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date: 19 September 2017

Constructivist Analyses of Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Most constructivist work in international relations has attempted to account for very general outcomes in the international system, most notably the well-known research of Alexander Wendt. Whether we live in a “Kantian” world or a “Hobbesian” one, for instance, is a socially constructed thing, in a sense, not flowing from some inevitable structure or theory of human nature. Nevertheless, some important constructivist work has focused on more specific foreign policy outcomes, research that is examined in depth. Constructivist analyses tend to focus on “how possible” questions rather than attempting to explain particular decisions, and this offers a useful addition or corrective to more traditional analyses of foreign policy. They also attempt to understand the general foreign policy orientations of states, often relying on notions of culture, role, and identity.

Such approaches have not yet fully matured into comprehensive approaches to foreign policy, in at least two senses. First of all, current constructivist approaches are somewhat limited by focusing on the social dimensions of foreign policy rather than on individual ones, being sociological rather than psychological in nature. This is sometimes not an issue, but it becomes a problem when variation between decision makers with the same social identity is the object of interest. Second, there have been relatively few attempts to turn constructivism into a normative theory. Arguably, in order to become a fully rounded theory (as opposed to a loose framework), constructivism needs a mechanism by which it can influence actual decision makers, very few of whom currently describe themselves in opinion polls as being constructivists, as opposed to realists or liberals.

Yet both of these problems can potentially be remedied. First, constructivist approaches may be combined with psychological approaches, which supplement their sociological focus. Both constructivism and the psychological approach to decision making are ideational in nature rather than material; in other words, they share the belief that what we think is “out there” is often more important than what actually is. Indeed, the psychological approach to foreign policy provided a major source of inspiration for the early constructivists. Second, constructivist approaches can offer policymakers prescriptive advice as to how they should or ought to behave. We will review the literature on understanding foreign policy outcomes and will then suggest the outlines of an applied constructivism that decision makers in government would find positively useful. There is Realpolitik and Idealpolitik, but can there be “Konstruktpolitik”? At least six principles might guide the development of normative constructivism. Chief amongst these is the axiom, “if you can’t change the physical, change the social.” Other principles include the effort to initiate “norm cascades,” the encouragement (or discouragement) of self-fulfilling beliefs and self-negating beliefs, acceptance of the role of agency and the conscious use of argument and language as tools of persuasion.