A Constructivist Theory of International Relations
Alexander Wendt, Teoria socială a politicii
translation by Mihai Cristian Brașoveanu (Iași:
Polirom, 2011), 416 pages
Twelve years after the initial publication of Alexander Wendt’s work1 in 1999, Polirom press publishes, in the translation Mihai Cristian Braşoveanu, the Romanian version of this work that has already become a canonical one in the theory of international relations.
Based on the social constructivist theory2 Wendt proposes an alternative theory of international relations which constitutes one of the most important contributions to the field in recent years. The work is primarily a theoretical work which reconstructs and rethinks the international relations as a scientific (and academic) discipline. As Wendt says, the subject of his work is the „ontology of international life”3. The work has important epistemological consequences, particularly for social sciences epistemology (in particular international relations as part of the social sciences) and aims to rehabilitate idealistic ontology as the foundation of knowledge and understanding of international relations. This is true even if, in regard to the social world, as Wendt researchers should be more concerned with the „explanation”4 of the world rather than with „how” the world may be known. Wendt’s ambition to restore the idealist ontology is firmly rooted in the epistemology of social sciences and is inherently opposed to the materialist ontology represented by the main theories of international relations (particularly neorealism and neoliberalism) against which Wendt argues.
Wendt is critical of current theories of international relations on the grounds that they are based tacitly on the materialistic ontology in which power and interest, key categories in the international relations, are understood as directly shaping international politics. However, Wendt argues, this is not accurate. Power and interest are constructed realities in the ideas and culture has a pivotal role in their (social) construction. Thus, international politics can be understood by understanding how the international system is built by international actors (especially states) and how the culture is distributed within this system. Only then, researchers should turn to how power and interests are culturally constructed in the „international society”. So, the key to understanding international politics, in Wendt’s thinking, is first at the level of the structure of the international system, and then at the level of constructing power and interest by individual actors which are the states.
Any thought process is essentially a reflexive act says Wendt, and states are also individual actors (in terms of the general methodological individualism) and are capable of their own reflexive thought processes. This reflexive thought processes of the states has led to an international system in which states interact with each other by appealing to „public reason”. The international system is in fact a global „public sphere” (an emergent one) in which states act under rules perceived by themselves as the rules of the system. The ensemble of the states forms thus globally a system that is more than the sum of its elements and understanding this ensemble essential for understanding international relations.
Wendt’s view, unlike the neorealist view which he criticizes on the grounds of being individualistic, is a holistic one. The vision proposed by Wendt is that of the structural constructivism in which the states have internalized (or about to internalize) the culture of a global system of interaction in which power and interest are defined precisely by this culture. Consequently, international relations cannot be understood through the mechanisms through which power and interest manifest themselves but by the way in which they are designed, constructed and understood by the state-actors through the global system and its culture that the states have internalized.
These few lines cannot exhaust all the issues in Wendt’s work. They only draw attention to the Romanian edition of this essential work in the international relations theory that redefined and the international debates and has the potential to also revive international relations as an academic and scientific discipline in Romania. On one hand by reviving the theoretical and epistemological debates, and on the other hand, by integrating the constructivist theory of international relations in the empirical studies that are concerned with international politics.
The Romanian translation of this work is welcome and it will be of great use to students, professors and researchers in the field but also to journalists and politicians concerned or involved in the field and are now presented with this reference work.
[The University of Bucharest]
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966.
Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
1 Social Theory of International Politics
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Vezi şi Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
(Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966).
Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics
BEINUR GIUMALI – Drd. Facultatea de Sociologie,
Universitatea din București.