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Constructivist glasses make us understand international politics better

Sweden has aspired to become a member of NATO since May 2022. Until then, remaining neutral had served Sweden’s interests best. What happened? Questions like these are central in the branch of political science that studies International Relations (IR). Researchers often try to answer them by putting on various theoretical glasses, three of which are especially popular. Those who select black frames with overtones of realism see the world mainly as an arena for power struggles, with the outcome determined by military and economic might. The liberal glasses are more rose-colored and those who wear them see a system of states so strongly connected by democracy and free trade that war between them is unlikely. And what about the constructivist glasses? The frames are multicolored and a bit blurry and through their lenses, one suddenly sees that states are not as fixed in their contours as they might seem when wearing the black or the rose-colored. Nor are the interests of these states fixed; they are mutable and shaped by norms and by their identities as they currently perceive them. In practice, it is easy to see that these perspectives often coincide, but as a scholar, one must nevertheless, or is forced to, choose one’s frames, which thus compete with and complement each other in an interesting, sometimes bewildering, interplay.

This year’s recipients of the Johan Skytte Prize, Alexander Wendt and Martha Finnemore, who will share the prize, have both made critical contributions to furthering political science by developing the newcomer among the three, constructivism, into a leading approach in IR. They have been awarded the prize for “having formulated and empirically demonstrated the fruitfulness of constructivism, thus renewing and deepening the understanding of international politics”

The Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, often called the “Nobel Prize of Political Science” is awarded every year by the Johan Skytte Foundation for the most outstanding contribution to the field. Recommendations are prepared by an international prize committee and are always based on nominations received. The monetary prize is one half million Swedish kronor, presented along with an imposing silver medal at a formal ceremony at Uppsala University. The prize is being awarded in 2023 for the 29th consecutive year.

Shortly after earning his doctorate, Alexander Wendt published “Anarchy is What States Make of It” in International Organization, an influential academic journal, in 1992, in which he outlined a new approach to understanding international politics and relations within the international system. In the paper, which has been cited by more than 11,000 scholars all over the world, he chose to call his creation “constructivism.” Constructivism challenged the previously dominant perspectives of realism and liberalism, both of which emphasize the importance of national interests, but consider them relatively fixed. Regardless of the Congress of Vienna, military alliances, the League of Nations before WWII and the United Nations afterwards, every state is existentially on its own when push comes to shove. The realists argue that in such a world the superpowers, from which small states like Sweden, or these days Ukraine, must seek protection, are dominant. Liberalism contends that the triumph of liberal democracy across the world, with market economics and democracy leading the victory parade, also fundamentally changed the conditions of international politics. If realism focuses on power politics and hard currency in the form of military might and money, liberalism instead emphasizes the politics of cooperation in international relations as well, and the emergence of joint organizations and institutions capable of promoting soft power: values like human rights.

But how do states know what their interests are, and how are these interests shaped? Constructivism brings questions like these into international politics and argues that they are shaped and reshaped – constructed – through the historical and cultural experiences of states and, in a global world, increasingly through international organizations and and the norms that emerge from them. As identities can change, and these affect how national interests are defined, one of the great challenges is to socialize the superpowers in particular, through international organizations, to become doves instead of hawks. Wendt published Social Theory of International Politics in 1999 and the book has since become critically important to how we think, research and teach political science and international relations – a bible of constructivism if you will. What Wendt brings to the table is a way of looking at the international system that is not based on ranking the ends and then selecting the means to attain them – whether the ends are cooperation or protection – but rather as a social and psychological mechanism that regards nations as states of human consciousness, which can also have divergent views on the matter internally. It is thus a “social theory,” as illustrated by a few contemporary examples. Poland – and Hungary – acting like “big dogs” both inside and outside the EU when they are actually only little or medium-size dogs at best, is difficult to comprehend if one does not understand that their identities have been shaped by history. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the great powers of Europe for centuries and remained a regional power throughout the Soviet Era. Hungarian Budapest and Austrian Vienna together were the heart of the dual Habsburg monarchy from 1867. Although it lost large swathes of its territory in 1918, Hungary’s identity as a major power lingers on and affects its behavior.

Wendt formulated the intellectual mainstays of constructivism. In likewise groundbreaking works, Martha Finnemore has analyzed what states have actually done and why. The first line of Finnemore’s National Interests in International Society, published in 1996, is “How do states know what they want?” For states to be able to define their interests, they must first come to terms with who they are, or who they aspire to be, and then adjust their goals (their interests) accordingly. Even states live in a social world of which they are a part, woven into a network of relations, friendships, enmities, and agreements that shape their “lives.” Like Wendt, but more pragmatically, Finnemore argues that international relations should be analyzed sociologically, using sociological tools and methods, and not primarily rationalistically. Finnemore analyzes three international organizations and how they have socialized states to think about themselves. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, advocated the idea that “modern” states must have a scientific bureaucracy in the 1980s and 1990s. I know, because I attended quite a few UNESCO meetings in Paris at the time. Where science had previously been transnational and run mainly by the scientists, UNESCO redefined earlier understandings of science-state relations to become a national resource. “In this earlier view states were to treat science as they treated the arts: government sponsorship was desirable but government direction and control would stifle creativity,” she writes, but states now increasingly shared the view that the state must coordinate scientific research. We see the results of this thinking with terrifying clarity today in the gigantic, bureaucratic superstructures in which the scientists are increasingly relegated to playing bit parts. The International Red Cross, Finnemore’s second case study, persuaded states to see it as being in their interest to regulate how war is waged through adoption of the Geneva Convention in 1864. The World Bank is the focus of the third case study in the book, which addresses how development has been redefined from GNP or GNP per capita to a much broader understanding. How did it come about that many states considered such a definition as something to aspire to, as something that was “in their interest”? Finnemore argues that it is not states that shape international institutions and organizations, at least not unilaterally, but that the institutions and organizations also shape states and their interests. To put it concisely, she reverses the causal direction in this deeply absorbing and pioneering work.

Military intervention is at the core of Finnemore’s 2003 book The Purpose of Intervention in which she, as in the earlier study, shows historically how the reasons behind such intervention have changed and how there have been systemic changes in intervention behavior over the 400 years she studies. For example, military intervention to collect debts was an accepted practice in the 19th century but was generally repudiated in the 20th. Likewise, she shows that the type and frequency of humanitarian miliary intervention have changed radically since the 19th century, with a massive increase in humanitarian interventions since the end of the Cold War. Current realistic and liberal theories of international relations cannot explain these changes. Based on a constructivist approach, however, she found to the contrary that a normative context altered through the active efforts of international organizations led states to perceive their interests in different ways. International norms changed the general understanding of appropriate targets and means of military intervention, as well as of who deserved the military protection of outsiders.

The focus of constructivism on social psychology and who we perceive ourselves to be is extremely useful when we look at the world around us. When Martha Finnemore establishes that states do not think about what they should do in a vacuum, but rather by turning towards and looking at what other states are doing, and through being shaped in an international normative contexts, the result is a true lightbulb moment. Of course, that must be true! That is why most observers also believed that Russia was also affected by the European, Western and global international systems in which it operated. That this proved not to be the case and that Russia remained a hawk, opened a chasm. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, however, has shown that the constructivist view on the power of norms and the liberalist view on mutual dependency through trade and other relations must both be modified. Russia has thus not only bombed Ukrainian cities and  villages and people to smithereens, but also the belief in the power of international cooperation. Consequently, Western skepticism about China’s intentions has intensified and many, including universities, have recoiled from cooperation.

On behalf of the Prize Committee,

Li Bennich-Björkman

The original version of this prize motivation letter was published in Svenska Dagbladet on May 25, 2023.

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