In light of all the above, the realism perspective undoubtedly provides unique explanations regarding the motives of the numerous foreign powers that involved in the Syrian conflict. The basis of the realism lens relies on its assumption that states involved in the international arena act according to their own self-interests in concert with the theory of the balance of power which states that the political units in a system will systematically seek to counterbalance the increase in power of other units (Waltz, 1979). However, viewing the Syrian Civil War purely from a power-struggle perspective can only provide an account of one section of the conflict. The reasons behind Assad’s brutality, the causes behind the peaceful protests turning into a civil war and the fragmented rebel forces’ motivations are not answered satisfactorily through the realism theory, and so another perspective is needed: constructivism.
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.