Monday, 29 May 2017

Fours streams and IR theories

The program specification document explains that the vision of the Bachelor of Arts (PNG Studies and International Relations) program is to create global citizens who think creatively about the challenges facing PNG in the 21st century.


To be a global citizen, one has to know what is happening around the globe. Not only does one need to know but one has to be equipped with a systemic way to analyze what is happening. This is where international relations as a field of study fits into the program.

International relations as outlined in the program specification document is one of the major streams in the program. The other streams are politics, culture studies and community development. All four streams form a lethal cocktail and are studied together.

The curriculum is organized this way because the four streams complement each other. As a global citizen, one needs to firstly understand their own culture. Culture forms the basis of understanding politics and our community.

From a political science point of view, international relations is a subfield. Other subfields are comparative politics, political theory, political economy and area studies. This means that students must understand the theories that define politics among human beings before they can fully understand the theories that define politics among nation-states.

Understanding the domestic political system and the theories that define it will help us to understand international relations. That is why the introductory unit in politics is studied before the introductory unit to international relations.

For example, in the international relations theory of commercial liberalism, the government has to adhere to the principles of GATT. These principles come into conflict with protectionist politicians who are pushing the rice policy agenda. The protectionists would like to establish a quota system to help develop the domestic rice industry. This move had prompted Australia to send a stern warning to the PNG government on behalf of Trukai Rice.  

The monopoly enjoyed by foreign companies in the rice industry pose a challenge to the development of the domestic rice industry and the potential rice farmers. Domestic policies like the rice policy will definitely have international impact on foreign multinational companies like Trukai Rice and governments of nations like Australia.

The root political theory is liberalism. The Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines the theory as the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximize freedom of choice.

Many Papua New Guineans today have a shallow understanding of politics. We think politics is about service delivery, representation or elections. Others think politics is a means to acquiring a huge amount of money. 

You will rarely hear someone explaining the theory of democracy or communism in detail during their campaign. Also it is rare to listen to someone outlining whether their policies swing towards the right or left of the political spectrum.

Political parties do not use political theories to appeal to voters. Whichever political theory that forms the basis of the party is reflected in whatever policy the party puts forward. If a party has a more liberal view and is formed by individuals sharing the same political view then its policies will be more liberal.

Citizens become a member or vote for a party based on the type of leader they have and his or her popularity. Apart from personality politics, ethnic politics is also being advocated by many on social media.

The ‘KK for PM’ campaign by Simbus is an example. Simbu supporters of Kerenga Kua, the sitting member for Sinasina Yongomugl and leader of National Party are urging all Simbus to vote for candidates contesting under the Party banner. A vote for the party will result in the party having enough members to form the next government so their leader can become the PM.

Furthermore, we do not know who came up with the idea of separating power between the judiciary, legislature and the executive arm of government. Also we have not asked the philosophical question of why we need a government in the first place.

The works of political philosophers are fundamental to our study of politics. The concept of anarchy in international relations cannot be understood with out reference to the works of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. His book explains why we need a government or a central form of authority to regulate the behaviour of citizens and provide public goods.

All theories of international relations note the fact that the international system is anarchic in nature. There is no dominant state controlling all the other states. All states are sovereign and are equal in strength.

In the English School Theory, Hedley Bull acknowledges the absence of an overarching sovereign in his explanation of order and the international society of states. Andrew Linklater also mentions anarchy in his description of the theory.

The knowledge of international relations theories provides a systemic platform for analyzing the behaviour of states and non-state actors in the international system.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Importance of IR theories and Vision 2050

Pillar 4 of Vision 2050 makes two very important statements about international relations. We can use to help us argue why it is vital for us to learn about the various international relations theories.

Firstly, there is a need to ensure that PNG’s foreign policy reflects the national interest. Secondly, there is a need to increase bilateral relations with the rest of the world and relevant international organizations.


Foreign policy is defined by Goldstein (2005) as strategies used by governments to guide their actions in the international arena. He stated that foreign policies spell out the objectives states leaders have decided to pursue in a given relationship or situation as well as the general means by which they intend to pursue those objectives. Day-to- day decisions made by various arms of government are guided by the goal of implementing foreign policy.

The analogy of human beings and our personal interest helps us to understand that states behave like humans. All states have an interest which is called a national interest or the interest of all its citizens. Considered as a driving force, the idea of national interest pushes the government to cooperate with other states and non-state actors in order to survive.

One can argue that PNG can meet its national interest of social, economic and cultural development by effectively funding and supporting its government departments and agencies. However, the Department of Health and the National Aids Council in their fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic do not have the financial capacity. The involvement of the Clinton Foundation and other non-governmental organizations will complement the work of our government agencies.

As a significant bilateral partner, Australia helps PNG to develop socially and economically through avenues like monetary and educational aid. They give monetary aid every year which is injected into the PNG government’s budget and select PNG nationals to attend Australian universities every year to broaden their educational experience.

The interaction between a particular state with other states and non-state actors is largely influenced by national interest and happens within the boundary of the international system.

The international system is an organized political and economic structure created by the West, where you have states interacting with other states, non-state actors, inter-governmental organizations and international financial institutions.

This system evolved over time after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. We started off with states as the major players in the international system and later saw the birth of non-state actors who with their financial and military capabilities became very influential just like states.

As students of international relations it is vital that we develop a sound understanding of the various theories. The various theories based on either the behaviouralist, positivist, normative or rationalist approach provides the framework for analyzing and understanding the behaviour of states and non-state actors in the international system.

For example, to understand the involvement of the Clinton Foundation we can use the theory of neoliberal institutionalism. International institutions whether NGOs, intergovernmental organizations like the UN and multinational corporations play an important role in international governance.

As expressed by Navari (2008), Robert Keohane and Robert Axelrod point to the ability of institutions such as the UN to redefine state roles and act as arbitrators in state disputes. Although institutions cannot transform anarchy, they can change the character of the international environment by influencing state preferences and state behaviour.

Neoliberal institutionalism is also known as regulatory or institutional liberalism and operates at the level of the international political structure according Griffiths, O’Callaghan and Roach (2008, p. 190). The scholars say at this level collective interest is of uttermost importance in comparison to realists who consider national interest. Through collective interest a system of governance can be put in place with international laws to govern the behaviour of states and international institutions to provide international public goods and moderate the security dilemma among states.

As a Papua New Guinean, the knowledge of theories will help you in formulating better foreign policies. In other words, a strong theoretical grounding will provide the basis for critical analysis of international relations leading to the fulfillment of the Vision 2050.

Therefore as you go through the program, we will continue to use the various theories and concepts to help us develop a basic understanding of international relations. At this level of education, it is important for you to read as much as you can in order to develop your understanding of the various theories. What I share with you is my understanding of the various literature I have consulted.   



Goldstein, J. (2005). International relations (6th ed.). Beijing: Peking University Press.

Griffiths, M., O’Callaghan, T., & Roach, S. C. (2008). International relations the key concepts (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Navari, C. (2008). Liberalisms. In Williams, P. D. (Ed.), Security studies: an introduction (pp. 32-47). London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

The Goldstein view: state and non-state actors

The state and non-state actors are common elements when comparing various definitions of foreign policy. That means our discussion about foreign policy will be meaningless without these two actors.

“A state is a territorial entity controlled by a government and inhabited by a population. A state government answers to no higher authority; it exercises sovereignty over its territory – to make and enforce laws, to collect taxes, and so forth.”  (Goldstein, 2005: p. 10),

To Goldstein (ibid.) states are the most important actors in international relations. His view is supported by his statement that “a state government answers to no higher authority” and also his use of the word sovereignty.

His statement relates to the realist notion that ‘states are unitary actors’. Unitary in this context means the state is made up of different units and is bestowed with authority to act in the interest of the various units. Units compose of the population as the civil society and institutions created to aid in the function of society.

Goldstein sees sovereignty as a very important traditional norm. It gives a government the right, in principle, to do what it wants in its own territory. Because of anarchy states are autonomous and answer to no higher authority. Therefore, no other state has the right to interfere into the affairs of another sovereign state because in principle all states are equal in status and power

In addition, Goldstein argues that national governments may be the most important actor in international relations, but they are strongly conditioned, constrained, and influenced by a variety of actors that are not states.

The diagram below outlines Goldstein’s classification of non-state actors. Non-state actors are considered as a common element when one compares and contrast various definitions of foreign policy. The main reason is because they influence the state’s foreign policy.


Domestically, substate actors are groups with interest who try to influence foreign policy. Goldstein said the American automobile industry and tobacco industry have distinct interest in American foreign economic policy to sell cars or cigarettes abroad and to reduce imports of competing products made abroad. They do so through political action committees and lobbying.

“The actions of substate economic actors – companies, consumers, workers, investors – help to create the context of economic activity against which international political events play out, and within which governments must operate. Day in and day out, people extract natural resources and consume goods, buy and sell products and services. These activities of substate actors take place in what is now clearly a world economy – global exchange of goods and services woven together by a worldwide network of communication and culture.” (Goldstein, 2005: p. 12)

Transnational actors are actors who operate across borders. Goldstein said businesses that buy, sell, or invest in a variety of countries are good examples.

According to Goldstein, the decision of a company to do business with or in another state changes the relationship between the two states, making them more interdependent and creating a new context for the decisions the governments make about each other.

 “The thousands of multinational corporations (MNCs) are important transnational actors. The interests of a large company doing business globally do not correspond with any one state’s interests. Such a company many sometimes even act against its home government’s policies. MNCs often control greater resources, and operate internationally with greater efficiency, than many small states.”  (Goldstein, 2005: p.13)

Nongovernmental organizations are also classed as transnational actors. “Thousands of them pull and tug at international relations every day. These private organizations, some of considerable size and resources, interact with states, MNCs, and other NGOs. Increasingly NGO’s are being recognized, in the UN and other forums, as legitimate actors along with states, though not equal to them. Examples of NGO’s include the Catholic Church, Green Peace, and the International Olympics Committee.” (Goldstein, 2005: p. 13)

Goldstein (ibid.) claimed that “international terrorist might not call themselves NGOs, but they operate in the same manner - interacting both with states and directly with relevant population and institutions.” The attack on the world trade center in New York demonstrated the increasing power that technology gives to terrorist groups as non-state actors.

The last transnational actor is intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Goldstein (ibid.) claimed that “states often take actions through, within, or in the context of intergovernmental organizations – organizations whose members are national governments. The UN and its agencies are IGOs. So are most of the world’s economic coordinating institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). IGOs fulfill a variety of functions, and they vary in size from just a few states to virtually the whole UN membership.”

Goldstein’s explanation of state and non-state actors were used to explain why both actors are considered as common elements when trying to understand foreign policy. That does not mean that we should not consult other sources or scholars to see what they have to say about state and non-state actors. As seekers of knowledge, by all means, please read widely in order to test the merit of what has been presented to you.


Goldstein, J. (2005). International relations (6th ed.). Beijing: Peking University Press.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Defining English School theory

The emergence and the evolution of the theory is outlined in detail in the different eBooks in the reading folders on the IR202 Theories of International Relations and the IR431 International and Regional Security Moodle webpages.

In the folders, there are two eBooks on international relations describing the various theories. A third one is on the key concepts in international relations. Another book is on the key thinkers of international relations. The key thinkers book is important to help you understand the champions in the various theories.

One particular champion is Hedley Bull. As an English School Theorist, Bull’s ideas provides pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to help us understand his theoretical premises. Especially, the concepts of ‘order’ and ‘international society’.

Griffiths, Roach and Solomon (2009: p. 213) state that in his book ‘The Anarchical Society’ (1977), Bull describes ‘order’ as a pattern of activity that sustains some elementary social goals in society, such as maintaining security for its members against arbitrary violence, ensuring agreements are kept and protecting property rights.         

These goals are the defining characteristics of the ‘international society’ of states. As members of the international society, states understand that they need to have common rules and institutions in place to address these goals and sanction states including their agents who breach these goals despite the absence of an overarching sovereign.

Bull said, as cited by Griffiths, Roach and Solomon (ibid.), institutions does not only refer to international organizations but also the set of habits and practices shaped towards the realization of the common goals. These are; balance of power, international law, diplomacy, war (under certain circumstances) and the managerial functions employed by the great powers.

In comparison, Linklater (2005) states that the foundational claim of the theory is that sovereign states have formed a society of equals which is anarchic because there is no higher authority to whom they submit to. Regardless, theorists argue that there is a high level of order and low level of violence among states.

Lawson (2012) cited Bull and Watson (1984) in her explanation of the English School Theory. She said; “an international society is a group of states which establish by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements” (p. 48).

Furthermore, Griffiths, O’Callaghan and Roach (2009: p. 95) defines the theory as “a school of thought that focuses on the moral, political, and social properties and rules of the international system, and that shows how these properties and rules both constitute and constraints state interest and action”. The theory represents a synthesis of moral and rationalist approaches.

However, Bellamy (2007) outlines an interesting aspect of the theory which challenges our discussion so far. He argues that we think the theory has a single view or focus but in fact there are many theories and accounts of international relations embedded within the school.

Bellamy (ibid.) goes on to outline the three traditions of world politics, labeled by Wright (1991) as realism, rationalism and revolutionism. Bull (1977), on the other hand, labeled them as Hobbesian, Grotian and Kantian.

“Whilst Grotianism refers to the rational constraints of domestic law on the state and international society (rationalism), Hobbesianism represents the anarchical character of the international system: more particularly, the warlike conception of the interstate society rooted in the distrust and heated competition between and among states. Kantianism, in contrast, represents the moralistic and universal strand of English School thinking, in which international solidarity is characterised by the duty to act in accordance with international principles of accountability and equal respect.” (Griffiths, O’Callaghan & Roach, 2009: pp. 95-96)

In addition, Lawson (2012) said ideas about international society developed in two distinct and competing strands as explained by Bull (2000). Pluralism focused on the role of cultural differences in politics while solidarism focused on the unity of humanity over cultural and other differences.

For the pluralist; “the cultural factor means that states may be capable of reaching agreement on only a limited number of issues. The most important among these are recognition of each other’s sovereignty and the norm of non-intervention in each other’s affairs. These norms are to be maintain even if one state believes that another state is behaving unjustly in its internal affairs. If states abide by the norms and rules that support reciprocal recognition of sovereignty and no-intervention in the international sphere, regardless of differing approached to norms and values within the boundaries of a state, then all will be well in terms of international order.” (Lawson, 2012: pp. 48-49)

According to Lawson (ibid.) the solidary of states in the international system in the enforcement of law makes it possible for the development of a collective will among states. This enables them to engage in purposive action when needed. If a state behaves badly, the solidarism position argues that states should come together collectively to enforce the accepted standard of behaviour.


Bellamy, A. J. (2007). The English School. In M. Griffiths (Ed.), International relations theory for the twenty-first century (pp. 75-87). New York: Routledge.

Griffiths, M., O’Callaghan, T., & Roach, S. C. (2008). International relations the key concepts (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Griffiths, M., Roach, S. C., & Solomon, M. S. (2009). Fifty key thinkers in international relations (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lawson, S. (2012). International relations (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Linklater, A. (2005). The English School. In S. Burchill et al, Theories of international relations (3rd ed.) (pp. 84-109). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Challenges of economic security

According to the Human Development Report (HDR) of 1994 (p. 25) economic security requires an assured basic income usually from productive and remunerative work, or some publicly financed safety net.

Furthermore, Lawson (2012) says economic security is the freedom from poverty. Poverty is the condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support.  Moreover, Investopedia defines poverty as the state in which a person or community lacks the financial resources and essentials to enjoy a minimum standard of life and well being that is considered acceptable in society.  

To understand economic security we need to go back to the Hobbesian features. The features like ‘equality of need’ and ‘scarcity’ in this case can be used to help us understand the issue of economic security.

As human beings we need shelter, clothing, water and food but most importantly to have access to these basic needs we need money. Having a basic form of income from either productive or remunerative work, or some public financed safety net gives us access to money which can be used to meet our basic needs.

When we look at shelter, whether you rent or own a house, you have to consider the cost of utilities like electricity, water, gas and television. Also, food for the three meals per day is another economic challenge. Running a house incurs a lot of expenses that is why it is important to have either one or two income earners in order to provide for our basic needs.

You all come from a family, and your family lives in a house you consider as a family home. Your parents had to find some from of income in order to feed you and clothe you. In addition, they worked hard to pay your school fees in order for you to progress from the different levels of education to the tertiary level.

You are privileged when you compare yourself to Dorothy from 5 mile settlement in Port Moresby or Benny from Lopre village in Enga Province.  According to the video by United Nations, these individuals face very difficult challenges in the urban and rural settings respectively.

Dorothy’s story is very sad. She depends on the small market table, in the informal sector, to feed her children because her husband has another wife. She has no form of formal education to help her find formal employment with a steady income to take care of her children.

The HDR (1994: p. 25) said that the most insecure working conditions are usually in the informal sector. It is true that the informal sector has the highest proportion of total employment. The data given for Latin America and Africa to show this fact could be the same for PNG.

As a Divine Word University student, you see many people like Dorothy every time you go out the front gate or the back gate of the University. You have settlers from Gav Stoa and from Banana Block selling various items in order to generate income to sustain themselves or meet their needs. People living in Admin compound have the Traffic market and Madang Bakery. Banana settlers, apart from the back gate market area, they also have the space in front of the shops at Treeline.

The Report also highlight another issue related to employment in the developed world. Jobs are difficult to find and keep, this causes many to feel insecure. The Report goes on to give some very interesting statistics to show this issue.

This issue is not isolated to only the rich countries, it is evident every where. In PNG, we have people who are employed but are concerned about their future because of various factors. One factor based on observation is cronyism, since PNG is rank 158 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index (PNG Vision 2050, 2009: p.9).

Unfortunately, we do not have accurate data to show the unemployment rate of different towns and cities around PNG. This will help us to see which province is growing economically. Also, such data will help us look for possible solutions.

What is the current unemployment rate in PNG? A search on Google shows some websites with different projections. The accuracy of these data is questionable. The CIA World Fact Book gives the estimated unemployment rate for 2008 as the latest. 

The Report talks about government support in the form of publicly financed safety net. For example, the Australian government has the benefits and payments system administered by the Department of Human Services. Centerlink delivers a range of payments and services for people at times of major change which includes jobseekers.

For PNG, the burden is on the extended family. The family provides that safety net by housing and financing jobseekers. There is no government system in place to provide benefits and payments to those who lost their jobs and are looking for employment.


Lawson, S. (2012). International relations (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Government of Papua New Guinea. (2009). Papua New Guinea Vision 2050. Port Moresby, PNG: Government of Papua New Guinea.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Security: a constructivist point of view

“Constructivism derives its name from the fundamental proposition that political actors construct international political relationships out of their own ideas. Relations between certain countries – and international relations in general – are the way that they are because that is how states and people believe them to be. Ideas matter more than material considerations in the conduct of international relations. These ideas can be of oneself, of a particular “Other,” or of the international state system in general. In the words of leading Constructivist scholar Alexander Wendt, “anarchy is what states make of it.”


“Constructivism can work on two levels. First is the individual, internal state level. Most constructivism looks at the internal characteristics of individual states and societies to determine their interests and likely behavior. All constructivists agree that state interests are problematic – that is, they cannot be taken for granted as in Realism. Constructivism does not say that a state’s interests cannot be the material interests emphasized by Realism – only that they do not have to be. A state’s interests may be derived from some unique set of cultural or other values. There is some overlap between Constructivism and Liberal theories of democratic peace, but Constructivism is the main home for theories that emphasize cultural and other idea-based differences between countries. At this first level of Constructivism, ideas and interests are generated within each state and society.”


“A brief discussion of rationality is important to any primer on Constructivism. Rationality is a relative phenomenon in Constructivism. What may seem irrational to Americans may be completely rational to Iranians and vice-versa. It all depends on how states and societies define their ends and apply means to achieve those ends. If culture is the basis of means and ends, then we can expect to see very different ideas of “rationality” around the world. Moreover, there are two kinds of rationality. The rationality to which people most often refer is instrumental rationality. Instrumental rationality emphasizes the logical matching of means and ends and usually assumes material interests ranging from self-preservation to material profit. Such a conception of rationality underpins deterrence theory as well as many other mainstream views on international relations. But the famous German sociologist Max Weber argued for the existence of another kind of rational behavior called “value-rational” behavior. Value-rational behavior is based on values, norms, and ideas. Value-rational behavior may compromise personal material and physical well-being in pursuit of a higher purpose. For example, a protester might march to his own bloody injury or even death at the hands of riot police, yet this can be construed as value-rational insofar as it serves the actor’s interest in dignity or freedom for his people. Viewing affairs from a strictly instrumentally-rational standpoint, such action would simply appear irrational. Value-rationality and instrumental rationality are not mutually exclusive. Value-rational action by an individual could prove instrumentally rational to a group, such as if bloody protests serve as a successful means to overthrow a repressive government. The distinction between the two types of rationality can get a little fuzzy under certain circumstances. In short, though, it is worth keeping in mind different conceptions of rationality when making judgments as to the “rationality” of states, societies, and world leaders.”

Interaction and the Creation of Shared Understanding

“A second level on which Constructivism works is the structural or systemic level (like Neorealism). Alexander Wendt is the leading systemic Constructivist thinker. His seminal work Social Theory of International Politics is a challenge to Realist scholar Kenneth Waltz’s structural Realist work similarly titled Theory of International Politics. Wendt applies Constructivism to the international state system. He argues that states are engaged in social relationships which derive meaning independently of the actual material environment. For example, the United States is involved in very different social relationships with Great Britain and France than with North Korea and Iran. These social relationships make British and French nuclear weapons far less worrisome than Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapons. Pure Realists, of course, would say that the US should react the same way to all of these countries’ nuclear weapons due to the uncertain nature of the international system. According to Wendt, whether states are contentious or cooperative depends on the construction of intersubjective meaning and understanding of the international state system and of each other as individual actors. At this level of Constructivism, ideas and interests are generated by interaction between states and societies.

Intersubjective meaning is a key constructivist concept used by Wendt to explain interaction between states, but its application is far from limited to esoteric discussions of international relations theory. Though intersubjective meaning appears to be an intimidating academic term, its meaning is actually quite simple and intuitive. Intersubjective meaning refers to shared understanding of and belief about meaning, significance, and the nature of things. It can be shared among several actors, but for our purposes is most significant between two sides in a political relationship. Intersubjective meaning between two actors stems from (or in academic terms, is endogenous to) their interaction and relationship. These actors can be states, groups (such as ethnic and national groups), or even individual people. Ideas, identities, and expectations emerge from and are sustained or changed by the construction and re-construction of intersubjective meaning.

Intersubjective meaning and understanding can be stagnant and self-reinforcing rather than evolutionary, however. Myths and narratives of victimization can emerge, especially if an early and/or critical interaction is negative and if additional interactions reinforce a negative impression. At a certain point, objectivity and empathy can be lost in the relationship, and the parties to it may come to define themselves in opposition to each other. Constructivists use this dynamic to explain many ethnic conflicts. Practical circumstances that favor one ethnic group over another, especially circumstances which persist, can lead ethnic groups to develop ideas and narratives of superiority and subordination. Over time, differences that are based on practical questions of politics and economics turn into discourses of “ancient hatreds” rooted in bloodlines, myths, narratives, and traditions.

Actors – be they individuals, groups, or even states – form ideas, identities, and interests through interaction with each other. Repeated interactions can lead to certain beliefs and expectations. These expectations may evolve in innocuous or even positive fashion, or they can get stuck in feedback loops of profoundly negative nature that breed hostility and unfair generalization and strip the participants of their ability to trust and to view the relationship objectively and positively.”

US-Iran Conflict

“In Wendt’s theoretical view, states begin their interactions with a blank slate. Nothing predisposes them to conflict or to cooperation. The early interactions are critical; they can set the relationship and intersubjective meaning construction between two countries on a largely positive or negative course. In the case of US-Iran relations, I argue that the following is a plausible explanation of the countries’ persistent conflict: Intersubjective meaning construction was placed on a profoundly negative trajectory when the current Iranian state known as the Islamic Republic of Iran emerged from the tumult of revolution in 1979. An Iranian narrative of American and Western imperialism and interference – backed by the historical realities of America’s role in the 1953 coup and support for the Shah – helped motivate the creation of a new state whose identity was to be largely based on opposition to America and the West. Meanwhile, a critical moment for the US in its early intersubjective meaning construction with post-revolutionary Iran was the appalling seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and subsequent 444-day hostage crisis. If there was indeed a momentary blank slate between the US and post-revolutionary Iran, this event helped to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran as a radically hostile enemy in American eyes. Relations between the two countries have thus arguably been handicapped over the last three decades by the intersubjective meaning constructed with the bricks and mortar of hostility, trauma, and distrust. In such a Constructivist view, the state of US-Iran relations cannot be blamed on conflicting geopolitical, military, or economic interests. Instead, it is the result of ideas and narratives of grievance and threat developed in each country about the other. These ideas and narratives are in some cases rooted in real historical events that occurred at critical times, but often assume a power and a scale beyond what many outside observers would consider “rational” or objective.”

Rise of China

McDonald (2008, p. 66) said security is a social construction. His statement makes sense when you look at Ferrero’s (n.d.) proposition that political actors construct international political relationships out of their own ideas. He went further to talk about the case of Iran and the US as outlined in the quotations above.

We can use the example of US-China threat to understand constructivism as well. After Deng Xiaoping took over China he initiated the Chinese economic miracle, a major reform which fused elements of capitalism into a traditionally controlled communist economy. The reforms helped China to climb up the ladder of economic success.

As China began to increase its relative power it created a security dilemma according to realists. But for the Constructivists, China was no longer the backward Communist country with a large population but a growing economic powerhouse. Hence, the intersubjective meaning began to change as China became more powerful, economically. China is now seen as a threat to the US, cases of cyber intrusion and the human rights debate have further strengthened the construction of this negative intersubjective meaning.

The US have made China become a threat or in other words a security issue. To counter the created ‘China threat’ they have ventured into employing the geopolitical ‘strategic hedging’ policy to counter the rise of China. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam are all strategic partners in the East and South East Asian region because of their geographical location and their topography. Not forgetting India in South East Asia.

However, China on the other hand does not see itself as a threat to the US or any other state for that matter. Militarily, China is no match to the US when measuring material capabilities. Also China’s foreign policy is based on the principle of ‘peaceful coexistence’ derived from the teachings of Confucius.


Ferrero, C. (n.d.). US – Iran Relations. Retrieve October 8, 2015, from

McDonald, M. (2008). Liberalisms. In Williams, P. D. (Ed.), Security studies: an introduction (pp. 32-47). London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Understanding Constructivism

International relations is all about theories. The different theories help us to explain or understand how states and non-state actors behave or interact. It is important that we ground ourselves with knowledge about the theories to help us become better policy makers with the hope of fulfilling the Vision 2050 strategic plan.

The theory of Constructivism according to Griffiths, Roach and Solomon (2009) focuses on the social interaction of agents and actors in world politics. They said, state interaction reflects a learning process in which action shapes, and is shaped by, identities, interest and values over time.

Griffiths, O’Callaghan and Roach (2008) defines constructivism as a distinct approach to international relations that emphases the social, or intersubjective, dimensions of world politics. State interaction is understood as a pattern of action that shapes or is shaped by identities over time.

In comparison, Goldstein (2005) defines constructivism as a movement in international relations theory that examines how changing international norms help shape the content of state interests and the character of international institutions. Also, he states that norms are the shared expectations about what behaviour is considered proper.

Constructivists used their understanding of human interaction to theorize how states behave or interact in the international system. Especially, the European social theory or ‘sociology of knowledge’ developed by German sociologist Karl Mannheim according to Lawson (2012) in the initial stages. Later, in the postwar period, Lawson (ibid) said they used the work of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman (1966). Their work based on the notion of the ‘social construction of reality’ helped to explain how and why social institutions emerged and are consolidated over time through a process of habitualization. Lawson (2012) further states that, the process constructs a reality which successive generations tend to accept as a fixed, even natural, background condition of their own lives.

Our interaction with others in the classroom is shaped by core values that we learn at home from our parents, siblings and kinsmen or women. We respect our peers verbally and behaviorally because the knowledge of this core value was shared by our parents. Our parents gained this knowledge from their parents and the learning pattern goes back generations. This core value shapes our identity and interest as individuals.


Griffiths, Roach and Solomon (2009) go on to say that social constructivism explores the constructive and regulative influence of international norms. In other words, they say that state identity and interests are linked to fundamental institutional structures.

In addition, Griffiths, Roach and Solomon (ibid.) explain that regulative norms set basic rules for standards of conduct by prescribing or proscribing certain behaviours. The norm of ‘killing diplomats is not right’ is regulative in nature. It has led to the creation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, an international law that regulates how all states in the international system manage their diplomatic relations.

Going back to our analogy, our parents are part of a very important social institution called family. In the family institution, we have rules and norms that form the basis of the institutional structure. The rule of ‘do not steal from your parents’ embodies the regulative norm that ‘stealing is not right’.

Griffiths, Roach and Solomon (ibid.) explain that constitutive norms define a behaviour and assign meanings to that behaviour. Constructivists use the chess analogy to help us understand that constitutive norms, which are the rules of the game, enable the actors to play the game and provide the actors with the knowledge necessary to respond to each other’s moves in a meaningful way.

Lawson (2012) talks about the work of constructivist Nichloas Onuf (1989). Onuf discusses the extent to which individuals and society continually construct each other through the activity of rule-making. He says that rules embody certain norms and arise from agreements reached between people who are in a position to make binding agreements.

Most importantly, as citied by Lawson (2012), Onuf highlights that the sovereign state and the state system is a product of rule-making which has been ongoing for centuries. “The institutions and the norms underpinning this system have spread throughout the world, enveloping virtually all political actors within the same set of rules and norms. Thus the world as we know it did not emerge, and does not continue to exist, independently of human action and interaction. Because it is a product of human agency it can, in principle, be changed by human agency, although it is not easy to do so.” (p. 50)

To conclude, Griffiths, O’Callaghan and Roach (2008: p. 53) state that constructivism is a difficult theory to employ. It does not predict any social structure to govern the behaviour of states. It requires that a given social relationship be studied, articulated and understood. When this is done, then it maybe possible to predict state behaviour within that particular structure.


Goldstein, J. (2005). International relations (6th ed.). Beijing: Peking University Press.

Griffiths, M., O’Callaghan, T., & Roach, S. C. (2008). International relations the key concepts (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Griffiths, M., Roach, S. C., & Solomon, M. S. (2009). Fifty key thinkers in international relations (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lawson, S. (2012). International relations (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.