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Sam Goldman


Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Chapters 6 and 7

We learned in the previous assignment that “anarchy is what states make of it”. Now Wendt separates that argument into a causal and a constitutive claim. The latter, which is the subject of Chapter 6, goes more or less as follows: Rationalist models are incorrect to assume that only the behavior of states is affected by the structure of the international system. Instead, the interests and identities of states are themselves constructed by the distribution of ideas within that system.

In any given ideational structure, some ideas will be shared and others will be private. Shared ideas, especially about the nature of Self and Other, are the “culture” or, more correctly, the “political culture” of an international system. The political culture of a system is the most important thing we need to know to understand how it works.

Wendt perceives three distinct cultures of anarchy: Hobbesian, Lockean, and Kantian. Each of these is constituted by a particular notion of the basic relationship between states. A state may consider its Other an enemy, rival, or friend, respectively. Each culture, moreover, includes three degrees of “internalization” – the motive states have for playing by the rules. They are: (1st) coercion; (2nd) interest; (3rd) legitimacy.

All nine combinations are logically possible. But we do not observe them with equal frequency. For example, most of human history has been characterized by a second- degree Hobbesian anarchy: states considered it to be in their interest (ie, they reflected upon their position rather than simply responding to immediate threats) to eliminate other states when they could, and to maintain a defensive balance when they could not. The Peace of Westphalia, however, created a Lockean anarchy based on the principle of sovereignty. This meant the states might continue to use violence against each other – perhaps more frequently than before – but they would not exterminate their rivals. According to Wendt, we still live in this world.

Two additional points: First, the presence of shared ideas is not identical with high levels of cooperation. One can imagine a “legitimate” Hobbesian system in which war is generally regarded as necessary and honorable. Second, political cultures need not be global systems. So states might find themselves in a Kantian culture vis-a-vis their immediate neighbors, but continue to recognize a Lockean anarchy in the wider world.

So much for the constitutive effects of political culture. How are “the structures of international politics…reproduced and transformed by the practices of states (and non- state) agents”? It is easier to answer this question in reference to changes in degree than changes in culture. In general, cultures tend to be increasingly well internalized over time, and thus to be regarded eventually as legitimate. The future may not be better but, given the fact that we no longer live in a Hobbesian culture, it probably won’t be worse.

Changes in identity or the basic relationship between Self and Other require a more sophisticated explanation. Chapter 7 offers a constructivist model of identity that takes

Sam Goldman


agents as constantly in process. This model of “cultural selection” is opposed to the materialist model of “natural selection”, in which states that are poorly adapted for competition are eliminated from the system. “Natural selection” occurs only, if ever, in a Hobbesian condition that no longer exists; it is not a helpful concept for understanding contemporary politics.

There are two mechanisms of cultural selection: (1) imitation; and (2) social learning. The difference appears to consist in the fact that (2) is mutually constitutive: both agents in an interaction learn and change in response to each other through “reflective appraisal”. Imitation, by contrast, implies change in only one direction. It is not clear, however, that these categories are really distinct. For example, the imitation of a single agent by many other agents in the system would presumably entail a change in the nature of that system, and thus a new collective identity. Systemic change is nevertheless not easy. Social learning tends to become self-reinforcing or homeostatic, as states reproduce the behaviors dictated by their own understanding of the world.

Wendt identifies four “master variables” or causal mechanisms of social learning. Specifically, these are intended to suggest how states might come to establish a Kantian culture of anarchy – how they might come to view each other as friends rather than rivals. The master variables are: (1) interdependence; (2) common fate; (3) homogeneity; and (4) self-restraint. The first three are efficient causes of a “friendly” collective identity, the last is a permissive cause. Wendt gives no account of how states managed to exchange Hobbesian for Lockean anarchy.