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Has Constructivism Become More Feasible with International Relations? A Study of the 21st Century
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With the onset of the 1920s, when International Relations (IR) became a separate division of study and came into the limelight, realism and liberalism, the two theories belonging to rational approach dominated the field. Both were read, implemented, and subsequently termed as the bases of the International Relations Theory. In this paper I will attempt to explain how and why constructivism is becoming more feasible with international relations and contributing more to international relations theory. We will try to talk about the events of the 21st century that paved the way for the theory of constructivism and its explanation in context of the politics of 21st century.


Prior to the theory of international relations, constructivism is an important theory of learning. It is based on the idea that people actively construct or make their own knowledge, and that reality is determined by experiences as a learner [[1]].

In international relations, constructivism’s arrival is often associated with the end of the Cold War (1945-1991). An event (end of the Cold War) that traditional theories such as realism and liberalism failed to account for [[2]]. In international relations, “constructivism is the claim that significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially constructed rather than inevitable consequences of human nature or other essential characteristics of world politics”. So, talking in context of constructivism the behaviour of humans is determined by their identity, which itself is shaped by society’s values, history, practices, and institutions. For most constructivists, rather than directly came they hold that everything and society is constructed. With the onset of constructivism, the international relations theory started to have a shift towards human behaviour and other non-state actors. The approach became to move dynamic and did not remain confined to state only, as advocated by traditional schools of realism and liberalism [[3]].

Constructivism provided a whole new approach about the world as we see by defining it as socially constructed. Alexander Wendt (1995) offers an excellent example to illustrate the social construction of reality when he explains that “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons”. These identifications are not caused by the nuclear weapons (the material structure) but rather by the meaning given to the material structure (the idealist structure) [[4]].

In conclusion we can say that constructivism is often said to simply state the obvious – those actions, interactions, and perceptions shape reality [[5]].


At the start of the last decade of the 20th century, the world witnessed the end of the Cold War. This silent war, which began in 1945 after the end of the First World War and ended in 1991 with the disintegration of the USSR. The main argument which I want to put here is that the two famous traditional schools of thought of international relations failed to predict this event. These principles were not able to explain the reasons for the disintegration of USSR and the end of the Cold War.

Another event that happened in 1989 was the Fall of the Berlin Wall [[6]]. The surprising end of the Cold War shifted not only the world order but also debates in international relations theory. The shift occurred without any conflict or war, and furthermore, without any transformation in the world system.

This really backfired the theories of realism and liberalism which failed to predict or even explain this whole system. It was after the Cold War that the IR discourse provided more diverse approach to understand and analyse world politics and not talk about the state alone. While realism and liberalism concentrated on material factors like power, constructivist theory tends to focus on the influence of idea – how idea constructs the society and subsequently affects the whole IR discourse.

In general, we can conclude that the post-Cold War era played an important role in legitimating the constructivist approach because both traditional schools of realism and liberalism failed to explain the events. After this, the 21st century saw some events, and with the coming in of globalization, the IR discourse came to matter even more and paved the way for a more feasible IR theory.


As the world entered the 21st century, the scholarship within the field of IR saw a shift from the primacy of the state and second order analyses to the relationship that individuals have with the international system [[7]]. Its roots can be found in the terror attacks of 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis, the ‘Arab Spring’, and the rise of hacktivism. We shall discuss these later.

The 21st century was marked not with the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ of states, or some elite decision-making body, but rather it was elitism itself by the general public. Ideas began to matter, and people began to mobilise them and create consent.


This was the first movement towards the revision of the status quo interpretation of the international system. It occurred on September 11, 2001, when terrorist group Al-Qaeda attacked the USA. It was for the first time in the history of the world that an attack was carried out by a group with no state structure, no territories, no navy, no army. It was like some sort of a virtual being that came and attacked the state, the motivation of which was a simple idea – an idea that got into the human brain and constructed it to do what it wanted.

After 9/11, George Bush, then President of the United States, launched a “war on terror” against Al-Qaeda that was being led by Osama bin Laden. I want to mention here that most traditional IR scholars found it quite difficult to understand the “war on terror”, the workings of the Al-Qaeda, or anything to do with its Islamic ideologies [[8]]. Rationalist approaches such as realism and liberalism hardly had anything to contribute to the understanding of the 9/11 attacks motivated by religious convictions. Then came the theory of constructivism, which seemed best placed in evaluating terrorism.

Al-Qaeda being a non-state actor produced a great deal of problems for traditional schools to explain. It was actually the constructivist approach to the “war on terror” which moved the emphasis away from the state and objective threats. The better thing was to explore how identities, actions and human sufferings are constructed through a process of interaction. The problem is thus how the actors engage with one another. If we talk about realists, they would highlight the competitive nature of states in a condition of anarchy, while a constructivist would shift the emphasis to how in a particular context actors come to define their relationship. So “war on terror” can be examined as a social interaction in which conflict has been mutually constituted, which highlights the social ontology of conflict, the role of language and context, as well as the role of giving reasons.

The coining of the phrase “war on terror” in the aftermath of 9/11 confused two fields of practice that have traditionally been distinct. For centuries, war has been a rule-bound practice of states, which usually begins with a declaration and has a clear end. Now talking about terrorism, it is generally considered as a non-state actor and treated as an area of crime. So, when USA, a well-structured state capable of war launched a “war” on a non-state actor, the overall explanation of traditional schools failed, and constructivism gave the answer.

Apart from 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis and the ‘Arab Spring’ paved a more elaborative way in the field of constructivism [[9]]. Humans, and more precisely human behaviour, ideas, identities, language, and religion became the field of study. Even Osama bin Laden had this idea of “war on the West” excluding Muslims who for thousands of years have been the victims of Catholic oppression. The West for him was the ‘Christians’, so identity came forward. The same thing applies when we talk of Islamophobia, which emerged drastically after 9/11. So, the idea of collective identity defined the whole international system in the first decade of the 21st century and which is still very much there [[10]].


Many scholars referred that the 21st century witnessed a new human evolution in which humans played an important role. The history of the early 21st century reveals that human action and selfishness are responsible for rising inequality and the loss of dignity. Neo-realism and its progeny have focused on the tragic state of anarchy and the resultant pressure to balance power. This has been a clear movement away from systematic forces in favour of a revised engagement with the human element, or first-order analysis.

The movement towards a deeper engagement with social construction is evident in the oeuvre of Alexander Wendt and the field’s engagement with it [[11]].

So, the injection of constructivist tradition into realist-dominated IR theory has led to a deeper integration with philosophy in general and ontology in particular. So, the emergence of ideas, identities, language, religion, all combined with human nature itself, constructs the system of which we are a part, and not the state as the lone wolf in the whole spectrum.


In the beginning I asked the question – “Has constructivism become more feasible with international relations?” Looking into all of the hypotheses and research that I put out in this paper, I can conclude that it is quite right that constructivism is coming to the forefront and defining our domestic as well as international systems.

Constructivism has put up different scenarios in the international system. Looking into the issues from the perspective of an individual is what really is happening in the 21st century. Human ideology constructs the state, the society, the system in which we live.

We can explain how the idea of constructivism showed the amount of human suffering that occurred after the 9/11 attack on USA, the Global Financial Crisis, and the ‘Arab Spring’. If we talk about an individual, in the levels of analysis, an individual stands at the very bottom and has the whole view of the state, inter-state and international systems. It can also be argued that if we advocate constructivism then the individual is the basic block of the international system, like a cell of the human body.

I conclude my paper by saying that the new era is the era of humans. Human emotions, ideas, ideologies and languages are actually the constructing factors, and as every constructivist scholar has mentioned, the system is constructed rather than made. Constructivism has more gunpowder to define all the events that have happened and are happening in the last decade of the 20th century and now in the 21st century.



End Notes

[1] Empiricism is one of the fundamental schools of knowledge of philosophy. It is a theory that states that knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experiences.

[2] The Cold War came to an end because Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the USSR, revolutionised the Soviet foreign policy as he embraced new ideas such as common security.

[3] For traditional schools of IR – realism and liberalism – state is the main component of the international system.

[4] The relationship between the UK and the USA is friendly in comparison to the relation between the USA and North Korea.

[5] Constructivism accounts for the issue by arguing that the social world is of our making (“World of Our Making”, Nicholas Onuf, 1989).

[6] It was on November 9, 1989, five days after half a million people gathered in East Berlin in a mass protest, that the Berlin Wall dividing communist East Germany from capitalist West Germany crumbled.

[7] The role of the state diminished, and the reign of humans began.

[8] Al-Qaeda is a militant Sunni Islamic multi-national organisation founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other Arab volunteers during the Soviet-Afghan war.

[9] The financial crisis of 2007-08, also known as the Global Financial Crisis, was a severe         worldwide economic crisis. The ‘Arab Spring’ was a series of anti-government protest, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s.

[10] Islamophobia is the fear of, hatred for, or prejudice against the religion of Islam in particular, or against Muslims in general, especially when seen as a geo-political force or a source of terrorism.

[11] Human social agents and social structures are mutually constitutive, and social change can proceed causally in both directions (simultaneously) from agents to structures and from structures to agents.

Mir Basit Sajad is currently pursuing his Masters in International and Area Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi India.

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