Constructing international politics by Alexander Wendt NOTES
What unites critical theorists is a concern with how world politics is "socially
constructed," which involves two basic claims: that the fundamental structures of
international politics are social rather than strictly material (a claim that
opposes materialism), and that these structures shape actors' identities and
interests, rather than just their behavior (a claim that opposes rationalism).
Wendt addresses four issues: assumptions, objective knowledge, explaining war and
peace, and policymakers' responsibilities.
Indeed, one of his main objections to neorealism is that it is not structural
enough: that adopting the individualistic metaphors of micro-economics restricts
the effects of structures to state behavior, ignoring how they might also
constitute state identities and interest. Constructivists think that state
interests are in important part constructed by systemic structures, not exogenous
to them; this leads to a sociological rather than micro-economic structuralism.
Where neorealist and constructivist structuralisms really differ, however, is in
their assumptions about what structure is made of. Neorealists think it is made
only of a distribution of material capabilities, whereas constructivists think it
is also made of social relationships. Social structures have three elements: shared
knowledge, material resources, and practice.
a) Social Structures are defined, in part, by shared understandings, expectations,
or knowledge. A security dilemma, for example, is a social structure composed of
intersubjective understandings in which states are so distrustful that they make
worst-case assumptions about each others' intentions, and as a result define their
interests in self-help terms.
b) Social structures include material resources like gold and tanks. In contrast to
neorealists' desocialized view of such capabilities, constructivists argue that
material resources only acquire meaning for human action through the structure of
shared knowledge in which they are embedded.9 For example, 500 British nuclear
weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear
weapons, because the British are friends of the United States and the North Koreans
are not, and amity or enmity is a function of shared understandings. Constructivism
is therefore compatible with changes in material power affecting social relations.
c) Social structures exist, not in actors' heads nor in material capabilities, but
in practices. The Cold War was a structure of shared knowledge that governed great
power relations for forty years, but once they stopped acting on this basis, it was
"over." Asking "when do ideas, as opposed to power and interest, matter?" is to
ask the wrong question. Ideas always matter, since power and interest do not have
effects apart from the shared knowledge that constitutes them as such. The real
question, as Mearsheimer notes (p. 42), is why does one social structure exist,
like self-help (in which power and self-interest determine behavior), rather than
another, like collective security (in which they do not).
Mearsheimer suggests that critical theorists do not believe that there is an
objective world out there about which we can have knowledge. This is not the case.
There are two issues here, ontological and epistemological. The ontological issue is whether social structures have an objective existence,
Social structures are collective phenomena that con- front individuals as
externally existing social facts. The Cold War was just as real for me as it was
The epistemological issue is whether we can have objective knowledge of these
structures. Constructivists, however, are modernists who fully endorse the
scientific project of falsifying theories against evidence. In an article cited by
Mearsheimer, I advocated a scientific-realist approach to social inquiry, wh