“Anarchy is what States Make of it”. Do you agree?

Anarchy is what States Make of it”. Do you agree?
By Libin Farah

Alexander Wendt’s 1992 essay ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’ was highly influential in challenging the dominant view of neorealists in regards to Anarchy and state behaviour.

This challenges Kenneth Waltz’s ‘Man, State and War’ and his neorealist emphasis on states as rational actors who determine their decisions based on the material capabilities of themselves and other nation (Stuart, 2015).

Constructivism emerged as a middle ground, acting as a bridge between neoliberalism and neorealism (Wendt 1992).

Anarchy is an absence of central authority above state level that is able to monitor and condition the behaviour of states (Waltz, 1959). Anarchy can take different forms, the Hobbesian domain where ‘only power matters’ (Wendt 415), the Lockean domain that states are under managed rivalry and submit to international laws to reduce the likelihood of war or the utopian Kantian hope for the future of Anarchy: no wars and cooperation between states.

First, this essay will consider the history of each discipline and the key features associated with them. Secondly, this essay aims to explore the differences between Realist and Constructivists view on Anarchy as well as how they explain the behaviour of states.

In doing so, this essay hopes to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical perspectives. The constructivist argument is a contemporary perspective that this essay will argue that the Constructivist interpretation of Anarchy and state identity based on identity and interest is a more relevant and logical theory of international relations rather than realism.

Realism as a discipline of International Relations (IR) emerged after World War I and was ‘victorious over Idealism in the fields first Great Debate’ (Baylis and Smith, 2013). It began to gain popularity as a political perspective as it claimed to provide a ‘real’ or a factual account of what international relations actually is in practice. Realism has multiple sub traditions including classical realists, such as Morgenthau, and neo realists such as Waltz.

Realism has four main characteristics: Anarchy, survival, self-help and statism. These characteristics provide, for realists, the explanation for the nature of Anarchy and how it determines the behaviour of states.

Realists claim that Anarchy creates a realm of fear and suspicion as states can never be sure of each other’s intentions. Intentions cannot be measure and can change over time (Waltz 211).

Therefore, realists argue that all states fear each other and this fear combined with the absence of a superior body makes the primary goal of the state to survive (Waltz 203).

The principle aim of all states is to survive and to do so must be able to withstand internal and external threats. Domestically states are able to do so with institutions such as a police force to maintain state law and order however this cannot be applied to the international sphere. States must ensure their survival by having sufficient power to defend themselves.

This leads to the security dilemma as states heighten their security and increase their military in order to survive as well as trying to increase their power.

Realists further argue that in order to survive states must increase their power and that the world is a self-help system. States are power maximisers by nature therefore they accumulate power in order to exert influence and as power is unevenly distributed it is paramount that states ensure that they continuously maximize their power. States that are powerful seek to retain power while states with little power aspire to be powerful.

The fourth characteristic is statism. This is the idea that the primary and most important actor in international relations is the nation state (slaughter). Realists claim that the centrality of the state in IR is unparalleled to any other actor.

Constructivism on the other hand is not a theory but rather an ontology that aims to challenge the rationalist framework that undergirds theories such as realism and liberalism (slaughter).

This approach considers international politics as a sphere of interaction which is shaped by the actors’ identities and practices and influenced by constantly changing normative institutional structures (Behravesh, 2017).

The Constructivist approach is an alternative perspective that dispute that naturalisation of Anarchy that realism offers. It argues that the international system has been socially constructed through human interaction. Through processes of social interaction the international system was given meaning and Anarchy became a setting for actors to interact (Wendt 396).

Wendt’s overall criticism is that self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from Anarchy and a product of a social process of interaction (Wendt 394).

Therefore, what matters for constructivists such as Wendt is to examine how states’ identities and interests are constructed as well as the role their certain international interactions play.

As interests and identity develop and transform as a result of social interaction the ‘Hobbesian’ world, that Realists claim that we live in, can also be changed and escaped. (Copeland, 2000). In this regard, they support the notion that ‘Anarchy is what states make of it.’

Constructivists and realists hold opposing views of the nature of Anarchy. The Realist perspective of Anarchy creates the basis for which they attempt to explain state behaviour. Classical realists use human nature as an apparatus to analyse how states act towards one another.

Realists generally have a pessimistic view of human nature; that humans are biologically programmed to behave egotistically, pursue their own self-interest and seek power. Classical Realists apply this logic to states as a way of explaining why conflicts occur.

By doing this, classical Realists naturalize the existence of anarchy and consequently are unable to explain why states come into conflict. Waltz claimed that ‘wars occur because there is nothing to prevent them’ (Waltz 232) which is a futile and narrow explanation because it fails to comprehend the social, economic and political motivations for war that constructivism takes into full account. Claiming that states go to war because they are warlike doesn’t provide an explanation but simply points out that wars happen.

Waltz argues that ‘human nature can explain the necessary imperfections of social and political forms’ yet to agree with this notion would be to accept that human nature is fixed and consequently that states are in constant conflict or fearful in a self-help world (Waltz 30).

Therefore, using human nature as an analytical tool is problematic as classical realists are unable to explain change or shifts in the international such as the end of the Cold War. Constructivists on the other hand argue that a process of change in identity and interest led to the end of the Cold War. The Cold War ideas shape states’ assessments and reactions to power. If the U.S. and USSR decide that they are no longer enemies, their power relationship no longer matters, resultantly the collective meaning of the Cold War disappears. (Lau, 2017).

Alternatively, Neorealists move away from human nature as an explanation and claim that the structure of Anarchy itself creates the condition for states to act aggressively, yet this argument is also flawed.

They claim that a self-help system is an inevitable consequence of Anarchy and due to the unequal distribution of power conflict is unavoidable. They further argue that survival and self-help are symptoms of Anarchy and therefore the existence of Anarchy itself creates an environment in which states have no other alternative but to be suspicious of each other thus increasing the likelihood of war.

Constructivists dismiss this argument as it does not make sense for a structure to drive the states when the states are the ones who develop meaning for the structure. Wendt claims that the identity and the interests of states are what drive the behaviour of states rather than Anarchy itself. Through a historical and social process of interaction do states generate the meaning for Anarchy as well as constructing their own identity. These identities then become the basis of interests (Wendt 398).

Anarchy is an empty vessel with no inherent logic. To explain behaviour and outcomes, this vessel must be filled with varying interests and identities (Copeland, 2000). These interests then depict the nature of Anarchy and naturally evolve over time, consequently state behaviour will change in accordance and the nature of Anarchy will ultimately be affected.

Anarchy can be depicted as conflictual if states go to war or peaceful if states cooperate (Weber, 2001). Therefore, Wendt rightfully argues that self-help and survival are constructed institutions rather than not constitutive features of Anarchy (Wendt, 402).

Furthermore, constructivism provides a legitimate motive for state behaviour: interest and identity and challenges the neorealist view that Anarchy itself causes conflict. This deals neorealism a crushing blow as they argue that Anarchy is static and has one state of nature.

However, anarchy itself cannot be static as interests are always in flux therefore relations between states will always be changing. States act on the basis of the meaning that they have for each other therefore they act differently towards friends than they do towards enemies (Wendt 397). In this respect, Neorealists dismiss the flexibility and evolution of state identity and interest.

To further develop this argument, the identity of states is essential to how it behaves in the international sphere. While realists appreciate that personality and characters of each state they are also do not fully explore the role of identity to the same degree that Constructivists do.

Constructivists however, argue that the construction of a state’s identity is an important factor in the decisions it makes. To illustrate this point an empirical example is Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

A Realist explanation would point to the economic benefits that Russia had to gain from Crimea such as 4-13 trillion cm of natural gas (Umbach, 2017). This action maximizes Russia’s power and consequently weakens Ukraine which would confirm the Realist premise that the world is a self-help system.

Liberals would agree that Russia’s action violated international law and would highlight economic sanctions as a retaliation from the ‘good’ states. However, to understand the complete narrative it is paramount that the situation is analysed through the Constructivist perspective. They argue that the construction of Russia’s own identity was a factor as well as a tool that can be used to analyse its behaviour.

The Russian rhetoric surrounding the annexation was that the ethnically Slavic and Russian speaking population of Crimea were going to be reabsorbed into greater Russia. Their self-identify was constructed in a way that felt duty bound to annex Crimea and the extent to this compulsion undermined the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Therefore, Russian territorial borders historically are out of sync with modern state borders. Russia’s self-identity manifested itself in the form of annexing Crimea which then violated the international norms. The Russians saw this a morale crusade but on the international sphere this was met with hostility and perceived as aggressive and expansionist.

While the annexation of Crimea does support Realist claims the narrative would be deficient without analyzing it from a Constructivist point of view. It provides a layer of explanation that realism cannot. It answers the why part to the question why do states behave the way they do?

The dispute over the nature of Anarchy deepens as Constructivists and realists further disagree over when Anarchy came into existence. A Realist argument may suggest that Anarchy is an eternal constant that existed before state interaction because the structure of Anarchy is a prerequisite for state interaction. Anarchy is a setting for IR to take place therefore it had to have existed before their interaction.

However, the assumption that Anarchy is an eternal constant and existed prior to state interaction is misleading. This is due to idea that states cannot be attributed to qualities such as power seeking, egotistical or destructive prior to interaction as these characteristics are products of social interaction.

Therefore, to describe Anarchy as a self-help system before states have interacted is illogical as it presents the notion of self-help as a natural and inherent institution. The Hobbesian world of realism only manifested because state interaction made it so. The absence of an overarching authority is due to the construction of sovereignty which is a social norm that is accepted.

Constructivism and realism overlap in a few areas; they both agree that the principle actors of states.

While liberals recognize multinational corporations and world institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) as significant, the general consensus is that states are the key decision makers in IR.

Realists are dismissive of intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN, as they would argue that it was created by states and therefore only has as much influence as states, particularly Great Powers, allow.

To demonstrate this point the 2003 War in Iraq was not approved by the UN yet the world hegemon, the US, still proceeded to do so which supports the Realist notion regarding states being the dominant actors and decision makers in IR.

Therefore, a weakness in the Constructivist paradigm is that they claim that interests and identities are always in flux yet the actor in question is fixed and this identity cannot be changed (Weber 60). Weber challenges Wendtian Constructivism by claiming that the claim ‘Anarchy is what states make if it’ would not function if the state was not the primary actor in IR (Weber 60).

In this light, constructivism has made concessions to Realist’s obsession with the state centrism. Yet it should be noted that constructivism and statism are not mutually exclusive. Wendt’s critiques realism’s self-help and nature of anarchy but he does not contest statism as he once said that accusing a theory of international relations of state-centrism is like accusing a theory of forests for being tree-centric (Guzzini and Leander, 2006).

In regards to Anarchy and Weber’s criticism it is paramount that when debating Anarchy States are the primary object of analysis and this does not take away from the Constructivist argument about social construction.

In conclusion, realism and Constructivist both agree that the international system is anarchical. Realists, such as Waltz, argue that anarchy and its resulting security dilemma cannot be overcome unless a ‘world government’ is created, a situation that realists cannot envision occurring, as states will never feel secure enough to do so (Behravesh, 2017).

While constructivism is an approach that relies on other theories to give it meaning and only explains how the world is not how it ought be, its contribution to understanding IR from a social dimension cannot be ignored. The Constructivist argument is more persuasive as it provides a logical explanation for conflict, state behaviour as well as changes in the system.

Anarchy and state behaviour are socially constructed through norms and interactions that give them meaning. This meaning gives them an identity which forms the basis of their interest. They then act according to these interest and are compatible with states that have a similar identity and clash with those who have conflicting interest. This Constructivist argument of process rather than structure is better suited to explaining international relations.


Baylis, J. and Smith, S. (2013). The globalization of world politics. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 100

Behravesh, M. (2017). Constructivism: An Introduction. [online] E-International Relations. Available at: http://www.e-ir.info/2011/02/03/constructivism-an-introduction/#_edn15 [Accessed 3 Jan. 2017].

Copeland, D. (2000). The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism: A Review Essay. International Security, [online] 25(2), pp.187-212. Available at: http://www3.nccu.edu.tw/~lorenzo/Copeland.pdf [Accessed 1 Jan. 2017].

Guzzini, S. and Leander, A. (2006). Constructivism and international relations. London: Routledge. Page 76

Lau, O. (2017). Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics. [online] Available at: http://www.olivialau.org/ir/archive/wen1.pdf [Accessed 3 Jan. 2017].

Slaughter, A. (2011). Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law Journal. [online] International Relations, Principal Theories Journal. Available at: https://www.princeton.edu/~slaughtr/Articles/722_IntlRelPrincipalTheories_Slaughter_20110509zG.pdf [Accessed 3 Jan. 2017].

Stuart, A. (2015). Is anarchy really ‘what states make of it’? | DARROW. [online] DARROW. Available at: http://darrow.org.uk/2015/09/06/is-anarchy-really-what-states-make-of-it/#_ednref17 [Accessed 5 Jan. 2017].

Umbach, F. (2017). The energy dimensions of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. [online] Nato.int. Available at: http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2014/nato-energy-security-running-on-empty/Ukraine-energy-independence-gas-dependence-on-Russia/EN/index.htm [Accessed 4 Jan. 2017].

Waltz, K. (1959). Man, the state and war. 1st ed. New York [u.a.]: Columbia Univ. Press. Page 394, 396, 397, 398, 402

Weber, C. (2001). International relations theory. 1st ed. London: Routledge. Page 60

Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics. International Organization, 46(2), 391-425. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2706858

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