind a collection of theories that (a) focus on the causal force of ideational, discursive, and linguistic factors in world politics and (b) highlight the role of transnational movements and processes in international affairs.

Third, is Marc right? Many realists would say different. The putative failure of Bush foreign policy represents what’s wrong with constructivism: in particular, its lack of attention to the hard constraints of military power. They would also (and this is relevant to some ongoing debates at the Duck) contend that transnational Islamic terrorism, for all its disruptive potential, is a distraction from more important developments in international politics, such as the rise of China and the long-term shift of power away from the United States.

I want to focus on the first two questions.

Contemporary mainline constructivism (as opposed to, say “critical” constructivisms) does seem to be a variant of liberal theory. One could argue that “constructivism,” in its present form, takes up the “sociological” dimensions of liberal idealism, while “liberalism” represents the rationalist and economistic trajectory of the liberal-idealist worldview. J. Samuel Barkin has made this point, rather convincingly, in a piece he published two years ago (“Realist Constructivism”, International Studies Review, 5,3 (2003), pp. 427-441), and it is extended in a forum on his article (“Bridging the Gap: Toward A Realist-Constructivist Dialogue”, International Studies Review, 6,2 (2004), pp. 337-352), with short pieces by Patrick Jackson and myself, Janice Bially Mattern, Jennifer Sterling-Folker, Richard Ned Lebow, and Barkin.

If we consider the social-theoretic basis of constructivism, though, this connection is a bit odd. To be a constructivist, as Ian Hacking argues, is simply to claim that some phenomenon “X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.” Since realists claim that international politics are essentially timeless – given the “nature of things,” such as human nature and/or the consequences of a lack of a common authority between states – constructivism would appear to be an attack on realism. Whether or not it is, however, depends on what phenomenon we are interested in. Few realists would disagree that most of what we study – the outbreak of wars, the ebb and flow of global trade, and so forth – are anything other than socially and historically contingent. World War I, for instance, did not have to happen, at least at the time and in the manner, that it did. Moreover, IR scholars don’t study rocks or the orbit of celestial objects. We study complex human political interaction, which are, almost by definition, “socially constructed.” No humans, no international politics.

Thus, to the extent that neoconservativism embraces a transformative logic of world politics, we could call it “constructivist.” But it strikes me that doing so requires a rather jaundiced view of constructivism and realism, in which we restrict both frameworks to a specific set of variables studied by some academics. In the process, we lose sight of the underlying issues at stake in various approaches to international relations.

I would say, given all this, that Marc conceptualizes the issue incorrectly. It isn’t a matter of whether constructivism has or hasn’t “won,” but instead how recent developments signal the need for us to reconfigure how we think about realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

Which brings me to an ongoing project both Patrick and I have alluded to before. Patrick and I are currently spearheading a series of conferences that seek to find common ground between realists and constructivists while more fully fleshing out a “realist variant” of constructivism. This isn’t merely an intellectual exercise: if we want to tackle the real world challenges posed by neoconservativism, transnational terrorism, and so forth, scholars need to bring together insights from various approaches to IR in productive ways.

We’ve held one workshop at Georgetown already. In 2006 we are holding one more at Ohio State University (where Alex Wendt is co-investigating) and another at Dartmouth College (where Ned Lebow is co-investigating). What follows are excerpts from my most recent write up of the project. If any of our readers have comments, they would be warmly welcomed.

Liberals and realists understand international politics in very different ways. Liberals are optimists. They believe that, given the right distribution of interests and beliefs, actors can transform international politics to make it less dominated by power, less conflictual, and more governed by common rules of conduct. Realists are far more pessimistic. They hold that power has been, and will remain, the ultima ratio of international politics, conflict is endemic to interntional relations, and that attempts to create common rules of conduct are, at best, of limited value and, at worst, counterproductive to individual and collective security.

Constructivists and rationalists also approach international politics differently. Constructivists stress the importance of intersubjective beliefs, culture, and discourse. They focus on the role of these, and other, factors in constituting political action. Rationalists tend to see political action as governed by basic logics of rational-decision making, often stress the objective nature of interests, and downplay the role of language and culture in determining international outcomes.

Many international-relations scholars treat liberalism, realism, and constructivism as different positions in a three-cornered fight; they pit the three “approaches” against one another in order to show that either one of them, or some combination of them, better explains a particular outcome. Others see liberalism and constructivism as natural allies. Both, after all, stress the possibility of transformative change in the texture of international politics. Constructivists do so because they believe that international relations are, in significant ways, historically and socially contingent. Liberals do so because they have faith in the ability of actors, under the right conditions, to negotiate durable mutually beneficial arrangements that reduce the salience of power in world politics.

These views about the relationship of the so-called “paradigms” are not without merit. The predominate form of constructivism is what some have called “liberal constructivism,” and most mainstream constructivist studies focus on the role of persuasion, norms, and transnational actors in bringing about (usually positive) change in international politics. Contemporary realism tends to stress materialist accounts of international politics, which reflects their self-conceptualization as “hard-nosed” investigators into the objective conditions that drive international politics.

Yet there are also problems with these conceptualizations of the field. Consider the place of rationalism. The realist tradition has often been skeptical of rationalism, precisely because of the close connection between political liberalism and pre- and post-Enlightenment forms of rationalism. Canonical realist thinkers – such as Thucydides, Nicollò Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini – often stress the irrational and habitual character of human behavior. Rationalists, however, can be found in both the realist and liberal camps. Thus, some have argued that contemporary realism is realism in name only, while others have asked if realism is no more than cost-benefit analysis in the security arena.

It there can be rationalist realists, then why can’t there be constructivist realists? Many constructivists are pessimistic about the possibility of transcending power in international politics, believe that conflict is an endemic part of international politics, and focus their research on the coercive dimensions of rhetoric, discourse, and norms. Indeed, an increasing number of scholars identify themselves as realist constructivists, although they do not share a common conception of what that means. The core wager of this project is that there can, and ought to be, constructivist realists and realist constructivists.

Constructivists and realists can enrich one another’s understanding of international political processes without sacrificing either on the altar of the other. A variety of variables, mechanisms, and processes cross the two approaches. Renewed realist interrogation into dynamics associated with legitimacy, identity, status, and non-material components of power, as well as new realist categories such as “soft balancing,” suggest that realists can benefit from even-handed dialog with constructivists. Constructivists, for their part, would benefit from incorporating realist analysis into their own work, such as attention to the security dilemma, the balance of power, and military domination.

Although many are skeptical about the fruitfulness of such intellectual dialog, recent attempts to reconcile rationalism and constructivism have proven quite productive. Indeed, aspects of the rationalist-constructivist conversation provide one model for the project here: it has led to a better understanding of the common ground and points of disagreement between the two camps.

Moreover, a number of scholars have already developed frameworks that synthesize realist and constructivist propositions in fruitful ways. Some of these scholars are represented at the conference, and their approaches provide an excellent basis for discussion about the possible shape of realist constructivism, as well as about the benefits and limitations of dialog between realism and constructivism.

At the preliminary conference for this project, held at Georgetown in April of 2005, a general consensus emerged that it involves two different trajectories. The first is specifying the parameters of realist-constructivism. This part of the project may be a primarily – but not exclusively – intra-constructivist debate, one that builds on current work by empirically-oriented post-structuralist research, increasing interest among some constructivists in the work of Carl Schmidt, and some of the synthetic frameworks alluded to above. The second involves building intellectual dialog between realists and realist-oriented constructivists, with the aim of enriching theory and research in both traditions.

Our focus for the current conference is primarily, but not exclusively, on this second trajectory. We are asking many of the participants to prepare 5-10 page memos addressing specific issues in their ongoing research that are also points of convergence between realism and constructivism. We want to know how realists theorize, conceptualize, and operationalize variables, processes, and mechanisms that involve culture, norms, identities, discourse, beliefs, and other putatively “constructivist” concerns. We also want to know how constructivists approach the role of material capabilities, the constraints imposed by international anarchy, the effects of uncertainty about intentions, and other putatively “realist” concerns in their own work.

In general, these topics reflect a number of points of dialog, debate, and convergence. Examples include the effects of international anarchy on norms and persuasion in international politics, the interaction between domestic culture and realist understandings of international political processes, and how asymmetries in material power influence norms, identities, and persuasion. Other important topics involve the sources of perceptions about threat and intentions in international relations, the role of non-material power in international politics (such as authority and discursive power), and the sources and impact of non-material forms of stratification in world politics, e.g., status and prestige hierarchies. Some participants have also been asked to consider common lineages of constructivism and realism, as well as common criticisms of core aspects of the liberal tradition.

In our view, these topics play out in a number of specific mechanisms and processes, such as: the security dilemma, alliance politics, hegemonic cycles and stability, and non-state security threats.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.