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Exogenous Shocks or Endogenous Constructions? The Meanings of Wars and Crises

Wesley W. Widmaier, Mark Blyth, Leonard Seabrooke
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2478.2007.00474.x 747-759 First published online: 1 December 2007


This symposium addresses the role of wars and crises as mechanisms of international change. Over the past two decades, the international system has undergone a number of remarkable transformations, from the end of the Cold War to the emergence of an ongoing “War on Terror,” and from the collapse of statist development models to the emergence of a contested—if evolving—neoliberal “Washington Consensus.” This volatility exceeds any underlying shifts in economic structures or the distribution of capabilities, and raises important questions regarding the roles of agency, uncertainty, and ideas in advancing change. In this introduction we examine the role of wars and economic crises as socially constructed openings for change. We attempt three things: to critique materialist approaches in the security and political economy issue areas, to outline the distinctive contribution that an agent-centered constructivist understanding of such events offers, and to offer a framework for the study of such events, one which highlights an expanded range of elite-mass interactions.

1929. 1945. 1973. 1989. 2001. One scarcely need identify the events to which these dates refer. One “knows them when one sees them” as “turning points” when old orders ended and new ones began to emerge. Over the past several years, the importance of such events has been examined by a range of international relations scholars offering either materialist analyses of international relations “after victory” and in the context of “hard times,” or more constructivist analyses of “constitutive wars” and the importance of “socialpolitik.1 Such approaches have definite value, but they also have limits. From the materialist vantage, scholars stress the effect of major wars and economic crises on the balance of power or economic production possibilities. Ikenberry (2001:3) has argued that hegemonic wars ratify shifts in the balance of power and spur the emergence of new systemic arrangements, as “historical junctures…come at dramatic moments of upheaval…when the old order has been destroyed by war and newly powerful states try to reestablish basic organizing principles.” Similarly, Gourevitch (1986:20–21) has stressed the effects of economic crises, defined as encompassing “major downturn(s)” in the business cycle which rearrange the “placement of social actors in the economy” and shape subsequent policy choices.

There are two key problems with such approaches. First, as constructivists have consistently argued, they obscure the influence of intersubjective understandings on agents’interpretations of material incentives. As Blyth (2001, 2003) has argued, “structures do not come with an instruction sheet,” and even exogenous shocks must be interpreted. Neither wars nor crises can be defined simply in terms of their effects on military or economic capabilities. Second, materialist approaches obscure the full scope of agency, limiting it to strategic interaction or adaptation, suggesting that agents rather automatically and unproblematically respond to material shifts in easily predicable ways. However, the range of what agents can do is not exhausted by adaptation to structural constraints or material incentives. Rather, this symposium investigates how agents can also engage in efforts at “strategic social construction” (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:888) to shape shared meanings and interpretations of events.

In this light, this symposium offers a constructivist analysis of wars and crises, which we define as events which agents intersubjectively interpret as necessitating change.2 We claim that wars or crises cannot be defined simply in terms of their material effects, but that agents’ intersubjective understandings must first give meaning to such material changes. In short, agents act upon such understandings rather than their materially telegraphed interests. Neither state nor societal agents can react to material changes until they have interpreted them through diverse frameworks of understanding. Such frameworks do not simply condition subjective perceptions of so-called “objective” phenomena such as the balance of power. Instead, they render concerns for such things as the balance of power contentious, as when varied ideological, nationalist, or religious ties independently drive foreign policy choices.

As such, wars and crises occur in meaningful contexts, as in the Cold War struggle over “ways of life” or the implications of the Global War on Terror for the United States’“deepest beliefs.”3 Had those “ways of life” or “deepest beliefs” been constructed differently at the particular historical moment they occurred, then the outcomes associated with these struggles would likewise have varied.4 For example, the fact that the domestic price level of the U.S. fell off a cliff in 1929, or that “the Germans took back the Rhineland” in 1936, does not telegraph to agents on the ground in 1929 or 1936 what such events mean and what (obviously) has to be done about it. While “policy requires politics” (Gourevitch 1986:17), “politics” cannot be reduced to who gets what, when, and how. Politics, at its core, involves arguments over the meaning of events, and such acts of interpretation tell agents “who they are” and “what they want.”5

This is why such moments are often called “critical junctures” or “tipping points” (Collier and Collier 1991; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). They are moments when, as Katznelson (2003:274) has put it, “[S]tructurally induced unsettled times can provoke possibilities for particularly consequential purposive action.” Such moments alter “material” incentives precisely because the event is interpreted differently by agents. To get inside the processes of persuasion that help us understand how both elites and the mass public interpret wars and crises differently, we stress the importance of not reading interests as materially telegraphed from structural positions. We also emphasize the need to see the limitations of extant constructivist work that assumes that agents are constituted as subjects by the prevailing systemic culture. While we do not disagree with such approaches per se, our aim is to develop a more “agent-centered” constructivism addressing the “unsettled times” at which agents’ persuasive practices come to the fore. In doing so we wish to understand how elite agents’ constructions of wars and crises as turning points for policy change is particularly effective when there is a sufficient intersubjective consensus about the legitimacy of change among the broader population.

In the first section of this introductory piece, we critique materialist treatments of such events on the grounds that even exogenous shocks must be endogenously interpreted.6 In each issue-area, we highlight the importance of intersubjective contexts which both give meaning to—and can be reshaped by—wars and crises. In the second section, we distinguish “structural” and “agent-centered” versions of constructivism, arguing for a wider focus on the persuasive practices that agents employ to give meaning to events. We stress here that war and crises ignite processes of persuasion between elites, from elites to the mass public, and from the mass public to elites. In making persuasion rather than socialization the causal mechanism of interest, we can more easily identify how various agents frame “what should be done” and, in doing so, further an agent-centered constructivism.

Developing these arguments, in the third section, we outline elements of a research agenda into the construction of wars and crises, the components of which are highlighted in the individual symposium contributions. While each article is grounded in a basic concern for the meaning of critical events, each also varyingly stresses the elite, mass public, or institutional forces that shape interpretations of crises. In the first article, Mark Blyth examines shifting American understandings of monopoly and elite interactions, arguing that they gave meaning to economic crisis during the “first New Deal.” In the second article, Wesley Widmaier examines the interplay of an American liberal tradition and presidential rhetoric in reshaping U.S. interests, arguing that presidential constructions of the Cold War and the War on Terror legitimated parallel shifts to “crusading” foreign policies. In the final effort, Leonard Seabrooke traces evolving mass attitudes in interwar Britain, arguing that these provided the foundation for the ostensibly elite-driven Keynesian Revolution. Taken together, these contributions highlight the importance of persuasive struggles to the construction of crises that transform state and societal interests alike.

Contrasting Materialist and Constructivist Assumptions Concerning Agency

Materialist approaches share a common view of agents as collectively making efficient use of available information, so that while individuals may commit subjective errors, aggregate efficiency via selection pressures ensures that global trends will coincide with the “predictions of the relevant economic [or international relations] theory” (Muth 1961:316).7 For example, shifts in the distribution of power may lead to the appropriate “balancing” to prevent the emergence of a dominant power, and shifts in economic resources may similarly spur the rise or demise of particular economic orders. However, such approaches obscure the importance of the interpretive context and lead to a somewhat impoverished view of agency (Hay 2004:52–53). This is logically the case given that if there are underlying incentive structures that guide rational choices, we should expect the variation in politically relevant outcomes to be quite limited. The fact that it is not surely tells us something of interest.

Constructivism stresses how intersubjective understandings, sustained through interaction, give meaning to incentives and interests. These understandings are termed intersubjective because they transcend individual beliefs and possess instead a collective permanence.8 Constructivists argue that intersubjective understandings matter because agents cannot efficiently employ “all available information” in forming their strategies. Instead, agents face a fundamental uncertainty in forming expectations. This uncertainty is not limited to the ability to make a probabilistic calculation regarding the likelihood of some event, such as a shift in the balance of power or a market downturn. Rather, it is a more pervasive constraint, one which limits the ability of agents to form any meaningful estimate of future trends.9 In the face of such uncertainty, agents rely on intersubjective understandings to make sense of events and define their interests, or “beliefs about how to meet needs” (Wendt 1999:130; Blyth 2002; 2006).

Constructivists further assume that such understandings must be sustained and/or transformed through interaction, via explicitly expressive, communicative, or rhetorical practices. Such an approach opens up the possibility of understanding the variation in outcomes that we see in international politics, as it eschews the notion that there is an “efficient” outcome that agents are socialized/disciplined into. Rather, it stresses the contingent nature of outcomes by examining how agents frame such uncertain moments to make persuasive claims concerning the need for change, while also recognizing that frames can take on “lives of their own” in generating future uncertainty. The remainder of this section juxtaposes materialist views of wars and crises as exogenous shocks with a constructivist stress on their endogenous, social foundations.

Materialist and Constructivist Approaches to War and Change

International relations scholars have long noted the association between major wars, postwar settlements, and change in international orders. Perhaps most prominently, Robert Gilpin has argued that hegemonic war serves as “the principal mechanism of change throughout history.” In this view, periodic hegemonic conflicts determine which “state or states will be dominant and govern the system” (Gilpin 1981:15). One might ask, however, how a victorious hegemon might define its interests, in a benign or a more predatory fashion?10 One solution, adopted by scholars favoring a “second image reversed” perspective, offers a supplemental stress on domestic preferences. For example, scholars like Ikenberry (2001:5) accord primary focus to the systemic distribution of capabilities, but then highlight the intervening role of domestic institutions in shaping postwar orders, arguing that “democratic states have greater capacities to enter into binding institutions” and can establish more stable arrangements. Similarly, scholars like Snyder (1991:2) stress the role of “economic sectors and state bureaucracies” that manipulate constructions of conflicts “to justify their self-serving policies in terms of a broader public interest.”

Such arguments remain wanting, however, to the extent that “major” asymmetries in the balance of power cannot be abstracted from the social context of, for example, rivalry or friendship between states. While states identifying as rivals may shift to prevent any competitor from attaining dominance, states identified as friends may downplay the importance of the distribution of power in mutual interactions. Second, the very meaning of institutional arrangements is subject to interpretation. For example, definitions of democracy itself may be a source of conflict, or they may in fact be altered to justify conflict as Oren (1995) has argued concerning scholarship and U.S. foreign policy during World War I. Third, societal agents may have no determinate a priori interests in systemic arrangements. Capitalists may oppose expansionistic foreign policies out of a fear of an aggrandized state, or they may favor expansion as a means to securing export markets and access to raw materials. In short, intersubjective frameworks give meaning to systemic, state, and societal incentives.

In this light, constructivists have stressed the need to more directly examine debates over the meaning of wars. They cast power politics “as a social and historical product,” suggesting that wars can acquire “new meanings and functions” in different settings (Alkopher 2005:719). For example, Ruggie (1993:157, 162–163) argues that the emergence of the sovereign state system can itself be seen as having reflected a “transformation in social epistemology.” He highlights a change in the epistemes of the pre-Westphalian era and “the mental equipment that people drew upon in imagining and symbolizing forms of political community.” Ruggie argues that pre-Westphalian views were “challenged in and hammered home” through constitutive wars, which established the notion of sovereignty, and set the stage for more strategic and tactical “configurative” and “positional” wars. Similarly, Bukovansky (2002:2; 223–225) stresses how shifting notions of “legitimate political authority” drove the shift from dynasticism to popular sovereignty. She argues that even though “dynastic monarchy seemed to have been victorious,” the Napoleonic Wars paradoxically prompted an “acceleration of nationalism.” In this view, it is not only shifts in power, but also tensions over prevailing understandings that drive war and change in world politics.

Materialist and Constructivist Views of Economic Crisis and Change

Paralleling these views of wars as manifesting shifts in the distribution of power, materialist scholars with an IPE focus cast exogenous material shocks as reshaping economic orders. Hegemonic stability theorists such as Robert Gilpin cast the rise and fall of great powers as the most important factor in explaining systemic stability. However, Gilpin (1987:88) concedes the role of ideology and stresses the need for a “dominant liberal power” to enable economic cooperation. As in the security realm, materialist scholars have increasingly recognized the indeterminacy of systemic incentives and argued for a greater stress on domestic politics and actors’ interests. For example, Ikenberry (1992:291) highlights the supplemental role of “policy specialists and economists” in establishing the post-World War II economic order, while Gourevitch (1986:21) argues that economic effects of the crises of the 1920s and the 1930s on the relative position of capital and labor explain variation in policy choices.

Despite their merits, such analyses remain wanting for the same reasons as in the security realm, reflecting uncertainty regarding systemic, institutional, and societal incentives. First, the effects of the distribution of capabilities in abstraction from the social context are indeterminate. Where states share a sense of the common interest, as in the case of the European Union, no hegemonic capabilities may be needed to maintain macroeconomic stability. Conversely, where such positive identification is lacking, no level of capabilities may be sufficient to guarantee stability, as in the counter case of ASEAN (Katzenstein 2005:219–220). Secondly, institutional incentives are likewise subject to interpretation. Consider that the rise of independent central banks might lead to lower inflation only if central bankers define their institutional interests in those terms (Widmaier 2007). Third, and finally, for all types of social actors, neither firms, nor unions, nor representatives of civil society can identify their “true” interests in abstraction from some intersubjective setting (Blyth 2002). For example, the deflation caused by the Great Depression impacted states in a common way, yet promoted vastly different responses, the variance of which went well beyond domestic material differences. The U.S., Sweden, and Germany all deflated, but the choice of cartelization, fascism, or social democracy as an institutional resolution was not given by the material context (Berman 2006).

Ruggie's work has also played a key role in developing constructivist arguments in the area of IPE, as reflected in his stress on not only “power” but also “social purpose” in explaining the rise of the Bretton Woods system. Building upon Ruggie's insights, Blyth (2002:7–8) rejects frameworks that treat international political development as progressing through a series of self-apparent exogenous shocks. Attempting to deal with the indeterminacy of materialist arguments and to pay greater attention to how the social context shapes outcomes, Blyth suggests that ideas play differing roles as weapons in distributional struggles, blueprints for new institutions, and as conventions for the coordination of behavior.

From Structural to Agent-Centered Constructivism

Such arguments have important implications for the ability of constructivism to address not only stability and cooperation, but also change and conflict. Recognizing the need to address such concerns, constructivists have, in recent years, increasingly shifted from a focus on structural continuities and their effects on agents via socialization, to a focus on what agents do and how they frame their actions. Indeed, over its first decade, constructivist scholarship was often highly structural.11 Perhaps the clearest illustration of this was the Katzenstein (1996) edited volume on security cultures, which, as contributors Kowert and Legro (1996:453–454) noted, examined “the consequences of behavioral norms and identities,” but not the issue of “Where do the norms themselves come from?” Reacting to this limitation, a growing recognition emerged in the mid 1990s that constructivists should “[bring] agency back in” (Checkel 1998:339–340) in order to highlight the sources of contingency and change in world politics.12

In the context of this concern for agency, scholars like Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) and Adler (2005 [1997]) have emphasized the ways in which members of “epistemic communities” and “norm entrepreneurs” have acted as agents of change. In an influential piece, Finnemore and Sikkink (1998:895–897) highlight the role of norm entrepreneurs who “attempt to convince a critical mass of states (norm leaders) to embrace new norms.” These entrepreneurs engage in framing practices that “call attention to issues or even ‘create’ issues by using language that names, interprets, and dramatizes them.” Their efforts succeed when a first stage of norm emergence passes a “tipping point” into a second stage of “norm cascade,” facilitated by social “pressure for conformity, desire to enhance international legitimation, and the desire of state leaders to enhance their self-esteem.” When norm leaders are successful, such actions “resonate with broader public understandings and are adopted as new ways of talking about and understanding issues.” In a broadly similar way, Adler (2005 [1997]:111) stresses the role of scientific and policy elites in not simply reshaping policy frameworks, but even engendering “the transformation of identities and interests.” For example, to explain the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions, Adler (2005 [1991]:83) stresses its origins “in the minds of a small group of key U.S. [and U.K.] economists” as the agreements were “negotiated twice: first, in the domestic game” of coalitional politics and “second, in the international game” of economic diplomacy.

While such frameworks highlight important types of agency, we argue in this symposium for the need to build on them by employing a wider focus on the role of persuasion not only among elites, but from elites to the mass public, and from the mass public to elites. To do so we require an analytical framework that is also sensitive to institutional contexts and the practices involved in the construction of crises.

Toward an Agent-Centered Constructivism: Turning Points, Persuasion, and Elite–Mass Interactions

Building on the prior efforts of constructivist theorists, we outline here a set of propositions regarding the social construction of wars and crises as reconstitutive events. In doing so, we suggest paying attention to how moments of change are framed. In such moments the politics of persuasion comes to the fore, and consequently a focus upon who is persuading whom becomes salient. We suggest that a focus on persuasion can provide more analytical purchase than a focus on socialization as the “dominant mechanism” driving normative change (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:902). This is the case given that wars and crises provide openings for change where a range of social agents can interpret events to push for policy innovations. Furthermore, as war and crises are interpreted not only by elites, but also by the mass public, such events center around the persuasiveness of claims concerning the necessity of change. Whereas more structural versions of constructivism often view persuasion as a part of socialization, and existing agent-centered constructivist accounts tend to focus on elite–elite interactions (epistemic communities with bureaucrats, norm entrepreneurs with politicians), we suggest the need for a greater focus on persuasion as intersubjective contestation among both elite and mass public agents.

To understand how mechanisms of persuasion operate, we identify four specific concerns as analytical foci: (1) the interplay of intersubjective tensions and interpretive struggles, (2) institutional and rhetorical norms which guide efforts to frame particular events, (3) mass–elite persuasive interactions, and (4) subsequent debates over the “lessons of history”—a concern beyond the focus of the articles in this symposium.

First, intersubjective understandings possess such an enduring mass presence that it should at least be questioned as to whether they can be easily reshaped by elites. While there has been great conceptual progress in explaining persuasion as normative suasion, especially in shifting an agent's internalization of a norm from a “logic of consequences” to a “logic of appropriateness” (Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999; Checkel 2005:812–813), we wonder to what extent the internalization of either logic depletes an agent's ability to “buck the system” (see also Sending 2002). We take a slightly different tack on the extant literature by viewing persuasion not so much as a part of socialization, but as an ongoing process in which the legitimacy of claims about “what is to be done” is open to contestation between elites, and between elites and mass publics. Importantly, this reminds us that when elites struggle over what ideas should be given priority in a time of crisis, they must consider what ideas will be persuasive and establish institutional and political support for ideas to translate into policy action. For example, in the first symposium piece, Blyth offers an analysis of varied American notions of monopoly power—as a product of market forces or state policy, as a benign or malignant force, and as an aid or an impediment to recovery from the Depression. Blyth's concern is not to establish that one of these views is correct, as no economic theory is a correspondence theory of “the way the world works” (Blyth 2002; 2003). Rather his point is to detail how competing versions of what monopoly is came to be instantiated in policy as a function of persuasive struggles, rather than as some functional response to an exogenously given and preinterpretive economic crisis. By examining the so-called “first New Deal” under Roosevelt, Blyth shows how competing U.S. notions of monopoly set boundaries on the types of institutions and coalitions the American state attempted to construct in the period 1933–1935.

Second, to the extent that intersubjective understandings are sustained in particular settings, it is often necessary to ask a second set of questions regarding the institutional contexts of social construction. This can entail, as suggested above, a focus on both the formal structures that shape debate and the more diffuse norms that encourage particular types of rhetoric. In this vein, the article by Widmaier seeks to explain the instability of definitions of U.S. national interests with reference to intersubjective structures and institutionalized practices. In terms of intersubjective influences, Widmaier argues that an American “liberal tradition” has been constitutive of three shifting definitions of the national interest: an exceptionalist isolationism, a pragmatic realism, and an absolutist or crusading internationalism. With respect to institutionalized practices, he argues further that liberalism's instability is exacerbated by reliance on a rhetorical presidency to focus debate (Tulis 1987). He then applies this framework to show how presidential rhetoric shaped constructions of events in 1947 and 2001 to accomplish strikingly parallel visions of the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror.” In each setting, crisis discourses, advanced in mass public contexts via the use of presidential rhetoric, took on “lives of their own” as they reshaped prevailing notions of the national interest and engendered more crusading policies. This analysis shows how presidential interpretations cannot be imposed by fiat, that persuasion is never a “one-way street,” and that institutional contexts can exert their own influence on the form and frequency of crisis constructions.

Third, the success of any elite group engaged in persuasion is often less related to their analytic skills than to the broad mass intuitions of the moment, which will favor one movement to the exclusion of others. In this light, it is often necessary to examine mass political views to explain the manner in which specific elites can actually influence policy discourses. Such “everyday politics” can matter more than elite debates, as elite victories often reflect a base accord with broader intuitions (Hobson and Seabrooke 2007; Seabrooke 2007a). In this light, Leonard Seabrooke examines the widening cleavages between elite and mass policy beliefs in Britain in the 1920s and details how elite ideas about the need for austerity clashed with mass ideas about economic justice, as well as new economic and social conventions. Despite elite views that economic policy was largely a technical matter, the increasing “legitimacy gap” between elite policy proclamations and mass public expectations opened the door to later Keynesian thinking and a demand-side emphasis on promoting income equality as a means to recovery (Seabrooke 2007b). Absent such “legitimacy contests,” the emergence of Keynesianism in Britain, in the particular form that it assumed, becomes difficult to explain. In short, mass expectations about how the economy should work set limits on ostensible elite policy makers. In this sense, while dominant constructivist work on socialization and persuasion stresses the need for new norms to “resonate” with the larger public (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:897), we raise the threshold for “resonance” by highlighting the capacity for mass publics to reject elites’ attempts to legitimate or naturalize changes made during periods of crisis (Hopf 2002).13

Finally, in a context that exceeds the scope of these three articles (Figure 1, above, provides an overview of their emphases), we suggest that a research focus on the construction of crises would allow analysts to better recognize the importance of expressive struggles over the “lessons of history,” as intensified debate over the meaning of contemporary events often fosters reinterpretations of past wars and crises. For example, in the context of debates over the stagflations of the 1970s, the lessons of the Great Depression came under new discussion. Keynesian “market failure” constructions, which had dominated discourses from the 1930s onward with their stress on the endogenous instability of market expectations, increasingly yielded to more classical “state-failure” constructions which cast macroeconomic interventions as inherently destabilizing (Blyth 2002; Widmaier 2004). Similarly, in the security realm, debates over the lessons of history have had a recurring effect on foreign policy determination. In the case of Israel, for example, Isacoff (2004) attributes variation in foreign policy by tracing the arguments of traditional and “new” Israeli historians and how they construct contending images of Arab and Palestinian roles in different phases of their conflict. In this sense, even when a particular crisis-construction has apparently triumphed, constructivists should resist temptations to reify the resulting social facts, as any conventional wisdom can always be reconstructed. To the extent that debates over the “lessons of history” are themselves constitutive of future understandings and interests, the construction of crises involves ongoing persuasion in mass and elite settings alike.

Fig. 1

International Turning Points: The Effects of Wars and Crises on State and Societal Interests.


This introductory piece has offered a constructivist analysis of wars and crises as mechanisms of change, highlighting theoretical insights that transcend ostensible IPE-security divides and so breaking down the artificial borders that divide disciplinary subfields. We have argued that intersubjective contexts not only give meaning to wars and crises, but also that how agents interpret these events as necessitating change leads to different strategies of persuasion among both elites and mass publics. The persuasiveness of a change enabled by crisis-construction cannot, in our view, be read off of materially telegraphed interests, just as it cannot be attributed to elites’ automatic capacity to socialize mass publics into normative frameworks. In terms of subsequent research design, our agent-centered constructivist approach to war and crisis inverts materialist frameworks that begin with questions about the distribution of capabilities or economic resources and treat ideas as mere “focal points.” Instead, this symposium proposes a research agenda focused on wars and crises as moments where elite and mass public agents attempt to persuade each other over “who they are” and “what they want.” This approach casts political struggles as arguments over the meaning of events, over how they should be framed and interpreted within various institutional contexts.

In terms of ongoing debates, there is a strong link here between our use of persuasion and that of legitimacy, if the latter is understood as a process by which the governing and governed make, and confer or reject, claims concerning the fairness and rightfulness of policy change. The concept of legitimacy has received renewed attention in international relations (Clark 2005; Jackson 2006; Hurd 2007), and our wish is to bolster the development of this work with a strong agent-centered constructivism. For this to occur, our notion of legitimacy must not focus exclusively on elites’ proclamations and rhetorical battles, but also recognize that those on the receiving end of persuasion often have the capacity to influence policy outcomes (Seabrooke 2006:40–42). An agent-centered constructivism therefore requires us to investigate the means by which a broader range of social actors provide impulses for intersubjective change. It asks us to qualify how war and crises act as effective turning points not because of changes in material structures per se, but because of transformations in broader intersubjective understandings.

Finally, this approach has the added merit of highlighting the most important aspect of constructivism; a stress upon contingency and the ability to highlight unappreciated social possibilities. From Wendt's seminal argument that “anarchy is what states make of it,” to Adler's work on cognitive evolution and learning, to Finnemore and Sikkink's emphasis on the agency of norm entrepreneurs, and onto the arguments in this symposium, a central concern of constructivists has been to stress that constraints on policy are socially constructed. Whether in seeking to transcend the security dilemma, the impossible trinity, or restrictive notions of sovereignty, an awareness of the socially constructed nature of systemic constraints is essential to the ability of scholars to highlight unappreciated possibilities. No less than anarchy itself, wars and crises cannot be reduced to material forces or socialization, but are what agents make of them.


  • Author's note: For their comments and criticisms of this effort, we thank Lisa Baglione, Jacqueline Best, Bruce Cronin, Colin Hay, Ronald Krebs, Jennifer Lobasz, the late Steve Poe, and Alexander Wendt. The usual disclaimers apply.

  • 1 For example, see Gilpin (1981); Gourevitch (1986); Ruggie (1993); Hay (1996); Bially-Mattern (2001); Ikenberry (2001); Blyth (2002); Hall (2003); Widmaier (2003a); Isacoff (2004); Frederking (2003); Seabrooke (2006). On socialpolitik, see Alkopher (2005).

  • 2 The notion of socially constructed crisis cannot be reduced to a Kuhnian “paradigm shift” driven by unambiguous policy failure (Hall 1989); For example, Sikkink (1991:246–247) questions whether the “dramatic failure of past policies combined with initial success of the new is always the best explanation” for policy change. She argues instead that “the people may be persuaded only if they perceive that old models have suffered dramatic failure or if the new offers stunning success” (emphasis added).

  • 3 President Harry S. Truman's Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947; http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/funddocs/truman.txt; George W. Bush, “Second Inaugural Address” January 20, 2005.

  • 4 Indeed, even apparently minor wars and crises can carry disproportionate lessons, as when the 1970s stagflation undermined support for Keynesianism, or when the post-Cold War “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia prompted an isolationist backlash against “creeping multilateralism” (Halberstam 2001).

  • 5 Even something as “obvious” as capitalists’ preferences for rising or falling wages cannot be abstracted from a social context. While some capitalists may prefer higher wages to raise demand, others may prefer falling wages to reduce labor costs. In advocating Keynesian or classical policies, equally “capitalist” agents can differ over which interpretations of events serve their interests (Widmaier 2004).

  • 6 For example, World War II did not cause the Bretton Woods agreements. Rather, what agents thought caused World War II caused the Bretton Woods Agreements to take their particular form.

  • 7 It is worth drawing a distinction here between economists’ use of the term “rationality”—as used by rational-choice pioneer John Muth (1961:315–316)—and recent discussions in the IR literature. Muth defines rational choices as those made on the basis of all available information, conforming to the predictions of the “relevant economic theory.” This differs from IR scholars’ more casual conflation (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Fearon and Wendt 2002) of “rational” with “strategic” choices. To assume that agents are strategic is simply to suggest that they have consistent preferences and make choices which advance those preferences, not that they can collectively employ all available information. Given this distinction, while constructivist frameworks cannot at base be reconciled with rationalist assumptions, they can be reconciled with approaches that posit agents make strategic choices, given some social context.

  • 8 For example, the belief that independent central banks lead to lower inflation is institutionalized within the community of central bankers, irrespective of the beliefs on any individual banker.

  • 9 Keynes (1973 [1937]:113–114) argued that “the fact that our knowledge of the future is fluctuating, vague and uncertain, renders wealth a peculiarly unsuitable subject for the methods of the classical economic theory.”Blyth (2002), Widmaier (2003b), and Seabrooke (2007c) further address the implications of uncertainty for “economic constructivism.”

  • 10 Gilpin himself makes an ad hoc concession to the importance of ideology, acknowledging that “every dominant state…promotes a religion or ideology that justifies its domination” (Gilpin 1981:30).

  • 11 This was in part a function of the need to engage contemporary rivals like neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism.

  • 12 To paraphrase Hay (2004), just as a rational choice can be seen as “no choice,” so taken to extremes is a “socialized choice.” The emergence of an over-socialized, structural constructivism would risk obscuring the practices by which intersubjective structures evolve and change.

  • 13 To the extent that mass attitudes shift, so may the foundations of international accords, necessitating a greater focus on “deliberative deficits” and “legitimacy gaps” in undermining elite consensus and policy practices. There are both domestic and international effects here. Consider, for example, how the framing of the project of European Union has shifted from “prevent war” with the ECSA agreement of 1951 to “prevent inflation” under EMU at century's end. The evaluation of what the EU is “for” necessarily impacts what the EU as actor can and cannot do. Similarly, the IMFs informal practices are some distance from its formal mandate and encourage a “legitimacy gap” between itself, its member states, and their mass publics (see Seabrooke 2007b).


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