The theory of constructivism was developed towards the end of the 20th century as a challenge to the rationalism and positivism of the theory of realism (Steele, 2017). The advocates for this school of thought within international relations include Alexander Wendt, Nicholas Onuf and Friedrich Kratochwilas. Constructivism differs from realism in that it emphasises the importance of social ideas and actions in constructing and shaping international relations (Alder, 1997). Constructivism places “holism, idealism and identity” (Barnett, 2017: 147) at the core of explaining states’ behaviours and interests. These interests are endogenous to the state, and are dynamically shaped by changes in social interactions in evolving geopolitical contexts (Wendt, 1992: 397). In other words, this theory views that the international structure as a “social structure infused with ideational factors to include norms, rules and law” (Viotti and Kauppi 2010: 277). The system in which states interact is constructed by sets of norms composed of ideas and beliefs shared by different actors; changes in the international system follow any changes in these sets of norms (Jackson and Sørensen, 2007).
The term structure according to constructivism refers to the interactions between agents (individuals, non-state actors and states) that take place on the backdrop of a social, historical and cultural context. The relationship between agents and structure is interdependent: the actions of the agents have a direct effect on the structure, which in turn delineates the identities and interests of the agents (Reus-Smit and Snidal, 2008). Once the identities and interests of the agents are defined, these then shape the agents’ actions. In consequence, the stage of international politics is formed as a result of the continuous process of social interaction. This sentiment is famously echoed by Nicholas Onuf who states that we live in a “world of our making” (Onuf, 1989: 341), wherein nothing is inherently existent or given but created in each interaction with others.
In accordance, Alexander Wendt contends that “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992: 395). The connotation of this statement is that the anarchic nature of international politics does not innately result in conflict as realists argue, rather, conflict occurs as a result of the expectations and meanings placed on others during social interactions. These interactions involve each actor creating constructs of a ‘self’ and an ‘other’, which are perceived as allies, rivals or enemies (Wendt, 1992: 404). In response to these constructs, the agents then adopt corresponding behaviours ranging from alliance to aggression. Therefore, despite conditions of anarchy, alliances can be formed between friendly states on account of their shared values and ideas. Likewise, the categorization of states as enemies can result in war. In contrast to the realism model which argues that international politics is driven exclusively by self-interests and rational calculations, Wendt’s model proposes that politics is a construction based on ideology, identity and social interaction.
Ted Hopf one of the constructivists who argue that anarchy is an “imagined community” where a “continuum of anarchies is possible” (Hopf, 1998: 174). This is in contrast to the realist proposal which states that self-help and power politics are essential features of anarchy. Constructivists, on the other hand, perceive self-help and power politics as institutions which affect the structure of international relations (Wendt, 1992). As a direct result of this perception, constructivists believe that the use of force is not a pre-requisite to the survival of a state (Weber, 2014).
Evidently, constructivism provides a more optimistic outlook towards international politics. The static view taken by the realist theory places balance of power as an inevitable consequence of the international system wherein chaos is unavoidable, resulting in war and conflict. On the other hand, constructivists believe that conflict is not inevitable, rather threats of conflict can be extinguished through the analysis and restructuring of identities. In brief, whilst constructivists accept the presence of anarchy in the international system, they argue that its effects are dependent on the subjective meanings we place on it.
In concise terms, realism identifies patterns of behaviour in a world that is apparent and objectively observable. This notion is rejected in constructivism which argues that the world is socially constructed and therefore, not objectively verifiable (Reus-Smit and Snidal, 2008). An inherent difference between the theories of realism and constructivism lies in the method through which they both approach the concept of ideas in the political world. Constructivism stresses that ideas take a central role in the world of politics, whereas realism is completely indifferent to its importance.
Despite the evident differences between the two outlooks, both constructivism and realism are not completely dissimilar. Both theories hold that states are the “fundamental actors in international politics” (Weber, 2014: 264). With regards to constructivism, this belief allows for the presence of non-state actors but places the greatest power in the constructed relationships between states in terms of the effect on the international structure. An additional shared feature between the two theories lies in an underlying commitment to an “epistemology indebted to positivism” which provides an outlook through which to understand the world (Fierke, 2016: 167).
Following the aforementioned overview of constructivism, including both its differences and similarities with realism, this theory can now be applied in the analysis of the Syrian conflict. Its emphasis on the non-material factors and inclusion of history, ideas and identity allow a structured analysis of the convoluted aspects of the Syrian conflict.
In the specificity of the Syrian case, the Syrian protesters who peacefully demonstrated publicly for democracy were brought to the streets through the awareness of a new collective national identity. They became aware of the ‘self’ and its irreconcilability with the oppressive ‘other’. Assad forged a new ‘self-identity’ in response to the changing political climate, an identity of a legitimate ruler aiming to hold power despite the efforts of the ‘other’ (i.e. terrorists and dissidents). This led him to the brutal repression of protests. However, the new national identity constructed by the Syrian people is far more sectarian, with divisions along ethnic and religious lines. This explains the fragmentations amongst the opposition forces; which resulted in further complications.
Applying the constructivism theory to the Syrian conflict allows us to understand the novel structure which emerged as a direct result of the mounting internal chaos and led to the formation of subnational identities. The initial protests saw the construction of the identity of the Syrian people who called for a new national order; this initial cohesion gave way and disintegrated into numerous identities along both religious and ethnic lines. The fragmentation of the anti-Assad faction resulted in a now disunited front, consisting of a rapidly growing number of groups who designated themselves under the ‘Sunni’, ‘Islamist’ or ‘Kurdish’ banners. Such groups regarded the ‘Alawite’, ‘Kafir’ or ‘Arabic’ groups respectively as the ‘other’ and hence, as enemies to be defeated. These new sub-national identities naturally came to oppose one another in addition to their initial common enemy. As such, the people were forced to engage in inter-subjective relationships which formed a key factor in the subsequent maelstrom that has characterized the Syrian civil war, moving towards ever increasing sectarianism along the Sunni-Shia, Secular-Islamist and Arab-Kurd splits. Such turbulence lends itself to Assad’s promotion of a self-image as the legitimately elected president and regional champion of the Arab and Shia identity. In accordance, those who had taken up arms against his reign were designated as ‘terrorists’ and ‘Sunni fanatical groups’ who have the illegitimate support of his Western and Gulf enemies. In summary, the contradictory ideas, identities and perceptions are succinctly explained using the constructivism approach as tools to understand the Syrian civil war internally between Assad and the various opposition groups.
The constructivism approach also provides an interesting interpretation of the various different external interventions into the Syrian conflict. The formation of opposing groups in the form of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Turkey on one side; and Iran, Hezbollah and Assad on the other side, can be extrapolated as a continuation of the Sunni-Shia conflict, the roots of which stem from historic differences in the perception of Islam’s religious sub-identities. Similarly, historical differences in ideology also explains the antagonistic views of the United States of America and Russia on the Syrian conflict. The United States of America views itself as the international defender of peace, democracy and liberalism and hence opposes the perceived illiberalism embodied by the Russian, Iranian and Assad forces. On the other hand, Russia, along with China, view themselves as powers that champion national sovereignty and international law in contrast to America’s flagrant international interventions. Such self-constructed identity is evident in Russia’s use of its veto power, highlighting its anti-interventional stance (Averre and Davies, 2015).
Concluding the key aspects, the dual-natured Syrian conflict is both a civil war between Assad and the Syrian rebel forces, and an international war fought though proxies by external states supporting one or another of these sides. Realism can be used to explain the war’s international dimension as it highlights the material interests that reasonably give account for the intervention of external actors such as the United States of America, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Constructivism focuses more on the effects of identity and ideology on behaviour, as well as how the protests turned into a civil war with religious and ethnic divides and how the war morphed into an international struggle. In short, the theory of constructivism provides a highly nuanced analysis of the Syrian conflict. This detailed account can be argued to be stronger than the realism approach due to its emphasis on social factors and the significance of ideas, allowing the explanation of factors which are beyond the scope of realism. Despite this, realism is still the theory of choice in terms of explaining international conflict, with a large backing of historical evidence in its favour. However, Michael Barnett takes an opposing stance and states that realism falls short in explaining the numerous vital factors which have played a part in the region, including the absence of large scale military build-up and arms races, the prominence of symbolism over frank military force, and the widespread regional instability (Barnett, 1998).
In conclusion, both theories of realism and constructivism aim to explain the causes of conflicts between and within states in the globalised arena of international relations. The former theory relies on the ‘struggle for power’ assumption, while the latter focuses on the ‘centrality of identity’. Realism explains the Syrian conflict as a power struggle between different state actors, while constructivism identifies one of the causes of the conflict as the increasing rivalry between minority groups within Syria and the prevention of a unified Syrian identity. On their own, each theory is limited in its explanatory capability. It can therefore be argued that the complexity of the Syrian conflict requires both theories to be utilised to comprehensively understand the crux dynamics of the conflict. This is crucially important especially with regards to the involvement of politically unique actors such as ISIS. A careful and deep critical analysis of this conflict, one of the worst of our times, is required to provide politicians with a sound understanding to better guide policy making.