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Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics

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Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics.

            The ongoing debate between the liberals and the realists has sprung a ground of new contentions in the realm of international theory. In the past, there had been a revolving competition with regard to theories of human nature.  However, the debate today is more concerned with the extent of the influence of structure i.e. “anarchy and the distribution of power,” in juxtaposition with process, which consists of interaction and learning, on state behavior.

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            Neorealists see structure as the primary determinant of state behavior.  On the other hand, neoliberals view process as state behavior’s primary determinant.[2]

            Despite this contention, these two international relations theories share a common ground: rationalism.  Rationalism offers a basic behavioral conception on both processes and structure.  This fundamental concept states that structures and processes “change behavior, but not identities and interests.”[3]

            By sharing this same idea of rationalism, neorealists and neoliberalists, also referred to as rationalists, views identities as exogenous in nature.


            Both modern and postmodern constructivists do share a similar ground.  They share a cognitive and intersubjective conception of processes wherein identities and interests are deemed to be endogenous to interaction, contrary to that of the rationalists’ wherein they see these two as exogenous.[5]

Wendt made an argument for a constructivist approach in relation to the concept of “self-help.” He argues that international institutions can make alterations to state identities and interests.

Wendt went on with his argument that the “self-help,” which can be found at the base of rationalist theories, is in a fact a constructed norm that could be transcended, at least in the theoretical realm.  He argued that power politics follows the ideas by actors, and are consequently reproduced through processes.  To quote Wendt in this article, he said, “I argue that self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from anarchy and that if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not structure. There is no ‘logic’ of anarchy apart from the practices that create and instantiate one structure of identities and interests rather than another; structure has no existence or causal powers apart from process.”[6]

            He also argued that the concept of “self-help,” as defined by the realist perspective originates from interaction among the various units in the system.  He opined that “self-help” does not originate from anarchy.  This conception offered by Wendt sparks a conflict with the structural and deterministic argument that the realists believe that anarchy is considered to be the key explanatory variable, which drives interactions.

            Neorealists view “self-help” as a self-imposing behavioral pattern wherein a certain element is driven out of the system when it does not conform to that system.  Wendt further stated that there is no such structure of interest and identity, which follows logically from anarchy.[7]

            Wendt said that states causes interaction with each other and, drawing the basis from the results of such interaction, can be characterized by “self-help.”  However, these results do not necessarily need to follow.  Whatever element is observed, regardless of it being self-help or not, it is defined not by structure, but by process.

            Wendt said that neoliberalism and neorealism cannot account for the changes in the system. In fact, these changes can be attributed to norms-based constructivism.  A major difficulty in this idea, however, is the issue of how the states behave in the first period, the state before they have any priors.

Wendt argued that the system does not really crate self-help identities.  An anarchic system is considered to only be a permissive cause of that particular identity.  Wendt offered a suggestion, saying that there is one plausible sufficient cause of these self-help identities.  He said that if a predatory state emerged, it would coerce other states to respond.  However, this situation still depends on what is deemed as the prior identity.  Moreover, if the predatory state does emerge into a system, which already is in possession of a strong collective security identity, this emerging state will only be defeated without even changing the prevailing identity.

            Wendt’s article explores the “”three ways in which identities and interests are transformed under anarchy.”  First, identities and interests are transformed by the institution of sovereignty.  Second, they transformed by an evolution of cooperation.  Lastly, identities and interests are transformed by intentional efforts to transform egoistic identities into collective identities.[8]

            Sovereignty is a norm, which had been said to be self-enforcing so far.  Wendt offered examples such as Hitler and Napoleon, when they went against the established sovereignty.  Sovereignty has changed state interests to the extent that we believe that there is a necessity to protect territorial boundaries despite that sometimes, letting go of a territory might even be advantageous for the state security.

            With regard to evolution of cooperation, the long experience of Europe in relation to cooperation during the cold war might have essentially changed its identity, to the extent that it has created a European identity, which will persist in spite of Soviet collapse and German renewed vigor.

            Lastly, intentional efforts to change egoistic identities into collective identities may seek to proactively change its own identity and that of their adversaries’ into a cooperative identity.

            Identities are role-specific expectations and understandings about self.  They are said to be relatively stable.  Identities subsist in a socially constructed realm.  “Identities are the basis of interests. Actors do not have a ‘portfolio’ of interests that they carry around independent of social context; instead, they define their interests in the process of defining situations.”[9]

            Institutions, on the other hand, are structure of identities and interests.  Institutions are fundamentally cognitive elements.  They do not exist apart from the ideas of the actors about how the world system works.  Therefore, institutions and identities are mutually constitutive. Self-help is considered to be an institution.

            Wendt enumerated three types of security systems: competitive, individualistic, and cooperative.  Competitive security system is concerned about relative gains.  Individualistic security system, on the other hand, is concerned about absolute and not relative gains.  Lastly, cooperative security system believes that it is their responsibility to cooperate ad to adopt a prosocial behavior.[10]

            Interests and identities should not be treated as given. In spite of Wendt’s agreement with a statist view, Wendt argued that state interest and identity should be treated as the dependent variable by an important field of research.  Wendt concedes to the fact that there are researchers who study how the first and second image factors influence state interest and identity.  However, he offered that there should be a study on how anarchy influences state interests and identities.

            What is lacking in realism is its failure to analyze the influence of anarchy to state interests and identities.  Neoliberalism’s shortcoming, on the other hand, is that it has sought to offer an explanation about cooperation by placing focus on processes.  Neoliberalism has failed to sufficiently account for systemic variables.  Constructivism lacked when it got over-involved in epistemological debates, but failed to look at how identities are created in practice.

            What Alexander Wendt tried to offer in this article is that there is a necessity to combine neoliberal and constructivist ideas and concepts in order to study and analyze how the system influences state identities and interests.


Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics,” in International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2. (1992), p. 391 – 425.

[1]Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics,” in International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2. (1992), p. 391.
[2]Wendt, p. 392.
[4]Wendt, p. 391.

[5]Wendt, p. 394.
[6]Wendt, pp. 394 -395.
[7]Wendt, p. 396.
[8]Wendt, p. 395.
[9]Wendt, p. 398.

[10]Wendt, p. 400

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Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics. (2016, Jun 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/anarchy-is-what-states-make-of-it-the-social-construction-of-power-politics/

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