President Obama poses an important challenge to constructivism. According to the constructivist logic, Obama is altering the culture of the international system and we will soon witness a transformation of international politics towards more cooperation and less conflict. According to the realist logic, however, states will not endorse Obama’s intentions because of fear of the United States’ capabilities.
Today’s most important branch of constructivism is the one proposed by Alexander Wendt. According to Wendt’s theory, identities are the basis of interests and the main independent variable to explain the behaviour of states. As I have written in another entry on this blog (Neorealism and Its Unfair Critics), Wendt proclaims that realism is underspecified. He argues that self-help and power politics do not follow logically or causally from anarchy, but from identities and interests, which stem from perceptions of self and other. Competition is not a constitutive feature of anarchy. If identitites change, so does behaviour (Wendt 1999; Wendt 1992). A moderate United States may thus shape international politics differently than a radical United States.
Realism is not underspecified, however. Realism simply refers to the fact that intentions are unclear and subject to change, and that states thus do not rely their foreign policies on them. Instead, they focus on material capabilities to evaluate the importance of an actor in the presence or future, which subsequently leads to power politics and self-help (Copeland 2000; Waltz 1979).
The two theories make very different predictions about the importance of a new President of the United States, and the role of President Obama in particular. Obama has made it very clear that he bases his foreign policy on understanding, empathy and change, and that he understands his foreign policy as fundamentally different from the one of President Bush (Jr.). Nowhere has this become clearer than in his Cairo-Speech. According to the constructivist logic, we would now expect the culture of international politics to be altered towards more cooperation and a general relaxation of international interaction. Realists, on the other hand, do not expect states to change their behaviour against the United States just because its President gives some vague signs of new intentions. Instead, realists expect states to act just as they did before President Obama came to power because the capabilities of the United States have not significantly changed. In turn, the United States’ will follow old-fashioned power politics, too.
History will prove one of the theories right – and the other wrong. In fact, history has already proven Constructivism to be wrong. As Stephen Walt elaborates in his most outstanding book, constructivism expects the foreign policy behaviour of revolutionary states to differ dramatically from the foreign policy behaviour of other states or the same states’ previous regime. In reality, however, revolutionary actors soon conduct a foreign policy according to neorealist logics. The French, Russian and Iranian Revolutions deliver good examples for this point (Walt 1997). But if even revolutionary actors are unable to change a states’ foreign policy behaviour but soon act according to material logics, how can we expect identities to be the main explanatory variable of international politics? And how can we expect some vague promises from the worlds’ most powerful actor to make a significant difference in international politics?
On October 9 2009, Barack Obama has been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. Obviously, the Nobel Foundation would not agree with the analysis brought forward in this blog entry. They seem not to understand the difference between intentions and actions, and do not appear to have a clear grasp of what shapes international politics. Obama’s policies have not been purely peaceful so far. His diplomatic initiatives have always served national interests. But most importantly, history is not told already about Obama’s presidency. What would it mean for the Nobel Peace Prize if Obama started a war against Iran, for instance? How can the Nobel Foundation take such a risk? My only guess is that they believe a bit too hard in the power of public opinion, and thus think that their price will change Obama’s foreign policy in the future. If so, they are plain naive.
- Copeland, Dale C. 2000. “The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism: A Review Essay.” International Security 25(2): 187-212.
- Walt, Stephen M. 1997. Revolution and War. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
- Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Wendt, Alexander. 1992. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46(2): 391-425.
- Wendt, Alexander. 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.