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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

What is constructivism?

This is section 3 of an essay entitled 'International Relations in the Twenty-First Century: the Russian Snake'. It appears in draft and all observations are welcome. Drafts of sections 1 and 2 also appear at


The title of this section might seem particularly obscure and obtuse buried within an essay seeking to explain Russia's invasion of Ukraine beginning in February 2022 and continuing to the present day, as well as discussing the geopolitical changes the respective actions of Russia, Ukraine and other countries have taken as this narrative has unfolded. But that would not be a proper inference. Constructivism, although a very difficult concept to understand, arose from two competing schools of international relations theory both of which are obviously wrong. Constructivism was a sort of fudge, to try to capture the insightful elements of each of the popular schools. In principle this is quite a good idea. That is why we are taking this diversion into the question of what constructivism means in international relations theory. The answer is that nobody quite knows. But if we pay sufficient attention, then there may well be a kernel of truth in it somewhere.

International relations theory has its origins as far back as Grotius in the early seventeenth century. However it really took off when Immanuel Kant published what may have been the first genuine essay in international relations theory, "Perpetual Peace", in 1795. The idea Kant developed from Grotius was that states are, or can be, bound by legal or other fundamental principles, just as are people. A lot of these ideas were based upon the idea that treaties are state analogues of private contracts. So one of Kant's principles of international relations was that states should all agree that none of them have standing armies. States never did agree such a thing, even though it is obvious that everyone would benefit if they did so, which might have given an indication of some of the problems with the contract analogy.

International relations theory was quiet in the nineteenth century but its major renaissance emerged at the end of World War I under the Presidency of the Woodrow Wilson, who was an academic political scientist: a most unusual background for a US President. (The only other US President in recent times with a background as an academic was Barack Obama.) Wilson was so horrified by the butchery involved in World War I that he determined to establish an international institutional structure to keep the peace and prevent future wars. It was called the League of Nations. It had rules that states were obliged to follow; and a set of international institutions that were supposed to monitor and enforce those rules. There was a slim element of precedent for this, most notably in the Universal Postal Union (1874); this was a set of rules by which member states agreed to coordinate and share the revenues from international mail. It had an international secretariat, and it worked. It still works today. Wilson developed a far more ambitious plan for international institution-building, that would stop wars and mitigate international crises. His ideas were controversial from the start; the League of Nations was formed but the United States Senate blocked the President's plan and refused to join it themselves. Given that the United States was the world's most powerful military nation at the time, one might imagine that their absence from a totally novel new institutional security architecture might be problematic. Nevertheless, the title given to Wilson's ideas and their many subsequent political and academic supporters was "liberal institutionalism".

It turned out that US absence from the League of Nations was not actually the terminal nail in the organisation's coffin; instead, Adolf Hitler was. The League had a Council to make the most important decisions, which required unanimity. Because unanimity was extremely hard to obtain, particularly between the Great Powers who had permanent seats on this Council (the rest were elected), in practice the League didn't do much. But the real collapse of the organisation followed Nazi Germany's unilateral withdrawal from it in 1933. Thereafter Nazi Germany proceeded to engage in warfare with and occupation of various European countries entirely contrary to the peaceable principles in the League of Nations Charter, and the organisation became redundant. (International) liberal institutions just didn't work where a Great Power was determined intentionally to tear up their principles and procedures.

This allowed the academic sceptics about liberal institutionalism a voice. E.H. Carr, a quixotically English socialist who proposed an Anglo-Soviet alliance in the 1930's, sought to shatter all the illusions harboured by liberal institutionalism. (His views are very similar to those of contemporary Russian international relations theorists.) States, he posited, are not motivated or constrained by international law or the international institutions that purported to embody them save insofar as it was in their national interests to do so. Any treaty or agreement to cooperate would not outlive the common incentives of the parties to comply with it. Instead, he posited, states are each motivated to pursue their own interests; and international agreements and institutions merely supervene upon these clashes of interests in a non-causal way. This view, that saw states as suspended in an anarchy each fighting for their own interests irrespective of what might appear as ostensible international normative structures, was subsequently developed by conservative academics in the United States, of which Hans Morgenthau was arguably the most influential. Morgenthau took the still more pessimistic view that states fight for comparative advantage. In other words each state, fearing domination by the other, seeks outcomes that maximise that state's relative advantage over a state with whom it has interest-based relations, irrespective of perceived absolute outcome. This entails a "beggar-thy-neighbour" approach, in which a war with another state is rational to a state even if both states suffer as a result, as long as the gap in power or wealth between the states is adjusted in the belligerent's favour by the time of the ceasefire. This theory is particularly alluring to anyone who has reflected upon the fact that wars inevitably impoverish both protagonists; therefore why would any state ever go to war? The theory of comparative advantage provides a colourable explanation.

Liberal institutionalism had another good innings at the end of World War II, as the League of Nations was rebuilt as the United Nations Organisation, this time with American participation. Nevertheless the UN's Security Council, which included five World War II victors as permanent members of the Council with veto power over its resolutions, descended into stalemate upon the start of the Cold War: any measure supported by the United States or her allies would be vetoed by the Soviet Union, and vice versa. At this point the United Nations sought to branch out with a proliferation of agencies that might have neutral subject matters, so as to avoid Superpower confrontation; but in practice every branch even of an ever-inflating United Nations was infested with Superpower politics, espionage, rivalry and misprocurement. The stature of the United Nations descended progressively from one of liberal institutionalist optimism at the end of World War II to the vacuous hollow it is regarded as in the third decade of the twenty-first century. The sheer wastefulness and impotence of the modern United Nations in major civil conflicts and international crises has rendered the organisation virtually irrelevant in 2022. Amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations says little and is ignored by virtually everyone. So has realism, whether Carr's socialist brand or Morgenthau's conservative version, has been disproven. Or is it more complicated than that?

One problem the realist has if he is to sustain his critique of liberal institutionalism is to explain why states keep entering treaties and creating ever more international institutions, if they are all so useless. This is not an easy question to answer, but this author has tried to explain why that might be elsewhere. It is very hard for anyone to defend the United Nations and all its various branches in 2022 amidst the worst European war since 1945, and virtually nobody even attempts to do so. Nevertheless many states appeal to the concept of international law in the positions they are taking in this war. The principal problem with Russia's invasion of Ukraine - her periodically barbaric methods aside - is that it breaches the principle of peaceful sovereignty. Every state has the right not to be the subject of violent intervention by another state, save (a) in self-defence; or (b) pursuant to a resolution of the UN Security Council (which there almost never is due to the veto rights). Ukraine is a sovereign state, and it has a right, recognised in international norms, not to have its territory systematically chipped away at by the Russian military irrespective of what national interests the Russian government might think that doing this might serve. If you accept the force of this argument, you cannot fully embrace realism as a principle of international relations. Something must be wrong with it.

One way of trying to defuse the contradictions apparent in realism is to use what philosophers call the "is/ought" distinction. Realism describes how the relationships between states really are, whereas liberal institutions are attempts to capture ideals about how the world ought to be that, like all strains of idealism, is inevitably due to disappointment. But this is too simple. Events such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine are rare. States do not start wars of aggression against their neighbours on a frequent basis, or even occasionally, notwithstanding the extent to which they might perceive it as in their comparative advantages to do so. In fact such wars are rare. So Russia / Ukraine is an outlier. So another view is that Russia / Ukraine is just an outlier in the liberal institutionalist scheme of international relations, in which something exceptional caused the institutional system and its rules, such as no aggressive invasion of neighbours, to snap. However wars are not sufficiently rare to use outlier hypotheses to explain them all. Many western states, purporting to uphold international law in principle, have engaged in violent aggression or analogous behaviour against other (smaller) states in practice. The aggression by the large over the small does seem to corroborate the realist hypothesis. Moreover identifying a conflict as an outlier merely begs the question: what makes it an outlier? A liberal institutionalist must have an answer to this question or their structure looks frail and could collapse at any time. Moreover the near-universal derision in which the United Nations is held appears flatly contradictory to the liberal institutionalist hypothesis; yet the fact that it exists at all appears flatly contradictory to the realist hypothesis: why would states agree to create institutions, and spend money on them, that made no difference?

In an attempt to find a middle ground and to create some working hypotheses that incidents in international relations might more valuably be assessed against, along came Alexander Wendt in 1992 with his now famous essay "Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics". Wendt was the first person advocating a position called constructivism in international relations, and the foundation for this title was contained in his 1992 essay. Wendt was not a clear writer; but his essential idea was that realist anarchy is a social construction of the way that states engage in discourse with one-another, rather than something inevitable or primeval. It must follow from this hypothesis that liberal institutionalism is the same. In other words, the primary dynamic in understanding states' relations with one-another is to look at the discourse, language and concepts that each state uses in its engagement with other states. Some states create nonviolent international political dynamics to govern their relations with one-another; perhaps the best global example is the European Union. Other states work in violent political dynamics one with the other. Following the constructivist hypothesis, therefore, Russia disregarded international law in invading Ukraine because international law was no part of the dynamic and relationship between those two countries, one of which was formerly and formally by far the largest satellite of the other in a complex federation we came to know as the Soviet Union. To understand how Russia and Ukraine interact, you have to go back to the political discourse and norms that have governed their relationship both during their period of federation (some would call it imperialism but not all) and indeed afterwards, as the relationships between those countries, that were tied together in all sorts of military, economic, commercial and political ways notwithstanding Ukraine's formal independence from the Soviet Union, continued and evolved. It is only by looking into that sort of detailed history of how the states engaged with one-another in practice during and after their formal period of federation that one can come to understand how Russia felt it was legitimate to invade her neighbour without military provocation.

Constructivism appears attractive because it solves all outlier problems: you just have to look more carefully at the history of the relationship between two nations at war with one-another to understand why they are now at war. If the war seems to breach a principle of international law, then that is because those countries have a history of a realist narrative in engaging one with the other. This seems a particularly attractive way of understanding how in fact Russia decided to invade Ukraine (even if it does not resolve the question of whether she should have done so). Nevertheless the constructivist account begins to appear less persuasive once one realises just how all-encompassing it is. Constructivism offers a blanket answer to the reason why any and every international civil conflict has ever taken place; the parties were just acting as realists towards one-another in their dialogues. Had that dialogue been changed for the better, the countries would never have gone to war. I suppose we could assert such a platitude about any war at all.

Perhaps more fundamentally, constructivism, although alluring, does not explain why different countries have different dialogues, norms or structures in their dealings one with the other. It might be seen to imply that the social constructions between states are all up for grabs and can be changed at any time by well-meaning third parties. However our discussion of political psychology indicates that this is not correct. The way two states interact with one-another is indeed a social construction. It is a construction composed of two states, each with their own distinctive political psychologies that can only be changed from within, not (absent unconditional surrender in absolute war) from without, and the ways that those two political psychologies interact one with the other.

All this brings us back to history and to specialised individual understanding of any nation involved in conflict. To understand a civil conflict, you need to study the internal structures by which each of the belligerents is governed, and the internal incentives that creates; and then you need to study how these two or more internal structures created so much friction one between the other that war broke out to the (inevitable) detriment of both. And that requires careful expertise, analysis and understanding. Constructivism and political psychology may be two side of the same platitudinous coin. But considered together, they do at least give us a roadmap in what we have to do to understand how a war started and therefore to bring it to a conclusion such that it is less likely to break out in the future.

So much for our frameworks. Now we must get down into the details.


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