Constructivism against neoliberalism: How confusing can it be, that states think the second one prevails!


During the last years, theoretical discussion in the field of international relations, has moved on to a dialogue between neoliberals and constructivists. Of course this has started to be the trend globally, but in Greece this dialogue still remains at infant stages and the ground is not mature yet for an interactive dialogue on that issue.

In fact, in order to be much more precise, the dialogue was first between neorealists and constructivists, but as with time these two political theories (neorealism and neoliberalism) started to approach one another, this is why from now on we mostly refer to neoliberalism.

So this shift in international dialogue, focuses on two different views. Neoliberals consider the international system as a field of pure rationalism, constituted by agents who have as a priority to maximize their interest and security, while on the other hand, constructivists believe that interests are changing and are always socially structured, a view considered as taboo, some years ago.

For years, Kenneth Waltz (neo-liberalism) has created a closed circle in his theoretical approach of international relations, by excluding the dialogue between different domains and theories, thus discouraging a breakthrough dialogue on the research of international agenda issues. Finally, the context seemed to change when at the end of 1980's and mid 1990's after the cold war era, constructivism entered the field as a new and dynamic approach without an intention to flatten the arguments of neo-liberalism.

Anthony Giddens and George Mead were 2 of the most decisive figures in the theory of constructivism and they described notions like "symbolic interactionism", which played a decisive role in formulating modern constructivism and its main arguments. Those arguments, mostly deal with the system as a socially constructed one, something that means it is not static or given, neither the behavioural principles of states are, as those are dictated by social criteria.

Furthermore, the theory refers to the interests of the states as non exogenous, but as endogenous based on the social structure of the system. This means, according to that, that the reality we live in is socially structured by knowledge principles (structures once again), which give meaning to the material world (Pierre favourite...would be so happy with that..). System and agents are mutually constitutive and their behavioural patterns are based on their interaction. In this way, notions such as security, power, anarchism have not an absolute meaning in contradiction to neo-liberals who tend to be one-dimensional in defining them. International system is not characterized only by the distribution of capabilities but also from distribution of ideas. Distribution of ideas, anarchism and process are the 3 component parts of the constructivist theory, which for a long period of time were excluded from discussion.

Given the interactions between states, we draw easily the conclusion that the bilateral relations between U.S.A. and France for example, are completely different than those between U.S.A. and Iran. This shows that, the military power of a state means nothing if you don't bring ideas in the picture. For example, the case of a nuclear France causes no threat to the U.S., but a nuclear Iran is a constant threat and the U.S. will use its power to destroy it, or at least challenge back, as threats here mean total destruction. The fact that the U.S. is ideologically much more identified to another western state and not Iran, can easily explain this approach, that neo-liberalism cannot explain. Even anarchism in international relations, is given and predescribed for neo-liberals, while for constructivists is neither absolute nor one-dimensional. For constructivists there is Hobb's anarchism (when everyone lives in an environment of continuous competition and rivalry where the motto "your death is my chance to survive" prevails and it ends to a zero sum game), Lock's anarchism which is mostly identified with neo-liberalism and means that you give to others a chance to survive as a means to survive yourself, and finally Kant's anarchism, where war is non-existent and there prevails the principle of perpetual peace, there is security, cooperation and social communities. Constructivists, believe those 3 models of anarchism can be found in international relations and they are right, as the interests of the states are formed by social structures which interact with the agents, thus neither anarchism as a phenomenon we can observe internationally, can be absolute or one-dimensional.

Only this way can we explain, for example, the fact that Egypt's foreign policy totally changed after Mumbarak lost his power during the Arab Spring, back in 2011. A state that kept excellent relations with the west for so many years and contributed to the "construction" of the balance between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, after 2011, it started to approach again Iran and opened the Suez Canal, a fact that dissapointed Israelis, as in this way Palestinians could much more easily cross it. In other words, Egypt's policy made a shift from a western friendly to a non-western friendly one. And that, was in fact a result of the balance of many different powers and social structures inside the country, which interacted and thus, left a different mark of foreign policy. Neo-liberalism fails to explain facts like that and seems to be so obsolete...

And the problem is, that after so many good explanations, or the inefficiency of a theory to explain motives and interactions, like neo-liberalism does, this absolute rationality of the motives of states and human beings, is considered to be the predominant practice and theory in international relations. In this way, it has created a vicious circle of neo-liberalist approaches in foreign relations that leads to wrong assumptions about intentions (as they are perceived with neo-liberalist criteria, which are extremely limitating) and this way an unfruitful dialogue makes critical discussion and consequently international relations approaches, become stagnated.

                                              written by Themis Panagiotopoulou, PhD in Political Science 

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