What is Constructivism in International Politics!?

Iran deal

OK, try and stick with this one, you political junkies, it will help you understand state actions better.

If you were to ask me, I would say that most people look at international conflict, and say stuff like:

“China wants to develop the bomb to invade the US, for our intellectual property!”

“Russia wants to invade the US, for our bourbon!”

“The United Nations wants to take over the world, because they want to enslave us all!”

… and each of those statements implies that one state wants something from the other, and it’s either land, oil, the obedience of people, or something else. Whatever it is, one state invades another for something. I would say that this is how most people view state-to-state conflict … there are concrete things the other state wants.

In a material reality, there are interests, they’re calculated, and actions are executed based on the goals each state wants. And this is a legitimate view, and an analytical system built around the assumptions of security and power does exist, it’s called realism.

However, there are other ways of interpreting actions of states. This system is based on the way states behave, and focuses on behavior, rather than focusing on what each state fundamentally wants.

Stick with me here.

What matters?

The biggest challenge when trying to figure out politics (especially international) is parsing down the things that matter, from the things that don’t. In America, what matters? Is it the public, super-PACS, the leaders, Congress, the courts, companies, corporations … WHAT MATTERS!? DOES ANYTHING MEAN ANYTHING!?

So, to make things easy, a lot of people assume that states want concrete stuff when they make decisions. They want a thing, or some resource, or some specific outcome that ensures security (the realist approach).

However, there is another view. One that assumes that each individual actor has interests independent of materialist considerations, and that interest stems from their identity. This, in turn, assumes that there is a system of people who are interested in what they’re interested in because of each unit’s unique identity, history, and preferences. … stick with it.

If you break this down, there are three components of this view. 1) Identity, 2) interests, and 3) the social interactions of those composites.

This concept is a bit difficult to grasp at first, because we aren’t talking about the concrete “real” world. Instead, we’re talking about (somewhat) immeasurable things, and look at how people interact. Because Americans are so rooted in “reality,” it’s a bit more difficult for Americans to grasp this one.

So, when you read news about what Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, or Indonesia are doing, you can interpret those actions as being the result of security (existential) concerns, or the result of socially constructed and informed decisions.


You, as a person, have preferences that contribute to your identity; as in, you prefer some things over others. Aside from hair color, eye color, height, or weight, you have preferences that compose your identity. This could be preferring Pearl Jam to Nirvana (poor choice), or preferring beer to wine, the color blue to black, or room-temperature water to cold. Whatever they are, you have preferences, and people identify you by those preferences. So, preferences contribute to identity.

States have identities as well. Overall, Russians prefer vodka, Americans prefer sweet foods to sour, Chinese people prefer patriarchal societies over individualistic ones, and Iranian people prefer the Muslim religion to all others. Do ALL people in the country adopt these views? No, but a majority do, hence we can identify that as a characteristic of that state.

States, the same as people, have unique histories that contribute to their preferences. A person who has lived on a farm their entire life is distinctly separate from a lifetime urban dweller. Similarly, traditionally agrarian states are distinctly separate from industrialized ones. Brazil has a distinct character separate from Argentina. Cuba is independent from Chile. This is because each unit has a separate history, which, in turn, informs decisions.

Aside from the descriptive traits of land characteristics, temperatures, percent of forest, or whether it’s landlocked or not, states are unique because of preferences and history. This, in international relations, is considered identity.


Here’s the crucial decision to make when evaluating actions of states. Are states making these decisions because they face a security threat (realism), or are these decisions stemming from preferences (constructivism)?

In realism, it’s all about calculating the likelihood of survival (which is why it’s a better approach for security and military studies). In constructivism, each unit is interested in something, and it can’t be separated from their individual character, identity, and preferences — because that all is intertwined.

In the show Criminal Minds, the objective is preservation of life; hence they interpret the actions of criminals through the lens of power, so they calculate the killer’s actions from a power-based model, because they assume the killer wants power.

** But in the show, that girl with the glasses knows EVERYTHING, somehow — so the team always has perfect information. In reality, information is not that that readily available, and states (diplomats, military, leaders and such) can only make decisions based on the information they have. **

But, constructivism assumes that the motivation behind decisions is because of a blend of history, the overall character of the state (values the society cares about), and would look for consistencies in that decision making. Constructivists emphasize history and values so much because that’s what contributes to policy preferences.

— So the realist would say that Putin is helping Assad bomb rebels because that action is mutually beneficial for Assad and Putin together, and it increases their power relative to other states (they get oil, land, arms … something).

— But a constructivist might assume that the invasion was because of Russian character and history … and Putin doesn’t really care what he gains. Putin cares about Assad because they are likeminded, and it’s in the Russian character to be powerful, bold, and preserve their values — which are the same as Assad’s.


Constructivism assumes that each state cares about the actions of others, and cares what others think of their actions. Constructivists emphasize that leaders do care what other leaders think of them, and that actions can be intertwined based on a triangle of identity, interests (stemming from preferences), and actions.

Metaphorically, imagine that the United Nations is a pub, and when one state gets too belligerent, then everybody else judges them.

This is why Obama places a lot of emphasis on isolating the actions of certain countries. Obama is clearly a constructivist, and places a lot of emphasis on the need for international cooperation, because it will help shape how states behave moving forward.

So, if Obama can convince enough countries to condemn Russian actions, then perhaps Russia will alter actions moving forward, because he’s trying to shape the behavior of a unique, socially constructed animal known as “Russia,” which is a powerful social force.

Russian actions in Syria, in turn, for a constructivist, occur because the two states share the same values, and see eye-to-eye. ** A realist, in reaction, would emphasize that Russia wants to preserve Syrian state power so the two can work together mutually to ensure security or resources. **

The Iranian Deal

Now knowing what you know from the above paragraphs, what is going on with the Iran deal?

BUT FIRST, let’s define what the deal is, because people are screaming about it without even knowing what it is.

In short, the deal will have Iran ship out 2/3 of their centrifuges, which are needed to separate particles to enrich uranium. Iran would also have to store low-grade enriched uranium either in another country, or dilute it to its natural state. Finally, there is a reactor that has to be filled up with concrete so it can’t be used for bombs in the future. Yes, there are other provisions for Iran, but that’s generally what s going on.

In return, after the UN certifies that Iran has completed its tasks, then Iran’s assets (billions of dollars) will be unfrozen, and sanctions will be lifted. Moving forward, the US will provide inspectors for Iranian nuclear sites.

… So, that’s the deal in a nutshell.

This deal was signed by major players, including China, Russia, Iran, Europe, and the US … and something like this agreement is a first, so it’s definitely interesting.

Is this a constructivist approach?

I would say yes. This is a first step towards some form of social cooperation.

Obviously Israel takes a realist-oriented stance, and is highly concerned with security — and rightfully so. But, had there not been a deal, there wouldn’t be a chance to engage Iran at all. If that were so, then Iran would insulate itself, talk to likeminded states, form a coalition, and the likelihood of conflict increases … maybe.

I’m pretty sure the logic was something like this: We want Iran to not get the bomb. We have two options, make a deal or not make a deal. If there is a deal, try to include as many others as possible (the security council). This ensures that everyone is on the same page, everyone signs off, all are in agreement, and, should things go south, the agreement acts as a leveraging tool should force need to be taken.

So, it could be considered both realist and constructivist. Realist in that it could justify a war if the bargain is not upheld, and constructivist because it’s fostering social interaction, communication, and it develops norms.


Finally, constructivism emphasizes norms that come out of social interaction.

Say you’re with some friends. Just by virtue of being around a group of people, there are imaginary, constructed norms about what you can do, and what you can’t. This changes from group to group. If you’re around 20-year-olds, the conduct is different from if they’re 40-year-olds. If it’s in a pub, perhaps swearing is acceptable … maybe not so in a professional conference setting.

There are always unwritten rules when people get together, and everyone naturally understands that. This is the same for states. During the Cold War, it was acceptable for countries to turn blind eyes to human rights abusers. Today, there exists a norm that de-emphasizes human rights abusers, and it’s now taboo. So, when someone attaches a state’s actions to abuses, they are expected to defend themselves.

Does this mean that norms are always obeyed?

Not at all. There are lots of social situations where people drink too much at a company function, or discuss obviously distasteful stuff at a dinner party.

But, as a wise professor would tell us in seminar: “We all know there are stop signs, and the norm is to stop. But some people are douchebags and ignore the stop sign. Does that mean the norm doesn’t exist and we should throw the norm out? No. It just means that there are some douchebags who ignore the norm.”

Just because norms are violated doesn’t mean norms don’t exist. They exist, but they just aren’t accepted by everyone yet.



5 thoughts on “What is Constructivism in International Politics!?

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