Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

A reflection on why constructivism bothers me, and an apology to the theory

After my blog-rant on Sunday night, and after reading Jonathan's and Nick's posts, I have come to the conclusion that constructivism might not be so bad after all. Or rather, I still don't like it, but I think it's pretty accurate.

A quote in Jonathan's post made me think: "As I contended in class I think it is clear that there is physical, objective reality. The question then is how do human beings interpret it." Constructivism has bothered me because it appears to contend that the objective reality is irrelevant, and that actors can't really understand each other, which would render various U.S. institutions -- like the CIA, for example -- useless, because ultimately states will go ahead and make decisions based on their preconceptions anyway. However, after thinking about it, I think that (depressingly) this is pretty fair.

Let's look at the Iraq invasion (because clearly, being SIS majors, we all haven't had it beaten into the ground or anything). Despite intelligence to the contrary, and despite the absence of any of the clear links they were looking for, the administration still chose to invade -- because it had a preconceived idea of Iraq's identity, and its identity in relation to Iraq. As I quoted in the last entry, constructivism holds that identities can be "reinforced by continued interaction that appears to confirm the identity as true," which is a fairly accurate assessment of the continued deterioration between the two countries since the Gulf War. The U.S. had a conception of Hussein as evil and uncooperative and every interaction they had seemed to confirm that, which made it easy for them to confirm their own identity -- the country that held him accountable and contained him -- by invading.

In short, although I still think countries that behave according to constructivism are operating without taking advantage of various means of understanding other actors -- again, intelligence and diplomacy -- I do think that constructivism can help explain their actions. Consider it an apology to the theory.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jonathan Berman Responds to NW: Identity vs. Interests

It's clear that NW and I disagree whether interests or identity is more important. This is a welcome occurence considering the blogs are supposed to be an opportunity to debate each other. If I have it right I believe NW feels that interests transcend identity. If this is so then I will proceed to lay down an intellectual smackdown.

First, allow me to respond to his example of the individual with a gender-identity crisis. As I contended in class I think it is clear that there is physical, objective reality. The question then is how do human beings interpret it? It is clear that one of the parameters of how we interpret the physical world is through our identity. Our physical selves our part of that reality too. In the case of the gender confused individual mentioned by NW it is clear his physical self has changed his interest in sexual partners. Nevertheless, that individual's reaction to their shift in sexual orientation depend on their identity.

In class I mentioned the Greeks and Romans, who clearly had different views on homosexuality. A person finding out they were a homosexual during this time period would probably not have any qualms about it since the practice was accepted. Compare that to a person who found out they were gay in the Dark Ages or even in the 1950's. They would probably react to their gender crisis a lot differently, just because the societies they were part of viewed homosexuality as evil and wrong. Potentially, they might even embark on a self-destructive path because their new identity conflicted with their ideas of what an ideal member of their society was.

I don't think that constructivism minimizes the importance of interests it just decries taking them as a given. Interests have to come from somewhere and since we can only know the physical world through our perception, whatever shapes that perception needs to be taken into account before interests are developed. I believe this explains why two states, faced with the same pressures from the international system and of similar power and size can have such different foreign policies. Identity is the wildcard.

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Constructivism

After reading over Sterling-Folker 5.1, Bridging the Gap, and Wendt's article, I find myselft questioning one basic tenet of constructivism. What comes first identity or interests? According to constructivism, identity is first. All of our interets follow from there. We have interests because we have an identity and want to practice our identity. But I'm not sure this is true. Earlier in this blog, I argued this point a bit with Jonathon, and so I'm coming back to it here. My basic argument was that in a case like gender-identity crisis, a person finds first that they have different interests than what are normal. I'll admit that normal is socially constructed, however, because of those interests the person begins to explore the implications. Eventually, the person realizes that their identity is not what they believe and so form a new identity. In this new identity, the person can maintain the same interests which led him before to question his identity. In fact, the person may reinforce those identity. What were previously only interests now become an intrinsic part of identity, so he works to defend and reinforce those interests.

Interests, in the way I look at it come first. A few groups of people find themselves constantly at war, scattered across a territory. Their interests in this case become the end of conflict,survival. Survival drives them to talk with other groups, to communicate and create a social network, linking the various groups across the territory. The groups agree that survival is in their best interest. As such they agree to defend on another if another group from outside the territory they occupy attacks or otherwise endangers one of the other groups. The group basically starts acting as a distinct entity with interests. In this case establishing norms such as sovereignty and mutual defense. However, the group never identified itself as anything. This hypothetical situation could just as easily be about gangs in Chicago as tribes or ethnic groups in 1600s Europe. The groups form identities based out of their interests and not the other way around. This basic question of where interests come from prevents me from accepting the constructivist view. I think that you must know what you want, need, and believe; and through that form an identity, instead of deciding what you want, need, and believe because of your identity.

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Anarchy is what states make of it

The article by Alexander Wendt examines the social basis for realism. It is particularly critical of realist assumptions that their description of the international system arose through some kind of evolutionary process.

"Self-help and power politics are institutions, not essential features of anarchy." Sounds sort of like the claim that realism is self-fulfilling because if one player believes the others to be acting in accordance with realism then he will act in the same way.

Wendt is particularly concerned with identities, because he finds no explanation in realism for why structurally similar "objects" have different meanings. As an example, why is one entity a friend and another a foe, when they are superficially similar entities.

Wendt's explanation is that "Actors acquire identities...Identities are inherently relational." This has implications for the security dilemma. Wendt considers a hypothetical first position for states, in which their own nature, and the nature of the other states is unknown. It is only through the initial interactions that States would determine who is a selfish predator, and who is a potential ally.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Jonathan Berman on Writing Security by David Campbell

I'll admit I've been a fan of constructivism since I took Persaud's Human and Global Security class last semester. Especially enlightening was reading David Campbell's WRITING SECURITY which analyzed the Cold War from a constructivist point of view. Instead of talking about US foreign policy and its concern with things like second-strike capability, the tank gap, or even the missile gap that worried analysts back in the 1950's and 1960's, Campbell takes the position that US foreign policy was concerned more with defending the identity of the US rather than defending the US from the material threat of the Soviet Union.

Documents like the NSC-68, which influenced US foreign policy greatly, talk more about the conflicting values of the Soviet Union and how they differed from the US's basic founding principles than strategy. According to the NSC-68 the US is the protector of freedom and liberty while the USSR is a force for evil and slavery that needs to be resisted. More importantly, the NSC-68 and other discourses analyzed by Campbell show that there was a conscious desire to create a "self" (represented by the US) and an other (represented by the USSR). The self was good and needed to be protected from the other. In the case of the Cold War things like socialism and homosexuality threatened the US’s core identity (the US's self) as a capitalist, moral society. (The US government in the 50’s and 60’s actually ferreted out homosexuals in the government because they were a supposed "security threat").

After reading Campbell’s book it is easy to see how the Cold War could have turned out differently. For example, what if the US viewed the Soviet Union’s refusal to leave Eastern Europe after WWII in the context of Russian history, where Russia had repeatedly been invaded and was naturally seeking a buffer for its security? Maybe the USSR’s actions would not be viewed as so scary. However, what if we look at the Soviet Union’s refusal to leave Eastern Europe in the context of its ascribed identity as being evil, the embodiment of slavery, and destined to clash with the US? In this case, it easily understandable how the US might have been apt to believe the USSR was expansionistic and seeking to gain power in order to clash with the US.

In the end, I believe that these two examples highlight the importance of perception in international relations. In this case, the US’s perception shaped how it interpreted Soviet actions. Documents like the NSC-68 helped create a certain social reality that made the US interpret Soviet actions in a certain light. If Campbell’s work is true it is easy to see how liberals and realists have gone wrong. The US's actions were based on the US’s self-interest for sure but those interests were a product of the US’s identity as the leader of the "free world" and the "free market" which the USSR was diametrically opposed to. If we were thange the US’s identity then we would change its interests and therefore change its foreign policy.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

A theory that I loved in cross-cultural communications but absolutely hate in IR...

When I took Cross-Cultural Comm last spring, I was a fan of constructivism. It made sense that identity and perceptions of other individuals/cultures/etc. would govern interpersonal communications, and even moreso I was interested in the connection between an individual or culture's identity and what it felt compelled to do (as has come up in class several times). However, after reading the Sterling-Folker article on constructivism, I feel a little betrayed. What started out as an intriguing reading expanding a theory I already liked ended with me feeling a little indignant toward whoever introduced it to IR.

Don't get me wrong; I still consider constructivism to be a good explanation of many phenomena of intercultural communication. But it feels like psychobabble when applied to international relations. It really started to bother me when I got to this quote on page 118:

"Constructivists argue that interaction among nation-states can lead to the development of identities such as competitor and rival, or friend and ally, which can become entrenched over time and reinforced by continued interaction that appears to confirm the identity as true."

This strikes me as constructivism trying to explain state interactions in which neither state has outside information about the other or any semi-objective way to analyze the other's actions. While the latter would be likely in a state of conflict (let's say, the Cold War), it is not likely at the inception of a state relationship, which is when these identities would be developed. It seems as though in reality, states would rely on intelligence and diplomacy to gather information about potential allies or enemies rather than how they "felt" about their "identities." The kind of behavior described by constructivism is what I would expect from a small, undeveloped nation with no context for interpreting state actions and no intelligence to confirm its suspicions. I might be demonstrating naive faith in the "rational actor" model now, but on the other hand constructivism appears to give rational communication no credit at all.

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