The International System. To what extent is anarchy a constant or a variable?

How the structure of the international realm can change from a constructivist and neorealist perspective.

Essay, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: 1st



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Framework
2.1 Definition: Anarchy
2.2 Structure of the international realm in Constructivism
2.2.1 Basics of Constructivism
2.2.2 Alexander Wendt’s Constructivism
2.3 Structure of the international realm in Neo-Realism
2.3.1 Basics of (Neo-)Realism
2.3.2 Kenneth Waltz’s Realism

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Formal multilateral institutions continue to muddle along, holding their meetings and issuing their reports and taking some minor stabs at improving transnational problems at the margins. […] Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is comatose, NATO struggles to find its strategic purpose, and the International Energy Agency courts obsolescence by omitting China and India as members” (Stewart M. Patrick, 2014).

Stewart Patrick, the author of this statement, is an American political scientist and wrote in 2014 about the international system, cooperation and global governance. He says that despite the development of many international institutions and the rise of global acting non-governmental organizations and companies, the structure of international politics remain hierarchic. This observation leads to one of the most important questions in contemporary international debates (Slaughter, 2016) if anarchy is an unchangeable constant. This essay will show how the constructivist theory of Alexander Wendt and the neo-realist theory of Kenneth Waltz approach this questions and to which conclusions they come.

We can observe that the question about how the international realm is structured and about how anarchy works receives growing important with recent events. While showing the theoretical approaches of the two named IR schools, it is important to keep in mind that this topic is very close and mutually connected to latest political developments as the Brexit or the new US-President who attempt to renew the international order (Ignatius, 2016).

At first, this essay will embed the theories in a historical background and their origins. Constructivism is not only a theory in international relations. It’s a big school of thought with a huge number of subcategories and different manifestations. Especially the end of the cold war and the fact that the scholars in IR who were following the big theories like realism or idealism failed to predict this end, opened the door for the development of a new theory in IR (Fierke, 2013, p. 188). Alexander Wendt applied the theory of a socially constructed world to the subject of international relations. In section 2.2.1 I will outline the main ideas of constructivist thinking. The following part 2.2.2 shows how Alexander Wendt thinks the international realm is constructed.

The main interest of a state, to seek survival, don’t change from a realist to a neo-realist point of view. For realists, the condition of flawed man in the status of human nature explains why cooperation is never guaranteed and states must increase their power consequently. In contrast to that human nature don’t play a role in the neo-realist theory, “for (neo)realists, international anarchy describes the social relations among sovereign nation-states that causally explain why wars occur. (Weber, 2007, p. 16). The foundations of realist thinking are portrayed in chapter 2.3.1. Kenneth Waltz developed the structural approach of neo-realist thinking. This essay highlights his assumptions in section 2.3.2 with a focus on the anarchic structure of the international system.

2. Theoretical Framework

In this theoretical framework, I will show how the constructivist and neo-realist school approaches anarchy. First, this essay is going to look at how the different schools describe the general architecture of anarchy and the international realm. In a second step this paper will point out, regarding to the research question, to what extent anarchy a constant or a variable is. To answer this question out of the perspective of the two theories, it is important to briefly clarify what anarchy is.

2.1 Definition: Anarchy

The term anarchy finds its origin in the Latin word anarchia “meaning ‘without a leader’ and understood more commonly as the condition of being ‘without a ruler’ ” (Kazmi, 2012, p. 20). The Oxford dictionary provides a general and simple definition: “A state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems. Absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal” (Oxford Dictionary, 2016). Referring this definition to the structure of international system we are not able to identify an authority or sovereign above the national state. “No single state or coalition of states has absolute control over the entire system. There is no central government, and the peculiar character of the units operating within the international system is that they are sovereign and autonomous states” (Griffiths, Roach and O'Callaghan, 2014, p. 7). Ensuing from this definition the only way to abandon anarchy out of the international realm would be any kind of a sovereign and autonomous world-government.

2.2 Structure of the international realm in Constructivism

In the following part I will briefly examine the crucial basics of constructivist thinking. As described before this essay will then focus on the thoughts of Alexander Wendt. Wendt published his main work “Social Theory of International Politics” first in 1999. This book represents one of the highly noticed and most important contributions in International Relations in recent years (Dumitrescu, 2011). Due to the nature of this essay I will put the focus on Wendt’s writings concerning the structure and (inter)actions in the international realm.

2.2.1 Basics of Constructivism

In the 1990s, realism, especially the structural neo-realism by Kenneth Waltz, was attacked by the paradigm of constructivism. The main critique, not only on the neo-realist approach, was that the theories in International Relations are missing the important factor of the “intersubjective shared ideas that shape behaviour by constituting the identities and interests of actors” (Copeland, 2006, p. 1).

Constructivism criticizes especially the rationalist way of thinking which plays an important role in many theories in the subject of International Relations (Slaughter, 2011, p. 4) and offers a fundamentally new thinking about state behaviour decision making processes. The underlying concept of constructivism is that everything that doesn’t exist in nature has a particular meaning and use within a context. This meanings are socially constructed and shaped by the peoples social values and norms (Fierke, 2013, pp. 188–189). Therefore, constructivists do not believe in a universal single objective reality. This is mainly the reason why change can be explained more easily. The construction of many different realities by individual actors causes a system which is likely to develop many different opportunities of how to solve problems or create a working international system (Fierke, 2013, p. 189). One of the most important components of constructivism are interests and identities. The interests of actors arise out of their identities. And identities are built of a wide range of different factors like culture, religion, science, normative beliefs and the material setting of the actor (Grieco, Ikenberry and Mastanduno, 2015, p. 93). The meaning that a particular move or action has on another actor is constructed of many different terms like history and norms. An often-used example is the meaning of having a nuclear arsenal. The existence of nuclear weapons in the “United Kingdom and China, though comparably destructive, have very different meanings to the United States that translate into very different patterns of interaction” (Slaughter, 2011, p. 4).

The most important actors in a state and in a society are elite individuals. “Through communication and networking, elites tend to produce collective or shared world views that shape how interests are defined and pursued” (Grieco, Ikenberry and Mastanduno, 2015, p. 93).

Elite individuals are, as well as international non-government organizations or companies able to influence state-behaviour. Conventional techniques for this kind of influencing are exempli gratia language & rhetoric, persuasion, lobbying (Slaughter, 2011, p. 5). Elite individuals are for example famous politicians or very popular actors and intellectuals.

2.2.2 Alexander Wendt’s Constructivism

Alexander Wendt offers in his book “Social Theory of International Politics” foundational thinking for the constructivist approach to international relations and argued finally “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992).

He starts with a philosophical conceptual analysis of what the basic term “social construction” means to him and how he will make use of it. Wendt defends a structurationist and symbolic interactionist sociology (Wendt, 2010, p. 1). The underlying argumentation behind Wendt’s statement will in the following illustrate how the structure of the international realm is constituted out of his constructivism point of view.

At first, identities and interests are predetermined by domestic politics as well as by the international system. It is important to notice that the determination by domestic politics is far more influencing than the interference with the international system. State identities and interests can be described as partly exogenous to the international system (Wendt, 2010, p. 246).

This assumption suggests that every nation-state develops their own interests and identities which arises out of the interaction of individual actors within the nation-states. Due to the possible differences of states identities and interests Alexander Wendt says that “anarchy can have at least three kinds of structure at the macro-level, based on what kind of roles – enemy, rival, friend – dominate the system (Wendt, 2010, p. 247). Following this definition, we can firstly transfer the “enemy” to a competitive system where cooperation is unlikely and states are in a competition to each other. Even if the path to this outcome is different, this system is like the neo-realistic point of view. Secondly, “rival” lead to an individualistic form of anarchy where collective actions are more likely but states are still self-regarding about their security and thirdly, “friends” indicates the possibility of a cooperative system in which states identify positively with one another (Wendt, 1992, p. 400). Which of the described systems is more likely to develop “is due to process, not structure” (Wendt, 1992, p. 394).

The fundamental principle of this construction process is that “people act towards objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them. […] It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions” (Wendt, 1992, pp. 396–397). Consequential, collective meanings shape the international structure and, as I exposed earlier, the international structure shapes in some degree collective meanings.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The International System. To what extent is anarchy a constant or a variable?
How the structure of the international realm can change from a constructivist and neorealist perspective.
The University of Liverpool
Theories of International Relations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
513 KB
Constructivism, Realism, Neo-Realism, Kenneth Waltz, Alexander Wendt, International Relations, Internationale Beziehungen, Konstruktivismus, Neo-Realismus, Realismus, Politikwissenschaft, Theories, Political Science
Quote paper
Jan Jensen (Author), 2016, The International System. To what extent is anarchy a constant or a variable?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The International System. To what extent is anarchy a constant or a variable?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free