There are several theoretical perspectives on the relations between states which offer varying descriptive and predictive conclusions regarding state behaviour. However, none of the theories presented offer a universal answer to the question of how states behave. For instance, several neo-realist scholars during the Cold War believed that the natural state of the international system is anarchy, and this would logically induce states to seek to increase their relative material power as much as possible to protect their security. From this, they deduced that the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union would eventually reach a breaking point and turn “hot”. Yet, though neo-realists  correctly predicted the arms race, the Cold War never turned “hot”. [1] 

Realism, in all its variants, is not the only theory of international relations to correctly describe certain elements of state behaviour while incorrectly predicting others. This is due to the nature of the development of international theories. One of Marx’s insights is that the progression of history is dependent on the scientific conditions of the people taking part in it. A “materialist conception of history,” where “it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice.” Therefore, ideas of human organization are created by people based on the current conditions of their lives. 

An ideation which arises out of certain material circumstances may not be able to offer accurate predictive applications because it is difficult to predict the material conditions of the future. In social terms, the development of the means of production has the potential to drastically alter the circumstances of people’s lives – as, for example, the invention of the internet has. In terms of international relations, a sudden shift in the global power balance, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, can quickly alter the scientific conditions of the global system. States, therefore, must pursue their fundamental goals, such as security and prosperity, within the constraints in which they find themselves, as determined by their present material circumstances. This phenomenon is reflected in models of state behaviour such as realism, neoliberalism, and even to an extent constructivism.

During the Cold War, it seemed that the world would be condemned to an eternal, bi-polar struggle between two world powers. Thus, in order to assure their security interests, relatively weaker powers, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, had to ally themselves with one pole or the other. The superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – had to constantly grow their military and technological capabilities, lest they fall behind and have their security interests threatened by their rival. Therefore, it is no surprise that variants of realist thought dominated the foreign policy and academia of both superpowers. In the Soviet Union, realism was intertwined with a Marxist tinge. According to Nikita Khruschev, who was the Soviet Premier from 1953 to 1964, his country would embark on an “intense economic, political, and ideological struggle between the proletariat and the aggressive forces of imperialism in the world arena.”

According to political scientists Robert Jackson and Georg Sørensen: “after the end of the Cold War… it soon became obvious that the parsimonious neorealist theory was not at all clear about future developments.” [2] Moreover,  with the decline of the Soviet Union, the United States lost its primary adversary and security threat, whilst simultaneously becoming the sole global superpower. Thus, in order to further its economic and security interests, the United States sought to ensure that states around the world would be compliant with American objectives. If this were achieved, American core interests would not be threatened. Instead of forcing compliance on the world militarily, which would have likely been an impossibility, the focus turned to socially constructing the “national interest” of other states to be complementary to that of the United States through a “mutual constitution of structures and agents.” [3]

Therefore, constructivist thought, the concept of real-world consequences from assigning “meanings” to physical objects, was developed and came to the forefront of American foreign policy. This was the reason that Russia was invited to the elite group of liberal economic powers, the G7, in 1998: to help it “consolidate democratic gains.” The United States would redouble its efforts to promote “positive” norms of international behaviour through its institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. These norms would include such items as the free exchange of goods, which resulted in an increase of U.S. GDP per capita by 19 percent from 2001 to 2017. As such, although constructivism’s emphasis on the ideas behind objects often puts it at odds with materialism, the shaping of the ideas which others consider can be used for real material impacts. 

However, the constructivist adoption of American liberal values has not been universal – in both Russia and China realpolitik continues. Unlike that which was the case for the United States and its allies, the fall of the Soviet Union did not remove the existential threat for these countries. Instead, their adversary, the United States and, to some extent, the liberal world order, continued to pose a significant threat. This is because Russia and China know that America understands that these two countries can still materially threaten U.S. interests, even in their relatively weaker state. Therefore, the United States will continue to view both countries as a threat, which, in turn will threaten their security, thereby creating a positive feedback loop. Therefore, a form of realism continues to be  reflected in Russia’s and China’s foreign policy behaviour. 

Russian realists view the constructivist pursuit of liberal democracies to shape their interests as “as little more than ideology covering a struggle for world domination.” [4] Accordingly, with its existential threat amplified under America’s global hegemony, the Russian state has taken a realist approach to geo-politics, as demonstrated, for example, by its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Such actions appear to be at odds with the social construction to the international order it had supposedly undergone. Chinese foreign policy follows a similar pattern. A study of the writings of Chinese political and academic leaders found that “realist categories emphasizing increases in China’s material and ideational power relative to that of foreign countries remain at the core of most Chinese thinking on the future,” despite efforts by the United States towards “encouraging China’s internal reform and external cooperation.” [5]

Overall, realist thought dominated the Cold War era, whereas the new world order appears dominated by opposing poles of constructivist and neo-realist foreign policy – whereby actions and corresponding theories are prescribed by states’ current material condition. In short, material circumstances can impact the development of theories on international relations. However, how states perceive themselves and each other can nevertheless impact the way they behave. It is evident that constructivism can be used as a tool by powerful states to pursue material interests, but it also provides a framework to analyze the impact of ideas on state behaviour. Therefore, an interesting question for further analysis might be: to what extent do material circumstances impact the ideas states have on how to behave, as opposed to the effect these ideas have on their real behaviour?

Edited by Sophia Dilworth


[1] Lebow, Richard Ned. “The Long Peace, the End of the Cold War, and the Failure of Realism.” International Organization 48, no. 2 (1994): 249-77.

[2] Jackson, Robert, and Georg Sørensen. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. Fifth ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. pg. 210

[3] Hurd, Ian. “Constructivism.” In The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal. The Oxford Handbooks of Political Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[4] Tsygankov, Andrei P., and Pavel A. Tsygankov. “Russian Theory of International Relations.” In The International Studies Encyclopedia, edited by Robert A. Denemark and Renée Marlin-Bennett, 6375-387. Vol. 10. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[5] Lynch, Daniel. “Chinese Thinking on the Future of International Relations: Realism as the Ti, Rationalism as the Yong?” The China Quarterly, no. 197 (2009): 87-107.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Michael Vadon via Flickr