America and the World after 9/11: A Constructivist Analysis of the Decision to Go to War in Iraq

Term Paper, 2015

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Theory of Constructivism
2.1 State identities and interests
2.2 International structures
2.3 Conditions for cooperation and conflict

3. Iraq War: American foreign policy
3.1 Threat perceptions and the concept of offensive self defense
3.2 International structures and normative frameworks
3.3 US identity and hegemonic power

4. Conclusion

List of Works Cited

Appendix: 2002 State of the Union Address (Extracts)

1. Introduction

There are only few examples when the events of a single day have actually changed the world. One would be the Sarajevo assassination on June 28th, 1914, another one the launching of the first atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945. Some might also include the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9th, 1989, but then this great moment in history didn’t really come unexpected: repeated protests, the policy of perestroika, the economic decline and assistance required from the West, plus the dismissal of Erich Honecker made this step almost inevitable and even then it took almost another year until Germany was finally reunited. There is no doubt, however, about the most recent and probably also most drastic one of these fateful hours: 9/11. Tony Blair, the then British Prime Minister, said that “September 11 was, and remains, above all an immense human tragedy. But September 11 also posed a momentous and deliberate challenge not just to America but to the world at large. The target of the terrorists was not only New York and Washington but the very values of freedom, tolerance and decency which underpin our way of life.”

With these three sentences he perfectly captured the crux of the matter: more than anything else, 9/11 has had a fundamental impact on international security politics.

In the period following the attacks, the security measures have become increasingly global, anticipatory, and preemptive. Because the main challenges facing security and peace are now seen in nongovernmental entities acting at transnational levels rather than single states, it is considered necessary to make proactive risk management central to policy making (Daase 2010: 15). Since terrorist organizations like Al-Qaida cannot be controlled with the use of quit diplomacy only, the rights of defense have been limited in many countries in favour of a more distinctive protection obligation that also involves powers of intervention (Daase 2010: 16).

When strategic culture is thus changed and national elites as well as military alliances such as NATO start to develop new behavioural patterns with regard to safety issues, it is crucial that political scientists, too, start to use different approaches in order to understand these new processes (Öztürk 2010: 2).

One theoretical approach that can achieve this is constructivism with its focus on constructed identities and ongoing processes of social practice.

This paper will look at the Iraq War, the most important operation in the Global War on Terror, under the “magnifying class” of constructivism: the invasion of Iraq is was a protracted armed conflict that escaped international standards of war-making. As Richard Jackson has noted, “it is not obvious that attacks by a small group of dissidents aggrieved by the US military presence in the Arabian Peninsula on 11 September 2001, as devastating as they were, should have generated such an expansive and far-reaching response from the world’s only superpower” (18). Why should the US risk regional stability through a belated intervention? Why should they incur the enormous humanitarian, economic, and military costs connected with a preventive war that lacked legitimacy under international law and, thus, was very likely to damage the transatlantic relations? By scrutinising the Bush Administration’s rationale for war and examining a variety of possible objectives that are based on constructivist concepts, I will try to make sense of this war which remained unexplainable to many other IR theories.

In a first step, I will give a brief introduction to Constructivist theory focusing on the three principal aspects of state identities and interests, international structure, and conditions of cooperation and conflict. Secondly, I will address the issue of America’s threat perceptions and enemy images in order to explain how inherited values and attitudes shaped the Bush Administration’s assessment of the incident. Following a description of the US rationale for war, I will focus on the theme of international normative frameworks so as to explain why they imposed their decision against the serious concerns of the UN community of states. In this context, an important role will be played by the substantial unilateral freedom of action gained by their hegemonic position in the international system. Finally, I will return to the point of US identity in order to specify that the invasion of Iraq might have made little sense from a rational point of view because it harmed European-American relations in the long term and aggravated international tensions, but that it nevertheless conformed to the imperialist ambitions of US exceptionalism and their historically defined claim to leadership.

2. The Theory of Constructivism

2.1 State identities and interests

In contrast to neorealism and its core tenet, the balance of power theory, constructivism does not solely focus on military capabilities but attaches even greater importance to the formative powers of ideas, which they consider to be “the building blocks of the material world.” (Tsai 2009: 21)

Thus, it is assumed that actors do not act on a purely rational basis but that a state`s behaviour in a given situation is always dependent on a wide range of factors such as culture, norms, procedures, and practices (Hopf), as well as self-images, perceptions, entrenched structures, and available knowledge (Weller). In other words, every policy and every discourse between states is only conceivable within specific social, cultural, and political contexts—just as the states themselves are “structure[s] of institutional, normative and political components that become the focus of analysis” (Katzenstein 1990: 11).

But how do these structures develop? What gives a state its identity? According to Wendt, a state is not a self-reliant unit which can serve as an explanatory variable X but rather a product of its own socialization that needs explaining (1992: 404). Consequently, the identity of a state at a given time is a compound of norms, customs, and ideologies inherited from former governments and its current environment (i.e. its position in the international system). The logic result is that each state has multiple identities and roles whose specific demands it must reconcile (Wendt 1992: 398). The USA, for example, have to meet the responsibilities of a “sovereign”, a “promoter of democracy”, and a “country of progress and possibilities”. Hence, the interests and objectives a US government might formulate in a particular situation should be viewed as outcomes of a time-consuming process during which possible options for actions are evaluated under consideration of prior experiences, common practices, internal as well as external expectations, and mandatory standards. More generally, Tsai states that “the rules, institutions, and values of the international community affect national interests, limitations on a country's actions, and alterations of a country's preference” (2009: 26). This does not mean, however, that constructivists assume that state actions are completely predestined and that there is little or no scope for unauthorized governmental decision-making. On the contrary, Katzenstein stresses that “these norms do not only constrain actors in negotiated settings by changing the matrix of incentives. They also enable actors, arise spontaneously and evolve over time” (1990: 21). This therefore raises the question how exactly the international structure influences single states and their actions.

2.2 International structures

The interaction between two or more states is an elongated “process of signaling, interpreting, and responding” (Wendt 1992: 405) that continuously alters perceptions and expectations of the respective counterpart. Over time, this will lead to a comparatively steady mutual understanding, or what Ted Hopf calls “intersubjective meaning” (1998: 173): as the involved actors get to know each other and learn what behaviour to expect from them, they will also become increasingly interdependent, thus laying the foundations for the creation of shared institutions.

According to Alexander Wendt, “the process of creating institutions is one of internalizing new understandings of self and other, of acquiring new role identities, not just of creating external constraints on the behavior of exogenously constituted actors” (1992: 417). Applied to the case of the NATO, for example, this would mean that western countries started to leave the enmities of WW2 behind, thus developing a positive collective identity in which each state assumed a new role with changed needs, interests, and preferences. They united against the Eastern Bloc, creating a relatively stable set of common objectives and rules that would help to ensure their safety. This institution, then, constrained their behaviour in a significant manner, but it also granted them great political and military powers.

There is such a large number of widely varying and rather complex structures and regimes in the international system which we can only subsume under a network of very general propositions: firstly, they “emerge in and through shared interpretations and shared expectations that constitute standards for action” (Katzenstein 1990: 17). Secondly, they influence states’ behaviour by altering strategies and determining a repertoire of possibilities for action (Ulbert 2003: 7). And thirdly, it can be very difficult to alter these structures once they have become well-imbedded. Only if identities and practices of the key actors are fundamentally changed, it is possible that the regime itself will be modified (Hopf 1998: 180).

Hence, it is unreasonable to think of anarchy merely as a self help system, as claimed by the realists. Since anarchy is determined by practices, it must have different meanings depending on “what states make of it” (Wendt 1992: 395). Self-help is a structural behaviour that from a system where there is no mutual trust and where everyone sees “the other” as an enemy due to a lack of understanding. If actors, however, begin to develop a collective identity, security practices will become much more altruistic in nature (Zehfuss 2002: 40).

2.3 Conditions for cooperation and conflict

We live in an insecure world. As the 9/11 attacks have shown, one single, unforeseen event can change the course of our lives forever. And where today’s leaders might be tomorrow’s losers, where policies and practices are constantly changing, where the problems of one country are problems for all of us, each and every state is reliant at all times on the recognition from the international community and the collaboration with other countries.

According to Katzenstein, “conflict and cooperation . . . emerge from a neverending process of redefining social and political identities that generate consensually shared and contextually appropriate norms that provide standards for action.” (1990: 17) Similar to a person’s identity, which is dependent on both the sense of community and belonging with certain identity groups and the (negative) demarcation from significant others, state identities are also construed in negotiation with others: “positive identification with other states will lead to perceiving security threats not as a private matter for each state but as a responsibility of all. If the collective self is well developed between a group of states, security practices will be to some degree altruistic or prosocial” (Zehfuss 2002: 40). Negative identification, on the other hand, will create a tension between two or more states that may range from a mere sensation of threat to a real danger which must be combated.


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America and the World after 9/11: A Constructivist Analysis of the Decision to Go to War in Iraq
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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9/11, America, Terrorism, Constructivism, Analysis, Iraq, War, Bush, Irakkrieg
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Ann-Kathrin Latter (Author), 2015, America and the World after 9/11: A Constructivist Analysis of the Decision to Go to War in Iraq, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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