This essay will attempt to explicate how the political theory of constructivism applies to the international organization known as the United Nations. This entails a breakdown of the core assumptions of both the theory of constructivism, and the underlying rational underpinning the United Nations when it was initially created, and finally how these two fields of assumptions tie together. Beyond that central mandate there must be discussion of the implications if these assumptions are assumed to hold true. These implications, specifically, are about how change is possible in the international system and the process necessary for this change to happen. In other words, it will be argued that the United Nations is a venue where possible and impossible actions are defined, either explicitly or by tacit consent. Furthermore, this rule-making, or legitimacy creation, must be enforced or followed through for it to be substantive. These rules create a system between states on how to behave, or in a more colorful description, the UN outputs the “rules of the game” that the states play by. This raises questions as to how enforcement happens, and why states – even when free from material constraints – comply with these internationally agreed upon rules for behavior. What needs to be recognized here is that these rules that make up the system, i.e. the structure, have a somewhat arbitrary nature which allows for it to be pliable. This flexibility allows for changes to be made, the question is to how this can happen given the existing constraints of the international system.
First of all we need to orient ourselves in our thinking by going through the theory of constructivism and how it contrasts with other theories, these being liberalism, realism and their existing branches (e.g. neorealism). Essentially traditional (or mainstream) theorists like Kenneth Waltz treat structure as an independent variable, with the implication that it cannot be changed. This structure is the reality of anarchy, i.e., there is no supranational authority for states to go to for help when they are in distress. This structure constrains how states can act in such a way that all states act similarly. What enables states to act differently than another under this system is their capability, or what Waltz calls the distribution of power. Alexander Wendt of the constructivist school of thought would say the international structure is not determined by capability but instead is constituted by ideas, norms and regimes. These ideas are the underlying principles that shape a units identity, a unit such as the state or individual. This is the bedrock from where the unit, or agent, acts from and it has a substantive effect on what their preferences will be. Thus, identity informs preferences and subsequently choices that can, and will be made. A constructivist in a sort of shorthand, would say that it is the distribution of identities and interests that shape the international structure.
The more substantive point in constructivism, or where it is more sharply divided from the traditional theories, is that the world is irreducibly social. Constructivism proponents assert the criticism that traditional theories of international relations focus too much on materialism and individualist causes of state behavior. The traditional theories such as realism assume that state interests are unchanging and can be reduced down to the goal of survival. The traditional theories presume a singular, rational man, whereas constructivism only sees man in the plural sense. Mainstream approaches hold the presumption that people are misanthropic, which ignores the social ontology of our societies. In other words, we are not lone individual units of rationality and in fact our preferences and identities are shaped inter-subjectively. It is not only identity either, but it is also where meanings are created through a negotiation between interpretations. Constructivists hold the view that structure is not a given but engendered by agents such as the state, and their value-laden interpretations of what is a right action or a wrong action. To put it simply, the meanings and consequences of material forces are not given by nature but are driven by human interpretations.
However, this inter-subjective creation imposes a constraining structure of its own; intersubjectivity entails becoming entangled with others. Thus we are not free to choose our actions despite what is ultimately an arbitrary, socially constructed, agreement. This agreement is a fixed meaning, and this fixed meaning is an accomplishment won through discourse. It is an accomplishment because despite its arbitrary nature, it gains a sort of permanence and legitimacy. These fixed meanings, or social-facts if you wish, give meaning and legitimacy to our actions through an intersubjective web of understanding. The final pillar of the theory is the explanation for how the structure remains given its social origins. It propagates itself by our collective actions, or at least the collective actions of those that matter enough to influence the system. To put it in a word, it is socialization that both creates the structure and holds it up into continuity. An important implication here is that this means there are leverage points for where change can be instigated. John Ruggie argues on this issue that “having identified the possibility of system transformation in the macro level, corresponding micro practices that may have transformative effects must be identified and inventoried.”1 The process of socialization is constituted by many things, such as: social influence, persuasion, mimicking and even status considerations. These variables can be focal areas where a slight shift in meaning or pressure that can be enough to ultimately cause a cascade that ends in new fixed meanings (e.g. norms). The final point in the theory is that because we achieve fixed meanings, doesn’t mean they are set in stone and that they will be upheld forever. Norms are more likely to have a life cycle, they have a birth, a life and a death which are all subject to the intersubjective creation within the socialization process. As Martha Finnemore says: “norms evolve in a patterned ‘life cycle’ and that different behavioral logics dominate different segments of the life cycle.”20
The negotiation of meaning can be said to be the underlying tacit rational or principal undergirding the creation of the League of Nations, which was the spiritual precursor to the United Nations. Woodrow Wilson believed that he could delegitimize the norms that enabled war to occur. The key one being the right of a state to invade another because the norm of imperialism was seen, prior to this, as a nation’s birthright. Wilson was crucial because to change a norm requires someone to break the mold, he played the role of what I would call a norm entrepreneur. Those who hold such a position can only spearhead change when they have authoritative status, that is, when people are more likely to listen to them and accept what they have to offer. This may suggest that all you need to lead and create change is charisma, however charisma alone cannot persuade everyone. The other key component for the change in norms to be possible is a window of opportunity, which are usually historical. In any case, Wilson’s window was given to him by the consequences of World War 1. No one could have predicted, or desired, the massive casualties of that war and Wilson used that as a springboard for the creation of his League. This creation would serve as a soapbox where concerns could be heard and grievances handled in a multilateral fashion.
This trauma of the first World War influenced many to adopt an idealist stance that such a war should not have happened and should never happen again. Woodrow Wilson created his infamous list of Fourteen Points which reflected this hope. However this list was taken with skepticism over the practically of implementation. This may be debatable, and it might be more due to the fact that Britain and France wished for punitive measures against Germany; their self-identification as victims drove their preferences. In other words their interpretation of events may have colored their thinking towards Wilson’s post-war peace plan. It is just as likely they put forward a rational (i.e. the points cannot be implemented) in order to achieve measures that fit their preference for retribution. Nonetheless many of the points were never codified, ratified, and put into practice. However the most important point, the final one, was actually agreed upon and this led to the creation of the League of Nations.
The League is one possible representation of a socially agreed upon fact, that is, the League represents a solemn promise between nations. This promise was that the member nations would no longer pursue imperialism and would only use their power for the purposes of defense. This carried an implied denouncement of war and a repudiation of the ‘balance of power’ notion for purposes other than defense and deterrence. Instead there was a new emphasis on multilateral diplomacy for the pursuit of peace. However, it should have been expected that an institution based on such tenuous grounds would eventually crumble if put under strain. Emerging and existing powers held the idea that they deserved better, their identity was one of pride and imperial ambition. This led to the Manchuria Crisis in 1933, the Ethiopia invasion by Italy in 1935, the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Soviet invasion of Finland the same year which earned them expulsion from the League.3 The institution could not stand with the conspicuous absence of the United States and its only remaining members, which –ironically– were Britain and France.
The association of nations Wilson envisioned was essentially reborn as the United Nations at the conclusion of World War II. This new organization carried forward the spirit of the League as its creation was mired in hope and optimism. We can see this in President Harry Truman’s address to the UN at the UN conference in San Francisco:
Upon our decisive action rests the hope of those who have fallen, those now living, those yet unborn – the hope for a world of free countries with decent standards of living, which will work and co-operate in a friendly, civilized community of nations… Let us not fail to grasp this supreme chance to establish a worldwide rule of reason, to create an enduring peace under the guidance of God.4
The United Nations and its Charter reflects the same sentiments and ideals, “and goes on to assert faith in fundamental human rights, equal rights of men and women, of nations large and small, and the determination ‘to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.’“5 This is a example of new ideas being created and asserted with the hope of becoming new rules, in order to shape a new world order. In short, the Charter was meant to create a new international structure that would ideally reconstitute identities and thus preferences and behavior.
Besides the importance of putting forward these new ideals that would in the hopes of their creation become new international norms, there was the creation of an institution. This institution would serve several functions, some more or less obvious. On the surface the UN is a club of nation-states, in which issues of salience to all or several of its members could be pursued in a more or less neutral environment. On a deeper level the UN can be seen as a forum, a norm-setter, an agency and an adviser. It is this latter family of functions that serve the constructivist purpose, which is the negotiation of meaning through social influence and persuasion, which in turn become reified into identities. This negotiation would at times be necessary and spurred by historical realities, such as: decolonization, nuclear proliferation, disasters necessitating rescue and relief, and pollution necessitating measures to protect the global commons. There are several other areas the UN has become entangled in that the institutions creators had never planned for, a few examples being: assistance in development, human rights, refugees and terrorism. Traditional theories in international relations are unable to account for historical change, this is another key difference between them and constructivism. While historical contingencies are bothersome they would allow windows of opportunity for those enterprising enough to instigate change, either by necessity or by volition. The expansion of the United Nations for the purpose of dealing with new problems reflects all of this.
Change for a constructivist is only possible by changing the norms that states subscribe to. However, what is a norm? Martha Finnemore defines it as: “a rulelike [sic] prescription which is both clearly perceptible to a community of actors and which makes behavioral claims upon those actors.”6 This begs the questions, how are norms enforced and why are these claims followed? A simple answer is that states must align their policies with the principles, norms and rules of the institution in order to benefit from their membership. However an unpacking of this process speaks to social dynamics that come into play, such as the interplay of status, pride and shame. A nation for instance may refuse to admit to famine or even a cholera epidemic because of a sense of national pride. For a dramatic example, we can look at the case with Haile Salassie of Ethiopia who reassured the UN that reports of starvation in his country were exaggerated, which was revealed to be a lie by monitoring NGO bodies.7 Salassie was shown to be breaking the rules of acceptable behaviour and the resulting opprobrium destabilized his regime and it cost him his throne. This shaming creates some social pressure which is one way to restructure the preferences of states because “compliance with a norm need not be a function of internalization but is, rather, a function of state elites’ aversion to public criticism.”8 I would add it is not just the public but other members of the United Nations that can feel morally outraged.
Furthermore, the implication in this naming and shaming, is it suggests the important of transparency in shaping and reshaping identity. More importantly, “the desire to establish a trustworthy reputation for future exchanges can be an incentive to engage in norm-conforming, pro-social behavior.”9 Transparency allows social opprobrium to occur, but it also is a key factor in gaining credibility. Everyone wishes for a good reputation, it is through how others perceive you which proves that you are an agent of value. It also mainly functions to make signals credible to others, that you can be trusted and that you will follow through on what one says you will do. Credibility smooths transaction costs but it also adds to the agents identity of self-worth, which becomes affirmed through the intersubjective process – i.e., when others cooperate with you. The environment of the UN is conducive to transparency and credible signaling that not only enables meaningful discourse but also the creation of fixed meanings. To conclude, credibility is an important adjunct to legitimacy and is thus a crucial component that must be procured before being able to contest the rules and instigate changes in norms.
However the differences in identity can be a heavy obstacle: “the same information, even economic information, will be interpreted differently depending on whether it comes from ‘people like us’ … or from a devalued ‘other.’“10 To understand how this affects credibility: “perceived ideology, identity, and/or cultural values are in fact the primary cues that people use to determine the degree of knowledge and trustworthiness of a persuader.”11 This is reflected in the disagreements between the West and the East during the Cold War, and even post-Cold War. While the East may put forward pragmatic reasons for the distrust that will be touched upon soon enough, one has to wonder if these reasons are really a result of how they see the other.
To create change in the forum that is the United Nations requires the ability to persuade others to accept not just declarations (helped along with high credibility) but specifically the ideas underlying them. When people think of the UN they think of the norm of “human rights,” and one might wonder why this supposedly universal, or supposedly categorical, set of beliefs hasn’t been adopted world-wide. The obstacle here that is preventing widespread adoption is the contested definition of human rights; the meaning of what constitutes a human right is at issue. A legacy of the Cold War is a standing cultural cleavage (or “identity gap” if you wish) between individual rights and state rights. The Western world defines human rights as things like, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the right to a fair trial. Whereas communist countries differ in their ideas of rights and frame them in social and economic terms, things like freedom from want, access to health, educational services and the preservation of cultural identity.12 These rights espoused by the non-West are barely recognized as rights at all by the Western states; they are not seen as having the same significance as individual rights.
There is also skepticism whenever anyone puts forwards ideals because there is likely more to the assertion than just an idea. There is a risk of laundering agendas through either norms, or its more benign polar opposite, laundering ideas through some pragmatic rational. Countries such as Russia and China, “both fear … that making human rights violations a legitimate excuse for external military intervention will cause problems for them in places like Tibet, Taiwan, and Chechnya.”13 In short, countries fear that the assertion of norms like human rights is a cover, or Trojan horse in order to advance an unspoken agenda. This spells out the difficulty in coming to agreement in the negotiation of meanings and the creation of new norms; identity and mistrust is standing in the way.
The process of decolonization created several new identities that subsequently joined the United Nations. This was one of many historical contingencies that altered the organization, the key change being the supplanting of the dominance of the global “North” in the General Assembly. “In other words, being added to the traditional East-West superissue within the UN is a North-South superissue.”14 This was facilitated in part by what can be called a norm leader, the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld who “raised high the flag of the self-determination of peoples.”15 Finnemore says that, “scholars recognized that decolonization was driven by a profoundly normative agenda and that it explicitly sought to reconstitute the identities of both the new states and their former colonizers, as well as the relationships between them.”16 Normative ideals drove the decolonization process, but it wasn’t always an ideal situation. The two blocs of the Soviet Union and the United States would compete for the allegiances of these newly formed identities. “The bifurcation of the task-environment of the early 1950s became increasingly modified by the ever greater voting power of the Third World … [making] it expedient for the two major blocs to seek Third World support.”17 Thus help in development had the strong likelihood of being politicized and being perceived as an issue about dominance by foreign powers. Here again we see the possible laundering of agendas and also the mistrust getting in the way of change. Another point I wish to point out is that the norm of imperialism was tied to the idea and reality of colonies and thus had to be dealt with in conjunction. This demonstrates how norms are never in a vacuum but are entangled with each other. To clear up the issue: “[a] norm definition isolates single standards of behavior, whereas institutions emphasize the way in which behavioral rules are structured together and interrelate (a ‘collection of practices and rules’).”18 Thus we should not be surprised to see this collection of norms interacting with each other within the United Nations. For instance, the self-determination principle has ties to both the non-intervention principle and the idea of sovereignty, thus intervention is one of the most contested issues at the United Nations.
Mainstream theories assume a priori the identity of a state and conveniently ignores how the state gained that identity. Self-determination is the key principle allowing these decolonized states to seek out and find one. On the creation of the United Nations, the Trusteeship Council was put together to facilitate the process for independence. In other words, decolonization and self-determination were implicitly main mandates in the beginnings of the United Nations. What the process of identity creation entails is complicated, it can be formed by domestic factors or international ones, and is more likely both. A simpler path would be the mimicking of other states, a self-identification with a valued member of the international community would likely influence their own identity. Thus the norms of the valued member would diffuse, at least partially to the mimicking state. For an example, to be a liberal-democratic state entails certain rules and norms which gets adopted by other states that see themselves in that light. Even tyrannies and one-party states adopt the language of democracy to give themselves legitimacy and status. Mimicking is one way for a norm to emerge at least on a domestic or regional level. The opposite of mimicking could also happen where a state charts its own path and innovates ideas that can serve to increase its status. An example of this would be Bhutan and the use of the “Happiness Index” which is meant to be a substitute for GDP in measuring growth and hence progress. The unique culture of Bhutan also served as fertile ground allowing this idea to be taken seriously. If any other states adopt this measure it will be an instance, or at least beginning of a domestic norm being diffused on an international scale.
The life-cycle of a norm such as sovereignty and non-intervention begins with its emergence, however this has obstacles to overcome before it starts to cascade among other members of a group such as member states of the UN. Basically this is because, “norm emergence is not a linear process in which states can only adopt or resist the norms proposed by norm entrepreneurs but not shape them … norms states ultimately adopt often differ dramatically from those originally proposed.”19 An example of – an almost institutionalized – norm entrepreneur is the Secretary General. Article 99 of the Charter allows him (or her) to bring to the attention of the Security Council any issue he feels can threaten international peace or stability. When it comes to the Secretary General however, his “power is notional and depends on the fluctuating stature of the UN as a moral and consensual force.”20 Thus the SG has to be careful how he broaches the issues to avoid reflexive “no” responses from the Council and to allow new proposals to move forward. One such activist type of action undertaken by the Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the creation of the An Agenda for Peace report in 1992. This was basically a recognition that peace could be undermined by civil strife, refugee flows, poverty and other domestic issues within a state and thus obligated member nations to act on these issues.21 This bold plan was undertaken because the gridlock of the Cold War was now over, allowing leeway for intervention and more assertive efforts by the United Nations. As John Ruggie tells us: “Faced with a dispute concerning a cold-war issue, the UN would not intervene at all or would limit itself to procedural involvement only; but in the context of a non-cold-war dispute, the UN would engage in substantive action.”22 Negotiations over meaning and thus obligation would be easier and simpler now that the Cold-War was over.
Another related example of norm-entrepreneurship is the actions undertaken by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He put forward his own report titled In Larger Freedom in 2005 where “political security, human rights and development are conflated.”23 Coupled together with the report from Boutros-Ghali, this suggests a shift in perception of the non-intervention principle. Generally the principle was a recognition of the autonomy of the states, or sovereignty, that there was no higher authority than the state. However in cases where a peoples were under attack by civil strife and/or their own government this principle proves useless. There was a shared understanding that the sovereignty of a state is contingent on providing security for its citizens. Ultimately as a consequence of the violation of the security of citizens by their own government gave rise to the idea of the Right to Protect. This was “cast in explicitly moral terms, and advanced following crises in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Kosovo, circumstances that … offer[ed] key opportunities for norm emergence because they increase states’ receptivity to new norms.”24 However there is a fear that “relaxation of the non-intervention principle by the UN will lead to military action by individual states without UN approval.”25 The general mandate of the United Nations to enforce peace and promote diplomacy was being strained and attempts to modify the institution were put in place to deal with the new threats. This was a case where an idea was being laundered through some pragmatic rational; there was issue-linkage which is hard to disentangle but also makes the idea more legitimate and likely to be adopted. A norm-entrepreneur in cases like this demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be an individual such as the Secretary-General but is more likely to be a state. “Canada led the pro-R2P campaign, supported by the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union as well as Rwanda, South Africa and the African Union, crucially demonstrating that R2P was not a purely Western concept.”26 Again we see the importance of credibility, but also the importance of a perceived neutral third party in instigating change and being a norm leader. On the normative side we can say that there was a moral repugnance by the genocide in Rwanda and other places that may be the true underlying motive for action. This normative attitude was framed and couched in the language of international security, thus skirting the stagnant inertia that reflect power structures in the United Nations. Canada (used to anyway) had a moral status as a middle-power, this perception consisted of the nation as having soft power in that they are persuasive. They are not a superpower, nor or are they part of the third-world, which makes perceptions of ideas put forward by Canada as more credible. To give a rough idea on how Canada has been involved in championing international norms and laws we can look at the international treaty banning landmines, which was done in Ottawa. A more convincing example was the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force which was proposed by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to handle the Suez crisis in 1956. UNEF would become the de-facto blueprint for peacekeeping, and peacemaking forces ever since.
To expand on the roots of the United Nations and show how norms change over time, we return to Woodrow Wilson. He was a key figure in trying to create a new fixed meaning, which mentioned before was the delegitimatization of imperialism. However this sanction could not stand alone by creating a negative rule, but needed to be replaced with a positive one. The new norm put forward with the hopes of it fulfilling this function was that of multilateral diplomacy and cooperation. This norm came under heavy scrutiny when the United States had to decide how to respond to 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. It came under the umbrella of the UN to discuss the issue in the hopes of gaining legitimacy for an invasion of Iraq, and in hopes of gaining partners in the endeavor. Ultimately the US went on a unilateral course, in that they did not secure permission (legitimacy) from the United Nations. However as is pointed out by Finnemore: “controversy is best understood, not as a debate over unilateralism versus multilateralism, but as a debate over what the multilateral rules should be and how they should accommodate power disparities.”27 This issue is on a deeper level a debate over the legitimacy of force, what multilateralism entails, and the efficacy of both. “Current debates over use of force look less like a fight between unilateralism and multilateralism than a fight over what exactly multilateralism means and what the shared rules that govern use of force are (or should be).”28 There is also the widespread view that the United States sees itself as having the responsibility to “police the world.” This identity is reinforced by the perceived (and actual) capability of the nation which is compounded with a probable need to “save face” and redeem the nations pride and honor by retaliating against some enemy; it mattered little in this regard whether it was Iraq or somewhere else. However what matters here is the United States recognized the legitimacy of multilateralism or they would not have gone to the UN in the first place.
Countries can be particularly jealous in guarding their autonomy of action when it comes to matters of national security, yet we have seen a proliferation of multilateral security arrangements in the last sixty years that is unprecedented in world history.29
However as we have seen, the United Nations does not always provide clear guidance on behavior and is in fact an arena where battles over meaning and hence obligation are continuously being fought.
To summarize, “new norms never enter a normative vacuum but instead emerge in a highly contested normative space where they must compete with other norms and perceptions of interest.”30 The United Nations can serve as a venue for change through competition in a marketplace of ideas. These ideas, principles or norms arise out of interests which are subsumed in a state’s identity. They may also arise because of historical contingencies, and when that occurs a norm-entrepreneur or leader can emerge and grab hold of the opportunity and trail a new path. Moreover, interests and historical precedents both push for normative change and are not mutually exclusive. As Ruggie testifies, “ideational factors have normative as well as instrumental dimensions.”31 Having a forum such as the United Nations is also integral to the process for a few reasons. The first is that social dynamics such as status considerations come into play. A state or individual that others self-identify with are more apt to be followed in norm change. Also because of the high status nature of the organization and its members, there is incentive to conform. “Three possible motivations for responding to such ‘peer pressure’ are legitimation, conformity, and esteem.”32 In other words having such high status “equals” in the social environment increases social pressure to conform because it increases one’s own status. However we should keep in mind that “established venues may lose legitimacy … if they exhibit consistent bias or repeatedly fail to produce agreement on important issues.”33 We have seen this happen with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, so while such institutions impart such things as status and legitimacy, if it fails to serve the needs of a state they are willing to sidestep it. This would be a breaking of the intersubjective web of understanding and result in social opprobrium from many, which has also happened.
To conclude, social constructivism is concerned with how the international structure can be changed and I believe the United Nations to be the perfect venue to affect such change. Norm emergence can be instigated by individuals, such as the Secretary-General or states such as Canada or Bhutan, or multilaterally in dealing with new and common issues like terrorism. However it is not an easy process and there is plenty of disagreement within the institution over ideas, particularly between those with distinct identities, such as traditionally the United States and Russia. As was demonstrated even with simple norms such as multilateralism and sovereignty. Also, to change one thing is to change many things as we saw with the principle of R2P, many norms are entangled with each other. However the issue of the Right to Protect demonstrates – and offers hope – in that the impetus for change can go beyond material interests and encompass moral feelings, which is more likely to resonate with other agents and thus more likely to cause a “cascade” in adoption. This cascade is the crucial middle step that happens after norm emergence. The final step would be the internalization of the norm where it becomes taken for granted, however this is contingent on states agreeing to a definition and thus obligation of a norm. For the structure to change there needs to be a redefinition or the creation of new shared understandings, this web of understanding regulates and facilitates behavior by a logic of “ought to.” This is in stark contrast with the other theories with the underpinning logic of utility and consequences. To close I would like to remark that constructivism in contrast to the mainstream theories, enables a deeper role for agency and allows for the account of history and which also helps us to recognize that ideas and norms are the precursors for action.