Tag Archives: Constructivism

Asia and the Rest: Lines, Circles and Triangles

In this brief reflection Marco Pellerey explains why the international political chessboard should be understood as a set of straight lines, circles and triangles: a place where different forms of thought and expression intersect to form an intricate web of actual interests and perceptions which are, to say the least, ambiguous.


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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the perpetual conflict between realists and the various schools of constructivism in international relations, the former are often accused by the latter of oversimplifying reality, cynically reducing and shaping every situation to strip political protagonists of every psychological dimension that is not rational, calculating and clearly self-serving. Here I would like to propose an extension of this reasoning, adopting a geometrical perspective in order to underline certain cultural aspects that I believe hold great relevance to the current international context.

I invite the reader to imagine the importance that the straight line (and the ideal of total inflexibility that it represents) have had in the development of the so-called “West”. Consider the Macedonian phalanx, with soldiers arranged in neat rows ready to confront the enemy standing directly before them. And so too it was in the trenches of the First World War and in the skies of the Second World War: courage, glory and victory only spring forth from head-on and decisive conflict. The game of chess embodies the epitome of the West in its binary arrangements: blacks and whites, ‘winning’ or ‘captured’ pieces, aristocracy and humble pawns. Nature’s metaphor would be that of the majesty of an oak, whose straight and unyielding trunk defies the elements, splitting rather than retreating.

The eastern equivalent could be represented by the bamboo. A flexible plant which, rather than resist with head held high, instead bends to the wind, adapting in order to then raise itself once more, tracing a wide circle in the air. The superlative quality transforms itself from rigidity to flexibility; a quality which is inherent to the Chinese strategy of war, as Sun Tzu stated in some of his most celebrated aphorisms:

The art of war lies in subduing the enemy without having to confront him;

In every conflict regular manoeuvres lead to confrontation, whilst unexpected manoeuvres lead to victory

This asymmetry is incompatible with linear European logic and has often been interpreted-especially by travellers in the 19th century-as a sign of unreliability, almost genetic ambiguity and therefore inferiority with respect to Europeans. On the battlefield it has been interpreted as cowardice typical of those wishing to avoid exposure to conflict.

The perceptual differences are primarily cultural and have deep implications for daily life. Whilst Asia seeks harmony between forms, always seeking to establish a cosmic equilibrium between the parts (Yin and Yang), avoiding verbal and physical conflicts as far as possible, on the contrary Westerners believe that from direct confrontation –above all in politics-new and innovative ideas arise, denouncing anything which does not proceed in a direct and unambiguous manner. Could we not term America the country of straight talk?

To these geometric metaphors, on which numerous scholars have commented at length, can be added a third, which is essential in order to better understand the political games in Asia: the triangle. How to resolve conflicts between individuals or nations without being too overt and therefore running the risk of causing offence, or worse, causing one ‘to lose face’ to the adversary? The solution is to delegate to third parties who act as intermediaries. It is a game which enables parties to lessen their exposure to risk but which allows greater efficiency and frankness. There is a need, however, to find a reliable interlocutor who enjoys the confidence of both sides.

The recent strengthening of regional agreements in East and South-East Asia should also be understood in this context. The ASEAN (The Association of South-East Asian Nations), for example, counts among its members nations who have gone to war with one another in the last thirty years. Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea in 1978 was particularly bloody; the centuries-old conflict between Thais and Burmese; border disputes which continue to this day between Thai and Cambodian control of a temple which lies on the border, or even the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian Army from 1975-1999. Although it is perfectly normal that an air of reciprocal mutual mistrust still lingers, ASEAN serves an additional purpose for its members, as it is able to act as a lubricant on the area’s political tensions, offering an ideal forum in order to abate conflicts between governments and institutions.

Other similar regional forums have been created with the intent of promoting a multilateral solution to problems regarding rival countries. The Mekong River Commission and Sustainable Development (MRC), based in Vientiane, is another sub-regional body, used as a diplomatic support to heal conflicts by way of intermediaries.

It would not, therefore, be incorrect to depict the international political chessboard as a geometrical set of straight lines, circles and triangles, where different forms of thought and expression intersect to form an intricate web of actual interests and perceptions which are, to say the least, ambiguous.


Original Article: Asia and the Rest: Linee, Cerchi e Triangoli

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: Present&Correct

Monotheism’s Importance To International Relations

Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of many vital political concepts.


Corner of church and state street


The relationship between religion and international politics has been often characterized by mutual suspicion and conceptual misunderstandings as a result of unsuccessful and flawed analyses about their interaction. However, accounting for religion as an intervening variable in world politics can not be entirely dismissed: from a sociological and constructivist standpoint, the field of faith can provide us with relevant and helpful insights for explaining the evolution of some political concepts.

As far as the three Abrahamic religions are concerned (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), historical and comparative analyses show us how religion might be a useful explanatory tool for grasping complex structural phenomena. In fact, far from suggesting any pretentious and inconsistent theory of “religion in world politics”, I will be focusing on monotheism as the basis for the exercise and theorization of sovereignty, social mobilization and civil society.

To begin with, according to Daniel Philpott, the so-called ‘Westphalian System’ of modern states, based in the modern conception of state sovereignty, was built on religious grounds in Europe. Before 1648, political Europe was characterized by deeply fragmented forms of sovereignty, although transcontinental institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, ruled this broad geopolitical arena through what John Sidel has called the interwoven area between “non-territorial” and material power (powers over land, taxation, and local officials). As a result, the Christian authority represented the embryonic stage of a complex state system, which was later institutionalized through the thirty-year experience of inter-religious conflicts, ending with the Treaty of Westphalia.

Previously, the 16th century had marked the rise of the Protestant Reformation within the Christian world. Calvinism, in association with the structural consequences unleashed by the interaction between transcontinental institutions and pre-existing and scattered forms of sovereignty, played a meaningful role in determining the rise of the state. As Philip Gorski cleverly points out, the Protestant Reformation laid the foundations of a “disciplinary revolution”, which made available the necessary discipline for political control. More importantly, in addition to this cultural feature, the Calvinist church provided the modern state thanks to its own power relation with local communities and government.

If Christianity, and related institutions, have played a substantial role within the development of sovereignty and the modern state-system, Islam has to be mentioned as mobilizing factors in world politics. Islam laid down its bases during the 18th and 19th century. Indeed, European colonialism stretched its arms over Muslim lands, such as in the Indian Ocean where the Portuguese, Dutch and British powers intensified forms of imperial and colonial control. In these lands, the aforementioned imperial powers applied the same political and organizational tenet: the extension of Christian extra-territorial sovereignty founded on the basis of religion.

In the 20th century two remarkable occurrences took place: the creation of new networks of Islamic intellectuals and activists on one hand; and the instrumental use of Islam in domestic and foreign policy against the colonial encroachment on the other. The interaction between these two political and social consequences strengthened the rally ‘round effect of religion in the international realm, especially since the rise of new media and the improvement of communication among Muslims. As a matter of fact, both the rise of Al Qa’ida in the last thirty years (as a counter-hegemonic force against the Soviet Union during the Cold war, and more recently the United States), and the state sponsorship of Islamic movements by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, confirm the political clout of Islam in international affairs.

Finally, an overlooked case deserves to be taken into account: Judaism. In his latest book, Michael Walzer stresses the constraining role of Judaism in managing political power: drawing from the philosophical work of Nietzsche, even Walzer identifies the Hebrew Bible as a text against the will of power, as turned by humans against one another. Generally speaking, the Hebrew Bible is concerned with the use, abuse and justification of power by governments. Moreover, Walzer enriches the analysis of Judaism by underlying its role in elaborating a successfully theory of society, conceived as a self-help structure: indeed, the Jews have been able to survive as a society, and without formal political institutions, over the course of history. For such a reason, this religious text continues to be compelling and relevant, and further studies should be provided in order to understand evolution and interaction between civilizations.

Far from being thorough and exhaustive, this article aims at suggesting a more serious account of the role of religion in international relations. As these few words have witnessed, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of some important political concepts. All of them, in particular, can serve as “autonomous public spaces and as a countervailing power to state power”, by creating a “particular kind of civil society and associational life.


Photo Credit: Ian Sane

Constructivism: Too Focused On Norms?

‘Constructivism is too focused on ‘norms’ and does not provide an adequate account of material forces in international politics.’ Do you agree?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


Named world map


[dropcap]C[/dropcap]onstructivism was propelled into the theoretical realm when Nicolas Onuf proffered that states, in the same way as individuals, are living in a ‘world of our own making’.[1] This approach to international politics gained credence in the aftermath of the Cold War and situates itself in between the protagonists of the Third Debate: positivism and post-positivism.[2] Within International Relations literature, constructivism is occasionally grouped into the bracket of ‘critical theory’ alongside postmodernism, reflectivism and poststructuralism.[3] Yet, the approach has deviated from its interpretivist colleagues and gained its own authority within the field. As with any school of thought, there are internal rivalries within constructivism; some scholars make use of organization theory and some draw from discourse analysis.[4] Though, within the circle of constructivism, its scholars are unified by a concern for the ideational and its impact on international politics via shared interests, identities and interactions. This begs the question: if constructivism is so fundamentally concerned with the intersubjective nature of knowledge then what account is given of the role of material forces within international politics? And is it sufficient?

This essay will argue that, due to the inherent nature of a social approach to international politics, constructivism is indeed predominantly focused on the shared understandings of actors but that, although the relationship between the social and the material could be further explored, this approach still supplies an adequate explanation of the role of material forces in the world.[5] The first section will examine constructivism’s focus on reality as a ‘social construct’ via the mutual constitution of normative structures and agents, with a specific focus on Anthony Giddens’ ‘structuration’ theory and a comparison with Neorealism. The second section will analyse how constructivism accounts for the material within international politics and whether this is indeed an insufficient explanation. The third section will critically survey the argument that the relationship between the social and the material in the world could, and should, be further explored within constructivism, with special attention paid to the work of Georg Sørenson. The final section will summarise and conclude the key points that have been argued in this essay.

Too Focused on Norms?

First of all, it is important to note that constructivism underlines the significance of both material and discursive power in international politics.[6] This, however, does not equate to a balanced research agenda; constructivists predominantly aim to increase the understanding and explanation of state behaviour and focus on the impact of identities and norms upon interests.[7] A constructivist definition of a norm is identified as a collective understanding that makes behavioural claims on actors, and these ‘collective understandings’ take the form of a normative structure which, combined with the actions of situated agents, inform good or bad action within international politics.[8]  It is this dynamic relationship between agents and structure that is so fundamental to the constructivist account of international politics; agents and structures are not ontologically dualistic but mutually constituted. Agents are seen as knowledgeable and reflexive; their actions inform the structure which in turn informs the action of the agents. This is a by-product of the agent-structure debate and influenced significantly by Anthony Giddens’ theory of ‘structuration’ which refers to this mutual constitution as a ‘duality of structure’.[9] Constructivism’s foremost scholar, Alexander Wendt, even refers to this aspect of Giddens’ work, stating that ‘the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and outcome of the practices which constitute those systems’.[10] It is the premise that, as we act, we structurate. We are constantly creating normative structures and inventing new ones as we act; constructivism applies this logic to state action within international politics and this is imperative to understanding why constructivism places the majority of its focus upon norms.

This concept is the foundation for Wendt’s claim that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’.[11] This essentially means that as interactions between actors change over time, the normative structures that are created can also change, thus allowing for the possibility that these structures will induce the actors to subconsciously behave towards one another in a different manner. Therefore, the constructivist focus upon norms is of greater use in accounting for change and cooperation in international politics in comparison with an inherently materialist theory such as Neorealism which cannot truly account for change or cooperation in international politics.[12] The end of the Cold War and colonial imperialism have been used extensively as examples of the benefits that constructivism, in contrast with materialism, is able to bring to issues in international politics through its analysis of shared knowledge and intersubjective practice.[13]

Waltz posits that a structural theory of the world must be exclusively ‘free of the attributes and the interactions of the units’ and this is in direct opposition to the importance of intersubjective structure in constructivism.[14] Neorealists are of the belief that it is strictly the distribution of material capabilities at the system level that constrain states (i.e. nuclear capabilities), whereas, constructivists oppose this materialist claim and deem that actors are enabled or constrained by the structures that are created and reproduced over time by the actions of the agents (i.e. norms). [15] In short, Waltz places too much emphasis on structure whilst constructivists place emphasis upon the identity conferring nature of structure. For example, the norm of sovereignty indicates a shared agreement between actors that it is wrong to invade another state’s territorial – ‘sovereign’ – space. Even further, norms such as human rights, non-intervention, humanitarian intervention and the right to protect have evolved over a substantial period of time. States used to intervene in a nation to protect its own citizens, yet in today’s world certain states protect humans in general because of the weight now given to their rights. For instance in Libya, Britain, France and the US intervened after the Libyan people themselves requested assistance; not only this, but the fact that it was a multilateral effort demonstrates how states now work cooperatively instead of individually in order to gain legitimacy; the normative structures informed their action.[16] The case of Libya is a perfect example of how evolving norms such as the right to protect and humanitarian intervention can change state action.

Thus, constructivism is predominantly focused on the duality of structure and agency through which norms, interests and ideas are both the medium and the outcome, but is it too focused on norms and ideas? A holistic approach to international politics which aims to better our understanding of change in the world, such as constructivism, will clearly have a strong focus on norms on the whole as shared ideas and rules inform the actions of states within international politics. As I analyse in the next section, constructivism does not lose sight of material forces in international politics and, this, combined with its dominant focus on norms is important if one wishes to understand and explain change and cooperation in the world. If constructivism focused equally, or more so, on the effect that material forces had upon the world, it would lose its recognition as a social theory of international politics; therefore, norms are essential to an approach such as constructivism because at the core is the concern with how world politics is ‘socially constructed’.[17]

An Inadequate Account of Material Forces?

A materialist account of international politics is one which explains causation via reference to ‘brute material forces… [that] exist…independent of ideas’; material forces such as power, interest, geography, technology, the distribution of power and institutions.[18] The disparity with constructivism is obvious, but how far does constructivism account for these ‘brute’ material forces in international politics? As the above section demonstrated, constructivism opposes materialism and places structures of sociality over structures of materiality. Yet, constructivists do not disregard material forces in international politics nor imply that these forces are exogenous of these social structures; they support the claim that ‘material reality is a prerequisite for social reality’.[19] Moreover, not only does constructivism acknowledge the existence of material forces but it also gives meaning and value to them through the structure of shared knowledge in which they participate.[20] Indeed, norms remain the key determinant of action here; nonetheless, this focus on idealism is an acknowledgement that, if material forces are to hold meaning in international politics, they must depend on shared ideas, norms and interpretations, but this is not a rejection of material reality itself. It is understandable then that in a constructivist account, the starting point of the material world is undefined and that this world becomes understood ‘within a larger context of meaning’.[21]

It is this notion that the material world is not independent and does not exist ‘out there’; it is incorporated within the normative structures that are formed through shared knowledge. For instance, from a constructivist perspective the balance of power exists on the basis of actors’ varying ‘social corporate identities’  and perceptions that they have of each other; it is also their awareness of what constitutes the balance of power and how they should react to it.[22] Another comparative example of the material obtaining its meaning through the structure of ideas, norms and interpretations is the case of nuclear weapons. The furore around Iran’s recent acceleration of its nuclear program means we can presuppose that, if Iran was to acquire one nuclear missile, it would be classed as a serious threat to the international community and, more specifically, Israel. Whereas, the fact that the United States holds a nuclear arsenal does not perturb the Israelis because the US has come to be perceived as a friend over time whilst Iran is classed as an enemy; as Wendt states: ‘amity or enmity is a function of shared understandings’. [23] Thus, from these examples one can see that constructivism does not disregard the effect of the material on the world but proposes that they can only have their desired effects through the structure of collective knowledge. Is this an inadequate account of material forces? What would constitute an adequate account?

An inadequate account of material forces would surely be one which expounded the notion that material forces are insignificant in the world or one that took the material for granted. Constructivism does neither. It acknowledges the existence of the material and accounts for material forces in terms of their incorporation within the normative structures which inform state behaviour. It is in this respect that constructivism accepts that material forces hold weight in international politics; yes, they are dependent on the ideational but constructivists do not propose that material forces are meaningless in international politics; they recognise that material forces are a part of the international system but only through the ideational do they gain a purpose. Even Wendt goes as far as to support a ‘rump materialism’ that could affect international politics despite his chief emphasis being about ideas.[24] Whilst this constructivist account is adequate in assisting our understanding of issues in the world, this is clearly not a substantive account of material forces in international politics, however, constructivism attempts to explain how the world has been ‘socially constructed’ and it would therefore be pure fallacy to believe that constructivism should provide a rigorous account of material forces in international politics. Indeed, the relationship between the ideational and the material could be, and should be, further explored within the field of constructivism but, as it stands, the present constructivist account of material forces acquiring meaning via shared knowledge is sufficient in explaining their role in international politics.

The Case For A Better Account of Material Force

There is a growing determination within the constructivist literature to explore the relationship between the social and the material, which demonstrates that there is indeed more exploration to be conducted in order to create a better balance between the ideational and the material within constructivist analysis. The main proponent of finding a synthesis between the social and the material is Georg Sørenson, who, in his work, The Case for Combining Material Forces and Ideas in the Study of IR, argues for ‘a rich concept of international structure, which includes materialist as well as ideational factors’; a form of ‘analytical eclecticism’ that provides a better story of material forces in international politics than that proposed currently by constructivism.[25] He is accurate in his assertions that the ‘change of material forces is seriously undertheorized’ within international relations and that only modest attempts have been made to scrutinize the connection between material and ideational forces in the real world.[26] It is hard to disagree that more research needs to be conducted in order to provide a better analysis of material forces within constructivism and Kowert and Legro’s view that ‘students of norms cannot afford to ignore the material world’ and collective understandings do not ‘exist in a material vacuum’ rings true.[27]

It has been argued in this essay that the constructivist account of material forces is indeed an adequate one and to put material forces on an even keel, or greater, with that of the social would be problematic as it would no longer render constructivism as a social approach to international politics but an ‘eclectic’ approach. Adler states that the future of the discipline may rest on the creation of a ‘socio-cognitive synthesis that draws on the material, subjective and intersubjective dimensions of the world’; this is outwardly overcomplicating matters, involves forces which are naturally incompatible and is, in short, too ambitious a project in much the same way as Sørenson’s.[28] The principal aim of a social theory is not to determine the content of an academic theory nor does it take the form of a substantive theory of International Relations; instead, constructivism structures ‘the questions we ask about the world and our approaches to answering those questions’.[29] For constructivism to remain a relevant social theory that aids our understanding of the world it must continue to adhere to this and maintain its position as a predominantly norm-focused structural approach to the world.

However, an approach that is able to provide a thorough analysis of how the material world impacts international politics, whilst adhering to the limitation or enablement of normative structures, would only benefit constructivism since this area has been seriously underrepresented in the literature. Constructivism helps us to understand how material forces gain meaning but there has been no great focus on the ‘after-effects’ of these empowered and changeable material forces. In all likelihood, this is the greatest advance within constructivism that we can hope for. Greater analysis and research in order to ultimately find a true equilibrium between the material and the ideational, such as Adler and Sørenson propose, would prove fruitless in its aim. It is therefore intelligible to concur with Martin and Hollis that such a synthesis between the two is impossible.[30] Nonetheless, the hope for a greater account of material forces in international politics, and the efforts to find this, are certain to continue.


It is realistic to conclude that this essay fundamentally disagrees with the statement ‘constructivism is too focused on ‘norms’ and does not provide an adequate account of material forces in international politics’. Although constructivism does place its emphasis on the effect that ideas, norms and interpretations have on international politics, its account of material forces, albeit imperfect, is definitely adequate. It explains how these forces gain meaning within international politics and therefore helps us to better understand their role and why they are utilised in certain ways. Though a greater explanation of material forces within constructivism is much sought-after, this is a path for future International Relations scholars to explore. The current constructivist account of the material is sufficient in combination with the predominant focus on the ideational. The reasons put across to support this argument are numerous.

In contrast with a materialist approach, constructivism’s interest is with how the world is constructed via shared ideas, interpretations and interests. An approach which places the social world as its primary importance will inherently focus most of its attention on norms; we see this through the vehicle of the agency-structure dynamic and the evolution of norms as shown through the example of Libya. Constructivism’s account of the material is indeed adequate. It not only acknowledges the existence of material forces but it also grants them with meaning and value through the structure of shared knowledge in which they contribute; we see this through the examples of the balance of power and nuclear relations. Despite constructivism’s adequate account of material forces, there remains a prevalent academic appetite to explore and create a greater account of material forces in international politics, and this desire is demonstrated in the works of Sørenson and Adler. To summarise, constructivism rightly places social practices, and their ability to inform the behaviour of actors within international politics, at the core of its approach; the material account it presents is one which suitably explains how these forces acquire value in international politics through shared knowledge, even though there is certainly room for further exploration in the relationship between the ideational and the material.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Onuf (1989).

[2] See Lapid (1989).

[3] Mearsheimer (1995), p. 37, note 28.

[4] See Finnemore (1996a); Gordon (1980); Habermas (1971, 1984); Adler (1997), p. 320.

[5] Constructivism, here, will refer to the modernist version and not the stricter forms of this approach.

[6] Hopf (1998), p. 177.

[7] See Katzenstein (1996).

[8] Checkel (1998), pp. 327-328.

[9] Wendt (1987); Dessler (1989); Giddens (1979, 1984).

[10] Giddens, (1979), p. 69. Quoted in Wendt (1987), p. 361.

[11] Wendt (1992), p. 424.

[12] See Fukuyama (1989).

[13] Koslowski and Kratochwil (1995); Risse-Kappen (1995); Hopf (1998), p. 178.

[14] Waltz (1979), p. 79.

[15] Waltz (1993).

[16] Finnemore (1996b), p. 28.

[17] Wendt (1995), p. 71.

[18] Wendt (1999), p. 94.

[19] Giegerich, (2006), p. 34; Searle (1995), p. 190.

[20] Wendt (1995), pp. 71-73.

[21] Tannenwald (2005), p. 19.

[22] Barnett (2005), p. 259.

[23] Wendt (1995), p. 73.

[24] Wendt (1999), p. 110; He argued that the material could effect in three ways: ‘distribution of capabilities’; technological composition of material capabilities; and ‘geography and natural resources’.

[25] Sørensen (2008), p. 5.

[26] Ibid, p. 6.

[27] Kowert and Legro (1996), pp. 440-1.

[28] Adler (1997), p. 323.

[29] Wendt (1992), p. 422.

[30] Hollis and Smith (1990).

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Is The Global Order Changing?

We are not experiencing the rise of a challenger to the current hegemony, but an interregnum in which the current arbiter of liberalism, the US, is in relative decline.



[dropcap]H[/dropcap]umanitarianism, and humanitarian intervention, flourished under the liberal world order in the 1990s that had been dominated by the United States (US) and the West. Upon the foundation of liberal values the world witnessed an unprecedented rise in humanitarian activity and actions justified on humanitarian grounds. Some, such as David Rieff, suggest that humanitarianism has gone too far and needs to return to its purist form, providing only ‘A Bed for the Night’. While Rieff argues that a return to the purist notion may be necessary to help save humanitarianism, a shift away from the post-Cold War era may in fact usher in an era of purist humanitarianism. As it has grown out of ‘Western’ values and has become enshrined in ‘Western’ doctrines of international relations a shift in the world order away from the order dominated by the West could have serious implications for humanitarianism.

Taking Sørensen’s[i] more general definition of world order (‘a governing arrangement among states, meeting the current demand for order in major areas of concern’) we can observe changes in such arrangements. A stable world order, according to Sørensen, rests on a composition of material capabilities, ideas and institutions.

World orders are complex and intricate, not merely one-dimensional. Sørensen breaks down four areas of concern, suggesting that all overlap, these are:

(a) the realist concern of the politico-military balance of power;

(b) the liberal concern of the make-up of international institutions and the emergence of global governance;

(c) the constructivist concern of the realm of ideas and ideology, with a focus on the existence or otherwise of common values on a global scale; and

(d) the IPE concern of the economic realm of production, finance and distribution.

In regards to (a) it is clear that the US still retains the mantle of global leadership in regards to security – it retains the largest military budget (larger than the next fourteen powers combined), and has cemented itself within the world’s longest standing security community – NATO. Ikenberry alludes to the notion laid out by Kennedy that where a hegemonic power is in decline and is being challenged there is a greater risk of violence. Given the lack of credible military threat posed by China it is unlikely that, at least in military terms, we will see a drastic alteration in the world order. There is much literature on this element of US Decline.

There has, however, been an alteration in priorities for the global security agenda, as the mass-casualty terrorism of 11th September 2001 (9/11) changed the perception of security threats. While the immediate response from the US was strong multilateralism, this deteriorated as US policies became much more unilateral, culminating in the National Security Strategy (NSS) of September 2002, which declared a need for pre-emptive action. The agenda has, therefore, shifted away from dealing with the hangover from the Cold War (FRY, Somalia), towards these ‘new’ security threats. Sørensen suggests that (at least when he was writing) there are three major areas of security concern in the international system: domestic conflict in weak states, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa; unstable regional security complexes, such as South Asia; and the threat from mass-casualty terrorism. This indicates a clear break from the post-Cold War era, in which mass-casualty terrorism did not play so highly on the agenda, and the focus was much more on the former Soviet bloc countries.

Similarly, with regards to international institutions (b) there is much to suggest that the current, liberal, institutional framework will remain, if slightly altered. China, Russia and other emerging powers have placed great stock in the UN, for example, as a means to ensure that their sovereignty (territorial integrity in particular) is not violated. These powers have been enforcing traditional notions of sovereignty through the current liberal framework, which has implications for humanitarianism – resulting in a less receptive environment for intervention. While these implications exist, Ikenberry and others point out that the rise of China has been on liberal terms, through these institutions. This could result in a perpetuation of liberal values and, should Constructivism (c) hold true, these institutions could help generate a norm of appropriateness amongst non-liberal members that reflect the norms of humanitarianism. US, or indeed liberal, hegemony will remain unchallenged as the US retains leadership through international institutions, which grant it structural reach unrivalled by any other power.[ii] Further to this, due to its foreign policy outlook and potential conflict with domestic ideology it is unlikely that China will be able to credibly challenge US preponderance within these institutions, making it unlikely to challenge America’s global dominance.[iii] Other Asian powers are also unlikely to take the mantle of leadership for they either lack the political will or resources.[iv]

Finally, in regards to economic concerns (d), it is clear that the global shift east has already occurred. Quah[v] illustrates the extent to which the global economic centre of gravity has shifted away from the transatlantic axis (where it was located in 1980s) towards the east coast of Africa, and it is projected to reach the India/China border by 2049. Given the huge role of the ‘West’ in funding humanitarian intervention throughout the 1990s, directly – through NATO actions and ODA – or indirectly – through the UN, NGOs, etc. – this shift in economic potency may have implications for humanitarianism at large, but particularly intervention. This could result in a reversion to the purist notion held dear by ICRC.

From the above it becomes clear that the world order we are presented with in the 2010s contrasts with the world order of the 1990s in which we witnessed a growth of humanitarian action. It is, however, the case that what we are experiencing is not the decisive rise of a challenger to the current hegemony, liberalism, but an interregnum in which the current arbiter of liberalism, the US, is in relative decline. This could result in more instances in which we observe an almost Cold War-like stalemate indicated by the recent stand-off between Russia & China and the ‘West’ in Syria. This, ultimately may result in the return to the type of humanitarianism Rieff is so fond of.


[toggle title=”Citations”]

[i] All references to Sørensen shall be in regards to: Sørensen, Georg. (2006) ‘What Kind of World Order? The International System in the New Millennium’ Cooperation and Conflict Vol. 41

[ii] Gowan, Peter. (2004), ‘Empire as Superstructure’, Security Dialogue 35, p.259;  James, Harold. (2011), ‘International order after the financial crisis’, International Affairs 87: 3, p.533; Peter Saull. (2004), ‘On the ‘New’ American ‘Empire”, Security Dialogue 35, p.252; Wade, Robert Hunter. (2004), ‘Bringing the Economics Back in’, Security Dilemma 35, p.245-249

[iii] Acharya, Amitav. (2011) ‘Can Asia Lead?’ International Affairs 87: 4, p.859

[iv] Ibid. p.868-9

[v] Quah, Danny (2011) The global economy’s shifting centre of gravity. Global policy, 2 (1). pp. 3-9. ISSN 1758-5899


An Introduction To International Relations Theory

International relations: an introduction to realism, liberalism, constructivism and the English School.



[dropcap]O[/dropcap]fficially established in Aberystwyth after World War I with the ambitious aim of eradicating future conflicts, the discipline of International Relations (IR) is currently one of the youngest academic fields despite the occurrence of war between nations having existed for centuries. The effort of understanding how world politics works and which tenets shape its most visible outcomes – such as war, international crises, and revolutions – has underpinned several attempts in elaborating and debating interpretative frameworks capable of providing policy-makers, practitioners and Joe Bloggs with a useful and detailed set of theoretical and explanatory tools. In this article I will be presenting the main four theories of IR: realism, liberalism, constructivism and the English school.


The first assumptions on realism as a way of conducting state foreign policy were detailed by a series of writers who belonged to the group of classical thinkers of political realism. Political actions, historical and technical accounts provided by Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and E. H. Carr, to name but a few, are usually referred to as the most significant contributions to the development of a well-defined philosophical pattern connected with realism. As for its academic tradition, realism presents the international realm as an anarchic political arena characterized by a struggle for power among self-interested states: it is generally pessimistic about the prospects for eliminating conflict and war. Having been the dominant theory throughout the Cold War, its intellectual straightforwardness and logical linearity provide simple but powerful explanations for war, alliances, imperialism, and the many obstacles to cooperation between states, especially within the normative environment of international organizations. Against this backdrop, currently realism can rely on the work of a wide spectrum of insightful scholars such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, William Wholforth, Robert Jervis, Joseph Grieco and Marco Cesa, each of them depicting the different theoretical strands of realism (neo-classical realism, structural realism, offensive and defensive realism, and the theory of alliances).


Liberalism is as close to it gets as the complete opposite to realism. Frequently associated with the Kantian perspective of world politics and rooted in European Enlightenment thought, liberalism is firmly convinced about the possibility of achieving durable international peace through cooperation between states. At the core of this theory is the importance of rules and the formal and informal institutions in which such regulations are embedded. Liberalism is also differentiated in various theoretical strands. The first is concerned with the relevance of economic interdependence and prosperity as major tools for discouraging states from using force against each other (complex interdependence theory). The second approach (usually attributed to Woodrow Wilson – the American President of League of Nations fame) regards the spread of democracy – considered more peaceful than other forms of government – as the best antidote to the war (democratic peace theory). Finally, institutional theory, according to which the anarchy that affects the international arena can be successfully overcome thanks to the promotion of long-term state interests (such as security) in a shorter period of time through the use of international institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United Nations (UN) (the so-called systems of collective security). Among its scholars, the most notable academic figures in liberalism are Robert Keohane, John Ikenberry, Michael Doyle, Bruce Russett, Inis Claude and Robert Axelrod.


Recently developed by the seminal work of Alexander Wendt, constructivism takes beliefs and values as crucial elements in determining a reality that is socially constructed – as supposed to liberalism and realism which take such things for granted. Thus, social practice, discourse and interaction among the participants of the international realm (both state and non-state actors) are the fundamental drivers of this ongoing and maieutic process in which the emerging norms and values shape their own interests and identities. Without offering any predictions, but focusing on an attempt to explain the reasons for political change, the constructivist perspective looks at power not as an irrelevancy but as a subjective product of ideas and identities. The definition of “power” – according to the constructivist interpretative framework – is influenced by the cultural and the historical context in which it is analysed. Similarly, Wendt argues that the realist conception of anarchy does not adequately explain why conflict occurs between states. The real issue, in fact, is how anarchy is perceived in Wendt’s words, “anarchy is what states make of it”.

The English School

“The English School” is a term coined in the 1970s to describe a group of British and British-inspired writers for whom international society is the primary object of analysis. According to this theoretical view, sovereign states form an international society, although framed within an anarchic context. The state of insecurity and violence which features this kind of “anarchical society” is to some extent mitigated by the role of international law and morality. As a matter of fact, English School’s members describe their theoretical membership as rationalist and related to the Grotian tradition: this approach concurrently considers elements of realism, such as power politics, balance of power and the state of anarchy, and liberalism (international institutions, morality and cooperation) as well. As a result, the English School maintains that the international political system is more civil and orderly than realists suggest. However, its vision, supported by the fact that violence is an inescapable characteristic of the international society, is largely differentiated from the utopian one, firmly rooted in the possibility of perpetual peace. Some of the most important scholars who developed and are currently embedded in this fourth and original IR thought include Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, Tim Dunne, Barry Buzan and Andrew Linklater.

The Importance of Being Eclectic

Going beyond this brief description and considering the wider spectrum of contemporary IR theories, it’s worth noticing how each of them gives an interpretative key for unlocking the issues of world politics. In order to thoroughly understand the complex and variegated field under question, it is important to take into account and debate all the aforementioned theoretical approaches. Each of them offers detailed and thoughtful contributions about the role of power, domestic forces, political change and thus the possibility for improving our current international society.