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chapter 5 constructivism
Chapter 5: Constructivism
  • Constructivism in IRT
  • An ideational approach to international relations
  • Constructivist approach to cooperation
  • Conclusion: strengths and weakness
chapter 5 constructivism1
Chapter 5: Constructivism
  • Constructivism in IRT

The constructivist theory rose in the mid-1980s and prevailed in the 1990s. This was due partly to the third debate in IRT, the “inter-paradigm” debate between Neorealism and Neoliberalism, and partly to the changes of international politics, especially the end of the Cold War, which crippled the explanatory power of the two dominant schools and highlighted the profound insights of Constructivism in casting the world politics.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

Nicholas G. Onuf(1941-), World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations《我们所建构的世界:论社会理论与国际关系中的规则与结构》(1989); International Relations in a Constructed World《建构世界的国际关系》(co-ed., 1998).

He was the first who applied the term “constructivism” to the context of IRT. At the end of the 1980s, he noticed that a series of world changes could not be well explained by the mainstream theories (neo-R./L.); while the discussion of social relations provided a useful perspective.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

Peter J. Katzenstein (1945- ),

The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity In World Politics 《国家安全的文化:世界政治中的规范与认同》 (1996)

President of the American Political Science Association for 2008-2009, he was known for his culture studies in national security. In this book, he claimed that the scope of security study should not be limited to material factors; social and cultural factors also have great influence.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

Martha G. Finnemore (1959- ), National Interests in International Society《国际社会中的国家利益》(1996).

She explored how international institutions influence the state interests and behaviors by their structures “of meanings and social value” but not power. In this book, she applied three cases including the creation of science bureaucracies in states due to the influence of UNESCO, the role of the Red Cross in the Geneva Conventions and the World Bank’s influence on the attitude to poverty. These cases show that states are embedded in dense networks of transnational and international social relations that shape their perceptions and their preferences in consistent ways. The international organizations, as a part of the international structure, use their new political goals and new social values to socialize the states to redefine their perceptions (identities) and preferences (interests) according to the principles and norms of these organizations, and finally change their behaviors in their transnational interactions.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

Alexander Wendt (1958- )

In 1987…

“The Agent-structure Problem in International Relations Theory”(《国际关系理论中的施动者-结构问题》)in International Organization, two years before his PhD graduation from the University of Minnesota. With this article, he challenged two systemic theories (Waltz’s Neorealism and Wallestein’s world-system theory) by questioning their “structural” explanations of how states behave in the international system. His own analysis was based on Giddens’s “Strucuration Theory” and Bhaskar’s Scientific Realism, inserting the agent-structure relationship as the “hard core”. He argued that agents and structures in international systems are “co-determined” or “co-constituted”, rather than causality in which the structure decides the state actions.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

In 1992…

“Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics”(《无政府状态是国家造就的:权力政治的社会建构》)in International Organization. This time Wendt challenged the two leading paradigms (Neo-R./Neo-L.) by questioning their core assumptions on anarchy. He argued that anarchy is not a given and immutable condition for international politics as the rationalist theories claim; rather, it is the consequence of interactions of states. States obtain “shared ideas” during the process of interactions, and these shared ideas constitute the property of anarchy. In this sense, anarchy is socially constituted, active and dynamic.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

In 1994…

“Collective Identity Formation and the International State”(《集体身份的形成和国际性国家》)in The American Political Science Review. In this article, he defined the core claims of Constructivism:

1) states are the principal units of analysis for international political theory;

2) the key structures in the states system are inter-subjective, rather than material;

3) state identities and interests are in important part constructed by these social structures, rather than give exogenously to the system by human nature or domestic politics.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

In 1995…

“Hierarchy under Anarchy: Informal Empire and the East German State”(《无政府状态下的等级:非正式帝国与东德国家》)in International Organization (with Friedheim). This article articulated four sociologies of international politics by the responses to two questions: to what extent structures in the system are material or social (ontology); and to what extent the properties of state agents—their identities, interests and capabilities—are constructed by or endogenous to system structures versus intrinsic to their nature (methodology).

According to the answer, international relations theories are divided into four possibilities:

- materialism/individualism - materialism/structuralism

- idealism/individualism

- idealism/structuralism√

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Chapter 5: Constructivism

In 1999…

Social Theory of International Politics (《国际政治的社会理论》)could be seen as a collection of the essences of forenamed articles with systemic formulations. This book was divided into two parts: In the first part, Wendt defined his social theory from ontology, methodology and epistemology, three perspectives different with the rationalistic theories.

In the second part, Wendt turned to the international politics, explaining the corporate agency of states, the cultures of anarchy as well as process of structural changes. This book helped Constructivism rise from a humble reflective approach to a quasi-paradigm in the 1990s.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism
  • An ideational approach to international relations
  • International structure is an ideational phenomenon. Constructivism emphases the sociality embedded in the material properties of the international structure, especially the effects of ideas, the change of identities and the socialization of actors during their interactions.

International structure is the “distribution of knowledge” rather than the “distribution of capacities”. It is the “knowledge” that endows material factors with meaning and significance.

eg. 500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the US than 5 N. Korean ones.

eg. the “structural change” stemmed from the end of the Cold War is actually the “cultural change” in 1989 when the states changed their perceptions towards the counterparts, but not in 1991 when the structure of the world turns from bipolar to uni-/multi-polar.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism
  • International structure constitutes state identities, and identities constitute interests.

State identities and interests are constructed by the international system. Wendt divides identities into four categories:

  • Personal or corporate
  • Type
  • Role
  • Collective
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Chapter 5: Constructivism

Systemic processes provide dynamics in the external context of state action by two interrelated processes including: 1) rising interdependence, which show state “common threats” and 2) transnational convergence of domestic values, which promote positive identification of “We” feeling. Both of the two processes affect not only state behaviors but also their identity formation.

  • In a Hobbesian war of all against all, mutual fear prevents anything but negative identification with the other, and collective identity finds little room to emerge.
  • In a Lockean world of mutually recognized sovereignty, states have less fear of being threatened and find more room to hold positive identification.
  • In a Kantian world of mutual trust and friendship, states interact on the basis of collective identities.
Identities imply interests. An actor cannot know what it wants until it knows who it is. Wendt’s intentional equation: desire + belief=action. In this equation, interests belong to the desire part and identities belong to the belief part. Without interests, identities have no motivational force, without identities interests have no direction. Here, identities refer to the shared ideas between actors.


Why 5 unclear weapons of N. Korea make the US feared, but 500 unclear weapons of Britain do not?


It depends on how the US represents the N. Korea. When the US sees the latter as a non-democratic country, its representation of the latter’s image is hostile. With such image in mind, the US presumes that the N. Korea is an enemy and whatever it does, it will harm the US interests. So the procession of nuclear weapons is a threat, only if the US preempts to stop the latter’s action may it secure its safety.

But if the US has no such presumption, then it will not be feared and cautious about the possession of the N. Korea, and will not embarrass the latter.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism
  • Interaction is a key concept for constructivism.

Like the on-going process of our daily life in the society, the daily life of international politics is an on-going process of states taking identities in relation to Other, casting them into corresponding counter-identities, and playing out the result. Interactions promote the formation and development of shared ideas, and change the identities and interests of actors, so that a new interaction will be formed. This process is carried out in the form of a continuous cycle, during which the international structure and state agents co-constitute all along. This is why the yesterday’s enemies can turn into today’s friends, as has been shown in the transition from the “security dilemma” to the “security communities”.

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Chapter 5: Constructivism
  • Constructivist approach to cooperation
  • Possibility of cooperation

Constructivism accepted the assumption of anarchy, but it denies the singularity of the “logic of anarchy”. Instead, it assumes that anarchy can have three kinds of structure based on what kind of roles (enemy, rival, friend) dominate the system. These role identities form three international structure cultures:

Hobbesian — Lockeian — Kantian

hobbesian culture
Hobbesian culture
  • Relationship between Self and Other is “enmity”. This has four implications to ir:
  • tend to destroy or conquer the enemies;
  • make decisions by taking the worst-case into account and neglecting the future;
  • see relative military capacities as the key factor and the development of such capacities as the only guarantee to the security;
  • use violence without self-limitation in an actual war until the eradication of one side, and be ready to preempt in any potential wars.
lockean culture
Lockean culture
  • Relationship between Self and Other is “rivalry”. This has four implications to ir:
  • Mutual recognition of sovereignty. States have identification on not breaking the status quo of sovereignty.
  • Emphasis of absolute gains. Since survival is no longer the most pressing issue between states, the competitors can be more rational and pay more attention to their anticipated gains and losses.
  • Decline of the weight of military power. Though military power is still used to settle disputes, states try to reduce the possibilities to use it and find more peaceful ways to settle the problems, such as the allies and negotiations.
  • Limit of violence in wars. Since states recognize and guarantee each other’s survival, they will not intend to use violence to ruin the opposite.
kantian culture
Kantian culture
  • Relationship between Self and Other is “friendship”.
  • The aim of state actions is to make collective security in which “all for one, one for all”: when the security of any one member of the system is threatened by aggression, all members are supposed to come to its defense even if their own individual security is not at stake. This kind of cooperation does not come out from egoism, but from the common perception of states that all of them belong to the same security unit.
  • The international anarchy is an “empty vessel”; it is the agents and the relationship of the agents in it that give the significance of anarchy. Different representations of Self and Other (enemies, rivals, friends) constitute different cultures of anarchy (Hobbesian, Lockean, Kantian).
  • the international system culture has two features:
  • A certain degree of stability due to the fundamentally conservative nature of culture.
  • Evolution from the lower degree to the higher degree. With each “higher” international culture states acquire certain rights. (eg. Lockean-sovereignty, Kantian-freedom from violence and security assistance)
Constraints of cooperation

Whether cooperation can take place depends on how structure cultures are internalized by states. States belonging to a certain system culture will internalize the culture to three degrees: force (Realist hypothesis), price (Neoliberal or rationalist) and legitimacy (Idealist or constructivist).

  • 1st stage of internalization:

states know what shared culture is but have no intrinsic interests to accept its implications for their behavior. They collaborate just because they meet with material coercion or they anticipate potential threaten. What they really pursue is still to conquer the others and to create a world empire. Cooperation is a short-time strategy.

Case: Why N. Korea joined the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) in 1985 while retreated from it in 2003?

In the 1980s, it decided to join in the NPT mainly for eliminating the nuclear threat from the US and solving the problem of insufficiency of electric power with nuclear power. As to the latter, the then-common way of applying nuclear power was to establish light-water reactor nuclear (LWN) power plant fueled by low-enriched uranium. N. Korea did not master the complicated technology of LWN and it decided to buy from those countries that have. However the fact at that moment was that those who mastered the advanced technology of LWN such as Canada, Switzerland, France and some other western countries were restricted by COCOM; and the Soviet Union who agreed to sell it the technology imposed N. Korea to sign the NPT. Considering the treaty was in its vital interest to prevent the nuclear threat from the US, it participated in the international nuclear cooperation and joined in the NPT on Dec. 12, 1985. Yet after that, it has less consistent pressure from the Soviet Union but still enough fear of the US threat, which made it claimed to retreat from the treaty two times and finally did it on Jan. 11, 2003.

2nd stage of internalization:

States accept shared meanings of cooperation because they think the compliance of the norm is in their self-interest. Since the acceptance is driven by the self-regarding calculation, it is instrumental. This means only when states feel no external threats to their own interests will they comply with the norm. As soon as they estimate that following the rules outweigh the benefits, they will abandon cooperative behavior.

Case: Why the US plays a duo-role in face of international environmental cooperation?

On the one hand, it was the prime proponent and creator of international environmental organizations in the 1970s and has been long an enthusiastic pioneer appealing for worldwide efforts to protect global environmental; on the other hand, it is now widely perceived as an obstacle to collective action symbolized by the Kyoto Protocol which requires the signatories to reduce gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Considering the high standards of gas emission required in the Protocol may result in high costs to American industry, the Senate passed the “Byrd-Hagel Resolution” on June 25, 1997 (S. Res. 98) which warmed the US gov. not to be a signatory to the Protocol, otherwise it will “result in serious harm to the United States economy, including significant job loss, trade disadvantages, increased energy and consumer costs, or any combination thereof…” Although then-Vice President Al Gore signed the Protocol in Nov. 1998, the US gov. has never submitted to Congress for ratification, which makes the signature an useless logo.

3rd stage of internalization:

States identify with others’ expectations, relating them as a part of themselves. The significance of the Self is created in relation to the Other. Cooperative culture has been the background of states. It constitutes the positive identification between states, which means states cooperate on the basis of collective identities. Each of them regards its own interests as part of the common interests of “theirs” and it believes that what is good for its interests benefit “their” interests. Under these circumstances, states are bond together with confidence and trust.

Case: The European Union

At the very beginning, the foundation of the EU was facilitated by functional questions. State cooperated because they were afraid of another war, in particular the rearmament of Germany, and were eager to get recovery from the war, as portrayed in the Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950: “The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe, and will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.”

However in the process of integration, countries felt that they often benefited more when they made collective decisions than did individually. From the common market to the single currency “euro” and from immigration policies to ERASMUS student programs, factors stimulating the cooperation among states have been more than just material factors but also more and more cooperative cultures.


The lower internalization of cooperative norms is, the less self-conscious states are in cooperation and the less stable the cooperation will be.

On the contrary, the higher internalization of cooperative norms is, the more self-conscious states are and the more stable and lasting the cooperative action will be.

Approach to cooperation

Cooperative behaviors may occur in any system culture but their levels vary according to different levels of internalization of the cooperative ideas by states. Constructivism gives more attention to the cooperation in the sense of the conscious abidance of “norms” stemming from the internalization of cooperative knowledge.

  • Adler’s “Three-Tier” assumption on the formation of security communities
  • Wendt’s four “master variables” in the formation of collective identities
three tier 1 st tier
“Three-Tier”- 1st tier

The first tier consists of material factors such as technological developments and external threats.

They are the precipitating conditions for cooperation, which encourage states to orient themselves in each other’s direction and coordinate their policies. Today, states engaged in the globalization and the development of new technologies all face severe challenges from demographic, economic and environmental problems. On this tier, states realize that accelerate interactions and coordination will help reduce mutual fear and promote a more promising future for all the participants, but there is no expectation that these initial encounters and acts of cooperation produce trust or mutual identification. Cooperation is promoted by external forces.

  • As a result of industrial development, the rapidly increased emission of CO2 has been pricking up the trend of global warming, therefore, many countries hope to cooperate through international treaties and organizations to resolve the problems that have already emerged and prevent the potential ones to safeguard the survival of the entire world.
  • In Southeast Asia, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) established in 1994 has not only been the first multilateral mechanism for East Asian cooperation, but also a crisis-settling mechanism during the development of this region. In 1997, countries in this region were badly hit by an unprecedented financial crisis. Shocked by the economic symbiosis with their neighbors, ASEAN countries sketched out the ASEAN Vision 2020 at the end of that year, envisioning a community where ASEAN countries can work together to get through any “1997 crisis” as well as prevent the potential problems. Since then, countries in the ASEAN region encountered many common problems during which the security situation has been arresting. The US adjusted its military deployment in East Asia and reinforced its military alliances in this region; North Korea became a dangerous factor sabotaging the East Asian stability and security; after 911 in 2001, regional and international terrorists became rampant, together with ethnic separatism, religious extremism, transnational crimes and the like. Under these circumstances, the 9th ASEAN Summit in 2003 brought the concept of the ASEAN Security Community (ASC) as part of the ASEAN Community by 2020, vowing that East Asian countries work together to fight back against the common threats and guarantee the security of all.
  • After 911, countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization including China, Russia and four middle Asian countries work more closely to jointly response to the war on terror on the national and regional level.
three tier 2 nd tier
“Three-Tier”- 2nd tier

The second tier consists of the “structural” elements of power and ideas, and the “process” elements of transactions, international organizations, and social learning.

These variables imply that states have become involved in a series of social interactions that have begun to transform the environment in which they are embedded. On this tier, power still plays an important role. In the formation of security communities, power can be a magnet; a community formed around a group of strong Powers creates the expectations that weaker states that join the community will be able to enjoy the security and potentially other benefits that are associated with that community.


After the cold war, East European countries joined in the NATO which was actually dominated by the US. As a matter of fact, the willingness of these East European countries to join in the NATO did not derive from the organization itself; rather, they are attracted by the super power of the US in the organization, hoping that they could benefit from a security shelter through a closer relationship with the organization. France is an interesting case. In 1966, General De Gaulle quitted the NATO in order to guarantee the independence of its national security, however in 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy make it turn back. Although plenty of reasons are used to explain Sarkozy’s decision, it is very clear that France at this stage is also attracted by the super power of the US, hoping to gain more weights to restore its “great power” status through a closer cooperation with the US in an US-dominated institution. As Sarkozy argued in a speech at the French military school, France can not let the US discuss with Russia at one corner and leave itself on the distant continent. Only if France gets closer to the core of the US can it be more conductive to enhance the world status of France and the Europe as a whole in the international system.

three tier 3 rd tier
“Three-Tier”- 3rd tier

The third tier consists of the development of trust and collective identity formation.

The contents of this tier are conducted by those of the second tier and are in turn the proximate necessary conditions for the development of dependable expectations of peaceful change. Trust among states is socially constructed on the bases of years of experiences and encounters. As long as mutual understanding and beliefs are formed during the process of interactions, states will feel little fear or suspicions from the others, and act even without enough information about what the relevant states will do in the next step.


Think about the extent to which great powers concern with the possession of unclear weapons between “democratic” and “non-democratic” states...

Adler illustrates in his framework of security communities that democratic nuclear powers do not feel threatened by each other’s nuclear weapons; even when in 1965 France withdrew from the NATO integrated command and insisted on maintaining an independent nuclear force, other NATO allies did not interpret this as a military threat against their physical survival. But these same countries are extremely concerned if Iraq or Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program. This has the same meaning with Wendt’s example in his constructivism that 500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the US than 5 N. Korean ones because there are shared understandings between Britain and the US. The US has the belief that the British possession of nuclear weapons will not be a threat to itself, while it is not the case for the N. Korea.

wendt s master variables 1 4 interdependence
Wendt’s “master variables”-1/4 interdependence

Interdependence means the outcome of an interaction for each depends on the choices of the others.


Since the second half of the 20th C., the rapid development of information technology and communication technology has greatly reduced the transaction costs of cross-border interactions; the mobility of people, goods, money and information has been more frequent than any time in our history. This has been most evident in the field of economies, especially when there is a regional or global crisis, as what we have learned from the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis. This is the precondition of collective identities.

wendt s master variables 2 4 common fate
Wendt’s “master variables”-2/4 common fate

Common fate means individual survival, fitness, or welfare depends on what happens to the group as a whole. It is constituted by a third party who defines the first two as a group.


During the Cold War, states from the same camp were all confronted by those from the opposite camp, only if it worked with the others who had the same destiny could it ensure its survival.

Another possibility is that states envisage the common external threats but the threats are not as acute as the former case. In this case, states will have less dynamics to initiate cooperation unless more ideological labor is given by some advocates in representing themselves as having a common fate. (eg. the international cooperation on global warming)

wendt s master variables 3 4 homogeneity
Wendt’s “master variables”-3/4 homogeneity

Homogeneity refers to the alikeness on the corporate identities and type identities of different actors.


For example, the EU and China share little homogeneity either in their corporate identities or type identities. On the one side, the EU is not a nation-state in the traditional sense, its relationship with China is thus different from the traditional bilateral relations between its member states and China. On the other side, the EU is a capitalist entity while China is a socialist country. There are big differences in their domestic economic and political system, which make misunderstandings and disputes unavoidable in their interactions. Recognition of these differences can help us understand the puzzles and frictions in the interaction process, engaging both sides in self-restraint and the efforts of “seeking common ground while reserving differences”.

wendt s master variables 4 4 self restraint
Wendt’s “master variables”-4/4self-restraint

Self-restraint refers to the fundamental problem in the formation of collective identity, that is, trust exists between actors in the absence of a third party.

There are three possibilities for knowing the intentions of other states:

  • by observing each other’s habitual compliance, especially if it is accompanied by foreign policy rhetoric that does not complain about the rules nor are likely to seize opportunities for doing so, and as such can be trusted to respect the needs of the Self.
  • by observing the domestic politics of each other, one can assume if it can trust the other, because states will tend to externalize or transpose domestic ways of doing things in their foreign policy behavior.
  • by self-binding, which means states allay the other’s anxiety about its intentions through unilateral initiatives, with no expectation of special reciprocity.
Conclusion:Strength and weakness
  • Logic of the interaction process:

State interaction and perception of their relationship

State identity formation and interest definition

External behavior according to interests

Formation of interstate relationship

Another interaction and perception


Some questioning (criticism):
  • It has no clear definition for international cooperation. According to Adler and Wendt, interstate cooperation may exist in all stages and from all possible motivations: some are forced by threats, some are driven by interests, and some are driven by sincere trust and confidence. This makes the definition of cooperation quite broad, as if the term itself can be interpreted whatever one likes.
  • homogeneity facilitates the formation of collective identity and cooperation, but to what extent does the homogeneity issue matter the cooperation among the states of heterogeneity? When homogeneity functions well in promoting cooperation among the western countries, how should we survey the relationship of Western and non-Western civilizations?
  • Where do the ideas of states come from? If “states are people too”, do a state’s ideas equal the sum of its people’s? Why have some states owned more right to speak than the others in world affairs? After all, the international society is different from any domestic societies. The formation of a state’s perception may be affected by many factors, not only the material capacities the state possesses but also the influence of certain important persons, lobbies as well as international uncertainties.
  • 秦亚青编:《西方国际关系理论经典导读》第三编“建构主义”部分。
  • Wendt, “The Agent-structure Problem in International Relations Theory,”International Organization, Vol. 41, No.3 (Summer 1987).
  • Wendt, “Collective Identity Formation and the International State,”The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 2 (June 1994).
  • Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Nicholas Onuf, World of Our Making: rules and rule in social theory and international relations (University of South Carolina Press, 1989).
  • Peter Katzenstein (ed.), The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity In World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
  • Peter Katzenstein, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005).
  • Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996).
  • Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett (eds.), Security Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Ted Hopf, “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory,” International Security, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Summer 1998).