Wednesday, March 15, 2006

International Security Paper: "Towards a More Complete Constructivism"

Towards a More Complete Constructivism: Culture and Security in IR


The extent to which culture shapes world politics has been an important recent debate in the field of international relations and the subfield of international security. IR has generally been a field concerned primarily with states in the international system, as well as adopting a rationalist or functional framework to understand political life. The constructivist turn in IR however has tried to more systematically understand the role culture, ideas and norms play in politics and move away from simple state-centrism and a rationalist orientation. But this “turn”, I argue, has been an incomplete one. Currently, scholars like Michael Desch are right to think that constructivism and cultural theories can only “supplement” realist or neoliberal theories at the current moment (Desch 1998: 141). Unlike Desch though, I am more optimistic that cultural and idea-based theories can be constructed into a more systematic research agenda. This paper explores the debate in IR and international security concerning the role of norms and ideas in world politics, with particular attention paid to the work of Dana Eyre and Mark Suchman, and Richard Price and Nina Tannenwald. The final section will highlight a research agenda for the future of constructivism that could be promising if the constructivist literature could better explain: 1) where norms and ideas originate; and 2) why some norms and ideas “win out” while others do not.

Culture and International Security

Ronald Jepperson, Alexander Wendt and Peter Katzenstein argue that understanding culture is pertinent to understanding the international system. They argue that culture is a fundamentally “embedded” part of a state’s security environment that shapes the preferences state’s have and the decisions they make. Second, these authors argue that culture shapes not only the choices states make but also the so-called “character” of states – what they describe as state identity (Jepperson, Wendt and Katzenstein 1996: 33). Because states identify themselves with certain normative ideas states sometimes pursue certain behaviors or are constrained in their behavior by these norms. Two articles by Eyre and Suchman, and Price and Tannenwald explore the way norms and ideas might influence the behavior of states. Although they agree in principle in their articles that culture matters the articles explore different empirical case studies in demonstrating why or how they do.

Eyre and Suchman are interested in why Third World militaries obtain certain weapons programs. For these authors, weapons proliferate in ways that rationalists could not explain. For example, upon achieving formal recognition as a state from the United Nations, one of the first things Namibia did was draw together an army even though it is military insignificant and weak by comparison (Eyre and Suchman 1996: 82). Or, some countries acquire certain weapons programs that they are ill-equipped to operate and that ultimately remain non-functional. Eyre and Suchman suggest that countries acquire these weapons not because they need them but because part of being a nation-state in the international system – at least symbolically – requires obtaining expensive weapons programs. Thus states are interested in symbolic prestige[1] , not just interested in acquiring weapons to become a military power. As they articulate it: “Weapons spread not because of a match between their technological capabilities and national security needs but because of the highly symbolic, normative nature of militaries and their weaponry” (Eyre and Suchman 1996: 86).

Price and Tannenwald’s work investigates why certain weapons – like chemical and nuclear weapons – remain unused in international warfare (Price and Tannenwald 1996: 114). Their work is a response to the deterrence literature in international relations that argues that these weapons are stockpiled and not used because the costs – political, economic or in terms of lives -- are too great, particularly if one state retaliates against another. Price and Tannenwald argue instead that the non-use of these weapons has some to do with deterrence but also can be attributed to the prohibitionary norms surrounding their actual use (Price and Tannenwald 1996: 115). These prohibitionary norms help to delegitimate certain kinds of military behavior. They claim, for example, that deterrence theory could not explain why the United States did not use nuclear weapons in the 1950s, even though they possessed a monopoly on them (Price and Tannenwald 1996: 117). This can be attributed to a “nuclear taboo” that began to develop within international politics. Similarly, chemical weapons were not used because their use would signal something outside of “civilized conduct” (Price and Tannenwald 1996: 131).

Both articles demonstrate the concerns that constructivists have in IR, and why they are dismayed with realist and neorealist accounts in international security. The constructivists have advanced several interesting propositions that have added to the discipline. First, constructivists are right to problematize the notion of a “fixed preference structure” within the international system. Instead of agreeing that actors are primarily self-interested, self-help actors, constructivists have relayed that actors could be motivated by any number of concerns. Why would a landlocked state like Malawi, for example, have a navy at its disposal? Per the tenets of rationalism it would not necessarily make sense. Constructivism endogenizes actors’ preferences, making the domestic institutional environment vital for constituting the norms and ideas of a given state. Second, constructivism has been an important contribution to the field because it is able to explain variation across time in the state system. Realism and neorealism suggest that states are like units whose behavior is similar under conditions of anarchy (See Waltz 1979). Realism and neorealism are thus limited in explaining variation within the international system because they predict all states to act similarly over time. But realism would be unable to explain then why almost all states share a commitment to human rights in a way that they did not some forty years ago. Even if not in practice, states as disparate as China and United States profess to be committed to human rights in some way.[2] It is also a significant development that citizens seem to be increasingly concerned with post-material values in political life[3] – issues like the environment, religion, and culture have become more important in understanding politics.

A More Complete Constructivism?

Eyre and Suchman, and Price and Tannenwald both are good articles in showing how “endogenized” preferences shape political outcomes, and also how certain norms can change the nature of the international system. On the other hand these articles are symptomatic of some of the problems inherent in the constructivist literature. First, both articles do not articulate where norms come from in the first place. One does not need to know where norms originate in order to understand that they exist and influence actors’ choices. On the other hand, norms should be seen as a type of ‘critical juncture’ in international politics and to understand their origins would provide valuable insight in understanding the world. Eyre and Suchman’s article draws heavily on John Meyer and Brian Rowan’s literature on world culture to explain why Third World states adopted extensive military apparatus. Meyer and Rowan are specifically clear in their work that they are unsure why some institutional forms are replicated over others. They know isomorphism occurs, but are not sure exactly why other than to obtain legitimacy (Meyer and Rowan 1977: 340). Eyre and Suchman never answer why militaries become the predominant institutional form that determines “stateness”; they know only that it occurs. Price and Tannenwald do not answer where norms originate either. In an oddly titled section of their article called Origins of Norms, Price and Tannenwald do not actually describe the origin of norms -- or what they call taboos – at all. Why did a nuclear and chemical weapon taboo originate in the first place?

Second, these articles do not actually describe why some norms and ideas persist and why other fall by the wayside. Obviously norms and ideas sometimes compete with one another: What is the process whereby one norm emerges victorious? Constructivism is a mixed bunch on this question. Meyer and Rowan’s world culture school are agnostic on this point, not knowing how some norms come to dominate why others do not. Thomas Risse, paying homage to Habermas, suggests that some norms survive through a process of communicative action or deliberation. In short, persuasion is a fundamental aspect of world politics (Risse 2000: 1). A final way to think about how norms and ideas persist is something in the way of a Kuhnian paradigmatic shift. Kathleen McNamara’s work on European monetary policy relates that following the failure of Keynesian policies during the oil crisis, the idea of a strict monetarist policy to govern economics ‘was perceived as the only game in town’ (McNamara 1998).

A final point of concern has less to do with any particular article and more to do with constructivism as a whole. Unlike the theoretical traditions of realism and neoliberalism, constructivism is not a theory with an agreed set or principals or understandings of how the world works. Early constructivists – or poststructuralists – sought to separate themselves from rationalism and state-centrism all-together. The editors of this volume agree that rationalism can explain some in international politics and have no problem keeping states as the main actors in world politics (Jepperson, Wendt and Katzenstein 1996: 33). And some constructivists have went so far as to play on the terms on rationalists altogether by rigorously testing hypotheses and making constructivism more like rationalism.[4] Moreover, constructivist scholars are interested in a number of different questions that fall under the label of constructivism: the role of ideas, the role of norms, culture, identity, rules, rule-making, persuasion, and deliberation. While these theorists share some features, in no way are constructivists as identifiable as their rationalist counterparts in terms of the questions they ask the orientation they follow.


Constructivists face a tough road within IR theory. On the one hand, constructivists seek to break away from the dominant orientations in IR with the hopes of creating a research agenda on their own. On the other hand, in order to be taken seriously constructivism has been asked to look like and play like their predecessors. This essay has sought to highlight some of the significant achievements of the ‘constructivist turn’ in IR, specifically endogenizing actors’ preferences and explaining change and variation in the international system. However, constructivism is ultimately an incomplete tradition thus far because several critical questions have not really been explored: where norms and ideas originate and why some norms survive while others do not. Constructivism is also a ‘big tent’ with many different voices competing for what “constructivism” really is. Eyre and Suchman and Price and Tannenwald’s articles relate some of the core arguments constructivism hopes to posit but also leaves unexplored some crucial questions. IR needs a more complete constructivism and would ultimately benefit from it.

[1] It should be noted that realists were aware that prestige was a fundamental concern of states. As Hans Morgenthau argued, prestige was but one of three ways that states demonstrated their power to other nations (Morgenthau 1993:84

[2] Keck and Sikkink’s work on transnational advocacy networks outlines the proliferation of human rights networks throughout the world, a change from earlier days in world politics.

[3] Russell Dalton’s book Citizen Politics is an excellent survey of how post-material politics has changed the values and norms of European citizens in various ways.

[4] This is best illustrated in a debate between Jeffrey Checkel and Andrew Moravcsik in “A Constructivist Research Program in EU Studies?” 2:2; 2001.

No comments:

Post a Comment