Constructivism and Neomarxism

Improving on the Classics: Constructivism and Neomarxism

The alternate theories of constructivism and neomarxism have contributed greatly to the gaps of realism and liberalism. All theories are based upon certain assumptions. Both the traditional theories of realism and liberalism believe that states exist in anarchy (Mingst, 65 & 70). They are both positivist in that “It refers to objective ways of knowing, that a process needs to be rational and scientific. It seeks to separate the subject from the values we apply to it, and argues that it is possible to develop value-free knowledge” ( On the other hand, the alternative theories of Constructivism and neomarxism question these assumptions. Both alternative theories are postpositivist in nature, that is, both theories believe that knowledge is not value-free and that all aspects of international relations have meaning and history. Perhaps even more importantly, constructivism questions whether states do, as realists and liberalists hold, exist in anarchy at all.

In essence, it is arguable whether constructivism is an alternate theory at all; Wendt himself agrees with most realist principles ( & Kaufman, 730). In the introduction to Alexander Wendt’s “Constructing International Politics,” the editor cites Nietzsche as a source for constructivism in much the same way that Thucydides is cited by realists. Nietzsche said “there are no facts; only interpretations.” Building on this, Wendt argues that realism is constructed; that is, that realism is “a self-fulfilling prophecy” (733). He doesn’t argue the fact that states exist in anarchy, but he questions why security competition is the only possible outcome of the state of anarchy. Wendt suggests other possibilities like security community (730). In his attack, which seems to be very personal in its direction against John Mearsheimer (incidentally they teach at the same school), Wendt points out the relativism of realism: 500 nukes are 500 nukes, yet 500 nukes in North Korea’s hands is very different that 500 nukes in Britain’s hands. [Incidentally, to make Wendt’s point, what category Russia would be in…if Russia announced it was pursuing more nukes –would the US take it as it would take it from Britain or North Korea? Has Russia been “good” long enough for the US to be ok with it?] Wendt’s point is that materialism (i.e., 500 nukes) is irrelevant without a social context (i.e., Britain = good, North Korea = bad). This social context is constructed, hence constructivism.

Wendt points out that realism seems to undervalue personal influence (Kaufman, 746). One of my favorite questions is, does the man make the times or do the times make the man? According to Wendt, Constructivism says the former and Realism says the later.
Wendt believes in social construction and that politics is socially constructed (Kaufman, 730). I don’t remember if this was a story from this class or not, but at its most basic boiled down essence, the question is: if you were walking in the wilderness completely alone and saw another person in the distance, what would your reaction be? Aggression, Attempt and communication and maybe cooperation, or fleeing. Wendt believes Western civilization has made a choice and has chosen aggression. [Yet Wendt believes we can still change and perhaps choose communication and cooperation.] Wendt argues that history matters and that “security dilemmas are not acts of God” (Kaufman, 733); they are choices. America chooses to feel threatened by North Korea, Iran, and recently Iraq. America chooses not to feel threatened by Canada, France, and Israel. Let me offer a few examples. On June 8, 1967 Israel attacked the USS Liberty. Several radio transmissions were made identifying the Liberty as a US ship, yet the Israelis attacked anyway. The US chose not to view the attack as an act of war. Just three years earlier, there was an alleged, similar situation in which North Vietnamese ships attacked American naval ships in August 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf. Here the US chose to view the attack as an act of war.

Canada recently announced it was claiming sovereignty of the Northwest passages.
The US chooses not to construe this as an aggressive act, yet when the Iranians claimed sovereignty of the Straits of Hormuz (and Abu Musa and the Tumbs for that matter), the US took it as a threat to the US and began the Re-flagging policy of the 1980s.

In terms of France, Bush said in 2003 that “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” Many smaller countries were pressured to join the US in the Iraq War. Most notably, France and Germany did not, yet the US did not declare the two countries to be part of the Axis of Evil. At the same time, Syria was targeted for its non-cooperation in the Iraq War. This last argument may seem simplistic, but it serves to show the social construction of determining who the “good guys are and who the bad guys are.”

Just as one can question whether constructivism is an alternate theory; one can question whether neomarxism is a theory at all. In his piece “Social Forces, States, and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory,” Robert W. Cox is basically saying that there is no such thing as theory. At, ‘theory’ is defined as “The branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis, as opposed to practice.” Mingst describes the history of theoretical development as so: beginning in the late 20th century, alternative critical approaches to international relations have challenged the traditional theories of liberalism and realism…Believing that a generalized theory based on historical, philosophical or behavioral methods is impossible to achieve, critical theorists contend that theory is situated in a particular time and place, conditioned by ideological, cultural, and sociological influences” (Mingst, 3). In the scientific method, theory is supposed to be an idea whose variables can be isolated and tested. Cox believes there is no such situation: “Theory is always FOR someone and FOR some purpose. All theories have a perspective. Perspectives derive from a position in time and space, specifically social and political time and space” (Kaufman, 752). For example, the theory of Realism justifies the Concert of Europe, colonialism, and imperialism. The theory of Collective Security justifies Wilsonian Idealism and his subsequent foreign policy and the League of Nations, Structural Realism justifies the Cold War, Robert O. Keohane’s Regime Theory neatly describes the oil cartels and the international monetary system. Democratic Peace Theory can be used multiple ways: Anti-Bush people take the theory and use it to justify why the US should support internal development of democratic structures within nation-states. Similarly, Pro-Bush people use the theory to justify invading Iraq to create a liberal democracy. The point is that the theory is peripheral…it really doesn’t matter; the theory is interpreted and applied how ever one’s politics desire. Theory doesn’t exist; it is a social construction dependent on time and place.

Other neomarxist writers also add to the improvement on the simplicity of realism and liberalism. These neomarxists have their own ‘sub-theories;’ Thomas F. Lynch authored the “Foundations of Radicalism” and Theotonio Dos Santos introduced Dependency Theory in his essay, “The Structure of Dependence.”

While Realists say that their theory describes how the world really works and Structuralists and Interdependencists focus on Hegemony, Marxists look at the same situation from a different perspective. Specifically Robert Gilpin (“The Theory of Hegemonic Stability”) and Theotonio Dos Santos (“The Structure of Dependence”) actually make the exact same point, but for different reasons. The only real difference is whether the glass is half full or half empty. Gilpin is describing the situation as a good thing, whereas to Dos Santos, there is a negative connotation. Yet, they probably both agree on all the facts.

Cox wants to go beyond international relations theory for the same reason that Susan Strange wants to go beyond the state in her text The Retreat of the State. Both authors feel that studying the state is too narrow a focus. Both see three main players in international relations: the state, “international capital” (MNCs), and “social forces.” Cox and Strange both believe that the traditional nation-state has waned in strength and been replaced by international capital. Ironically, Cox points out that social forces actually were greatly responsible for the demise of the state. “Capitalism mobilized an industrial labor force…[and] the industrial workers had an impact on the structure of the state. The incorporation of the industrial workers… into the nation involved an extension in the range of the state action in the form of economic interventionalism and social policy” (Kaufman, 757)… Domestic welfare became foreign policy… and the “claims of the welfare state competed with the exigencies of liberal internationalism”, ultimately killed the state.

Into this void, Cox and Strange argue, stepped international capital in the form of multinational corporations (or MNCs). Strange starts her book saying, Today it seems that the heads of governments may be the last to recognize that they and their ministers have lost the authority over national societies and economies that they used to have” (Strange, 3). Indeed, “Where states were once the masters of markets, now it is the markets which . . . are the masters over the governments of states.” From relatively minor issues like foreign flags on American vacation cruise ships, to medium issues like the moving of corporate headquarters to Belize and Bermuda, to the bigfish of NAFTA, Strange seems not so “strange.”

Unfortunately, Cox says that the social forces are too fragmented to harness their potential power. Workers, says Cox, are divided between Established workers and Nonestablished workers as well as between International Established workers and National Established workers.

As a result, we are left with a bleak picture of international relations where the nation-states still think they can dance, but don’t realize they’re actually watching a video of the international capital dancing on the backs of the workers.

Marxists also believe society is constructed by social forces and economic production (Kaufman, 741). In addition class conflict arises from conflict between social forces. The Jacksonian Revolution, post-Civil War Reconstruction, Progressivism, The Civil Rights Era are all examples of class conflict and social construction in American history.

Cox believes part of the problem is the problem-solving perspective that Americans and other Western countries seem to have. This perspective takes the world as it is and assumes that’s the only framework for action (Kaufman, 753). Problem-solving “is nonhistorical and ahistorical since it posits a continuing present (Kaufman, 754). Cox holds that this conservative perspective of construction is problematic because it can only work within a given order and never questions the order itself. (Ibid). In essence, America is trapped in its masculine, capitalistic, security-driven construction.

Thus, the alternate theories of constructivism and neomarxism have contributed greatly to the gaps of realism and liberalism. As the influence of unitary principle actors decreases and the nation-state itself has been diminished by globalization, it is important to use alternative (or ancillary) theories to aid in the understanding of international relations. Specifically, constructivism seems to fill gaps in Realism and neomarxism seems to fill the gaps in liberalism’s economic failings.



Kaufman, Daniel. Parker, Jay. Howell, Patrick & Doty, Grant (2004). Understanding International Relations: The Value of Alternative Lenses. New York: United States Military Academy.

Mingst, Karen A. (2004). Essential of International Relations. New York: W.W. Norton.

Strange, Susan (1996).The Retreat of the State. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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