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Constructivist Critique of Realist Theories Essay

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Updated: Nov 29th, 2021

The dominance of the realist approach to international relations is being challenged by constructivism which finds the overemphasis of realism on power, national security and national interests being the chief reasons for increasing global instability. This essay examines three ways constructivism brings new perspectives to international relations and how these ideas challenge the foundations of realism.

Constructivists reject the materialist outlook of the realists to argue that international relations are governed more by social factors such as human awareness or human consciousness (Jackson and Sorenson 162). Realists believe that the world system is inherently anarchic in nature. Constructivists challenge this precept to say that anarchy in a system occurs because humans create such concepts and ideas. Constructivists believe that “identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature” (Wendt 1). Realists argue that because of inherent anarchy and constant competition amongst nations for pursuit of power it becomes necessary for states to resort to ‘self help’. Here again constructivists say that self help is not a constant automatic feature but a construct that emerges out of shared ideas of the actors involved, which implies that ‘self help’ can be modified. The realist formulation of national security based on power politics has been recast by constructivists who argue that since security is just a set of shared ideas, these can be changed and thus security could be envisioned in terms of human security, food security and human rights all of which required an internationalist approach (Steans 73-75) based on a cooperative model instead of a combative model that Realism predisposes the international system with. The current era of globalization may force nations to develop more flexible notions of sovereignty (Naim 65), an idea completely incompatible with the realist theory. Constructivists however, take globalization in their stride by viewing the challenges and opportunities of globalization through the prism of shared ideas and concepts which then yields positive outcomes. Moral values and morality have very little value in a realist outlook while constructivists offer a better understanding of morality and its importance in human affairs (Shafer-landau 51).

It therefore can be concluded that constructivism offers a new understanding and methodology for explaining and conducting international relations, which is more cooperative and benign rather than the combative realist model. The three constructivist ideas that differ from realism are that the state of anarchy in IR are not given in nature but created by human thoughts and ideas, that power politics is not a central unyielding precept but what humans make out of it and that interpretation of security is not as narrow and strictly defined as the realists believe but encompasses larger issues of human security, food security and human rights which require global cooperative approaches rather than state centric exercise of power approach. Lastly, constructivists believe that morality has a greater part to play in the development of the society rather than dismissing it as peripheral as the realists do. The accommodative, shared ideas approach of constructivists makes them better placed to absorb the challenges of globalization and change long standing realist dogmas.

Works Cited

Jackson, Robert H and Georg Sorenson. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Naim, Moises. “The Five wars of Globalization.” Jackson, Robert. Annual Editions: Global Issues 05/06. NY: Dushkin, 2006. 61-66.

Shafer-landau, Russ. Moral Realism: A Defense. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003.

Steans, Jill. Gender and International Relations. NY: Rutger University Press, 2006.

Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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