Constructivist Theories of IR

  • Social rather than primarily material basis for understanding IR
    • examine how international social structures shape actors’ identities and interests
    • identity: basic character of states.
  • interests or identities fixed or given in realism and liberalism
    • 'rationalist' approaches treat interest or 'preferences over outcomes' as ‘given’ or exogenous to the theory
    • constructivist approach explains how states and other actors form these preferences.
      • endogenous to the theory
      • 'preferences over conduct' exist (e.g., multilateralism v. unilateralism)

Wendt’s Four Elements of a Constructivist Theory of IR

Material Resources

  • Resources matter, but are at best a first starting point.
    • Wendt: North Korea’s possible nuclear arsenal is more threatening than existing and sizeable British or French arsenals)
    • Why is the distribution of capabilities discounted toward Britain and France if, as realists argue, intentions can change?

Shared knowledge

  • Shared understandings constitute relations
    • Security dilemma v. security community
    • Security community: relations among states in which use of force is inconceivable (e.g., relations between US-Canada-Mexico and within European Union).

Practices (Praxes)

  • Social structures exist in the praxes of actors, not in the distribution of capabilities (material factors).
  •  Institutions are regularized praxes
    • European Union’s and NATO’s persistence are regarded by realists as anomalies: states should engage in relative-gains seeking in absence of material threat (Soviet Union is gone; Russia is weak)

Mutual Constitution of Agents and Structure

  • Agents (for Wendt, states) and social structures “mutually constitute” each other through their praxes.
  • Anarchy is what states make of it.
    • A mutual-help system can exist: collective security if states engage in such praxes


Norms as Causal Variables in IR

  • NLI theories examine the role of norms (standards of  behavior defined in terms of right and obligation, or collective expectations about proper behavior for a given identity)
    • ‘regulatory norms’: tell states what they should and should not do
  • Norms may be ‘constitutive’: create roles, identities, and interests for states
    •  norms of sovereignty constitute sovereign territorial state as the primary actor of the international system
    •  terrorist organizations, multinational firms, transnational activist organizations, national liberation organizations, nations are treated differently because of the constitutive norms of sovereignty
    • not a legal argument, although international law may formalize the norms.


Analyzing norms

  • prone to politicization: states that violate norms may reject the existence of the norm
  • dynamic process: norms ‘exist’ as practices and shared knowledge