GOVT-060 Chapter Notes - Chapter A&J Reading: Symbolic Interactionism

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Published on 6 Dec 2016
School
Georgetown University
Department
Government
Course
GOVT-060
Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” (A&J, pp. 65-72)
The goal of Wendt’s article is to “build a bridge… by developing a constructivist argument,
drawn from structurationist and symbolic interactionist sociology , on behalf of the liberal
claim that international institutions can transform state identities and interests” (394). He
begins his critique by arguing that Neoliberals have essentially bought into the neorealist
paradigm by accepting that “states are the dominant actors in the system, and [] define
security in ‘self-interested’ terms” (392). For Wendt, that makes neoliberals something closer
to “weak realists,” since their theory only differs from neorealists because it states that
international institutions can influence power and interest. As a consequence, both sides fail
to interrogate how the international system was constructed to be in the form that it currently
is in, which is the basis of the constructivist paradigm: “a [shared] concern with the basic
‘sociological’ issue bracketed by rationalists –namely, the issue of identity- and interest-
formation” (393).
For Wendt, the fundamental contribution of constructivism is that it can challenge the realists’
use of anarchy to justify a “disinterest in the institutional transformation of identities and
interests,” since “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from
anarchy and that if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not
structure” (394). Therefore, he concludes that structures themselves have no casual powers
without a process of practices which instantiate a particular structure itself (394).
In his first section, Wendt argues that even if the anarchical system is taken for granted, self-
help is not a logical or contingent feature of anarchy itself. Instead, states act towards other
states based on the intersubjective meaning that those states have for them (397). Wendt
points out that this intersubjective element is actually prevalent in Waltz’s work, even though
it is underplayed: when states assess the risk of another state’s military capability, it matters
how that state is perceived a nuclear Britain is much less dangerous to the United States
than a nuclear North Korea because North Korea is perceived to be aggressive towards the
U.S. Therefore, Wendt claims “actors acquire identities – relatively stable, role specific
understandings and expectations about the self by participating in such collective meanings”
(397). These identities form the basis for state interests according to Wendt. The interests of
states are not stable and uniform; rather, states “define their interests in the process of
defining situations” (398). For example, since the Cold War has ended, both the United States
and the former Soviet Union have had to reconstruct their interests based in a different and
new geopolitical context.
Since self-help is a form of institutionalism, on the basis of which states act to maximize their
power, self-help constitutes a particular form of anarchy that is not necessarily the only type
(401). However, for Wendt there are two remaining constitutive features of the state of nature:
first, that “the raw material out of which members of the state system are constituted is
created by domestic society before states enter the constitutive process of international
society”; second is that states try to survive (402). Therefore, Wendt argues that when two
states encounter each other, they must first interpret the other’s intention before acting. In a
hypothetical example, if alien life were to ever come to Earth, our first reaction would most
likely not be to attack them; instead, we would try to understand their intentions while
remaining on a high level of alert (405). This social act, through reciprocal interaction,
“[creates in instantiates] the relatively enduring social structures in terms of which we define
our identities and relatively enduring social structures” (406).
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Document Summary

Alexander wendt, anarchy is what states make of it, (a&j, pp. The goal of wendt"s article is to build a bridge by developing a constructivist argument, drawn from structurationist and symbolic interactionist sociology , on behalf of the liberal claim that international institutions can transform state identities and interests (394). He begins his critique by arguing that neoliberals have essentially bought into the neorealist paradigm by accepting that states are the dominant actors in the system, and [] define security in self-interested" terms (392). For wendt, that makes neoliberals something closer to weak realists, since their theory only differs from neorealists because it states that international institutions can influence power and interest. As a consequence, both sides fail to interrogate how the international system was constructed to be in the form that it currently is in, which is the basis of the constructivist paradigm: a [shared] concern with the basic.

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