A flashback to 1990s constructivism

Reading the news on Iran gives me flashbacks to reading Alexander Wendt in grad school and social constructivists popular in the 1990s. These scholars popularized an optimistic approach of international relations that suggested cultural change in world politics could promote cooperation and multilateral global governance. While today’s relational constructivism has largely moved toward studying social ties rather than ideas, social constructivism can still be useful in explaining the relationship between diplomacy, national identity, and future cooperation. It can certainly be applied to the current relationship between United States and Iran, one defined by new diplomatic engagement and has challenged Iran’s perception of the United States and its own identity within world politics.

Back in the 1990s, social constructivists made the progressive claims that anarchy was only what states make of it. They assumed that states were not predisposed toward competition solely because of anarchy. Instead, the effects of anarchy on competition and cooperation depended on what states thought of each other. If states spread new ideas about each other’s identities and associated norms about how states ought to behave based on those identities, they could engage in peaceful interaction as members of a common international society (Wendt basically is extending the English School). Anarchy itself is an “empty structure”, and changes in the meaning of anarchy correspond to changes in what states thought of each other, namely their identities and the perceived identities of others.

A key mechanism in constructivist theorizing is known as reflexivity, whereby individual actors engage in a critical reflection on their relationship to the world around them and realize how their actions reproduce conflict. When states think and act reflexively in relation to other hostile states, they present a cooperative identity to enemies to falsify their expectations of hostility, thereby causing both to change how define themselves in relation to each other.

These constructivist assumptions about ideas and social interaction go a long way toward explaining the current disagreements in Iran regarding its own identity and that of the United States. Since the 1979 revolution, Islamic Republic has always defined itself in opposition to the threat of American imperialism. Based on American support for the Shah as a regional client of the post-war international order, the Islamic Republic sees the United States as a constant threat to Iranian sovereignty. This assumption serves as the basis for Iran’s revolutionary identity and the perception that it must challenge the United States across the Middle East or risk domination.

However, the successful conclusion of negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and end of punishing sanctions against Iran is a major problem for its historical identity. According to Joost Hilterman, the nuclear deal is a signal to Iran that the United States no longer is pursuing a policy of regime change, in which the United States would seek to overthrow the regime and establish a new one consistent with American interests and values. By signaling the absence of such threat, Iranian elites have to reconceptualize American identity based on unexpected cooperation:

Iran’s favorite scapegoat can no longer plausibly be regarded as the root of all evil in the world…’Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore,’ said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and supporter of Mr. Rouhani. ‘Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that.’

Tonight on 60 Minutes, President Rouhani will reciprocate this reduction of hostilities when he says that the phrase “Death to America” – a staple of Iranian anti-Americanism – does not refer to the American people but American policies. Rouhani is signaling that the Iranian regime no longer views the United States as an existential threat and accepts its sovereign autonomy and right to make decisions about world politics along with Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister has said much of the same.   Apparently lesser Satans can be tolerated in world politics, and even be a negotiating partner in dealing with the regions many other issues.

The downgrading of hostilities between the United States and Iran is a major challenge for hard-liners in the regime who rationalize a hawkish foreign policy based on hostility to the existing order. Certainly Ayatollah Khamenei wants to retain the existing Iranian sense of self, and has sought to reinforce it by stating that there will be no future cooperation with the United States.

But maintaining revisionism no longer make sense if the United States and other great power are willing to sit down and peacefully resolve disputes through reciprocal concessions. And neither does a national identity defined in terms of absolute rejection of the order in which Iran is now participating. Now that the Islamic Republic has taken its place within the broader ‘society of states’, a revolutionary identity is no longer consistent with the ideas about Iran held by other nations, and thus its ideas about itself must change as well.

Social constructivists can make a fairly strong claim here to explain the ongoing struggles about Iran’s identity using the concept of reflexivity. The cooperative actions of the United States and Iran – choosing to relax sanctions and commit not to use military force in exchange for Iranian cooperation – have established a new cultural context in international politics, and Iran’s identity is now adjusting accordingly. The Obama administration deserves a great deal of credit for triggering this change based on its persistent diplomatic engagement with Iran. Whether speaking to Rouhani on the phone, sending letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, or wishing Iran a happy new year on Nowruz, the administration has presented itself to Iran as a potential partner in cooperation and falsified expectations of hostility learned during the Bush administration. In this way, Obama and Rouhani are acting as reflexive partners who deliberately challenge existing beliefs about each other’s intentions to produce a new shared understanding about cooperation.

Relational constructivists would certainly oppose this explanation. They would argue that the United States and Iran engaged in bargaining over their identities using rhetorical commonplaces, which were always subject to definition and redefinition in the course of the negotiations. They would reject the idea that agent identities and structures are different kinds of things, and instead would point to the relational ties between the United States, Iran, and other actors that made such discourses of cooperation possible, namely the multilateral ties among the P5+1, which gave American promises of restraint more credibility and also denied Iran the opportunity to weaken the sanctions regime by fracturing P5 unity. Rhetorical and relational dynamics would explain cooperation, not reflexivity inside the minds of each actor.

These explanations are quite useful, and relational constructivism is a dramatic improvement on the social constructivism of the 1990s. But it is hard to think about how cooperation does emerge here without going back to the different approach toward Iran taken by the Obama administration. American identity does seem to change, going from unilateral neoconservatism to a more restrained multilateralism. As a concept, reflexivity does much of the work here, and it suggests that we shouldn’t so easily discard social constructivism as a theory of culture and identity in international relations. IR theorists might use this case as a point of departure to think about reflexivity in the context of relational constructivism. Yes, relationships matter as conduits for ideas and can’t spread without them, but those ideas have to originate somewhere.


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