Constructivism, Realism and Liberalism

March 19, 2013
Arguments over the relationship of constructivism to
realism and liberal theory.
Two argue that constructivism is and can be a
variant of liberalism, and one argues it can be
compatible with realism. This is in part because
these two argue that constructivism is not a
separate, stand alone theoretical paradigm.
One argues that if correctly understood,
constructivism is a separate, stand alone
paradigm and is distinct not just from realism but
also from liberal theory.
There is not substantive difference between liberal
international organizational theory and
constructivism. They are both variants of liberal
This being the case, there is really nothing new that
constructivism contributes as an allegedly new
research paradigm– provides no alternative to
liberal theory, uses the same functional causal
understanding, and tends to reproduce liberal
arguments, conclusions and predictions
This is unfortunate because the early theoretical promise of
constructivism was quite different. In drawing upon postmodernism, it initially appeared to provide an alternative to
the teleological and constricted rationalism of liberal theory.
But instead of using postmodernism it revitalize IR theory, it
has validated liberal theory by conventionalizing
postmodernism to reify modernism and reinforce the
mechanism of functional institutional efficiency that is used
as the explanation for international change in liberal
international organization theory.
In doing so, it neither challenges that theory nor provides ways
out of the problems IO theory faces in accounting for the
stubborn persistence of the state.
IO theory:
 Holds that the pursuit of common interests
leads to the organization of international
efforts in the form of narrowly tailored
international institutions.
 The degree to which these institutions are
successful in pursuing those interests
determines the level of desire for them and
their survival.
This analysis assumes that the state is the problem not the
answer to common interests. National institutions have to be
transcended in order for those interests to be effectively
pursued, thus the demand for international institutions
Thus institutions are created by means of a process in which
the environment is dominant, in that the select institutions
based on the latter’s abilities to effectively pursue preexisting common interests. Here, interests are taken as they
are and held constant
Identity, if addressed in this analysis, comes last, as the
result of the functioning of institutions. It is assumed that
people can easily switch their identities to new international
A reaction to the failure of the original form of
international institutionalism to explain the continued
vitality of the state. Abandoned the teleological
assumption that depicted international institutions as
the inevitable end point of a functional process by
positing that different environments informed by states
importantly shape the process.
States therefore are still seen as barriers to
international cooperation, but this time because it is
held that elites are unable to grasp the superior
functionality of international institutions, and instead
stubbornly hold to an outmoded unilateralism for
pursuing interests.
This resistance is said to be overcome through
the learning that comes about thanks to the
success of international cooperation. What
continues to be important to this variant is the
central role played by the pursuit of common
interests rather than social practices and
domestic institutions that may give elites their
original identities.
Also employs a functionalist logic because it also joins the
assumption of pre-set collective interests with the power of
external environments to shape outcomes, including
institutions and practices, which in turn create norms and
identities. It is still an historical process privileging efficiency
that creates norms and identities.
These collective interests, in the form of security, pursuit of a
better life, etc) are immune to change through social
interaction in this analysis, acting instead as a set of
foundational assumptions in which it is social practices that
are transformed in response to the recognition of
dysfunction, rather than social practices that transform
understandings of interests and recognition that a set of
circumstances constitutes “dysfunction”– Wendt, Ruggie.
Argues that changing beliefs and perceptions will
make international cooperation more likely
 Interaction is the environment that produces such
changes, including changes in identity, just as do
the variants of liberal functionalists
Neofunctionalists: success of regional cooperation will
lead elites to abandon exclusivist national identities
 Neoinstitutionalists: success of cooperation will lead
elites to abandon unilateralism
 Constructivists: interaction will lead to a change of
national identity that will equate the nation with a larger
collective entity,
The commonality also works the other way
around because at a later point in their
analysis, some neoliberal institutionalists also
hold that international regimes and practices,
when they are established and taken for
granted, can changes the ways people perceive
their interests by adapting to the regimes
established rules and norms, no matter their
Constructivism not necessarily incompatible with
classical realism, but could act as a complement
to it, balancing realism’s focus on power with a
focus on norms and ideas as morality in the way
Carr originally envisioned a comprehensive
understanding of IR.
 But practitioners err when they attempt to
establish it as a stand-alone theoretical paradigm
able to explain the universe of IR. As misleading by
itself as is neorealism.
The problem that has prevented the
combination of realism with constructivism is
that practitioners have incorrect ideas about
the traditions:
 Constructivists
equate realism with a narrow
rationalism and strict materialism
 Realists associate constructivism with a naïve
idealism and utopianism.
Constructivism: approach that focuses on the
social construction of international order,
holding that such an order is not an objective
entity based on material factors, but an intersubjective social reality in which actions
interests, and structures are defined by social
norms and ideas.
Realism: the importance of power in international
relations, whether it be in the form of power
structures or the persistence of structures.
Additional factors such as the centrality of the
state and survival are also associated with power.
However, a focus on material capabilities not a core
realist concept, only a focus some realists use.
The rationality realists in general use is not a narrow
one, as in rational choice theory, but a general one
in which it is assumed that leaders act rationally in
the sense that they tend to act consistently.
Thus many constructivists, in understanding realism in general
as focusing on material capabilities and assuming they view
human nature as materialist, are mistaken.
Realism as a whole is compatible with a wide range of
understandings of human nature, bounded by the rejection
of the notion that humans are perfectible and the
acceptance of the assumption that there will always be
humans who want to accumulate power.
Nor are all realists positivists. Classical realists did not accept
the fact that the world is a rational place and grasped the
problems such a characteristic poses for attempting to
rationally understand the world.
The real argument is between exclusive views of
realism and a focus on morality, norms and ideas.
Classical realists objected to the liberal argument
that because humans have consistent and
reasonable preferences, this provides the basis for
building international institutions that allow people
to pursue interests without interfering with one
another, and that the success of these institutions
will appeal to human reasonableness such that
they will eschew power politics, leading to Kant’s
perpetual peace.
But realists hold that peace is powerfully contextual,
involving the resolving of highly particular
problems that often arise precisely through the
resolution of prior problems. This is because the
resolution of any problem will not benefit everyone
equally– in fact, some will lose. It is in this context,
in influencing who wins and loses, that power will
always play a role even in the presence of
international institutions whose aim is to foster
cooperation and resolve differences peacefully.
But that doesn’t mean that classical realists like Carr did
not recognize the importance of norms and morality for
governing behavior and molding the perceptions of
interests. He held that humans are moral beings and
will not accept the exercise of power unless they judge it
legitimate, and require morality to direct power.
His objection and his use of the label of utopianism was
leveled at the liberal argument that a situation could
arise in which morality and norms could completely
displace power. That, he held, could never happen and it
would be a mistake to try to make it happen by relying
only upon the building of institutions and relying upon
norms and morality.
Constructivism should share this view, and
Wendt and others, in acknowledging the
importance of power, explicitly held they were,
in that sense, realists.
But not everyone holds to such common
assumptions. Democratic Peace Theory, in
holding that a world filled with democracies will
abolish war and power politics, is one of theory
that does not.
It is true that most constructivist now work in the
liberal paradigm, pursuing projects that are
important to liberal theory and taking for
granted liberal norms and goals.
But that need not be the case. Can create a
realist constructivist research agenda that
explores the interaction of norms and power, in
the sense that they affect change in one
Constructivism correctly understood neither
liberal nor idealistic despite attempts to label it
as such and attempts by some constructivist to
create connections with rationalist theories.
It is important to make this case and distinguish
constructivism from other approaches because
of the important insights it brings even though
constructivism is a loose research paradigm
with several variations.
The world is held together by social ideas and
intersubjective understandings which
constitute and are constituted by social
identities, whether individual or collective
 Thus states are actors that are aware of their
identities and seek to perpetuate them
 Norms are endogenous entities that come into
being through the action and practices of
states are not independent of social action.
Whiles states the most important international actors, they are not the
only ones
Only through intersubjective understandings of agents do materials come
to be recognized as resources that help states and others achieve goals.
Steele’s variant stresses that international politics are the product of
structures created and recreated by humans, and that humans being selfaware agents, the study of IR can have an impact on IR– no separation
between observer and object. The study of IR can create epistemic
philosophies that affect state behavior and can be used by states to justify
their activities, thus making those activities legitimate. Example:
references by officials to DPT as uncovering a law of democratic peace.
Thus he rejects a positivist rendering of constructivism and focuses on the
importance of processes as much as outcomes, and differentiates his
constructivism from DPT, which has roots in positivism in focusing on
Can share concepts of progress as well as importance of
ideas, institutions and domestic politics
 Functionalist tendency to equate process with linearity
and inevitability.
 Other variants see states as self-aware actors which
look for legitimate structures– thus an analysis that
emphasizes contingency and pluralistic outcomes
 Liberals tend to look at outcomes as the explanation for
intentions, while constructivists look to see how the
perceived legitimacy of processes influence outcomes.
Overlap in objects of research by constructivists and liberals
(security communities, human rights, multi-lateralism), but former
do so as a way of illustrating how those concepts influence the
behavior of states, not in terms of proposing normative goals for
Attempts by realists to label constructivism as idealism and utopian
as a way of dismissing it, thereby categorizing it similarly with
liberalism. But again true constructivists look at norms and moral
codes as influencing the way states behave, not as normatively
desirable things.
Rationalists also sometimes appropriate constructivist focus on
norms, but do so in a positivist fashion and thereby cut off the
important reflexive element constructivist understand as making
norms important. Instead, rationalists see norms as an
independent variable.
DPT a typical liberal theory in its status as a positivist
theory that points to the objective working of the world
towards a desirable normative end. Assumes:
Democracy a universal good that is pursued by rational
Because it is universal, it can be studied scientifically,
i.e., through a positivist mode that assumes a
separation of subject and object.
Thus assumes that in studying the effects of the spread
of democracy on peace that it does not affect the
workings of states: DPT only observes and explains, but
does not affect the process.
Constructivism rejects these assumptions, particularly the
Problem exemplified in the Bush administration’s use of DPT
as a justification for the Gulf War– more democracies
increases the likelihood of peace. Iraq war about
democratization. Was successful in this use because DPT
has become an accepted part of discourse that conveys
legitimacy: encapsulates scientific findings
Thus rather than standing aloof from events, or the findings
of DPT being self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing (as some
practitioners argue), DPT became self-negating, and it is
constructivism, not DPT, other liberal understandings or
realism, that is able to explain this
Thus come to understand through
constructivism that the study of IR events not
like the epidemiological study of diseases, as
the DPT practitioners would have it.

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