International Relations · Third year

To what extent is anarchy what states make of it?

At the end of the Cold War, a new approach emerged in International Relations theory.  As a critique of the two mainstream approaches in the US known as neo-liberalism and neo-realism, a more European theory, namely constructivism, gained credibility and became more and more popular. As a response to rational theories, this social position, which is based on the notions of norms and values that shape interactions between actors and thus construct the social reality, can explain major historical changes, such as the collapse of the USSR. However, constructivism also acknowledges anarchy as the absence of higher authority, and uses the idea that ‘the nation is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson, 2006, p.6). Wendt (1992) thus argues that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’, but to what extent are identities and interests inter-related? The constructivist theory on national interest will be analysed through, on the one hand the presentation of precursors and the economy of the constructivist approach and, on the other hand the demonstration of the role of identities in shaping the national interest according to Alexander Wendt. Finally, we will identify the weaknesses and critiques of Wendt’s constructivist arguments.


   After the fall of the Berlin Wall, constructivism succeeded to marxism as the third main theoretical approach to IR. Rather than being a substantive theory, it is a social theory that focuses on the agent-structure relationship (Barnett, 2011, p.154), thus has interdisciplinary origins such as sociology, philosophy and anthropology. Constructivism connects the production and reproduction of social practices with their specific contexts: historical, political, economical and geographical. For the first time in the IR theory domain, it stresses the need for historically contextualized values, beliefs and, particularly in philosophy, the formulation of what is ‘good’. As opposed to realists according to whom the world is how it is and must be studied as it is, constructivists believe that the world is socially built, that is to say is part of a process, and is constantly changing, mostly in a peaceful way to suit the diverse social practices.

The principal author of the constructivist analysis on national interest is Alexander Wendt. Indeed, as opposed to the realistic view that posits that states are forced to pursue their interests and increase their power because of the anarchic international system, Wendt developed the appealing idea that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ (1992), and that national interests are then conceived as the product of interactions between states. According to Weldes, what is interesting about how Wendt presents his constructivist argument is the reconceptualization of ‘the national interest as the product of intersubjective processes of meaning creation’ (Weldes, 1996, p.280). The notion of ‘intersubjectivity’ which is at the very heart of the constructivist approach tends to consider states as subjects and homogeneous actors defining their own interests.

A state’s national interest is intrinsically linked to international politics and is shaped by the current international norms and values. As the values themselves are changing, the national interest is likely to be regenerated and transformed, generating the possible emergence of an altruistic rather than selfish national interest. This is precisely what defines the Lockean anarchic culture which has been internalized by states since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Consequently, states see themselves as rivals rather than as enemies as suggested by the Hobbesian order, and contemporary states recognize others’ sovereignty. The fact that states have striven to view one another as competitors susceptible to improve rather than deteriorate relations has led to a decrease in the use of force and an increasing interdependence as well as growing homogenization of politico-economic systems. The national interest becomes altruistic because by satisfying its interest, a state satisfies the interests of friendly states.


   Constructivists see the identity of the state by its intersubjective nature because it results from the representation built by the state itself and by other states. As the state’s identity is based on the set of ideas, values, and beliefs shared by states about themselves and their relationships, then the states’ interests are ‘shaped by internationally shared norms and values that structure and give meaning to international political life’ (Finnemore, 1996, p.3). The interests of countries in this way can be processed by the changes occurring in international values; interest can thus regenerate because the international culture, norms, as well as international regimes change the behaviour of states. According to constructivists, states’ interests are rooted in the states’ identity – that is to say in the representation that states have of themselves and of others – in the international system, and in their own and others‘ place within this international system. This is opposed to realists and liberals for whom interests lie, for the former in the balance of power, and for the latter in the requests by societal actors. Nevertheless, the identity of a state is not subjective in nature, but rather intersubjective. That is to say, identity is not long term and durable, but rather the result of representations developed by both the state itself and by other states at a given moment. Indeed if the identity of a state is based on the set of ideas, beliefs, values and norms shared by the States at some point about themselves and their relationships, then the states’ interests are built by the standards and values which, shared internationally, structure international politics. Thus, if national interests are co-constituted by the internationally shared values, then they are likely to be transformed by changes that occur within these international values. The statement that the regeneration of interests occurs thanks to the international social structure is the strength of the constructivist conception of the national interest.

According to constructivists, the values that spread within the transnational society, the standards shared by international society, the rules that codify international law, change the behaviour of states. Thus, Finnemore (1996) interestingly argues that the fact that states have successively, and without apparent immediate interest, redefined their scientific policies, their conduct towards prisoners of war, or their development strategies, shows that intergovernmental international organizations such as UNESCO and the World Bank alter the preferences of states. Although the areas concerned do not directly affect the national interest in the strict sense of the term, national interests are affected by the international cultural structure, to the point that they can no longer be defined exclusively in egoistic terms.

According to Wendt, states are ‘actors whose behaviour is motivated by a variety of interests rooted in corporate, type, role, and collective identities’ (Wendt, 1999, p.233). By ‘corporate identity’, the author refers to what makes the state a social entity, distinct from the other actors in the international scene. By ‘type of identity’, he means the common characteristics shared by some states on the economic system, the political system, etc. The notion of ‘role identity’ pertains to the properties that characterize a state in the perception of others, and that make other states expect it to act in a certain way, or to adopt a role in the world scene. For example, a state, in the eyes of another, has the role of either a friend, or enemy state; of either hegemon or satellite state. Collective identity exists when a state identifies with another; this is the case of the member states of a security community, whose best example is the European Union.


An empirical research area that clearly distinguishes constructivist from neorealist and neoliberal views is the exploration of the process of the formation of interests. Rejecting the simple juxtaposition norms/interests, constructivism considers the links between them. Intersubjective arrangements constitute (not merely compel) the interests and identities (Kratochwil, 1989). Despite recent progress in the identification and explanation of changes in interest coming from altering social contexts, much remains to identify more mechanisms by which the institutions build actors’ interests. However, constructivists themselves differ on the question of which processes or mechanisms really matter (Zefhuss, 2001). To some extent, these differences in empirical research mirror the positivist/postpositivist disagreements. Moreover there are conceptual disagreements which have consequences in the formulation of questions and on the methodological choices. One dimension of the controversy comes from the classical problem of the level of analysis: to understand interactions between states, can we forget about the process of social construction, or how domestic politics play a role? Wendt argues for a systemic approach where the interactions between states lead to the construction of interests. But the abstract nature of the argument has led other authors to point out the limits to the empirical case study. Also the majority of constructivists use interpretive methods that take into account the historical context rather than the more meta-theoretical one used by Wendt.

Yet a systemic approach is not based only on the interactions of states to explain the (re)formation of interests. Most constructivists emphasize the importance of international institutions, and global social structures, as components of the international system (Finnemore, 1996). These analyses have usually two tasks. The first is to convince doubters of the existence of a global social structure by studying the identification and scope of a particular constitutive norm. Works of this type can be associated with Hedley Bull’s and the English school’s concept of ‘international society’, despite noteworthy differences. For example, as opposed to ‘international society’ schools which stress the similarities between different historical periods, constructivism on the other hand, studies how the constitutive norms vary as a function of historical stage (Reus-Smith, 1999). Furthermore, Bull and others stick to the centrality of the state rather than to the concept of global society. The second task is to show that the global social structure influences the behavior of states: they are interested in their ‘socialization’ in an international society. Some works focus on similarities where, in the absence of international social structure, we expect differences; others seek to explain the forms taken by this variability (Finnemore, 1996). The overall objective of these comparisons is to identify the socialization process, that is to say, the mechanisms by which international norms are diffused down to the states and sub-state levels. Obviously the studies in terms of system, which seek to explain the socialization and dissemination of norms, take domestic policies into serious consideration. They therefore cannot avoid the classic contest on the relationship between international and internal factors.

This approach broadens the debate on the nature of the different actors in the international arena. What is the relevance of states and other types of stakeholders, as social actors? Differences remain, despite the emphasis on the social construction of interests and institutions. Major actors can be not only states and elites, but also groups of scolars, social movements, and even the society itself (nationally or transnationally conceptualized). Wendt’s work prioritises states, which can facilitate IR theory, but by explicitly including groups of scolars, gendered categories, social movements or NGO networks in the ‘agent’ category, we can question the identity formation and consider a greater number of shifting mechanisms.


To conclude, in order to understand to what extent states’ actions are influenced by the structure -anarchy and balance of power- or by the interactions, IR theories focus on what shapes national interests. Wendt’s constructivist theory emerged as a response to Waltz’ realist and Hobbesian vision of anarchy and the international system which is centered on the balance of power (Waltz, 1979). To put it in a nutshell, constructivism recognises the importance of the social and historical context, the intersubjectivity of states, and the constitutive nature of rules and norms. The above mentioned identities are then the cause of national interests like physical survival, autonomy, welfare, etc. It should be noted that these identities are not defined by the state itself, but more interestingly emerge from the interactions in the international arena. The role of a state in the international arena depends on other states’ expectations and its ability to meet them. Collective identity -i.e. a state identifies with the interests of another one, to the point of integrating them into the definition of its own national interest- presupposes strong social interactions. As there is no single anarchical culture but three different types, states have the choice in determining the relationships with others. However, globalisation and the growing homogeneity of state regimes lead to a shift towards a Kantian anarchy, where states are friendly and mutually help rather than use force.


Reference list

  • Anderson B. (2006), Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalisation, London: Verso
  • Barnett M. (2011) ‘Social constructivism’ in Baylis J., Smith S. and Owens P. (eds.) The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press, pp. 150-211.
  • Finnemore M. (1996)National interests in international society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University press.
  • Kratochwil F. (1989) Rules, Norms, and Decisions. On the Conditions of Practical and Legal Reasoning in International Relations and Domestic Affairs. Cambridge University Press.
  • Reus-Smit C. (1999) The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations. Princeton University Press.
  • Waltz, K. (1979) Theory of International Politics. New York, Addison Wesley.
  • Weldes J. (1996) ‘Constructing National Interests’, European Journal of International Relations, 2(3), pp. 275-318.
  • Wendt A. (1992) Anarchy is what states make of it: The social construction of power politics’,International Organization, 46 (2), pp.391-425.
  • Wendt A. (1999)Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Zefhuss M. (2001) “Constructivism and Identity: A Dangerous Liaison”, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 7 (3), pp.315-348.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s