Constructivism, Identity, and the “Religions” of Post-Modernism
Introduction to IJWP, September 2020
This issue of IJWP marks the first time that our authors have used a constructivist approach to international relations. Constructivism begins with the premise that international relations are socially constructed and that states behave more on the basis of the identity of other states than on their material resources. In an excerpt from International Relations Theory, Sarina Theys, citing Alexander Wendt, explained constructivism as follows:
Alexander Wendt (1995) offers an excellent example that illustrates the social construction of reality when he explains that 500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than five North Korean nuclear weapons. These identifications are not caused by the nuclear weapons (the material structure) but rather by the meaning given to the material structure (the ideational structure). It is important to understand that the social relationship between the United States and Britain and the United States and North Korea is perceived in a similar way by these states, as this shared understanding (or intersubjectivity) forms the basis of their interactions. The example also shows that nuclear weapons by themselves do not have any meaning unless we understand the social context. It further demonstrates that constructivists go beyond the material reality by including the effect of ideas and beliefs on world politics.
Using the example of Bhutan, wedged between Tibet and India, Theys shows how constructivism better explains that country’s posture towards India and China than conventional IR theories. She concluded her article stating “it is not only the distribution of material power, wealth and geographical conditions that can explain state behavior but also ideas, identities, and norms. Furthermore, their focus on ideational factors shows that reality is not fixed, but rather subject to change.”
In our article, “BRI, CPEC, and Pakistan: A Qualitative Content Analysis on China’s Grand Strategies,” Nazmul Islam and Esra Eymen Cansu analyze the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in terms of China’s constructivist approach to regional affairs where “China can introduce its own understanding of norms and values to make its rise peaceful within the international culture that China constructs.” China has successfully “sold” its regional norms and values to Pakistan by providing economic assistance in exchange for access to Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Indian Ocean, and by providing the security of its nuclear umbrella as an ally in the case Pakistan is attacked by India.
Constructivism is based on the perceptions, beliefs, and stereotypes assigned to a state’s identity in the form of narrative, either by a powerful state like China promoting itself, or a small state like Bhutan reacting in fear against China’s takeover of Tibet. Such narratives repeatedly told by authority figures help form the initial basis of social consciousness of citizens in the form of naive belief. Narratives are the way children gain their first beliefs about the world from parents, and it is the way many religions transmit their values through scriptures. However, rational, scientific, and critical analysis of such beliefs aids in understanding whether they are true, trustworthy, and constructive or false, reliable, and destructive.
Post-modern philosophers have argued that there is no objective truth, and that reason and science are metanarratives that are socially constructed. In the absence of universal truths, there are only constructed human truths—conventional truths understood in common by cultural groups, and truths imposed by elites in power. Initially, critical post-modern thinkers sought to “deconstruct” inherited truth to learn how our inherited truths developed and how they reflected social conditions of previous times. These studies relativized the value of “truth,” and some scholars argue we have entered a “post-truth world.” Thus China’s attempt to universalize its own civilizational values and, though power and influence, get Pakistan and other regional states to adopt its constructed narratives becomes the modus operandi in a post-truth world. Constructivism in international relations thus becomes narrative and identity politics at the great power level.
Post-modernism has now entered into a crisis that some philosophers consider as serious as the crisis that confronted religions with the rise of science—which was able to generate practical results from scientific methods that produced universal value—causing many to reject inherited religious doctrines and beliefs. Identity politics, and in the US party politics, increasingly reflects narrative decoupled from science, and for some post-modernists all that is left is socially constructed narratives and power decoupled from reality—thus looking like “fake news” to those seeking rational and scientific justifications for truth.
Post-modern socially constructed group narratives to be taken by faith by members of the group increasingly look and behave like irrational fundamentalist religions. The April 2, 2017 Time magazine headline “Is Truth Dead?” was a replica of their “Is God Dead?” cover from April 8, 1966. In this context, John McWhorter in an article in The Atlantic could argue that “third-wave anti-racism” has become America’s newest religion, complete with doctrines that have nothing to do with progress or success. And, “post-truth” reality has debased the political process in the US, reducing politics to imposing party narrative by any means, rather than through legal and civil processes. This has led philosophers, such as Ken Wilber to conclude that the election of Donald Trump as President was a consequence of the failure of post-modernism to generate universal common-sense solutions that applied to all people equally. Politics needs to move beyond self-interest to higher consciousness.
This leads to the points made by Steve McIntosh in his book, Developmental Politics: How America Can Grow into a Better Version of Itself reviewed by Don Trubshaw in this issue. The hyperpolarization, if not war, between the two political parties in the United States is based on radically different group identities and narratives in US politics. McIntosh argues that the narratives are essentially partial and incomplete belief systems. The mainstream culture is modernist and rooted in science and traditional liberal values; traditional values that enabled society to evolve to the modernist worldview are part of the conservative political platform, while post-modern progressive values critique the negatives of prevailing values without recognizing their importance in sustaining society. The identity politics we witness today is what McIntosh considers one of the “pathologies” of post-modernism when unmoored from the traditional and modern worldviews. After explaining the positive and negative values of each worldview, McIntosh argues that cultural evolution is an integration that enhances the positive values in each worldview and constrains the negative pathologies of each.
On the international level, McIntosh’s approach could complement constructivism in IR theory, explaining how to evaluate and integrate state-level values, such as those that undermine Chinese, American, and other values on the international stage. Such integration is what McIntosh refers to as “cultural intelligence” and the application of cultural intelligence will promote greater peace, prosperity, and equality.
This first article in this issue, “From War Among Clans to War on Terror: Internationalization of the Somali Conflict,” by Mohamed Salah Ahmed, provides a good discussion of how failed states become targets for control by both internal and external forces, in this case tribalism within Somalia, fundamentalist Islamic groups in the region, and geo-strategic contests among great powers.
Our third article, “Importance of Spirituality and Happiness at the Workplace,” by mathematician Ganesh Prasad Pokhariyal develops a mathematical model for understanding happiness in the workplace, which is important for happiness in life. The determinants of happiness at the workplace are considered to be organizational performance, employee satisfaction, and fulfilment of social responsibility.
Finally, I would like to mention the significant review of Janet Landman’s book, Looking for Revolution, Finding Murder: The Crimes and Transformation of Katherine Ann Power, by Rachel Halfrida Cunliffe. Both the book and the review are important additions to restorative justice literature. The book and review, which looks at the transformation of Katherine Ann Power, a 1960s activist who got involved with robbery and violence, also discloses a transformation of the author. It can shed light on those involved with restorative justice today as idealists seeking to improve society can get caught up in demonstrations that turn violent and cause harm that can lead to a life of regret.
Gordon L., Anderson, Editor
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