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Neorealist and Constructivist Views of Anarchy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 2630 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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What do you understand by an “anarchic system of states”? How do neorealists (Grieco) and constructivists (Wendt) differ in their understandings of anarchy?

Anarchy is often seen as the core concept in international politics, being explored by multiple IR schools of thought in an attempt to understand and explain the international system. But while many IR theories understand anarchy and agree that the international system is anarchic, where the differences of theories arise is their interpretation of how anarchy affects international relations (Parent and Erikson, 2009: 129). This essay will thus, explore two key theories in regard to anarchy, neorealism and constructivism, and attempt to compare the two theories to understand how they are similar in their understandings of anarchy, and more importantly, how they are different. This essay will look into the various ways at how anarchy is interpreted such as; how each theory defines and explains anarchy’s role in international politics, through the cooperation of states, and through non-state actors and by researching these points, this essay will analyse the significant differences of the two theories interpretations of anarchy.

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To begin, this essay will research into how anarchy is defined by each theory and its effect in the international system. Firstly, neorealism is one of the more straightforward and simple theoretical approaches to anarchy. It had been thought of by Kenneth Waltz in 1979, emerging from the IR theory, classical realism. The two theories shared a multitude of key points concerning anarchy, including the three fundamental assumptions that allow anarchy to function which are; firstly, that the world is composed of sovereign states; secondly, there is no higher authority to govern the international system; and thirdly, the absence of a higher authority then means that the international system is anarchic (Weber, 2005: 15). In this system of anarchy, “security is the highest end” (Waltz, 1979: 126), and states will do all they can to ensure their own survival. But as opposed to classical realism, where human nature is the core catalyst as to why states want to acquire power to inevitably survive, it is instead the “structure or architecture of the international system that forces states to pursue power” (Mearsheimer, 2010: 78). With no higher authority ruling over the multiple states in the international system, it leaves these states in the dilemma of the need to acquire power to protect them from potential threats or as Waltz summarises it; that “states may at any time use force, all states must be prepared to do so – or live at the mercy of their militarily more vigorous neighbours” (Waltz, 1979: 102). Due to this, neorealists argue that anarchy is the primary cause of international conflict and other international dilemmas because there is no government above states which can attempt to prevent them, and states are at the most basic argument, fighting for survival.

However, constructivists challenge this claim that the international system is inherently anarchic, most famously by Alexander Wendt who claimed that “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992: 391) and instead of the international system being inherently anarchic, claims that “people act towards objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them” (Wendt, 1992: 396). This can be interpreted as states having different national interests which have emerged from a range of influences such as from history and society. From this, constructivists would argue that the international system is “imbued with social values, norms and assumptions” (Fierke, 2007: 168) and thus, socially constructed.  The belief that the international system is influenced by things such as norms, emphasizes “the social aspect of human existence” (Copeland, 1999: 189) and further differentiates constructivism from neorealism, which is heavily state-centric. Arguing for the possible causes of war brings us back to Wendt’s original argument that anarchy is what states make of it. The social construction of the international system has led countries to believe they need to fight to survive and that enemies are out to destroy them. Instead, while most constructivists do believe that it is a state’s primary objective to survive, they could do so in more cooperative terms (Weber, 2009: 67) which could be argued is heavily linked to neoliberalism. To complete this section, it seems that for neorealists the international system is inherently anarchic which forces states to compete for survival, while constructivists refute this claim, arguing through Wendt, that anarchy is what states make of it, and that anarchy is socially constructed which produces the problems in international politics.

The next issue this essay will put forth is the cooperation between states and whether cooperation can actually be achieved in an anarchic international system. To begin, neorealism believes that anarchy will largely prohibit most forms of international cooperation. But this does not mean that cooperation is unachievable, it’s just the anarchic system which makes it difficult to achieve and maintain cooperation (Grieco et al, 1993: 729). Due to neorealists believing that states are self-centred, it provides an environment to which states often become anxious towards cooperation. States could see cooperation as a loss of their individual power which in effect, could make them appear weaker and be more susceptible to threatening states. This then creates an argument that states would rather resort to conflict than cooperation as at least in conflict, states can fully control and govern themselves. But constructivists, primarily through Wendt, challenge this idea that conflict will be the more likely outcome stating, “we will only know if anarchy and self-help will lead to conflict or cooperation once we know what states do socially” (Weber, 2009: 65). This sets the argument that constructivism does believe that cooperation between states is possible, but it is their own perceptions of anarchy and the ‘self-help’ system which is prohibiting their means of cooperation and to instead play it safe.

Another interesting aspect of the cooperation between states in anarchy is the idea of relative achievement of gains which is highlighted by Grieco (1988). Cooperation between states can most often result in a positive outcome for the members involved, but for neorealists such as Grieco, argue that this is not enough. Due to the anarchic international system, states are “compelled to ask not “will both of us gain?” but “Who will gain more?” (Waltz, 1979: 105). This neorealist belief is further elaborated by Grieco who argues that “states worry that today’s friend may be tomorrow’s enemy in war, and fear that achievements of joint gains that advantage a friend in the present might produce a more dangerous potential foe in the future” (Grieco, 1988: 487). Due to this, neorealists argue that states will not attempt to cooperate if it potentially means that other states will benefit more or equally from a cooperation. Even if a state is cooperating with a friendly or neighbouring state, neorealists believe that in times of cooperation, states will always try to gain the upper hand and will not settle for less. This links back to the argument set forth by neorealists arguing that states are really only looking out for themselves, even in times of formal cooperation. But this is not just in terms of security, as “the fundamental goal of states in any relationship is to prevent others from achieving advances in their relative capabilities” (Grieco, 1988: 498) with this potentially meaning economic, military or development gains. In all forms of cooperation, states do not want to be placed at a disadvantage or for other states to achieve more advantageous gains over them as it could potentially produce future problems.

Constructivists by contrast believe that cooperation is not unobtainable, but instead it’s the international system’s perception of anarchy which is obstructing positive collaborative efforts between countries. A state’s perception of anarchy in a neorealist world will result in a fight for survival and the need to remain more powerful than other states, which results in the favourability of relative gains in international cooperation. But constructivists argue that relative (or absolute) gains are a “function of the dominant discourses regarding security, wealth, and who one’s friends or enemies are” (Berejikian, 2012: 71). Once again referring to Wendt’s famous quote of anarchy is what states make of it, it can be argued that preferences for international cooperation in an anarchic international system are socially constructed. Instead of the assumption that states only want to achieve relative gains, their state interests will lead them into different directions to ultimately generate the best possible outcome for their state, or in other words, start to prefer absolute gains over relative regardless of the outcomes for other states involved in the cooperation. To conclude this section, it is clear to see that the main contrast between the two theories is that for neorealists, relative gains are an important aspect of a state’s survival and they must utilise these gains to maintain their status in the international order, but for constructivists, relative gains are just another socially constructed part of international relations and instead states are just aiming to achieve the best possible outcome whether through relative or absolute gains.

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The last point of contrast between the two theories which will be analysed is the role of non-state actors and whether they can actually have a lasting impact in the international system. As one would assume, a neorealist stance on non-state actors is not positive. With the international system being anarchic and a majority of states seeking relative gains in most cooperative collaborations, it would seem difficult for non-state actors to gain influence among states. A key argument is set out by Waltz stating that while non-state actors empirically exist, they conceptually do not (Waltz, 1979: 95). Neorealists abide by the simple meaning of the anarchic system as being a system where no rules or laws are obeyed, and to this, it would prove extremely difficult for non-state actors to intervene in this domination of anarchy. An example of this would be the Iraq war and the UN’s inability to stop it, which leads neorealists to believe that non-state actors are useless in an anarchic system.

But constructivists would of course refute this claim at the ineffectiveness of non-state actors. It can be argued that actors (in this case non-state actors) can “construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the meaning of ideas” (Fidler, 2008: 270) and through this, interests between states can be created and maintained. This argument counters the neorealist argument and like neoliberalism, non-state actors and international institutions can reinforce state interests between multiple countries. A prime example of this is the formation of the European Union. During its formation, states which had previously been enemies such as Germany and most of Western Europe, had cooperated together to create an institution which has been arguably benefitted from by most member states. However, it could be argued that both neorealism and constructivism offer somewhat correct interpretations of non-state actors, but what depends is the context of the situation. Whereas in situations where non-state organisations try to control an aspect of a state’s military, such as arms control, neorealism would sufficiently explain why states are reluctant to abide to non-state actors roles, whereas when states do not have to cede control to non-state actors, such as through the creation of trade agreements, constructivism (and neoliberalism) would provide better explanations (Hopf, 1998: 174).

In conclusion, neorealists and constructivists do have rather different interpretations of their understandings of anarchy. In the points analysed, it is clear that the main difference between the two theories concerning anarchy is their primary definitions of anarchy. With neorealists believing anarchy is an inherent part of the international system and states must accept it and fight to survive, while constructivists argue that it is not an inherent part of the system, instead it has accumulated over time through previous state interactions and is instead a socially constructed idea and what states do with this idea of anarchy is therefore up to them. In the 21st century, I believe that neorealism still provides the best explanation of anarchy as the highlighted points of the ineffectiveness of non-state actors to resolve or prevent significant military conflict and the limits of cooperation between states are stronger than the arguments offered by constructivists. Another point is that while constructivism can explain past events relatively well, as it can analyse the historical and social aspects as to why an event happened, it cannot predict future events as well as neorealism can, as neorealism does not have to rely on context to predict a future event. Overall, both these theories explain anarchy differently, but they do not completely undermine each other by doing so. However, if constructivism is to succeed as a theory in international politics and challenge neorealism, it might be beneficial to embrace more neoliberalist stances, as both theories already seem to share views on a number of anarchical standpoints.


  • Berejikian, J, D. (2012) “International Relations under Risk: Framing State Choice”, SUNY Press.
  • Copeland, D. (2000) “The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism”, International Security, 25: 2: 187-212.
  • Fidler, D. (2008) “A Theory of Open-Source Anarchy,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 15: 1: 259-284.
  • Fierke, K.M. (2007) “Constructivism”, in Dunne, T., Kurki, M. and Smith, S., International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Grieco, J. (1988) “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism”, International Organization, 42: 3: 485-507.
  • Grieco, J., Powell, R. and Snidel, D. (1993) “The Relative-Gains Problem for International Cooperation”, The American Political Science Review, 87: 3: 727-743.
  • Hopf, T. (1998) “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory” International Security, 23: 1: 171-200.
  • Mearsheimer, J. (2007) “Structural Realism”, in Dunne, T., Kurki, M. and Smith, S., International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Parent J, M. and Erikson, E. (2009) “Anarchy, hierarchy, and order”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22: 1: 129-145.
  • Waltz, K, N. (1979) “Theory of International Politics” London, McGraw-Hill.
  • Weber, C. (2005) “International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, Second Edition” Routledge, London.
  • Wendt, A. (1992) Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics, International Organization, 46: 2: 391-425.


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