Is the neo-liberal institutionalist school closer to realism or to constructivism?

Comparing international relations theories

Essay 2012 6 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories



Is the neo-liberal institutionalist school closer to realism or to constructivism?

Berlin, 23.12.2012

The speed of global changes has been dynamically growing since 1989, when the Berlin Wall and the massive transformations in Central and Eastern Europe signaled the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, analysts developed different theories and engaged themselves in debates, sometimes incomprehensible for non-specialists. Realism against idealism, liberalism and constructivism have been discussed in terms of their influence on world politics and the amount of social and political development which they could explain. The aim of this essay is to define the basic ideas of three of these main streams in the international relations, namely realism ( and in parts the subschool formed from it- neorealism), neo-liberal institutionalism and constructivism and to examine the main similarities and differences between them. The analysis will be basically formed around the neo-liberal institutionalist school, which will be used as a point of comparison.

In the first part of the essay I will try to clarify the basic assumptions of realism, neo-liberal institutionalism and constructivism, which will later facilitate the understanding of the comparison between them. With the help of publications from three authors, which are considered to be among the main representatives of the different paradigms, this text will try to identify in which way neo-liberal institutionalism could share similar ideas with realism, respectively with constructivism. The essay will end with a short conclusion, which will aim to summarize the results from the analysis and give a plausible answer to the question given.

The intellectual foundations of the theory of realism can be traced back to the antiquity. Not only has it survived through time, but still remains nowadays ,,the most compelling general framework for understanding international relations” (Walt, Stephen M. Walt 1998: 43). Any discussion of realism would be incomplete without considering different attempts of interpretations and revisions, which have been made due to new emerging circumstances or connected with the desire to maintain the basic core elements of the theory. That is why the realist school cannot be seen as a single theory, as Wohlforth argues, but as a large and complex tradition, which once taken out of the picture, can lead to uncertainties in the identities of other theories, which are being formed around realism (Wohlworth, William C. 2008: 131). One of the basic assumptions of realists is that the state is the main unit and the most important group of humans and that the international system consists of the national states. Realists believe that the international policy is based on conflicts, which lead to a struggle for power and authority within an anarchic system. This can be explained with the evil and egoistic nature of the human-being, following Hobbes’ assumption that everything about humanity could be explained materialistically and the anarchic nature state, in which humans are living is a ,,war of all against all” (Hobbes, Thomas 1947: 68). As we can see, the concepts of conflict and war are the main focus of the realistic school, which explains why during the First and Second World War the realist tradition has been popularized and given advantage over other international relations’ theories. In the end, every state looks after its interests and in this way the self-help system emerges as the only way to support the state’s security. Neo-realism, which emerges in the 1980’s, attaches greater importance to the concept of security and changes a bit the classical understanding of realism. (Wohlworth, William C.1998: 136). According to neo-realists like Waltz, the state seeks gains in power, as long as these do not place the state’s security at risk. Unlike the neo-liberal institutionalists, realist think that rational gains are more important than absolute gains. Another argument of the neorealist subschool, which differs from the classical realist assumption, is that they do not concentrate that much on human nature and that bipolarity is a more stable than multipolarity (Wohlforth, William C. 1998: 137).

Neo-liberal institutionalists put emphasis on institutions, as they have a great effect on the way in which international relations are being sustained. The key point of disagreement between the schools of realism and neo-liberal institutionalism is not in whether there is anarchy, but in the sense, the importance and the extent to which the development of institutions can overcome the main structural features of the system of international anarchy (Dougherty, James E./ Pfalzgraff, L. 2001: 101). The neo-liberal institutionalism presents a more optimistic view on the relations between states, as they believe in cooperation which in the best case will lead to absolute gains for every state which is part of the cooperation. Three kinds of international institutions are being considered by Keohane, namely formal intergovernmental or cross-national nongovernmental organizations, international regimes and conventions (Keohane, Robert O. 1989: 3-4). There is a direct link between them, as conventions may eventually evolve in regimes, which again may evolve in organizations. Neo-liberal institutionalism believes that there is a harmony of interests, but unlike pure liberalists, it doesn’t claim it is always there.

Constructivism is based on theories, which put emphasis on ideas, culture, language as factors which affect the way in which states, or to be more precise- key figures and elites, define the identities and interests of their country, which are easy changing products of specific historical processes (Dougherty, James E./ Pfalzgraff, L. 2001: 20). It is in fact the interaction that makes states ,,act differently towards enemies than they do towards friends because enemies are threatening and friends are not. Anarchy and the distribution of power are insufficient to tell us which is which” (Wendt, Alexander 1992: 398). A state cannot know a priori if there is going to be a conflict with another state, until their first encounter, because they haven’t yet build their identities and interests. Wendt talks about predator states and the reason for a state to become a predator. He proposes two reasons- a state can be aggressive in its nature or a state can become aggressive because of historical reasons, meaning past interactions with other states (Wendt, Alexander 1992: 408). If a state has become a predator because of past interactions, it would be possible for it to change its acting towards others. But if a state is a predator because of its nature or its domestic politics, it would be hard for it to change, because this way of acting is a consequence of a genetic predisposition.



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Title: Is the neo-liberal institutionalist school closer to realism or to constructivism?