Constructivism as International Relations Theory


In the modern world of globalization, industrialization, and technological progress, the idea of international relations (IR) is not new. People need to develop such relationships to exchange knowledge, share experiences, and improve the quality of life at different levels. Several IR theories are created to understand how governments, politicians, and diplomats work, including realism, liberalism, and constructivism (Bertucci et al., 2018). In this paper, attention will be paid to constructivism as an IR theory that does not contradict other theoretical approaches but supplements the concepts of realism and liberalism and offers effective alternatives and meaningful explanations (Barnet, 2018). As with any IR theory, constructivism is based on certain assumptions (basic issues), principles (consequences), and arguments (impact), the combination of which reveals the worth of the chosen approach. In the IR field, constructivism focuses on the impact of social interests and the identity of states to manage historical processes and reduce the influence of material factors.

Importance of IR Theories

In international relations, theory application is a critical step to finding a new perspective for understanding the events, causes, and effects of international politics. Many factors should be considered to learn the differences between nations and demonstrate mutual respect and recognition of cultural, social, and other norms. There are certain systems and rules that people should address to choose appropriate behaviors and make necessary decisions within their states. In addition to classical paradigms of liberalism and realism, new IR theories emerge to identify simple mechanisms and learn new preferences and interests (Dietrich et al., 2021). Decision-making in politics is never simple, and IR theories are important for analyzing people’s motives, expectations, and outcomes. Constructivism is a relatively new theory proposed in the 1990s to support and explain the controversies between realists and liberalists.

Constructivism Background

The first elements of constructivism in international relations were noticed at the end of the 1980s and are usually associated with the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Its emergence was explained by the impossibility of traditional IR theories to explain the nature of current events and link the interests of the representatives of different states (Theys, 2018). At that moment, the impact of political leaders and states was weak, and the social world was developed due to ordinary people’s activities and attitudes. In 1989, Nicholas Onuf offered the major background that became a determining point for future constructivists and said that people and societies are responsible for constructing and constituting each other (as cited in Ouchenane, n.d.). As such, a new theoretical perspective strengthened sociological awareness of society through the prism of works by Katzenstein, Wendt, and Berger (Bertucci et al., 2018). New assumptions and arguments were used to support the development of constructivism and its reasonable penetration into international relations.


The first assumptions of constructivism were promoted at the beginning of the 1990s to explain why this new theoretical doctrine deserved attention. People assumed that some fundamental structures existing in international polities should be changed from liberal to social to underline the value of people’s identities and interests (Ouchenane, n.d.). Developing safe and secure environments for politics was no longer beneficial because the end of the Cold War made most countries downsized and demoralized (Barnet, 2018). There were multiple identities in states, and social constructions played an important role in human interactions. People must understand who they are and what they can do to promote their interests and follow their preferences.


There were four major principles according to which constructivists offered their ideas and changes. First, social theoretic foundations were weak, and a new conception of global social life was required (Barnet, 2018). Second, sovereignty and anarchy in some states were destroyed, and new social constructs must be introduced to prove the worthiness of new decisions and political unions. Third, alternatives to rationalism and materialism could strengthen international relationships by connecting societal contexts in the 21st century (Bertucci et al., 2018). Finally, it was important to maintain security, and the use of structures as the major constitutive norms through international treaties was a good decision (Hao, 2019). In other words, instead of taking care of already obtained material forces and resources, it was high time to share new ideas and develop additional associations. In general, these principles were enough to demonstrate how constructivists could solve new social and political concerns in the international arena.


Taking into consideration the conditions under which constructivism emerged, its major assumptions, and principles, several strong arguments can be developed. It is correct for constructivists to argue that all states have a possibility of multiple identities that should be socially constructed through interactions. Unlike realism and liberalism, which are based on wars, human rights, laws, and freedoms, constructivism distinguishes humans as the only creators of their social world. As a result, people, also defined as actors, are able to change the world and the essence of international relations by taking actions and recognizing the worth of non-material values in their interactions (Ouchenane, n.d.; Theys, 2018). Constructivists believe that if states and their members appreciated the long history of their alliances and personal interests, they would create a solid cooperative system to change and improve international relations.

Benefits and Shortages of Constructivism

On the one hand, constructivism turns out to be a beneficial IR theory as it helps people understand the world and open their minds in certain directions. According to Walter (2019), this methodological paradigm is empirically grounded in widening international order. Constructivists prove that society has access to various opportunities but does not actually use them because of imposed limitations and norms. Therefore, this approach is a unique chance to learn what people can do to change their lives and create conditions that meet their expectations but never rely on imposed information. On the other hand, someone could notice that constructivism brings nothing new to international relations. Many years ago, people were encouraged to develop their ideas and investigate the areas of their interests during the Enlightenment era. Therefore, the uniqueness of constructivism theory remains under question.


IR theories introduce an informative background for developing international relations and understanding the causes and outcomes of decisions in politics. Constructivism is one of the IR theories based on the idea that people and states are the major constructors of their relationships. Its assumptions and principles include the importance of knowledge and experience, with the help of which people shape their interests and make appropriate decisions. There is no need to address some external factors to determine the quality of interpersonal relationships at the international level. Constructivists argue that historical values and beliefs have already been challenged, and it is important for society to become more prominent in dealing with existing transformations and political shifts. Thus, combining non-material issues, like culture, knowledge, or ideology, and material power, namely identities, would help establish social and political order and succeed with time.


Barnet, M. (2018). Constructivism. In A. Gheciu & W. C. Wohlforth (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of international security (pp. 86-99). Oxford University Press.

Bertucci, M. E., Hayes, J., & James, P. (2018). A new look at constructivism. In M. E. Betucci, J. Hayes, & P. James (Eds.), Constructivism reconsidered: Past, present, and future (pp. 1-14). University of Michigan Press.

Dietrich, S., Hardt, H., & Swedlund, H. J. (2021). How to make elite experiments work in international relations. European Journal of International Relations, 27(2), 596-621.

Hao, C. J. (2019). Social constructivism vs. neorealism in analysing the Cold War. E-International Relations.

Ouchenane, A. (n.d.). Constructivism in international relations. IAF. Web.

Theys, S. (2018). Introducing constructivism in international relations theory. E-International Relations.

Walter, T. (2019). The road (not) taken? How the indexicality of practice could make or break the ‘new constructivism’. European Journal of International Relations, 25(2), 538-561.

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