Alexander Wendt

Social Theory of International Politics

Background:   This is the kind of book that can make your eyes roll back into your head – but one point is commonly made about Wendt’s theory:  at its core, it is not as cosmic as it sounds.  He sent the book to a number of prominent IR scholars including Waltz for their take before he published it; one of those scholars purportedly sent a reply back saying, “Alexander, you could have used more normal language to explain your theory – it sounds too ‘academic’”.  Wendt supposedly “dumbed it down”, but it is still a difficult text.  This précis is an attempt to clear up the main concepts as much as possible – it will use Waltz’s structural realism as a vehicle to do this since that theory seems to resonate with military folks more readily – also, Wendt’s theory is declaredly a departure from it.

Precis:  Before publishing Social Theory of International Politics, Wendt published an influential article entitled “Anarchy is What States Make of It” (1992).  The title of that article is a useful starting point for understanding the Social Theory of IP.  Wendt was reacting to structural realism, the dominant school of IR – the title of his book is intentionally derived from Waltz’s “Theory of International Politics”.  For Waltz, Anarchy amongst self-interested states necessarily leads to a self-help system.   The title of Wendt’s article asserts that the international system is not necessarily a self-help system, but is socially constructed.  In other words, states can “make of” the international system any number of arrangements.  Some examples are a system of enmity and conflict (Hobbesian), mitigated rivalry (Lockean), or cooperation (Kantian).  Wendt terms these “Cultures of Anarchy”.  These may change over time and depending on what states are relating to one and other.  These cultures are “ideational” not “material”.   Individual people or epistemic communities (a term Wendt did not use) could spawn ideas that are carried out in action which fundamentally change international politics.  This does not mean that people are unconstrained, free to dream up whatever sort of international political arragnements they desire without restriction.  He is still a structuralist – the structure bears down on people as a “Constitutive cause”, circumscribing their freedom of action.  Wendt argues that too much time has been spent in the field of IR on empirical issues and not enough on ontological disagreements between schools of thought.  I recommend looking at the graph on page 32 of his book and reading the surrounding paragraphs to truly understand this.  Read the next section below if the word “ontology” is intimidating – it is actually not that complicated.    

Other Detail to Aid Understanding:  Waltz argues that capabilities (primarily military and economic) are distributed in a manner that drives the position of states in international politics.  Wendt does not deny the importance of capabilities, but claims that their significance is largely socially constructed.  Here is an example:  Consider 5 nuclear weapons.  They mean different things to us depending on whether they are in North Korean or British hands.  Another example:  US perceptions of China have waxed and waned significantly since WWII.  Events such as the nationalists’ struggle against Japan and then Mao’s forces in the 1930s/1940s, the Cold War, The Open Door Policy, the P-3 incident have all changed what China means.  The relationship is altered by ideas in this case, not merely inert material considerations.

Ontology and Cause:  the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences….”  That is Wikipedia’s super-helpful definition.  What it means in normal-dude speak is “your framework for viewing everything that exists and how those ‘thing’ are arranged”.  For Wendt, it is ideationally-based.  For Waltz it is materialistic – the material qualities of military and economic factors determine the structure of international politics, which bears-down on the actors necessarily shaping their behavior in a particular way – this does not mean they will act wisely or prudently, but it is material factors that define the system.  Wendt argues that causal and constitutive factors must both be considered – causal factors can be thought of in terms of common cause-and-effect relationships:  Hammer hits nail -> nail goes into wood.  State-A gets powerful, states B and C balance against it.  Person-A captures Person-B and makes him work, thus causing him to be a slave.  Constitutive effects are different.   In the latter example (slavery) the master does not really “cause” the slave, because without the institution of slavery the term master has no meaning.  The institution, in this case, is a constitutive cause and can be conceived of structurally.  Thus, Wendt differentiates the ontologies of IR theories in the graph on page 32.  They differ in terms of Individualism and Holism on one axis, and Materialism and Idealism on the other.  His theory’s ontology is Holistic and Ideational.  In other words, the behavior of the system cannot be explained by its parts as unitary actors, but only conceived as a system (may help to think of Boyd/Osinga here) and ideas drive systemic behavior and change.  If that is not clear, drink a cup of coffee and read pages 31-32.  That will clear up why the discussion of ontology matters for IR scholarship.

About Wendt:  He was born in Germany and currently teaches at Ohio State University.  He is acknowledged within the discipline of IR to have offered the most recent/strongest counterpoint to Waltz’s structural realism.  Waltz states that many other supposed-theories of international politics are really theories of foreign policy (He calls out Graham Allison specifically in Theory of International Politics).  However, Waltz acknowledges that Wendt’s is truly a theory of international politics (it’s just not as useful as his own). 

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