The structure in international politics. A review of Alexander Wendt's "Anarchy is what states make of it"

Term Paper, 2017

15 Pages, Grade: B


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. ‘Anarchy’ and Self-help Systems

3. Reviewing Alexander Wendt’s ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’

4. Criticism on Alexander Wendt and Constructivism.

5. The Changing Role of Actors: NGOs in International Politics

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

In describing the international system of politics, the traditional approaches have assumed that the structure is anarchical among states and that it is fixed and ‘exogenously given’ (Wendt, 2011: 392). Realists, especially neo-realists or structural realists have talked about anarchy in explaining the uncertainty over security and conflict within the system. Liberals accept that competitions exist among states and that the system is and will always be ‘decentralized’ but also quite agree with neo-realists that the competitive politics are inevitable due to anarchy. The rise of constructivism in the 1980s, however, has brought up anarchy in discussion again and has responded to the dominant ideas regarding anarchy but more specifically, neo-realists and neo-liberals. In Alexander Wendt’s article in 1999 ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’, he particularly focuses on the structures and systems in making his arguments, which he has also illustrated constructivism’s stance on the idea of anarchy in International Politics and the importance of understanding interaction towards achieving the possibility of positive transformation and cooperation, similar to the neoliberals’ view.

Wendt has criticised both neo-realists and neo-liberals in his article but has borrowed some of their arguments in explaining constructivism, as well as criticising against them. Nevertheless, it seems that he wishes to assert the two theories and join forces with them, especially neo-liberals rather than to attack them. This essay will review Wendt’s ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’ by outlining and analysing some of his main arguments including the construction of anarchy, applying social theories to the world of politics, the importance of identities and interests in international relations. The essay will first start by discussing the ideas of anarchy where anarchy has been defined by various theories and scholars, before examining the points in Wendt’s article and looking at some criticisms on the constructivists’ view on anarchy and finally, it will explore one of the points made from Wendt’s arguments, which is the role of actors in interaction or interacting which could arguably make some changes in the systems of politics.

2. ‘Anarchy’ and Self-help Systems

The term anarchy has been associated with ‘sovereignty’, ‘security’, ‘power’ and ‘war’ and closely linked with the realist explanation about the international system, that the individual states are in a ‘permanent state of insecurity’ (Griffiths & O’Callaghan, 2002: 2-3). In general, anarchy simply means the absence of authority or a lack of order or stability. Milner has elaborated this definition to the usage of anarchy in international relations, which has been taken to be the central background condition of international politics for some authors like Kenneth Waltz, Robert Keohane, Robert Axelrod and John Ruggie (Milner, 1991: 69).

Most of them talk about the consequences of the anarchical system, the absence of government but see them differently. For Waltz, anarchy deals with ‘means to organize how and when force can be employed’. Martin Wight views the form of system as ‘a multiplicity of powers without a government’. Milner also mentions the view of the authors of ‘Cooperation Under Anarchy’, in which anarchy means ‘the absence of a central authority to enforce states’ adherence to promises or agreements’ (Milner, 1991: 71). Milner seems to agree that within the international system, anarchy means that ‘power without legitimate authority dominates’ (Milner, 1991: 74) and which does seem to ring chaos and disorder.

The chaos and disorder can be easily accepted as something inherently consistent in the system if we were to follow Morgenthau’s idea that ‘all politics is a struggle for power’ (Griffiths, Roach and Solomon, 1999: 51). For him, negotiations of peace and the implementations of policies are made for maintaining balance of power. Waltz also believes that the anarchical system is constant and that this structure ‘constrains the degree to which a division of labour can take place between states’ (Griffiths, Roach and Solomon, 1999: 60). Furthermore, states have different capabilities which explains the small number of great powers that dominate the system. Both appear to be pessimistic in their views regarding the distribution of power.

On the other hand, neoliberals like Keohane feels that power and self-interest are important and despite the absence of a formal, legal hierarchy of authority at the international level, regimes and ‘institutions’ help states to overcome problems of collective action (Griffiths, Roach and Solomon, 1999: 110).

In both perspectives, the key assumption is that states are forced to rely on self-help. It has been highly suggested that self-help system increases the competing tendencies among states, making conflict and war to be inevitable features of the international system. Thus, conflict is only constrained by a balance of power (Heywood, 2011: 8) although liberals are on the more optimistic side on the outcomes of this. The ongoing conflicts for instance, the conflicts in the Middle East, or the tensions between the US and North Korea seem to show how important this understanding has provided us.

The number of organisations and non-state actors, however, has been growing which would support of liberals’ contentions. Constructivism, developed in the late 1980s, became more widespread and influential since the mid-1990s, seems to agree with the liberals. The theory is based on some older social scientific and philosophical ideas that ‘dispute the notion that the social world is external to the people that live in it’ and therefore is not easily changed (Baylis, Smith, & Owens, 2013: 6) which is different from liberals and in this respect, the realists as well. Constructivists focus on the idea of interaction and its significance in producing certain states’ behaviour and actions within the system. Alexander Wendt, a constructivist, argues that the self-help system that both neo-realists and neo-liberals consider to be fixed and exogenous, is socially constructed and this is how positive change could occur, unlike the liberals’ idea of cooperation under the balance of power within the anarchic system. The following is a review of Wendt’s essay ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’ where some of his main arguments will be explained more in regards to anarchy and the significance of identities and interests in his arguments.

3. Reviewing Alexander Wendt’s ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’

In ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’, Wendt brings up the debate between neorealists and neoliberals. Liberals claim that cooperative behaviour would still be possible under the anarchic system. Both, however, similarly believe that the anarchic structure of International Politics is fixed and ‘exogenously given’ (Wendt, 1999: 392). It is this claim that Wendt has argued against throughout his article.

According to Wendt, constructivists have an ‘intersubjective conception of process in which identities and interests are endogenous to interaction, rather than a rationalist-behavioral one in which they are exogenous’ which would refer to both neo-realists and neo-liberals. He believes that identities and interests are the dependent variables. The self-help system is due to ‘process, not structure’. Emphasising on processes and building his argument this way result to his famous statement: ‘Anarchy is what states make of it’ (Wendt, 1999: 394). This part will be then discussing the importance of understanding identities in world of politics, how cooperation is possible and the constructivist view on uncertainty and insecurity within the self-help system.

Identities are important in constructivism, because they are part of the interaction that are produced and shape the structure at the same time. Realists rarely distinguish whether certain states are friends or not as they mainly believe they are mostly self-interested. As mentioned earlier, Waltz has distinguished states as being more capable than others. Wendt argues that this does not reveal much about state behaviour, for example, it does not predict whether two states would be friends or enemies or even recognize each other’s sovereignty and so on (Wendt, 1999: 396).

In asking, ‘What keeps the US from conquering the Bahamas or Nigeria from seizing Togo, or Australia from occupying Vanuatu?’ Wendt thinks that the state is not interested in exploiting the friends, not because of the ‘relative costs and benefits of such action’. On the other hand, the absence of recognition helps to explain the Western states’ practices of territorial conquest, enslavement and genocide against Native Americans and African peoples. (Wendt, 1999: 415)

This is where constructivists could explain how the process of interaction should be noted: ‘people act toward objects, including other actors’ and this is done ‘on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.’ (Wendt, 1999: 396-397) In this view, it weakens the idea that all states are selfish and competitive by nature and that the anarchical structure is exogenously given as constructivism brings more dynamics of the system, apart from the explanation of the distribution of power. For example, British missiles have a different significance for the US than do Soviet missiles. It is through experiencing and obtaining collective meaning that helps actors to find their identities – ‘relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations self’. (Wendt, 1999: 397)

Despite that the setting is within the world of politics, for Wendt, when we talk about identity, we will always talk about the socially constructed world. (Wendt, 1999: 397-98) In this way, the identity of an actor is not only formed through one perception but also by others. Thus, a state may have multiple identities, such as “sovereign” or “imperial power” etc. Wendt believes this would ‘constitute the structure of the social world’. In other words, the structure and actors are intertwined in this socially defined identities and collective meanings. (Wendt, 1999: 398)


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The structure in international politics. A review of Alexander Wendt's "Anarchy is what states make of it"
International Relations Theory
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Alexander Wendt, Anarchy is what States Make of it, anarchy, social theories, international relations
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Thyl Rea (Author), 2017, The structure in international politics. A review of Alexander Wendt's "Anarchy is what states make of it", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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