In his journal article Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics (1992), Alexander Wendt outlines a constructivist approach to international relations (IR) theory. Constructivism is broadly defined as a theoretical framework in which the essential elements of international politics are viewed as social constructs. According to constructivism theorists, the primary facets of international systems are constructed through social processes. As such, constructivists believe that anarchical systems are not inherently embedded in international realms. According to Wendt, anarchy is not a rigid structure that determines a state’s behavior but rather a condition whose meaning is contingent upon relations of the state. Constructivism is broadly contrasted with Realism and Liberalism, which are crucial theories in International Relations. In this paper, I argue that international relations are dependent upon perceived reality, and as such, power politics and self-help do not flow from anarchy. Consequently, if states find themselves trapped in between the confines of self-help and a materialistic view of a state’s position, it does not happen because of a given structure but rather from a process that is socially constructed. To support this argument, this paper critically evaluates Wendt’s argument that Anarchy is what states make of it in light of other international relations theories, with a key focus on the Neorealism theory.
Background and Meaning of the Quote
Anarchy plays a crucial role in International Relations (IR) with respect to the three major IR theories: Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism. According to the realism school of thought, the state only works to enhance its power. As a result, it only focuses on its national interests. Realism is of the idea that the international domain is a brutal playground where states are always looking for opportunities to take advantage of each other. Realists contend that the world exists in a state of absolute anarchy, and therefore, whoever is powerful will be able to safeguard their own interests. No state remains a permanent enemy or friend, but instead, a state’s friend or enemy changes depending on the needs at a particular period. According to the Realism theory of IR, each state seeks to gain more power; hence, military power is viewed as the most important form of power. A classic example of realism existed during the Cold War period. Notably, anything pertaining to international relations was viewed through the lens of realism. The world was in a state of absolute anarchy whereby two blocs existed; that is, those who supported the United States and the supporters of the Soviet Union. Allies were built in anticipation of a military confrontation to ensure that neither bloc lost power at the frontline.
While realist theorists place a lot of emphasis on military power as a way of safeguarding a nation’s interests in the anarchic world, liberalist theorists believe that cooperation is central to gaining international peace. According to liberals, the broad ties that exist between states have significantly diluted the understanding of national interests. Liberalism is a newer concept in international relations, which fosters globalization in the world. With increased international trade and technology, military power is gradually becoming useless. However, liberalists and realists agree on that the fact that the world is harsh and constantly on the brink of chaos. However, according to liberalists, if states continue the raging war against each other, the losses realized will outweigh the benefits. Therefore, the existing social and economic power, as opposed to military power, is more viable. With proper diplomacy and institutions, liberal theorists believe that states can work together to minimize conflict and maximize prosperity. A classic example of liberalism at play is evidenced in a period when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) decided to lend India massive financial aid to help the latter open up its economy. In such a case, economic power was regarded useful as compared to military power.
As opposed to liberalism and realism school of thought, constructivism believes that the international system is not dictated by rigid, immutable factors, but rather what the states make of it. What matters in international relations, therefore, is how nations perceive each other. Alexander Wendt is regarded as one of the most influential constructivist theorists in international relations. Wendt states that ‘Anarchy is what the states make of it.’ This implies that if a nation calls the international system anarchic, then it all revolves around how the state perceives the definition of anarchy. For instance, organizations, such as the UN, are meaningless and powerless, unless states perceive them as being powerful. How states view the world, particularly other states around them has a crucial impact on international peace. An example of the Constructivism theory at work is when some world leaders view some nations as terrorist sympathizers. For instance, President Trump’s administration stated that the United States would be restricting Islamic nationals from entering the country. According to the president, people of the Islamic religion are bad and carry with them some terrorist ideas. Whereas this proposition might not be true, the president’s perception that people of the Islamic faith are bad is what makes the administration take stern rules against Muslim immigration into the country. How a country perceives another nation, whether as an enemy or a friend, therefore, determines how the states relate with each other.
Anarchy through Alexander Wendt’s Constructivism Lens
Alexander Wendt lays a theoretical ground upon which he presents a challenge to neo-liberalists and neorealist assumptions on materialism when explaining international relations. Wendt attempts to demonstrate that the core facets in realists’ foundations, such as power, are not given by nature, but rather socially constructed. As such, such facets are not inert but capable of changing depending on human practice given the dynamism of social reality. Constructivism is a social theory that challenges the materialistic bases by hypothesizing that the structures of human associations are largely cultural rather than material. However, states are still international actors and material strength matters, but within a set of ideational frameworks of interest and identity creation informing the results of international relations. The key facets of the Constructivism theory include: first, states act as the basic units in the international realm; secondly, the international state system fabric is inter-subjective and not materially structured; and thirdly, state identities are not given by nature but instead constructed through social processes.
Wendt acknowledges states as the primary actors in international systems. States are, therefore, considered as the center of international politics. Wendt’s Constructivism theory approaches international theory in a state systemic manner. According to the IR theorist, a state is a political structure with legitimate use of organized force. Each state must be seen as an agent. In the article Anarchy is what states make of it, Wendt shifts the focus of the debate in International Relations Theory from actions influenced by the distribution of power and anarchy to actions influenced by a process that combines institutions, learning, and interaction. Basing on the assumptions developed by Waltz, Wendt works out to develop their own distinct thoughts on international relations. Notably, the Constructivist theorist seeks to dispute the neorealist explanation on why the international realm is competitive.
While neorealists claim that international anarchy is created through a system of self-help, Wendt claims that power politics and self-help do not flow from anarchy. As such, if states find themselves trapped between the confines of self-help and a materialistic view of the state’s position, it does not happen because of a given structure. Rather, such a situation results from a process that is socially constructed. Additionally, Wendt believes that politics of power and self-interest are not key features of the anarchical system, but rather made of institutions. While Wendt does not disagree with the idea that structure makes up the international realm, he acknowledges that it is the collective meaning that constitutes that structure, which then organizes a state’s behavior. Due to the potential, they hold in both interpersonal and international relations, constructivists place a lot of importance and emphasis on role identities. According to Wendt, anarchy is only created when states interact with each other. There are no interests or expectations before states can interact with each other, and as a result, anarchy remains unknown. For example, if humans were to interact with completely new civilizations, such as aliens, we would not expect an aggressive response at first since their intentions and expectations are unknown. However, after interacting with them, the behavior of anarchy would be formed when the intentions are known. Anarchy, therefore, results from the process of social interaction and construction.
The theorist views identity subjectively from the point of international actors in the sense that it motivates generations of behavioral disposition rooted in self-understandings. According to Wendt, identity goes beyond a unit level since understanding about self also depends on others’ understanding and representation of it. International actors acquire identities by participating in collective meanings. As such, identities are inherently relational. Each player in international politics and system has numerous identities connected to various roles. Similarly, a state can be looked at from the lens of many identities, such as a sovereign nation, dictator, or leader of the liberal world. Essentially, identities are the basis of interests. International actors do not necessarily have a pre-existing set of interests that they carry around. However, their interests are established and defined when dealing with a certain situation.
According to Wendt, there are four different types of identities that international actors can take. These include; personal or corporate identity, type identity, role identity, and collective identity. Personal or corporate identities denote balanced functional and self-organizing structures. When evaluated from the perspective of states, it translates to the sense of ‘we,’ otherwise seen as groups or blocs. Type identity applies to a social category, which shares some characteristics, such as mannerisms, values, outward look, language, knowledge, experience, opinions, and similarity of history. In order to substantiate the idea of characteristics, there must be social content and meaning available by the membership rules of a given bloc. For type identities to be formulated successfully, Wendt argues that they should be partially dependent on the perception and understanding of others. For instance, states can be viewed as being democratic, communist, capitalists, or authoritarian. Role identity is defined by expectations and culture and is dependent on relational aspects with other international actors. Collective identity, on the other hand, utilizes role and type identities by blurring other and self. As a result, self and others are amalgamated to form a single identity.
An underlying principle in the Constructivist theory is that people behave towards other objects, including fellow international actors, depending on they view these objects. Consequently, states act differently towards their friends than they would towards enemies because enemies pose a threat, unlike friends. For example, the military power for the U.S. has a different implication for Britain than for Cuba. These examples highlight a crucial facet of social constructivism that international relations are socially constructed, and in the process, hold social assumptions and norms. According to Wendt’s school of thought, self-help and political power play do not emanate from anarchy. However, if they exist, it is because of the process and not the structure or nature of global interaction between states. A state’s interests are not immune to the social context of its global and domestic scenario.
Alexander Wendt’s Constructivism: A Challenge to Neo-realism
Alexander Wendt kicks off a constructivist argument by rejecting the structural realist belief that states engage in competitive power politics due to the structural nature of the international system. Constructivism and realism theories are the two most influential approaches to analyzing international anarchy. Neo-realism depicts the international realm as anarchic, homogenous, undirected, decentralized, mutually adaptive, and horizontal. This approach to IR is a systematic one, starting off by noting that the international system is made up of a structure that has different interacting units. The interacting units of the international system are states. Realists believe that anarchy is inherent in the international system. Therefore, anarchy is an inevitable factor in the system. From a general perspective, international anarchy can be defined as the absence of government. However, according to neo-realists, international anarchy is not only the absence of government but also entails the presence of chaos and disorder, which is also associated with the occurrence of violence.
As opposed to the constructivist approach, neo-realists believe that due to the anarchic order of international systems, states work to secure their own interests and survival. Relying on other states can therefore prove counterproductive. When viewed from the lens of realism, the anarchic order creates a system of self-help whereby states first worry about their own survival mechanisms. Due to the lack of order in an anarchical international system, it is critical for every state to take care of itself first. The imperative, as proposed by the realism school of thought, explains why the structure of international politics and relations limits the cooperation between states as nations first strive to hack their own survival mechanisms. According to the theory of International Relations, there is a constant possibility that force will be used at some point. States also contend with the division of possible gains that may favor other nations other than themselves. The constant possibility of the use of force to safeguard a state’s interests makes it very difficult for nations to break out of the competitive system. Similarly, states are forced to establish and maintain powerful military systems in readiness for war. The security dilemma resulting in anarchy can only be overcome by creating a single world government, a state which remains a utopia. According to structural realism, the state of nature among states is a state of war, hence the constant possibility of chaos in international systems. Anarchy is, therefore, interpreted as a condition in which international players remain in an arena of self-help with the primary goal being survival.
International relations are dependent upon perceived reality, and as such, power politics and self-help do not flow from anarchy. Consequently, if states find themselves trapped in between the confines of self-help and a materialistic view of a state’s position, it does not happen because of a given structure but rather from a process that is socially constructed. International anarchy is a complex, organizing concept of crucial importance in the realm of international relations. However, there is no single way of interpreting what anarchy is. Different international relations theories interpret and perceive anarchy differently. Alexander Wendt, in his journal article, Anarchy is what States make of it (1992), largely challenges the assumptions by Kenneth Waltz whose school of thought forms the basis of the Neorealism theory of international relations. International relations theories, particularly neorealism, place emphasis on materialism and power as a key tenet in international systems. Neorealists view power and the distribution of material as the only aspect that can create balance in an anarchic world. Further, neorealism views the world as naturally anarchic and decentralized, hence creating a system of self-help whereby states first worry about their own survival mechanisms. Although states might have other goals which they seek to achieve, realists view survival as the prerequisite to achieving any other goals that states may pursue. Wendt’s central premise, on the other hand, is that social constructions shape the environments within which international actors interact. As such, Constructivism views the international system as a social construction as opposed to the materialistic and positivist conceptualization of international systems as proposed by realists and liberalists. According to constructivism theorists, the primary facets of international systems are constructed through social processes. A key difference between neorealism and Wendt’s constructivism understanding of anarchy is based on the idea of self-help. While realism views self-help as the basic principle of action in an anarchic order, Wendt considers it as an institution. According to constructivism, therefore, self-help does not follow from a given structure, but rather only exists through a process.
Humphreys, Adam Richard Copeland. “Kenneth Waltz and the limits of explanatory theory in International Relations.” Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2007.
Fiammenghi, Davide. “Anarchy is what states make of it”: true in a trivial sense; otherwise, wrong.” International Politics 56, no. 1 (2019): 17-32.
Kevin, Rob. “Small states in the international system: what theories of international relations have to say.” National Documentation Center, available at http://cutt. us/vlks (2019).
Rossdale, Chris. “Anarchy is what anarchists make of it: reclaiming the concept of agency in IR and security studies.” Millennium 39, no. 2 (2010): 483-501.
Polansky, David. “Drawing out the leviathan: Kenneth Waltz, Hobbes, and the neorealist theory of the state.” International Studies Review 18, no. 2 (2016): 268-289.
Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics (1992).” In International Theory, pp. 129-177. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1995.
Lechner, Silviya. “Why anarchy still matters for International Relations: On theories and things.” Journal of International Political Theory 13, no. 3 (2017): 341-359.
Havercroft, Jonathan, and Alex Prichard. “Anarchy and International Relations Theory: A reconsideration.” Journal of International Political Theory 13, no. 3 (2017): 252-265.
Lechner, Silviya. “Anarchy in International Relations.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. 2017.
 Havercroft, Jonathan, and Alex Prichard. “Anarchy and International Relations Theory: A reconsideration.” Journal of International Political Theory 13, no. 3 (2017): 252-265.
 Lechner, Silviya. “Why anarchy still matters for International Relations: On theories and things.” Journal of International Political Theory 13, no. 3 (2017): 341-359.
 Silviya “Why anarchy still matters for International Relations: On theories and things.” pp. 342
 Rossdale, Chris. “Anarchy is what anarchists make of it: reclaiming the concept of agency in IR and security studies.” Millennium 39, no. 2 (2010): 483-501
 Rossdale, Chris. “Anarchy is what anarchists make of it: reclaiming the concept of agency in IR and security studies.” pp. 483
 Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics (1992).” In International Theory, pp. 129-177. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1995.
 Fiammenghi, Davide. “Anarchy is what states make of it”: true in a trivial sense; otherwise, wrong.” International Politics 56, no. 1 (2019): 17-32.
 Lechner, Silviya. “Anarchy in International Relations.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. 2017.
 Fiammenghi, Davide. “Anarchy is what states make of it”: true in a trivial sense; otherwise, wrong.” pp. 21
 Ibid. pp. 22
 Humphreys, Adam Richard Copeland. “Kenneth Waltz and the limits of explanatory theory in International Relations.” Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2007.
 Kevlihan, Rob. “Small states in the international system: what theories of international relations have to say.” National Documentation Center, available at http://cutt. us/vlks (2019).
 Polansky, David. “Drawing out the leviathan: Kenneth Waltz, Hobbes, and the neorealist theory of the state.” International Studies Review 18, no. 2 (2016): 268-289.