By Amel Ouchenane
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 indicated the end of the Cold War. The surprising end of the Cold War shifted not only the world order but also debates in international relations theories. It was unexpected by current international relations theories. Without any large conflict and war exploded furthermore without any transformation in the world system(anarchical), for instance, neorealists predicted that the world’s bipolar order would persist. Neorealists also claimed that international institutions did not have any effect to make war away because International institutions is a matter of material power challenge between states which are not only worried about the unlimited gain, but also relative gain in cooperation and integration.
After the Cold War, international relations discourse provided more diverse approaches to understand and analyze world politics. Constructivism theory is one of the models of the progressing emergence of international relations theory. Rather than diminishing other major theories, according to its holders and proponents, constructivism theory provides wider illumination a larger explanation for determining the dynamic and the function of world politics.
While realism and liberalism concentrate on material factors like power or corporation, constructivist theory tends to focus on the influence of ideas. Rather than considering the state for granted and claiming that it totally aims to survive, constructivists consider the identity and interests of states as an extremely flexible output of special historical processes. Moreover, the constructivists focus is on the predominant discourse in society. This is because discourse shows and changes interests and beliefs, and sets accepted values, norms of behavior. Thus, constructivism is mainly interested in the main sources and roots of alteration and this approach has broadly substituted Marxism.
Constructivism, especially state identity theory explained by Alexander Wendt and Peter Katzenstein, has become far from the almost particularly rationalist mainstream of international relations theory. The constructivist theory, mainly seen as the most significant challenge to rationalist dominance, argues that the theoretical framework focusing on the concept of state identity, can provide an important alternative and option to rational choice theory. State identity is mainly about the non-material factors such as values, culture, norms, ideas etc, studied by the constructivist scholars. It provides very important causal links to support the basic arguments of constructivist theoretical framework.
The term Constructivism was adopted by Nicholas Onuf in 1989 and introduced as “people and societies construct or constitute each other”. the main assumption of constructivists is that the fundamental structures of international politics are social and these structures shape actors’ identities and interests. Therefore, the world is structured by both knowledge and material factors, according to constructivists the main important relation is between agents and structures. Moreover, constructivists adopt a common concern when understanding and explaining how international structures are defined by ideas and how identities and interests of the states and non-state players are influenced by the structures.
The post-Cold War era played a significant role in legitimating constructivist approach because both liberalism and realism were unsuccessful in predicting this event and had difficulties explaining it. On the contrary, constructivists had an explanation based on ideas and norms; for example, the idea of “common security,” adopted by Gorbachev.Furthermore, constructivism theory argues that we live in a period where ancient values and norms are being challenged, limits and boundaries are fading and matters of identity and culture are becoming more prominent and outstanding. Unexpectedly, researchers have been drawn to theories that put these issues front and center.In the post Cold War era constructivism emerged into the stage of debates in international relations theories. However, some researchers and scholars criticize that constructivism “remains a method than anything else, according to them constructivism does not offer an essential theory of world politics.Moreover, it provides a research approach that can be employed to understand and explain international political economy.Therefore, Constructivism should operate with other theories from different disciplines and branches like comparative politics, social psychology..etc.
On the other hand, constructivism has demonstrating itself as an effective theory in understanding and explaining world politics, especially after Alexander Wendt published his article, Anarchy is What States Make of It, which developed the basis of constructivism approach. It focuses more on the nonmaterial world and considers that material world changes are changed by the social world. Thus, the distribution of power and State’s military power do not automatically construct an international social structure. Even without any central governance which has authority over all states in the world, the international system does certainly become a “competitive security system”.
From a constructivist approach, the main problem in the post-Cold War world is how various groups visualize their interests and identities. However, power is not unrelated. Constructivism focuses on how ideas, norms, values, and identities are created and constructed, how they develop, and how they change the way states comprehend and react to their situation. Thus, it matters whether the US adopts or denies its identity as “global policeman and whether Europeans realize themselves mostly in national or continental terms. Constructivist approaches are highly varied and do not provide a unified group of expectations on any of these matters.
Constructivism varies itself from neoliberalism and neorealism by emphasizing and highlighting the ontological reality of intersubjective knowledge. It does not mean that constructivism neglected the material world because intersubjective knowledge and material world interact affect and influence each other. Furthermore, both the material world and intersubjective knowledge are not independent and not separated. They have relative autonomy.
According to Constructivism theory, the material world does not completely define how people, or states, behave. It only limits the chance of interpretation and the intersubjective world that people can build. Moreover, material body enforcing is restricted to social structure. Thus, constructivists do not mean the unlimited possibilities of social structure. However, people have the capability to interpret, as they cannot easily interpret the social world and their own material world. There is restriction of interpretation of the social world, that.the material world changes and is changed by the social world.
Constructivism theory discusses the issue of anarchy in the international system, At a simple conceptual level, Alexander Wendt claimed that the realist conception of anarchy does not explain why conflict occurs between states enough. The main thing is how anarchy is understood, and Wendt argues that “Anarchy is what states make of it.” He also argues that transnational communication and shared civic values are weakening traditional national obeisance and make an extremely new genre of political alliances. Furthermore, Constructivist theory focuses more on the role of norms, claiming that international law and other normative principles have decreased mainly the notions of sovereignty and changed the legitimate purposes for which state power may be used.
Constructivism theory recognizes the significance of nonmaterial power (culture, ideas, language, knowledge, and ideology) as well as material power because the two powers connect and interact to build the world order. For instance, nonmaterial power works through creating and recreating intersubjective meaning. It clarifies how the material structure, states’ identity, interactions and relations between states, and any other social facts should be realized and comprehended.
The end of the Cold War came as a surprise to the classical dominant theories, who failed to predict or explain the changes in global politics. However, it provided the opportunity for more evolution of critical thoughts, which started since the mid-1980s. The Realist approach in international relations was criticized largely for their materialistic approaches by constructivism, which speedily boomed and was known as a theory that focuses on the social dimension of international politics. This improvement towards the chance of change helped the theory to catch significant elements of the world’s relations: the many factors of mainstream presumptions and norms in world politics, which were threatened and challenged by constructivism.
Constructivism defied the theory of power politics, especially dominant perception of the threat and conflict in global politics and picked a fully different approach in studying the construction of the threat through their fundamental focus on the social dimensions of international politics, therefore, it recognizes them as socially constructed elements in the process of identity formation under the influence of the norms and shared values of society.
Discussing the Euro-Med theatre in his ‘Geopolitics–Energy–Technolgy’ book, for example, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic states: “The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents the only existing land corridor that connects 3 continents. Contributing some 6% to the total world population, its demographic weight is almost equal to that of the US (4,5%) and Russia (1,5%) combined. While the US and Russia are single countries, the MENA composite is a puzzle of several dozens of fragile pieces where religious, political, ideological, history-cultural, economic, social and territorial cleavages are entrenched, deep, wide and long. However, the MENA territory covers only 3% of the Earth’s land surface (in contrast to the US’ 6,5%, coverage and Russia’s 11,5%). Thus, with its high population density and strong demographic growth, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often politically radicalized (angry) males, competes over finite and scarce resources, be they arable or settlers land, water and other essentials.
Competition in this theatre, that has a lasting history of external domination or interference, is severe, multiple, unpredictable, and therefore it is fluid and unsettled on the existing or alternative socio-economic, ideological, cultural and politico-military models, access, directions and participatory base.”
As we see, the work of constructivists was established around their aim in explaining the changes in world politics in the period towards the end, and after the Cold War especially when dominant international relations approaches and theories failed to predict the sudden change in the global politics. Moreover, this transformation raised the question about social construction and the methodology of international relations theories and their involvement and effects in the production of international power.
The main dominant international theories were unable to explain the collapse of Soviet Union, especially the theories which focus on material power, and nuclear weapons. This is because, despite being a nuclear power, the Soviet Union collapsed. Neorealists tried to provide a simple explanation by telling the decline of Soviet power. But, the explanation focused more on domestic politics and economy than on the material structure of world’s distribution of power. Thus it could not explain enough why the Soviet Union and Gorbachev adopted decisions which could endanger its national security and survival and stop it from increasing its hegemony and power, However, neorealists were still certain about the significance of neorealism.
Another explanation was given by Democratic liberalists who tried to stress the people’s aims for freedom and objections to communism. Neoliberalism and the market economy favorably forced their hegemonies to the world and increased the validity of tyranny and command economy. However, while this evidence could explain the decline of communist ideology in the Soviet Union, it could not explain why such transformation and change happens in the 1980s. However, Neoliberals provided another explanation. Liberalism and communism interacted across political borders, especially the new way of thinking among top political leaders decreased the hegemony of communism and made the Soviet Union collapse. Therefore, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War presented a significant challenge for constructivists to understand. Wendt said that “material structure can have special impacts.
The distribution of power, anarchy in international relations and military power do not fix states’ identities and relations. State military power can be understood as a threatening power as well as protecting power for other states.
In addition, a nuclear weapon is a matter of perception. For instance, nuclear weapons in the hands of United States has a different meaning for Taiwan than a nuclear weapon in the hands of China. Therefore, considering states “like billiard balls of varying size” is not enough to explain and understand reality. Military capabilities of any state and the distribution of power in the international system are interfering elements but they are not able to understand relations between states. For example, two enemy or allied states can be divided by defining the material military structure. However, the states identification and social structure are important elements which define relations between states. Constructivism theory (actually rather an ontology) argues that common identities and a long history of alliance and cooperation between two states can be a strong ground of cooperative security system. On the other hand, other identities and a long history of conflict and struggle can build a competitive security system based on conflict and wars.
Amel Ouchenane is a member of the organization of Security and Strategic studies in Algeria. She is also Research Assistant at the Idrak Research Center for Studies and Consultations. Ms. Ouchenane was researcher at Algiers University from 2011 to 2018 (Department of International relations and African studies).