International Relations Theories Question Set

International Relations Theories Question Set

Discuss the idea that international relations is a social construction.

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The various conceptual frameworks postulated by international relations theorists have always been inspired, and eventually tested, by the regular periods of social transition which occur before and after international conflicts. The faith placed by Idealists in their utopian notion of collective security was shattered by Hitler’s unopposed domination of Europe after the conclusion of World War I, and the systematic cessation of hostilities in World War II gave rise to the scientific school of Realism (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 178). The eventual evolution of neo-liberal and neo-classical thought provided diametrically opposed worldviews that were nonetheless predicated on the same fundamental paradigm: international relations are governed by an objective reality based on the identities and interests of states (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 178). When the Cold War, and its continual specter of mutually assured destruction via nuclear warfare, ended in the late 1980’s, this significant step in normalizing geopolitical relations was not secured by an invasion force but rather through the paired program of economic and social reforms known as perestroika and glasnost respectively. International relations scholars have observed that “the importance of Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’ in bringing an end to the cold war, the increasing importance of norms in humanitarian intervention, and the spread of liberal democratic values raised critical questions about the exclusive emphasis of realist theory on material interest and power” (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 179).

The resulting theory of Constructivism holds that international relations represent a social construction rather than a predetermined reality, and “in response to the over-determination of ‘structure’ in neorealist and neoliberal theory, constructivists introduced the possibility of agency … (and) that international relations is a social construct rather than an existing independently of human meaning and action” (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 180). Each of the major geopolitical transitions described in the preceding paragraph was the result of a society collectively embracing arbitrary social constructs, from the uniquely hostile process of American isolationism to the fanatical anti-Semitic fervor of fascist Germany. These entirely counterproductive exercises in statecraft had deleterious effects on both of these nations during episodes of intense international conflict, demonstrating that the logic of consequences advocated by rationalism were not applicable when a particular confluence of social contexts had been constructed (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 181). Instead, according to the constructivist theory of international relations, “what is rational is a function of legitimacy, defined by shared values and norms within institutions or other social structures rather than purely individual interests … because the self, in this logic, becomes social though acquiring and fulfilling an institutional identity” (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 181).

6.) What does it mean to say that identities and interests are mutually constituted?

One of the central premises postulated by the constructivist theory of international relations is based on the concept of mutual constitution, a term describing a coexistent social relationship between states in which agency, or the element of independent choice, is partially dependent on the decisions of one another (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 182). The identity of any actor necessarily determines their interests, with nations based on capitalist economies prioritizing the exploitation of natural resources for material gain, and socialist states vesting authority in a central government structure to mitigate scarcity through forcibly equalized distribution. This is not to say that the interests of a state are irrelevant to the international relations process, but simply to observe that “while constructivists would not deny the importance of interests, they would tie them more directly to the identity of the subject … (as) neither identity nor interests can be detached from a world of social meaning” (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 182).

As the constructivist school of thought largely emerged from the seismic shift in international relations brought on by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it is useful to examine instances from that protracted conflict in which identities and interests were mutually constituted. In the wake of America’s devastating nuclear destruction of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nation’s previous sense of identity as an international peacekeeper and country of compassion, spurred a vibrant movement with the interest of opposing the proliferation of nuclear arms. This identity, and its associated national interests, shifted almost immediately, however, as “the mass production of nuclear weapons by the U.S.A., after the Second World War and during the Cold War, was a response to the emerging conflict with the Soviet Union” (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 182). The nonviolent revolutions of civil protest which signaled the demise of the Soviet Union, and with it America’s identity as an aggressor in the nuclear arms race, are yet another example of mutual constitution in action (Dunne, Kurki, and Smith 183), as the identity of former Soviet-bloc states suddenly changed due to the actions of a courageous group of public dissenters.


Dunne, Tim, Kurki, Milja, and Smith, Steve. International relations theories: discipline and diversity. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.

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