A Critical Analysis of International Relations and Politics from the Constructionism Paradigm



International relations and politics are increasingly gaining importance in the modern society due to the interconnectedness that has made the world a global village. Due to advances in global industry, trade, technological innovation and transport networks, there has been an unprecedented increase in interactions between people of diverse cultures, nationalities, races, and languages. These interactions have been beneficial for the most part. However, in some instances, the international interactions have been adversarial and catastrophic. Such instances include wars, international terrorism, international economic or political sabotage and even international military campaigns.

Various theories have been advanced by scholars trying to explain the mechanics of international politics and relations. The most popular theories are the theory of realism and the theory of liberalism/pluralism. The premise of these two dominant international relations theories is that the states in the world exist in a state of anarchy and that there exists an international system in which nation-states interact. However recent developments in international relations theories have resulted in a newer theory that inculcates the ideas of constructionism in trying to explain international relations. The aim of this paper is to ascertain the relevance of this theory with regard to international relations. Particular emphasis will be put on the critical analysis of the practicability of this concept with its various implications in international relations.

The History of International Relations and International Politics 

There is a critical point that defined modern international relations and that is in the formation of the League of Nations in 1919. This was after an unprecedented war that engulfed the whole world with catastrophic consequences.  To avoid similar consequences, member states formed an international forum which would facilitate international relations. This international organization was weak and flawed and failed to achieve its fundamental mandate. Moreover, the study of international relations as an important field of international politics was enhanced in 1919 by the formation of the department of international politics in wales with the objective of curtailing political conflicts that lead to war (Wlliams, Hadfield, & Rofe, 2012).

The League of Nations gave way to the United Nations that was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. This organization has endured and expanded to foster international relations in various issues of importance with global ramifications. It is important to note that the United Nations is not the only international body in which nations states interact as there are other regional and global forums (Kleinshmidt, 2000).  Additionally, some countries use such organizations to effect some of their policies on other nations and are shielded from the repercussions of their actions because they have prominent positions in those organizations. 

Currently, the foreign policies of developed economies like the U.S, China, France, the United Kingdom sets the pace of international relations, especially in the United Nations. They have a significant role in determining the directions and actions of the United Nations. A good example is in the landmark ratification of the climate change initiative by both China and the U.S under president Barrack Obama’s administration, a move that has since been reversed by his successor (Luscombe, 2017).

Constructionism in the context of International relations 

Constructionism, also known as constructivism, is an alternate international relations theory to that of liberalism and realism. This paradigm of international relations is contingent on the premise that all human knowledge and experience is constructed based on human perception and social experience. This point of view is highly relativistic and practical in nature as according to this theory, there is no singular methodology that is valid for all international relations scenarios and as such international relations and politics should be handled in a case to case basis to achieve the best results.

The roots of constructivist thinking can be traced back to the works of Aristotle and Protagoras who were Greek philosophers. Their philosophy is supported by the affirmations of Gaston Bachelard- a French philosopher who said that nothing originates from itself and that all things are constructed (Mastin, 2008). Following this rationale, the reality in international politics is fluid and can be altered by reform or revolution. Moreover, what works for a specific circumstance in international relation discourse will not necessarily work for another situation.

The constructionism theory as relates to international theory is a new and emerging trend thereby meriting scrutiny and analysis to determine its validity in explaining the dynamics of international relations. It is a new concept in the field of international relations theory which has been lauded by its proponents as being pragmatic and relativistic while its opponents cite it as being too abstract and lacking valid applications in international relations theory. 

Constructionism Theories in International Relations 

The paradigm of constructionism comes with some theoretical perspectives that merit analysis. The first one is that state identities and interests are intrinsic and thereby not assigned by the anarchical system. The basis of this theory is that identities of states and their interests are arrived at through a subjective rather than an objective approach as the basis of interaction with other states. This would explain the identity of United States as a superpower, the existence of third world nations and the identity of certain Middle Eastern states as Islamic fundamentalist nations because they host extremist groups that perpetuate terrorism.

Another theoretical perspective is that the interaction between nation’s states is heavily influenced by the same identities which they acquire through previous interactions. The United States of America has fostered an identity as a champion for democracy while North Korea has been vilified and depicted as a champion for authoritarianism. The adversarial nature of these two nations stems from their opposing identities. Additionally, various American administrations have been known to intervene in situations where human rights and freedom are tramped on by oppressive and often totalitarian leadership.

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Implications of the Theories of Constructionism

The implications of the theories of constructionism are evident in modern world international relations. Before the Invasion of Iraq by U.S forces, the media speculated as to the possibility of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (Heinrich, 2015). This media broadcast helped shape the perceptions of people into supporting the invasion. The ensuing conflict thus originated from a reality that was not based on material facts but simply on the basis of colliding national identities and interests. The history of the 9/11 attacks on the US further stimulated the adversarial actions by the United States.

Foreign policies of different countries are usually informed by the perceptions and experiences of the key individuals rather than objective facts. Such policies most of the times seek to align national policies to individual interest (Behravesh, 2011). A look at the constitution of Donald Trump’s administration accurately reflects the bias in leadership based on his experiences as a successful businessman. A good example is in his determined efforts to draw back on the progress made in instituting climate change initiatives initiated by his predecessor. President Trump’s administration refutes scientific data and conclusions supporting the validity of climate change (Meza, 2017). Instead, his administration has taken a more laissez-faire approach by encouraging industries that increase carbon emissions, a fact that has international ramifications since U.S and China had previously agreed to cut down on carbon emissions (Luscombe, 2017). Since the U.S and China are key developed economies, they have a significant role to play in shaping global opinions and trends. The people in power play a significant role in shaping international relations based on the foreign policies they effect. Constructionism theory thus plays a critical role in explaining how social interactions and experiences impact international relations as opposed to the largely objective and materialistic approach used by realism.

Alternate Paradigmatic View in International Relations Theory

Critics of the constructionism paradigm as applied in explaining international relations cite it as being too abstract without valid applications to international theory. Most of the opponents to the view of socially constructed realities supported by constructionism theory instead rely on realism in trying to explain international relations. According to the proponents of realism, realism is centered on the designing of foreign policy as dictated by national interests which are informed by the distribution of power in the international system (Lynch, 2014). In doing so, the proponents argue that the calculations of power and survival play a far more significant role in the formulation of international policy than do Identity culture and morality as espoused by the constructionist theory.

Using the previous example of the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, realists argue that the major motivation behind this military action was to send a clear message to the enemies of the U.S that it was not afraid to use its full military might in retaliation for any acts of aggression. Their argument opposes the explanations proposed by constructionist who cite the identity of the U.S as a superpower and protector of democracy as the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq in order to secure and get rid of weapons of mass destruction. The validity of the claim that Sadaam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction has since been disproven. However, the invasion still happened in the face of these facts. 

On the other hand, the United States government under President Trump’s administration recently carried out a military strike against Syria after a determination of the Syrian government’s role in utilizing chemical weapons to defeat the opposition.  From a realism standpoint, the United States needed to project power globally especially in the Gulf States. The purpose of this projection is twofold to display the superpowers military superiority and also intolerance to totalitarianism and state-sponsored terror. Conversely, a constructionist would view this as a country acting on principles and idealism of morality and justice, an assessment that is subjective at best. Although both arguments have merit, the realism paradigm offers a more rational view that helps one to understand international relations and is supported by material evidence.

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  2. Heinrich, M. N. (2015, March 9). One War, Many Reasons: The US Invasion of Iraq
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  7. Meza, S. (2017, February 12). Obama Is Sad That Trump Has Abandoned U.S. Climate Change Efforts. Newsweek
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