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date: 20 April 2024

Constructivist Analyses of Foreign Policylocked

Constructivist Analyses of Foreign Policylocked

  • David HoughtonDavid HoughtonU.S. Naval War College


Most constructivist work in IR has attempted to account for very general outcomes in the international system, most notably the well-known research of Alexander Wendt. Whether we live in a “Kantian,” “Lockean,” or “Hobbesian” world, for instance, is in a sense a socially constructed thing rather than flowing from some inevitable structure or theory of human nature. Nevertheless, some important constructivist work has focused on more specific foreign policy outcomes, research that is examined here in depth. Constructivist analyses tend to focus on “how possible” questions rather than attempting to “explain” particular decisions, and this offers a useful addition or corrective to more traditional analyses of foreign policy. They also attempt to understand the general foreign policy orientations of states, often relying on notions of culture, role, and identity.

But such approaches have not yet fully matured into comprehensive approaches to foreign policy, in at least two senses. First of all, current constructivist approaches are somewhat limited by a focus on the social dimensions of foreign policy rather than individual ones, being sociological rather than psychological in nature. This is sometimes not an issue, but it becomes a problem when variation between decision makers with the same social identity is the object of interest or where norms are in conflict with one another. Secondly, there have been relatively few attempts to turn constructivism into a normative theory. Arguably, in order to become a fully rounded theory (as opposed to a loose framework), constructivism needs a mechanism by which it can influence actual decision makers, very few of whom currently describe themselves in opinion polls as being constructivists, as opposed to realists or liberals.

And yet both of these problems can potentially be remedied. Firstly, constructivist approaches may be combined with psychological approaches that supplement their sociological focus. Both constructivism and the psychological approach to decision making are ideational in nature rather than material; in other words, they share the belief that what people think is “out there” is often more important than what actually is. Indeed, the psychological approach to foreign policy provided a major source of inspiration for the early constructivists. Secondly, constructivist approaches can offer policy makers prescriptive advice as to how they should or ought to behave. After reviewing the literature on understanding foreign policy outcomes, this article suggests the outlines of an applied constructivism that decision makers in government would find positively useful. There is a Realpolitik and an Idealpolitik, but can there be a “Konstruktpolitik”? At least six principles might guide the development of normative constructivism. Chief among these is the axiom, “if you can’t change the physical, change the social.” Other principles include the effort to initiate “norm cascades,” the encouragement (or discouragement) of self-fulfilling beliefs and self-negating beliefs, acceptance of the role of agency, and the conscious use of argument and language as tools of persuasion.


  • World Politics

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