International Relations

Questioning Alexander Wendt’s critique of IR theory

Pauline ROUILLON (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 


16010434_10154942184201457_95174888_o-1In his essay “Anarchy is what states make of it”, Alexander Wendt posits that anarchy does not causally lead to a self-help system (Wendt 1992). There is no logic of anarchy apart from the practices that create one structure of identities and interests rather than another. As state behaviour may change, so can the international environment. Actors’ identities and interests are not pre-social; they are developed, sustained or transformed by processes of interaction. This cognitive-intersubjective conception of process, at the core of modern and postmodern constructivist thoughts, contrasts with the rationalist-behavioural conception of process, in which states’ identities and interests are exogenously given, prior to social interaction.

Wendt’s critique is addressed to neorealism and neoliberalism, which both fall under the theoretical umbrella of rationalism (Keohane 1988). Wendt acknowledges, however, a tradition of strong liberal scholarship concerned with the institutional transformations of identity and interests. But despite their focus on “complex learning” (Nye 1988), “changing conceptions of self” (Jervis 1988) or “sociological conceptions of interests”(Keohane 1990), neoliberals lack a systematic theory of how such changes of identity and interests occur and must, thus, subscribe to the realist idea of structure over process (1992: 393). Wendt’s objective is therefore to “build the bridge” (1992: 394) between the valuable aspects of both realist and liberal theories and the constructivist tradition by developing a systemic theory in which states’ identities are endogenous to social interaction. This essay will argue that Wendt successfully critiques the “neo-neo synthesis” of mainstream IR even though his work presents flaws. Primarily, this essay outlines Wendt’s theoretical contributions through an overview of his critique of neorealism and neoliberalism. Secondarily, this essay argues that Wendt’s argument for a theoretical heterodoxy is undermined by its conscious choice to inscribe his critique within the disciplinary orthodoxy of IR.

First, Wendt critiques the positivist epistemology taken by neorealism and neoliberalism, that holds observable evidence as the only form of valuable scientific findings. Positivist methodology, tied to an empiricist epistemology, limits the range of permissible ontological claims (Smith 1996:17). Instead, Wendt subscribes to scientific realism, a branch of the philosophy of science that infers the existence of unobservable entities as the cause of certain observable effects (Chakravarty 2011). Wendt argues that scientific realism offers constructivism a via media between positivist epistemology and post-positivist ontology. “Scientific IR research can embrace causation by building upon the actions of visible and known entities involved in politics, but it can also probe causation that stems from the unobservable such as ideas” (Suganami 2002).

Accordingly, Wendt critiques the materialist ontological approach shared by neorealists and neoliberals. Both schools of thoughts explain state action with reference to the material structure of the international system (Thomas 2001). Where neorealists identify the distribution of material capabilities as the primary determinant of state behaviour, neoliberals treat ideas as intervening variables sitting alongside material ones (Chong 2013). Moving away from materialism, Wendt underlines the intersubjective making of social reality. He argues that systems of shared ideas, beliefs and values have structural characteristics shaping state behaviour (Reus-Smit 2001). This is so because “material resources only acquire meaning for human action through the structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded” (Wendt 1995: 73). His critique of materialism ensues from the constructivist principle that people act toward objects on the basis of the meanings that they have for them (Blumer 1969). For Wendt, traditional IR theories “conflate material forces with their existence as objectively existing realities” (Chong 2013: 95).

 Wendt’s constructivist framework allows him to engage critically with the traditional IR self-help approach to anarchy. According to the “neo-neo synthesis” (Waever 1996: 163), the logic of self-help constrains states to adapt to the system. Although neoliberals claim that the process of self-help can generate cooperation behaviour between states, they concede to neorealists the causal powers of anarchic structures. Wendt argues on the contrary that self-help is not a constitutive property of anarchy; it is one of the various intersubjective structures that may exist in an anarchical system. For Wendt, Waltz’s definition of structure predicts little about state behaviour. “It does not predict whether two states will be friends or foes, will recognize each other’s sovereignty, will be revisionist or status quo powers” (1992: 397). For instance, US military power does not have the same meaning for Canada and Cuba despite their “similar ‘structural’ positions” (1992: 397). Collective meanings and intersubjective knowledge, rather than material forces, constitute the key structures that guide states’ actions. Although Wendt concedes in his Social Theory of International Politics that “rump materialism” may affect states’ calculations towards one another, “ultimately it is our ambitions, fears and hopes – the things we want material forces for – that drive social evolution, not material forces as such” (1999: 113). Consequently, there is no such thing as the logic of anarchy. Anarchy is socially constructed; it is not an unchanging structure, which compels states to participate in an endless struggle for power and security.

Moreover, Wendt critiques the individualist ontology pre-supposed in neorealism and neoliberalism. Both rationalist theories assume states to be atomistic, in the sense that their identities are independent of the social structure, self-interested, in the sense that they are concerned primarily with the pursuit of their own interests and rational, in the sense that they are capable of establishing the most effective strategy to pursue their interests within the environmental constraints they encounter (Reus-Smith 2001). Both theories consider agency as ontologically prior, which means that actors interact with one another with a pre-social set of interests. In addition, both neorealism and neoliberalism define the international realm as an aggregate of individual actions. As Wendt puts it “the consequence of making the individual ontologically primitive is that the social relations in virtue of which an individual is a particular kind of agent must remain forever opaque” (Wendt 1987: 343).

Willing to include a holistic ontology to its theory while keeping some insights of individualist approaches, Wendt argues for “a dualist ontology that would take agency and structure seriously” (Guzzini 2006). Influenced by Giddens’ theory of structuration and symbolic interactionism, Wendt posits that agents and structures are co-constituted. Inter-subjective structures constrain actors’ identities, defined as “relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self” (1992: 397). But in turn, structures are produced and reproduced through the practices of agents engaged in social interactions (Coulter 1982: 42). Structures are cognitive entities that “do not exist apart from actors’ socialization and their ideas about how the world works” (1992: 399). For instance, the institution of self-help emerges causally from social processes in which anarchy plays only a permissive role (1992:403). Here, Wendt’s argument is based upon a second constructivist principle that meanings, in terms of which action is organized, arise out of interaction (1992: 403). Consequently, changing the practices will change the inter-subjective knowledge that constitutes the system. 

Wendt posits that the international system can be transformed as states interact and alter their conceptions of identity and interests. To demonstrate his argument, he focuses on the “maturing emergence of the state system” and adopts a historical-evolutionary perspective on anarchy, couched in terms reminiscent of the English school’s triad of realism (Hobbes), rationalism (Grotius) and revolutionism (Kant). However, where Bull posits that anarchy matures in a staged way, Wendt argues that different cultures of anarchy can co-exist. He identities three varying cultures of anarchy – Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian -, each defining for the state what their social identity or role should be (Suganami 2002). Wendt underlines however that social systems are not easily transformed. Once deeply internalized, any social system might be apprehended by its members as an “objective social” fact that reinforces certain behaviours and punishes others (Wendt 1992: 411). Besides, some actors might have interests in maintaining relatively stable role identities and hence, might inhibit any systemic change.

 Wendt theorizes the three institutional processes through which states might escape a socially constructed self-help system. The first way out of the security dilemma lies in the mutual recognition of the institution of sovereignty, which “transforms the Hobbesian system into a Lockean world, reducing the fear that what states already have will be seized, thereby enabling cooperation”. He underlines that sovereignty only exists in virtue of certain inter-subjective understandings and expectations, “it is an on going accomplishment of practice, not a once-and-for-all creation of norms that somehow exist apart from practice”. For instance, the US did not conquer the Bahamas although it could because it had internalized recognition of mutual sovereignty into its identity and interests. The second way out of the security dilemma lies in an evolution of cooperation among egoist states. For example, European states have internalized cooperation as part of their own state identity and interests. The third way out of the security dilemma lies in states’ intentional efforts to engage in critical self-reflection, alter their identity and thus change the game in which they are embedded. Wendt argues that states’ capacity for character planning lies in the distinction between “the social determination of the self and the personal determination of choice, between what Mead called the “me” and the “I”” (Wendt 1992: 419). Wendt analyses Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of New Thinking as an example of how states might engage in critical examination about the self and attempt to transform a competitive security system into a cooperative one (1992: 420). 

Although Wendt successfully critiques the “neo-neo synthesis” of mainstream IR, his work contains inherent flaws. A first source of critique arises from Wendt’s attempts to assimilate heterodox theories while self-consciously remaining within the narrow disciplinary boundaries of IR. Wendt’s choice to focus solely on interactions between state actors was supposedly made necessary by his constant reference to neorealism. But “by giving Waltz such a central place in his disciplinary reconstruction, Wendt makes Waltz’s narrow definition of the IR discipline stand for classical IR at large” (Guzzini 2001: 88). Through his statist theory, Wendt reproduces the embedded understanding of international society as a pure society of states and does not question the redefinition of international relations under globalization  (Leander 2001). “His synthesis, as challenging as it is within IR, runs the risk of reifying a specific historical stage of both the discipline and international politics” (Guzzini: 74). Criticized for his state-centrism, Wendt simply answered that accusing a theory of international politics of state-centrism is like accusing a “theory of forests for being tree-centric” (1999:9).

Moreover, Wendt assumes states to act in a unified way, according to stable identities, and anthropomorphises states by giving them purposes and intentions. His commitment to systemic theorizing leads him to bracket corporate sources of state identity, thereby giving the state an “under-sociological essence” (Guzzini and Leander 2006: 90). By bracketing domestic variables, Wendt excludes by theoretical fiat most of the normative and ideational forces that might prompt change in the nature of state identity (Buzan 2006). For instance, Zehfuss examines Germany military involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia in the 1990s and shows that Wendt’s approach remains silent on the fact that German themselves could not agree on the nature of their own identity and interests. In her postmodernist critique of constructivism in IR, Maja Zehfuss argues that: “although constructivism is about construction, it takes reality as in many ways given (Zehfuss 2002: 45).

Another critique focuses on Wendt’ imprecision in “delineating the balance between his idealism and his rump materialism” (Chong 2013). Wendt does not clarify the outcomes of hard-hitting encounters between ideas and the realities “out there” nor does he envisions the possibility of autonomous identity transformations on the side of the structure or of the agent. Steve Smith argues that Wendt’s constitutive theorizing ironically ride upon the same social scientific biases as causal theorizing: ideas are supported in tandem with materialism (Smith 2001). Robert Keohane adds that Wendt’s dichotomy between materialist and idealist arguments is problematic because “the social world is not of either/or” (Keohane 2000). For instance, Soviet foreign policy was both determined by the geographical position of Russia and its material resources on the one hand and by Marxism-Leninist ideas and traditional Russian views of world politics on the other hand. In his article “Ideas part-way down”, Keohane answers to Wendt’s question “Ideas all the way down?” by arguing that the issue is less “how far down?” than how ideas are mixed with material forces and embedded in enduring institutions to produce different outcomes. Besides, Stephen Krasner warned that the explanatory aspects of idealism alone could be as metaphorically dangerous as attributing “wars, hotel fires and plane crashes” to acts of social construction (2000).

 Wendt’s critique of rationalist theories successfully questions the “seemingly intangible assumptions that underpin the construction of reality” (Reus-Smith 2001). Thereby, Wendt provides a valuable theory that includes elements of both realism and institutional theory within a constructivist framework, which emphasizes the role of ideational forces in the making and remaking of the international system. However, his approach of role-identity formation can be criticized insofar as it treats the state as a black box that it is unnecessary to open. On the contrary, sociological institutionalism and notably Bourdieu’s field theory pave the way for more micro-sociological underpinning of a constructivist theory (Leander 2000). Wendtian constructivism provides however a valuable theory applicable to world politics. Building on Wendt’s framework in her book Diplomatic Interventions: Conflict and Change in a Globalizing World, Fierke introduces the constructivist concept of social memory and trauma and shows how nation states collect traces of memory as a guide for future policy behaviour, with a view towards preventing the perceived mistakes of the past, as suggested by the diplomatic burden of the Holocaust in Germany’s foreign policy.


Bliddal H., Sylvest C. and Wilson P. (2013a) Classics of international relations: essays in criticism and appreciation. Abingdon: Routledge.

 Guzzini S. and Leander A. (2006) Constructivism and international relations: Alexander Wendt and his critics. London: Routledge.

Keohane R.O. (2000) ‘Ideas part-way down’, Review of International Studies, 26(1).

Krasner S.D. (2000) ‘Wars, hotel fires, and plane crashes’, Review of International Studies, 26(1). 

Kratochwil F. (2000) ‘Constructing a new orthodoxy? Wendt’s “social theory of international politics” and the constructivist challenge’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 29(1). 

Ruggie J. G. (1998) ‘What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge’, International Organization, 52(4).

Suganami H. (2001) ‘Alexander Wendt and the English School’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 4(4). 

Suganami H. (2002) ‘On Wendt’s philosophy: A critique’, Review of International Studies, 28(1).

Wendt A. (1992) ‘Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics’, International Organization, 46(02).

Wendt A. (1999) Social theory of international politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wendt A. (2000) ‘On the Via Media: a response to the critics’, Review of International Studies, 26(1).

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