OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 3.2 | June 2000

ISSN 1522-211X


Social Theory of International Politics, by Alexander Wendt

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Paul Skoczylas

Social Theory of International Politics, Alexander Wendt’s first book, sets forth what is likely to be considered the most developed version of Constructivist theory in International Relations to date. Building on his articles, in particular the widely cited "Anarchy is what states make of it" (International Organization, 46, 391-425), Wendt challenges popular assumptions about states and the states system to demonstrate that the international system is socially constructed. Rather than viewing states as inherently egoistic and concerned primarily with security, resulting in the Neorealist "self-help" states system, Wendt argues that there is no inherent logic of anarchy at the unit or system level. Replacing Kenneth Waltz’s materialist definition of structure with a social, idea-ist one, Wendt posits at least three kinds of macro-level systemic structures, "each based on the kind of roles that dominate the system": Hobbesian, Lockean, and Kantian. (p. 247)

The only role that Wendt describes as indicative of the Neorealist self-help system is the Hobbesian culture. The Hobbesian culture entails a "distinct posture or orientation of the Self toward the Other" in which the subject position is that of "enemy." (p. 258) In a Hobbesian culture, adversaries observe no limits in their violence toward each other. In the Lockean culture, the subject position is "rival," where rivals are competitors who will use violence to advance their interests, but unlike the Hobbesian culture, will refrain from killing each other. The Kantian subject position is that of "friend," where allies do not use violence to settle disputes and work as a team against security threats.

Because Constructivism highlights the role of socially constructed international relations, Wendt argues that Constructivist social theory can foresee the possibility of change within the system that other theories, which assume axiomatically certain characteristics in the social relations among states, cannot. Viewing the empirically prominent self-help characteristic as an "on-going product of the system," Wendt notes that "if self interest is not sustained by practice it will die out." (p. 369) Four "master variables" enable egoistic identities to be undermined in favor of collective ones, leading to the Kantian culture of the states system: interdependence, common fate, homogeneity, and self-restraint.

Aside from the his overall Constructivist argument that international relations are socially constructed, Wendt’s book provides a cogent assessment of the state of International Relations as a discipline. In his assessment, he highlights distinctions that will undoubtedly spawn reassessment among scholars, even those who do not share his Constructivist methods. For instance, he places competing theories of international politics on a grid with Materialism to Idealism on the x-axis and Individualism to Holism on the y-axis. (p. 32) The grid clarifies the disagreements between theories, but also serves as a basis for Wendt’s contention that International Relations is too caught up in empirical issues without being self-conscious enough about ontological ones. By concentrating on ontology, scholars working in the seemingly incommensurable positivist and post-positivist fields can engage in discussion based on their common realist approach to researching empirical issues.*

Unfortunately, one of the key distinctions that Wendt dwells upon while describing how international politics are socially constructed remains difficult to understand throughout the book. While insisting that his theory is systemic (macro) and not merely unit-to-unit based (micro) (p.1 and p. 32), he does not make clear how the three cultures of anarchy can occur in any way other than unit-to-unit terms. For instance, he states that "Subject positions are constituted by representations of Self and Other as particular kinds of agents related in particular ways..." yet then states that "Roles are attributes of structures, not agents." (p. 257) While he is clear that because roles are relational, they cannot be reduced to any individual, the example does not argue for a system beyond the relations between the units.

Similarly, when he states that "roles are the objective, collectively constituted positions that give meaning to those understandings," one could think of the "West" as an example of a system "dominated" by a Kantian culture (p. 259), but to what extent does this transcend the individual relationships within the system? Indeed, his explanation of how change is possible in the international structure seems to belie the role of structure as anything but the combination of unit-to-unit relationships: "Since the social process is how we get structure...the more that states think like ‘Realists’ the more that egoism, and its systemic corollary of self-help, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." (p. 368) This difficulty potentially undermines his contention that "the structure of the international system exerts both [constitutive and causal] kinds of effects on state identities." (p. 28)

Paul Skoczylas is a graduate of Georgetown University and am currently a Fulbright Scholar studying with the graduate faculty at Bosphorus University in Istanbul.

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.