Constructivism Essay

Constructivism – Ideas, Identity and Foreign Policy

In the analysis of international politics, the process of identity formation and how national interests are conceived should represent central issues, as they are inextricably linked to a state’s foreign policy. The importance of identities results from the fact that they perform two vital functions: expressing to the self and others who the self is, as well as expressing to the self who others are. Due to the first function, having a certain identity determines an associated set of preferences regarding the choices of action in various circumstances and when different actors are involved. That is why a state’s identity generates its interests and subsequent behaviour towards fellow members and situations related to the international system. The second function implies that a state perceives others according to the identities it attributes to them, while simultaneously reproducing its own identity through social interaction and practice (Tajfel, 1981:255). These notions have been conceptualised and emphasised in IR theory by constructivist scholars, who argue that global politics originates not only in the international system but also in an international society. Constructivists stress the constitutive effects of ideas and norms that set the parameters within which identities and interests are formulated (Brown and Ainley, 2003:49). When studying inter-state relations, it has become essential to analyse how ideas are created, how they evolve and influence states’ perceptions and response to their situation. In order to achieve such an objective, constructivism plays a key role by promoting the tenet that ‘the manner in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world’ (Adler, 1997:322). From this perspective, constructivist frameworks show that even the most enduring institutions are based on collective understandings. Their important contribution to the study of IR lies mainly in emphasising the ontological reality of intersubjective knowledge, along with its epistemological and methodological implications. That is why constructivism argues international relations consist primarily of social facts, which have acquired such a status due to human agreement. They represent reified structures that were conceived ex nihilo by human consciousness, subsequently being diffused and consolidated until they were taken for granted (Adler, 1997:322-323).

Constructivist scholars also believe that actors attach meanings to and cognitively frame the material world as well as their experiences. So collective understandings or ‘the distribution of knowledge’ offer the reasons why certain elements are as they are, as well as the indications as to how actors should deploy their material capabilities (Wendt, 1992:397).

One might deduce from the previous statement that the context of collective meanings structures the preferences and behaviour of political actors, which would suggest that constructivism features deterministic tendencies. On the contrary, its theoretical premises have a much more nuanced nature and the constructivist position within the agency-structure debate asserts that the two elements are mutually constitutive. Constructivism argues that meaningful conduct is possible only within an intersubjective social context, since agents develop relations with and understandings of others via ideas, norms and practices. In their absence, actions like the exercise of power would be devoid of meaning because ideas and norms have constitutive effects on identity, specifying the features that will enable others to recognise that identity and respond to it accordingly (Jepperson, Wendt and Katzenstein, 1996:54). In this process, agents exert their influence by consciously perpetuating and reproducing the social context through their prolonged actions and practices. A significant point to remember is that structure becomes meaningless without some intersubjective set of ideas and norms, so neither anarchy nor the distribution of capabilities alone can ‘socialise’ states to a particular conduct (Dessler, 1989:459-460).

Until now the discussion of constructivism has mentioned several times the notions of ‘constitutive effects’ or being ‘mutually constitutive’, but without describing more elaborately what they entail. The relation of constitution must be differentiated from that of causality, as constitutive theories enquire about the conditions which instantiate a phenomenon, rendering it possible. In this respect, Robert Cummins employs the concept of ‘property theories’ because they have a different objective from causal explanations: to account for the properties of things by reference to the structures in virtue of which they exist (Cummins, 1983). Another key aspect of constitutive theorising refers to the fact that the ‘counterfactual claim of necessity… is conceptual or logical, not causal or natural’ (Wendt, 1998:106). For instance, the conditions constituting a phenomenon define what the latter is, which conveys a relationship of identity not causal determination. These two components are inextricably linked, so that when the conditions come into being, the phenomenon comes into being with them. By contrast, causal explanations rest on two different assumptions: the factors causing an event exist independently from their outcome and are also temporally prior to it. If one applies these theoretical assumptions to the context of ideas, several implications become immediately apparent. The significant role that ideas play in international relations is fully acknowledged only when we recognise their constitutive effects (Wendt, 1999:87). The relationship of constitution derives from the fact that ideas create political outcomes by shaping their properties, meanings, perceptions or interpretations. These are in turn dependent on their ideational source, they exist only in virtue of those ideas – ‘terrorism’ cannot be conceived apart from a national security discourse that defines it. The national security discourse is in turn inextricably linked to constructing a notion of ‘terrorism’, since without it the concept would be meaningless.

When analysing foreign policy, dominant schools of thought in IR theory usually ignore ideas and identity or regard them as intervening variables at best, helping to account for outcomes which surpass the explanatory abilities of traditional materialist factors like power and interests. The approach in question is problematic as it does not encompass fully the ideational impact – ideas in fact create materialist causes. The bottom line of what becomes most contested in the materialist-idealist debate is ‘the relative contribution of brute material forces to power and interest explanations’ as opposed to ideas (Wendt, 1999:94). At this point it might be useful to consider briefly the traditional view of materialism which originates in Marxism. The classical Marxist dichotomy portrays the material base as the mode of production, while culture, ideology and other ideational factors belong to a non-material superstructure. Wendt believes the same principles can be extended and applied to realism; after all, ‘modes of destruction are as basic as modes of production’ (Wendt, 1999:94). Both instances contain a crucial issue, namely that ideational factors become completely separated from economic and military considerations. Here D.V. Porpora noted a conceptual contradiction, considering the fact that Marxism defines the modes of production not only via forces, but also via relations of production. Relations represent ideational phenomena embodied by institutions that ultimately refer to shared norms (Porpora, 1993:214). The obvious implication points to the fact that the material base of Marxism is actually infused with ideas and norms, which also reveals their constitutive role concerning materialism generally

To further reinforce such an argument, it is necessary to challenge the conventional materialist view of interests by acknowledging their nature – interests are actually cognitions or ideas. This perspective has been promoted by two distinct fields of knowledge and their associated scholars: cultural anthropology and philosophy. Drawing on cognitive psychology, the anthropologist R.G. D’Andrade (1992:28) sees interests, desires or motivations as ‘schemas’ (frames, representations, ideas), which reflect knowledge structures that ‘make possible the identification of objects and events’. A significant aspect to remember is that schemas are not given by human nature. D’Andrade (1992:31) admits that some interests can be rooted in biological drives which alludes to their material nature, but biology fails to explain most of the goals human beings seem capable of pursuing – and these are learned through socialisation. In this sense, the anthropologist offers the example of an interest for ‘achievement’: it implies a social standard about what counts as a legitimate aspiration and the individuals desiring to achieve have internalised that standard as a cognitive schema (D’Andrade, 1992:35). A very similar opinion has been advanced by R.B.K. Howe who draws on philosophy to articulate a cognitive theory of interest or desire. He too acknowledges that biological mechanisms influence interests, yet even very primitive desires are mostly directionless and depend on beliefs or ideas about what is desirable to render them meaningful (Howe, 1994). That is why ideas play a key role in defining and directing material needs; one perceives a goal as valuable, which in turn determines one’s interest in accomplishing it. These perceptions are learned sometimes by interacting with nature which resonates with materialist factors, but mostly they are learned through socialisation to culture – an inherently idealist phenomenon (Howe, 1994). Consequently, having reached similar conclusions starting from different premises, scholars in cultural anthropology and philosophy identify the cognitive basis of interests, or that ideas and not material drives create interests to a great extent.

In foreign policy analysis, the concept of ‘national interest’ has been accorded considerably more explanatory ability compared to other variables, particularly due to the influence of the classical realist and neorealist frameworks. However, is its nature inherently materialist and objective as the realist school of thought would have one believe? Or does it rather represent the product and construct of different interpretation processes, in which case ideas and identity become essential? The neorealist approach to international relations rests on the assumptions that the distribution of material capability in the states system can be objectively assessed and that threats to national interests can be accurately recognised. Such a perspective largely ignores that threats are not self-evident and the national interest, when confronted with a problematic situation, becomes ‘a matter of interpretation’ (Weldes, 1996:279), hence the significant influence of ideas and identity. Moreover, constructivism convincingly challenges the objective and materialist view of realism concerning national interests, reintroducing the crucial role of ideas and identity. It does so by promoting the tenet ‘that people act towards objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them’ (Wendt, 1992:396-397). Wendt’s work has had a fundamental contribution in reconceptualising the national interest as the product of intersubjective processes of meaning creation. Nevertheless, consistent with the neorealist tradition, he regards states through the ‘black box’ metaphor, their internal processes being irrelevant to the construction of state identities and interests. Wendt (1992:401) argues that the meanings which states attach to phenomena and subsequently their interests and identities are shaped via inter-state interaction. This does reflect an important facet of identity formation, but also neglects the historical and political contexts in which national interests are deeply embedded, because the interpretations defining state interests cannot be restricted to the meanings and ideas generated by inter-state interaction. After all, any state is inextricably linked to the domestic actors that take decisions in its name. These agents do internalise the norms characterising the international environment, yet they also approach politics with an already formed appreciation of the world, the international system and the position of their state within it (Weldes, 1996:280). The national actors’ ideas and interpretation of all these issues stem partly from domestic political and cultural contexts. As Antonio Gramsci (1971:112) noted, ‘civil society is the sphere in which the struggle to define the categories of common sense takes place’.

After revealing interests as expressions of ideas, one might advance the counterargument that such a conceptualisation applies only to individuals, becoming irrelevant in the case of states and the international system. The latter brings forward another essential point of this paper, which argues that states articulate a constructed collective identity that influences what they perceive their interests to be. It is best shown when taking into account the example of foreign policy, a domain in which various actors make decisions according to their ideas and perceptions of the national interest. Following the collapse of the communist regime, Romania and its political leaders were faced with the opportunity to choose the appropriate future course for the emerging democracy. Their decision was to actively pursue a transformation for the new state, seeking to create a collective identity with the West. But before proceeding with the empirical discussion, it has become imperative to define and conceptualise one of its central notions – ‘identity’. This context particularly deals with state identity because it represents the most relevant instance for analysing foreign policy. In the philosophical sense, ‘identity’ can be defined as whatever makes an entity what it is, although such a definition is too broad to render the concept meaningful. That is why, for analytical purposes and conceptual utility, identity will be understood using a two-faceted definition. On the one hand, it can be regarded as ‘a property of intentional actors that generates motivational and behavioural dispositions’ (Wendt, 1999:224). On the other hand, identity cannot be conceived without recognising that which is like, other and simultaneously like and other, or without an understanding of the self which comes from this recognition (Norton cited by Campbell, 1992: 78-79). Both facets of the definition suggest that identity contains at base a subjective or unit-level quality rooted in an actor’s self-understandings. Their meaning will often depend on whether others represent that actor in the same way, a feature which configures the inter-subjective quality of identity (Wendt, 1999:225). Even a simple example can illustrate the point in a more enlightening manner: Helen might think she is a lecturer but if that belief is not shared by her colleagues and students, then her identity will not operate in their interaction. In other words, both internal and external structures constitute an identity and it takes form under two types of ideas: those held by the Self and those held by the Other. The character of this internal-external relationship varies, which leads to the existence of several kinds of identity, rather than one unitary phenomenon susceptible to a general definition. Building on the work of James Fearon (1999), a typology that features several kinds of identity will be presented here, all inextricably linked and feeding into each other: personal and social, type, role, corporate and collective.

First, ‘personal’ identity is constituted by the self-organising, homeostatic structures that make actors distinct entities (Greenwood, 1994). These structures have a material base represented by the human body, as well as a social component. The latter points to ‘a set of attributes, beliefs, desires, or principles of action that a person thinks distinguish her in socially relevant ways and that (a) the person takes a special pride in; (b) the person takes no special pride in, but which so orient her behavior that she would be at a loss about how to act and what to do without them; or (c) the person feels she could not change even if she wanted to’ (Fearon, 1999:25). What differentiates the ‘personal’ identity of intentional actors from that of other entities is a consciousness and memory of Self as a separate locus of thought and activity (Wendt, 1999:225).

It cannot be denied that people constitute distinct entities in virtue of biology, but without consciousness and memory – a sense of ‘I’ – they are not agents. This aspect resonates even more in the case of a state, since its people must have a common narrative of themselves as a corporate actor. Therefore, the state itself might be considered a ‘group Self’ capable of group-level recognition (Wilson and Sober, 1994:602).

In the former, an identity is just a social category, a group of people designated by a label (or labels) that is commonly used either by the people designated, others, or both. This is the sense employed when we refer to \American,” \French,” \Muslim,” \father,” \homosexual,” (p.10)

National identities, like American or Russian, are examples of type identities. There are almost no contexts in which it would make sense to speak of the \the role of an American,” except in a theatre play where \role” means part. Other social categories that are almost wholly type identities include party a_liation (e.g., Democrat or Republican), sexual identity (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.), and ethnic identity. Some identities or social categories involve both role and type. For example, \mother” is a role, but nonetheless we expect certain beliefs, attitudes, values, preferences, moral virtues, and so on, to be characteristic of people performing the role of mother (understandings that may change through time.) On the other hand, some role identities, which mainly but not exclusively comprise occupational categories, have few if any type features associated with them (for example, toll booth collector).

Lastly, ‘collective’ identity brings the Self-Other relationship to another stage and its logical conclusion – identification. The latter represents a cognitive process in which the distinction between the two becomes blurred and sometimes even transcended, namely Self is ‘categorised’ as Other. Identification tends to be issue specific and always involves extending the boundaries of the Self to include the Other. In this respect, ‘collective’ identity uses both ‘role’ and ‘type’ ones and at the same time goes beyond their limits. It builds on ‘role’ identities since both depend on the mechanism of incorporating the Other into the Self, which generates a socially constituted ‘Me’. The essential difference refers to their contrasting objectives: ‘role’ identities use the mechanism to enable the Self and Other to play distinct roles, whereas a ‘collective’ identity aims to merge the two entities into a single one. In the case of ‘type’ identities, the situation is slightly more complicated. ‘Collective’ identity builds on them as both require shared characteristics, but not all ‘type’ identities are collective because not all involve the identification process

Especially over the past decade, the discipline of IR has experienced what Yosef Lapid and Friedrich Kratochwil (1996) called ‘the return of culture and identity in IR theory’. The 1950s and 1960s had brought for IR scholars an intense preoccupation with the role of national identities, particularly in the context of early EU integration studies by Karl Deutsch and Ernst Haas. Unfortunately, later on the concept became once again marginalised in favour of more ‘objective’ and scientific approaches like neorealism and rational choice. The recent ‘return’ of identity does not necessarily imply that the current use of the term may be considered equivalent to that of the 1950s-1960s. Rather, since the late 1980s, a new strand of theory regarding identity has emerged and slowly developed, which rejects essentialist notions while emphasising the constructed nature of social and political identities (see for example McSweeney, 1999; Albert et al., 2001).

One of the works that is most often cited when discussing the relationship between state identity and foreign policy is that of David Campbell. In his 1992 book Writing security, he challenges the traditional narrative of asking how foreign policy serves the national interest and instead examines how the practice of foreign policy helps write and rewrite state identity.

According to Campbell ‘Danger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat’ (Campbell 1992: 1). As ‘danger is an effect of interpretation’ (Ibid: 2), nothing is more or less dangerous than something else, except when interpreted as such. In terms of the non-essentialistic character of danger, the objectification and externalization of danger need to be understood as an effect of political practices rather than the condition of their possibility. As danger is never objective, Campbell’s argument continues, neither is the identity which it is said to threaten. Rather, the contours of this identity are subject to constant (re)writing, and foreign policy is an integral part of the discourses of danger which serve to discipline the state. Campbell’s theory – a declared challenge to conventional approaches which assume a settled nature of identity – is thus that state identity can be understood as the outcome of practices associated with a discourse of danger.

We speak about the foreign policy of the state x or state y, thereby indicating that the state is prior to the policy, but Campbell’s creative insights come to challenge such a position. He explains that national states are ‘paradoxical entities which do not possess prediscursive stable identities’ (Ibid: 11). As states are always in the process of becoming, ‘for a state to end its practices of representation would be to expose its lack of prediscursive foundations'(Ibid: 11). Ironically, the inability of the state project of security to succeed is the guarantor of the state’s continued success as an impelling identity. ‘The constant articulation of danger through foreign policy is thus not a threat to a state’s identity or existence: it is its condition of possibility'( Ibid: 12).

Building on such theoretical understanding, this paper offers an account of the processes through which Romanian state identity – and its insecurities – are produced, reproduced, and potentially transformed.

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