Realism, Constructivism, and Institutionalism

A Tale of Partial Theories in Search of General Relevance

Yin Yang on the Salish Sea
Realism, Constructivism, and Institutionalism : A Tale of Partial Theories in Search of General Relevance - Josef Joffe

This article is based on a lecture the author delivered at SAIS Bologna on December 20, 2012.

Realism, the doctrine associated with Richelieu and Bismarck, Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, has fallen on hard times. It is being overshadowed by Liberal Institutionalism and Constructivism. Liberal Institutionalism asserts: National interest, the central variable of classical realism, and international structure, the pillar of neo-realism, can explain less and less. Hence, international relations theory should focus on the impact of international institutions on state behavior. Constructivism sees values as the key; it is norms, cultures and identities that truly matter.

Both schools have a point. Liberal Institutionalism stresses the obvious: a plethora of international institutions ranging from the E.U. to the U.N. These bid us to look at the hundred ways in which nation-states are constrained by international conventions and institutions like the Land-Mine Ban, the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice. The E.U. is a particularly significant case in point. Its members are yielding ever more prerogatives to the apparatus of European integration. Qualified majority voting implies that states must submit to the will of the greater number. Even before a candidate can join, the country must accept the ‘acquis’: a body of laws and legal precedents spanning thousands of pages.

E.U. members have sacrificed their sovereignty in many realms: what apples they may grow, what light bulbs they may use, how they must treat minorities and women. Any citizen can take his human rights complaint to the European Court of Justice, and national governments must obey the rulings handed down by the ECJ. As a famous number has it, half the bills that come before national parliaments originate in Brussels; the national sovereign just puts its stamp of approval on them. Institutional power is enshrined in a slew of treaties with the names of European cities attached to them: Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Lisbon.

In short, we cannot understand the behavior of Britain, France, Germany, or others, without taking into account an expanding web of European-widelegislation and institutions. If they came back to earth, neither Richelieu nor Bismarck would be able to understand the behavior of the EU-27 in terms of their own experience accumulated in centuries past.

Constructivism is a trickier animal, laden as it is with postmodernist language. Here is one definition that catches its flavor: “Constructivism primarily seeks to demonstrate how core aspects of international relations are, contrary to the assumptions of neorealism and neoliberalism, socially constructed, that is, they are given their form by ongoing processes of social practice and interaction.” So what is imagined matters. In opposition to concepts like ‘national interest’, ‘balance of power’, and ‘systemic structure’, contrary to the sacro egoismo of nations, values, norms and ideas are the variables to watch.

Put in such simple terms, constructivism makes a valid point. In our days, statesmen no longer orate like Frederick the Great who in 1740 explained his attack on Silesia, a Habsburg possession, in these terms: “My coffers were filled, my troops well trained.” In addition there was the “vivacity of my temperament” and the desire for fame - “le désir de faire parler de moi.” Hence, he had decided to “make war against Maria-Theresa of Austria.”

Today, anybody who goes to war invokes universal principles, such as justice, democracy, or the fight against weapons of mass destruction. Even a hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson wanted to “make the world safe for democracy.” Conversely, nobody cites the national interest as justification for grabbing this piece of land or that naval passage. There is more than rhetoric in play. Nations, at least Western nations, seek international approval for their actions. They want to act with others. Hence they appeal to the UN Security Council to pass resolutions authorizing force. The International Court of Justice prosecutes war crimes. There are climate conventions and bans of certain kinds of weapons. Other conventions protect refugees and civilian populations.

Hardly a day goes by without a debate on humanitarian intervention and the ‘responsibility to protect’ – waging war for the sake of those who cannot defend themselves. Value trumps – or seems to trump – interest. The list is endless: Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, Libya, Syria, Mali. In the constructivist’s world, humanitarian intervention is supposed to obey moral duty, not strategic interests like ‘blood for oil’. To sum up: institutions and norms have come to play a large role in the conduct of nations, or at least some nations. Among those one would not list the Greater Middle East and Africa, nor China or Russia. This is where Hobbes, not Kant, rules in various degrees. Let us first focus on the West. Is it really Good-bye to realism?

There are two versions of realism. The older one emphasizes international anarchy, hence the existence of a ‘self-help system’ wherein states act autonomously to preserve their interests. In this model, nations cannot count on those institutions that buttress peace at home: a legitimate legal system wherein conflict is adjudicated by independent courts, and verdicts are enforced by the police and ultimately by the army. Hence, lacking these institutions, they must take care of themselves. They must maximize security and balance the power of other nations.

The more recent version of realist theory adds another variable: the structure of the international system, as defined by the distribution of power like bipolarity and multipolarity. From structure, neo- realism draws conclusions about systemic behavior. Multipolar systems have a certain set of outcomes, such as the high frequency of realignment and war, while bipolarity is marked by stable alignments and great-power peace. The classic, even fifty years after its publication, remains Kenneth Waltz’s “Stability of the Bipolar World”. Compellingly, Waltz’s argument explains both the persistence of the bipolar system and the absence of great- power war.

Looking at the distribution of power, Structural Realism must also deal with the nature of power. Though Waltz tends to downplay the role of nuclear weapons, they have transformed world politics like no other technology has done in the past.It is hard to explain the absence of major war in the last 60-odd years without recourse to nuclear deterrence and its simple rule: ‘Whosoever shoots first, dies second.’ Another problem of Waltzian realism is the issue of system transformation. Why did the Soviet Union collapse, giving way to a kind of unipolar world? Structuralist theory cannot explain momentous changes inside the “billiard balls.” The Soviet Union went down because of domestic failure: a shrinking economy, a dysfunctional political system, sinking life expectancy, and low birth rates.

How do we test these various theories? One problem of Liberal Institutionalism and Constructivism is that they attack Structural Realism for the wrong reasons, assuming that it pretends to explain what it has not set out to do. Structural Realism does not explain why leaders say what they say, or why states pursue certain policies. Above all, it tries to explain systemic outcomes. This is what Kenneth Waltz calls ‘third image’ analysis.

This analysis abstracts from a myriad other variables: domestic politics, ideology, economics, national culture… It is a sparse theory in two ways. First, it depends on only one basic variable – structure as defined by the distribution of power. Second, it does not seek to explain specific foreign policies, but systemic outcomes like stability and war. Waltzian analysis has done rather well in explaining the stability (though not the end) of the bipolar world (and the instability of the multipolar world).

Can Structural Realism do more? Yes, it can explain basic choices, as conditioned by structure. Let us look at the United States and Europe and at their power and position in the international system. How well do these two variables elucidate their roles on the international stage? No nation has gone to war more often in the postwar period than the U.S. Why is this so? The answer of Structural Realism: There is nobody else to assure America’s security; this is the price of vast power. Now look at Europe. Since the wars of decolonization, the Europeans have fought only rarely, and then only in a manner of speaking: in Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. The first three were basically symbolic actions (leaving out Britain, which deployed real force in Iraq and Afghanistan). In the Balkans, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Europeans followed the United States’ lead, whichh has carried the largest part of the burden. The explanation is simple: the U.S. has the interests and the wherewithal that come with being the world’s no. 1. The Europeans do not. At best, they will intervene close to home as in Libya and Mali, and they quickly ran out of ammunition in both cases.

Why don’t the Europeans raise forces commensurate with an EU GDP that is larger than the American one? The system is destiny. The Europeans know full well that the U.S. is their security lender of the last resort; this is why they have practically stopped being strategic actors, Britain and France, yesterday’s powers, being partial exceptions. The U.S. can rely only on itself. This is why it has to be a global military player. Nations that are sheltered by others behave differently from those who provide the shelter. They are also free to obey different values. Hence, the E.U. takes pride in being an “empire of peace.”

An obvious counter to this argument would draw on non-structural factors. Europe, once the most war-ridden place on earth, has become a different society in the second half of the 20th century. Its culture has changed. It remembers its almost-suicide in two World Wars. It has done away with force as central tool of grand strategy. It has dispensed with its ancient warrior culture, and it has learned that it can do quite nicely without the internecine struggles of the last 500 years.

Europe’s changed culture and values buttress the tenets of Constructivism. But this raises another question: why the new culture? This miraculous transformation is largely due to a weighty system-level variable called ‘Big Brother’ from across the sea. The United States has guaranteed Europe’s security for almost seventy years – a magnificent gift. Europe behaves in a non-Hobbesian manner because it no longer lives in a Hobbesian universe, thanks to the US, a player mightier than any European state. It is the United States that has lifted the curse of self- defense from Europe’s shoulders.

If this is the case, structure does remain destiny, though at one step removed. A new distribution of power has allowed all these nice features blossom that have turned Europe into such a pacific continent. International structure has shaped culture, values and society. Obviously, there is no hard proof for the connection between structure and culture, but the evidence is suggestive. Just compare and contrast. In the past, the European self-help system spawned regular war. Afterwards, the system underwritten by the U.S. has brought enduring peace. On a rhetorical note: Would Sweden be Sweden if it lived in the Middle East? In the 16th and 17th century, this paragon of pacificity was the scourge of Europe.

The moral of this story: the global power structure changed first, then values followed. Now let’s look at the explanatory punch of Institutionalist theory. At first glance, Europe is Institutionalist heaven. Wars and arms races are gone, and institutional power is flourishing. But national interests have yet to bow to the will of E.U. institutions, even as the web of cooperation has thickened. It is hard to explain the behavior of Germany, Britain, France, Italy and the smaller nations within the E.U. without recourse to the sacro egoismo of nations and their position in the hierarchy of power.

A telling example is the Euro crisis that erupted in 2010. Why did Germany assert its will on the austerity issue for two years and then yield to a rudimentary transfer and debt union? Initially, Berlin tried to ‘Germanize’ the rest of Europe: no bail- outs, no unconditional aid to the crisis countries, no European Central Bank that would act like the Federal Reserve as a money machine. Instead, the marching order from Berlin was: You must reform your labor markets, rein in corruption, and become more competitive. In other words, you have to become more like Germany. We might call this “soft” power politics - with the strong trying to impose their will, though peacefully, on the rest.

The distribution of power also explains the responses of the smaller countries. Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus did submit to fiscal discipline - as in the famous Melian Dialogue where the Athenians orate: The strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must. But the larger countries - France, Italy and Spain - did not capitulate. Their national debts continued to rise, and so did unit-labor costs, which is the best single measure of competitiveness (and lack of reform). In short, size matters when it comes to inter-EU politics. The Big Three called Chancellor Merkel’s bluff, knowing that the country with the greatest interest in the monetary union and with the richest resources would do almost anything to save the euro. This bet was correct, and so the German chancellor shifted from whip to cornucopia.

This outcome can hardly be chalked up to the power of European institutions. The Big Three well understood the nature of public goods, which is the common currency in case. The theory of public goods predicts that the player with the deepest pockets and with the greatest interest in maintaining the public good will pay. This is the nature of old-fashioned international politics, with nations obeying not international institutions, but calculating power and interest.

Interest and positional power were in play from the very birth of the monetary union. The common institution, the euro, closely mirrored German preferences. The country’s export machine, faced with relentless revaluation pressures, needed a common currency in order to redistribute the burden of revaluation among many players. A rising euro would lift the entire boat, keeping internal European parities unchanged and so preserve Germany’s price advantage. It would also end the game wherein France, Italy and Spain could devalue faster than they inflated in order to stay competitive. Indeed inflation was the devil’s work, and so the Germans insisted on strict fiscal discipline all round. The European Central Bank was not to be a lender of the last resort (like the Fed), but the guardian of the “value of the currency.” It was to be the Bundesbank writ large.

Yet the bet of “Germanization” went sour; the common institution could not impose fiscal discipline on ‘Club Med’, which merrily went into deficit and debt without tackling structural reforms (or “internal devaluation”). Indeed, the latter were still missing in the fourth year of the crisis, as powerful vested interests in the Big Three resisted what communal virtue demanded. The test of institutionalism is still to come. That is the moment when Germany runs out of money before ‘Club Med’ has brought its house in order.

How are Liberal Institutionalism and Constructivism doing outside Europe, in the arc of power politics running from Ankara via Damascus and Tehran to Kabul and thence to Islamabad and Beijing? In these places, the self-help system is in full swing. As a result, the system suffers from a high frequency of conflict and war, and not just between Israel and the Arabs. The longest and bloodiest war was between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s for a full 8 years. Egypt has gone to war against Yemen and into border skirmishes with Libya. Saudi-Arabia arms against Iran, and Iran threatens the sheikdoms of the Gulf.

Above all, the Hobbesian system rules within. The civil war in Syria mirrored an earlier one in Algeria with hundreds of thousands of victims. Smoldering civil war besets Yemen, Libya and Iraq. Iraq is particularly apropos. The withdrawal of American forces has reignited Hobbesian politics. Civil war will probably resume in Afghanistan once the U.S. withdrawal is completed. As in the international sphere, the intra-state self-help system breeds internal conflict because there is no actor strong enough to assure domestic order. Institutions fail because the state, the supreme institution, is too weak.

East Asia is a self-help system, as well. Hence, it remains in the grip of the ‘security dilemma’ in which one state’s quest for security breeds insecurity among the others. As a result, they go into ‘balancing mode’ by way of arms and alliance, which in turn spurs security fears and arms racing on the part of the initial offender. International institutions remain rudimentary and weak. As China seeks to challenge the reigning world power, the U.S. is ‘rebalancing’ or ‘pivoting’ from Europe to the Pacific. So balance-of-power politics is alive and well. As the strong face off in the Pacific, smaller nations are huddling beneath the American umbrella. QED. Structure qua distribution of power is the key to understanding the world outside the West.

To get a grip on the contemporary world requires dividing it into two. One part is the Berlin-Berkeley Belt that extends to Tokyo and Canberra. The other is the Baghdad-Beijing Belt, branching off to Russia and to the Ukraine, to Pakistan, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Protected by American power, democracy and institutionalism could flourish in the Berlin-Berkeley Belt. Yet the swath extending from Damascus to Pyongyang remains Hobbes Country. The game is about power and position; the drivers are fear and insecurity. Arms races abound, and war remains an ever- present possibility. In this part of the world, norms and institutions are weak to non-existent.

To make it worse, a large part of this realm—the Islamic part—is caught in a double-conflict. One is Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” – Islam against the West. The other is a ‘Civilization of Clashes’, as Niall Ferguson has put it: Islam against itself, with states, sects and classes competing for primacy. The struggle is about ideology and interest, and where those two rule, institutions and norms lack the power to change behavior.

To conclude, realism was a general theory when the international system was basically coterminous with Europe plus the colonial world and the oceans in between. As it stands, realism is a partial theory that fits the Baghdad-Beijing Belt very nicely. Yet institutionalism, too, is only a partial theory – one that fits the West best, though with the qualification that power and interest have by no means disappeared. Only war has been extruded from the Berlin-Berkeley Belt. Hence, there is no one-size-fits-all theory; the theoretical battle will remain inconclusive. The moral of this story is a cautionary one: don’t try to apply either theory to the wrong part of the world.

Josef Joffe, a graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS, is editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. He is a Fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies as well as at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford, where he also teaches international relations.