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it profitable to change the system," according to neorealists (Barnett 1995: 487). However, according to constructivist theories of international development, the identity of state actors is an eternally changing cultural, political, and social problem (Hopf 1998: 176). According to constructivists, there are no a priori state interests, and power is not simply defined in economic and military terms (although these are understood to have an impact on geopolitics (Hopf 1998: 177). State identity must be situated and contextualized, and thus constructivists often conceive of the international political order as far more volatile than neorealists.

This idea of that the international political order is the product of a negotiation of social meanings seems particularly relevant to the Middle East, where apparently illogical actions by some state actors can be understood as a cultural product, rather than a purely tactical negotiation of power. Additionally, many non-state actors and forces (such as clans, terrorist organizations, and the influence of Islamic sects) can impact the evolution of policy. According to Michael Barnett's 1995 article, "Sovereignty, nationalism, and regional order in the Arab states system," "if Arab leaders were reluctant to treat each other as sovereign entities, frequently challenging one another's authority and territorial basis of existence, it was because of the presence of a rival institution of pan-Arabism that allocated potentially contradictory roles and behavioral expectations" (Barnett 1995: 484). The 'elastic' concept of Arab nationalism has battled, ideologically, with the idea of national sovereignty. According to constructivism, the fact that "nations are understood as having a shared identity, past, and future, and nationalism is a political movement that demands a correspondence between the nation and political author" makes it a thorny issue for the Middle East, as national unity and coherence seldom exists within current state borders, much less between all Arab nations (Barnett 1995:484).

Barnett notes that even neorealist analysts in the region admit that ideological concepts have an impact upon the politics of the Middle East. "the ability to manipulate one's own image and the image of one's rivals in the minds of other Arab elites," and the breakdown of Pan-Arabism after the Arab defeat during the 1967 war suggests that a narrow neoliberal understanding of Arab state actions cannot be supported with existing historical evidence (Barnett 1995:489). The great value, Barnett says, in using a constructivist approach is its emphasis on relationality, versus a 'black box' concept. 'Pan-Arab' institutions that facilitate cooperation arise not out of a perfectly rational calculation of mutual state interests, but a complicated negotiation of customs and identities. Such institutions themselves create identities such as the notion of 'the Arab world' itself. Institutions provide stability not because they prevent conflict through force, but because they create "relatively stable expectations and shared norms among actors that occupy set roles" (Barnett 1995:491).

However, the League of Arab States, established after World War II, did not provide such stability because there was a constant conflict between ideas of Arab sovereignty and nationalism. On one hand, Arab states were desperate to defend their legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world community. Part of their claim to nationhood rested on the idea of being uniquely 'Arab,' unlike the colonial powers that formerly occupied the region. But responsibilities owed to other Arab state actors were unclear and were frequently in conflict (Barnett 1995:497). However, despite such factionalism and friction, attempts at achieving unity, for economic, political, and ideological reasons continue to be negotiated, even today

Constructivism is essential to make sense of the Gulf region. Frequently, outsiders complain that an Arab state's refusal to acknowledge Israel or grand democratic liberties to its citizens seems irrational in the extreme: understanding the profound importance of resisting what are seen as the colonial forces of the West is highlighted in a constructivist narrative and helps to illuminate such a position. Constructivism highlights the nuances of different states' positions. Today, despite the united front they may against Israel, many Arab leaders may be quietly far more anxious about the dangers posed by rival Muslim states, such as Shiite-dominated Iran. Within states, Shiite-Sunni rivalry, and longstanding historical hostilities between factions can also hold sway, and fight for dominance over the concept of 'Arabism.' The multifaceted and conglomerate nature of many Arab states, as well as the need to establish state legitimacy cannot be understood in purely 'rational' terms.

Despite the name 'neorealism,' constructivism seems far more 'realistic' in the way that it conceptualizes the behavior of nation-states. States such as Saudi Arabia may desire to attract Western investment, yet hold true to a fairly fundamentalist concept of Islam in terms of national social policy. Governments may be internally threatened by the presence of minority religious factions, which will affect their relationships with other Gulf States, despite professions of Arab unity, as in the case of the Sunni-Shiite conflict within Iraq. How a state perceives its interests in relation to the region's recent past history of colonialism, its economic interests relative to other Arab OPEC nations, and the potential political threats posed by Arab neighbors and non-state forces such as terrorist groups will vary from state to state, and cannot be easily categorized in a 'black box' or neorealist fashion.


Barnett, Michael N. "Sovereignty, nationalism, and regional order in the Arab states system."

International Organization, 49. 3, (Summer, 1995), 479-510 [January 24, 2011]

Hopf, Ted. "The promise of constructivism in international relations." International Security,

23. 1 (Summer, 1998), 171-200.[January 24, 2011[continue]

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"Constructivism" (2011, January 24) Retrieved November 28, 2015, from

"Constructivism" 24 January 2011. Web.28 November. 2015. <>

"Constructivism", 24 January 2011, Accessed.28 November. 2015,

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