Political change often occurs as major events—such as wars, economic crises, and sudden electoral shifts—lead to punctuated turning points, which are then followed by enduring ideological, institutional, or coalitional transformations. Indeed, across international and domestic contexts, whether one addresses security crises like those that marked the commencement of the cold war or war on terror, economic crises such as the great crash of 1929 or subprime crisis of 2007 to 2009, or the critical elections that transformed U.S. party systems in 1932 or 1968, certain moments in political time stand out as having a particular impact. These events often lead to lasting changes in international relations, economic policy, or coalitional alignments. In addressing these sources of change, political science scholars have sought to not only identify the key mechanisms through which such events acquire a particular significance, but also highlight broader implications for agency, policy progress, and reform.
Over the past several decades, as scholars have addressed such mechanisms of change, a basic theoretical divide has given rise to a broad debate. From the former vantage, materialists highlight the exogenously given, preinterpretive sources of change, such as shifts in the distribution of power, economic recourses, or demographic trends. Where shifts in such relative power relations alter the balance of power among state and societal actors, materialists argue that they help to determine the outcomes of international or domestic struggles over “who gets what, when, and how.” In justifying this approach, materialists assume that political agents make efficient use of information in reacting to military, economic, or societal changes, and that those who do not correctly act on their real interests will be “selected out” of their competitive systems.
In contrast, from the latter vantage, constructivists highlight the social sources of change—rooted in shifts in shared ideas, economic ideologies, or cultural understandings. Constructivists assume that ideas of these sorts matter because agents are plagued by what John Maynard Keynes termed the fundamental constraint of uncertainty. With respect to a number of important potential developments (e.g., the price of oil in ten years, the likelihood of a terrorist attack) agents simply cannot form any meaningful expectations, and so must fall back on “conventional” judgments for guidance. In other words, agents must interpret crises before they react to them. Moreover, as agents interpret events as legitimating ideological changes, this can lead to transformations of their own interests—or beliefs about how to meet needs—in ways that assume lives of their own. Put differently, from the constructivist vantage, political struggles do not simply pertain to who gets what, when, and how, but also involve arguments over the meaning of events in ways that can reshape agents’ views of who they are and what they want.
To be sure, materialist and constructivist perspectives are not monolithic, and—given these broad assumptions—varieties of each exist. For example, from the materialist vantage, while realist approaches cast hegemonic wars as mechanisms that restore equilibrium to the balance of power, alternative Marxist frameworks highlight the role of wars and crises as sources of dialectical change from more imperialist orders to more emancipatory or socialist alternatives. Likewise, constructivist frameworks vary from those stressing the role of more elite-based, paradigmatic ideas to those stressing the preconscious, affective influences on a wider range of agents.
Nevertheless, setting aside such differences, the underlying debates over material or social forces prove quite enduring, having broad parallels in economic debates between classical and Keynesian perspectives, and psychological controversies over the importance of behavioral incentives or socialization processes. In the largest sense, these perspectives reflect different views of the human condition, as to whether agents are materially or socially constructed, whether material constraints limit possibilities for change, and whether ideas can assume evolving “lives of their own.”
International Security: From Hegemonic to Constitutive Wars
In the security realm, scholars have long noted the association between major wars and postwar settlements that reshape international orders. Perhaps most prominently, Robert Gilpin argues that hegemonic war serves as “the principal mechanism of change throughout history.” In this view, per iodic hegemonic conflicts, reinforced by postwar conferences and accords, determine which “states or states will be dominant and will govern the system.” Questions arise, however, about how a victorious hegemon might define its interests—along more conservative or liberal lines, or in more benign on more predatory fashions. Materialist approaches, at a systemic level, are likely to be underdetermining.
One materialist solution offers a supplemental stress on domestic material influences, rooted in the domestic institutional and societal characteristics of major states. For example, G. John Ikenberry concedes that “historical junctures . . . come at dramatic moments of upheaval and change within the international system, when the old order has been destroyed by war and newly powerful states try to reestablish basic organizing principles.” However, Ikenberry elaborates, “Democratic states have greater capacities to enter into binding institutions” and that hegemonic settlements established by democratic regimes can support more stable, legitimate orders. Nevertheless, despite its merits, Ikenberry’s legal shift to the domestic realm fails to offer a fundamental solution to theoretical problems of how institutional agents define their interests. Even the meaning of democracy itself is variable, and no theoretical fundamental precludes the emergence of violent differences over the meaning of democracy itself—as between the United States and Germany in World War I (1914–1918).
In a broader sense, materialist arguments remain wanting to the extent that the meaning of power and the nature of institutions are always endogenous to a social context. First, “major” asymmetries in the balance of power cannot be abstracted from the social context of, for example, friendship or enmity between states. While rivals or enemies may shift alliances to prevent any single state from attaining dominance over the system, states enjoying socially grounded ties of friendship may simply ignore the ostensible incentive structure of the distribution of power. As Alexander Wendt argues, U.S. policy makers view North Korean missiles differently than they do British missiles. Secondly, even “major” wars occur in meaningful contexts, as when Harry Truman cast the cold war as a struggle over “ways of life” or when George W. Bush emphasized the implications of the ostensible war on terror for the United States’s “deepest beliefs.” Conversely, even apparently “minor” crises can carry disproportionate lessons during periods of uncertainty, as when the post–cold war “Black Hawk down” incident in Somalia prompted an isolationist backlash. In this light, even wars that fundamentally disrupt the balance of power cannot be understood outside some social context.
To the extent that uncertainty complicates the interpretation of material incentives, constructivists have stressed the need to more directly examine the understandings that give wars and crises meaning. Providing the foundation for such an approach, John Ruggie argues that hegemonic wars might often be better seen as constitutive wars that can reshape notions of sovereignty itself. Indeed, Ruggie argues that the emergence of the sovereign state system can itself been seen as having “resulted in part from a transformation in social epistemology” following from the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) and Peace of Westphalia (1648). From this vantage, Ruggie argues that preWestphalian epistemes and “the mental equipment that people drew upon in imagining and symbolizing forms of political community underwent fundamental change.” As Ruggie puts it, “the very ontology of the units—that is to say, what kind of units they would be” provides the focus of constitutive wars. In contrast, in configurative wars, the nature of the units is accepted, though “their territorial configuration remain[s] contested.” Finally, Ruggie defines as positional wars all of “the familiar strategic and tactical wars ever since.”
However, to the sense that the Westphalian era has been characterized by continued debate over the meaning of sovereignty—whether to advance the rights of monarchs, nations, workers, or theocratic designs of varied sorts—wars might still be seen as having ongoing, constitutive significance. For example, Bruce Cronin and J. Samuel Barkin suggest that modern struggles from the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) to the cold war have played a key role in reconciling tensions between statist or nationalist views of sovereignty, which alternately locate authority in “the territories over which institutional authorities exercise legitimate control” or in varied “communities of sentiment.”
In this view, it is not shifts in power, but tensions over prevailing understandings that drive war and change in world politics. Indeed, such social understandings provide the focus of debates over the lessons of conflict, most recently in U.S. settings in cold war–era debates over the lessons of Vietnam. What Vietnam “meant” with respect to definitions of vital or peripheral interests had important implications for policy debate during the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations. In more recent post–cold war debates over the meaning of the war on terror, the shift from the Bush to Obama administration can similarly be seen as accompanying a shift from a view of the September 11 attacks as highlighting the need for a more unilateral or multilateral definition of the national interest. In the absence of mechanisms for managing systemic change, wars and threats do not “speak for themselves,” but must be given meaning to advance state and societal change.
International Political Economy: The Meaning of Crises
Paralleling these views of wars as revealing shifts in the distribution of power or in prevailing ideas, scholars of the international political economy have engaged in an ongoing debate over views of crises as disrupting the economic distribution of power or prevailing ideological frameworks. From the materialist vantage, hegemonic stability theorists like Gilpin cast the rise and fall of great powers as the most important factor in explaining stability. However, as in the security realm, other materialist scholars have recognized the indeterminacy of systemic incentives and argued for a greater stress on domestic incentives. Indeed, Gilpin himself concedes the role of ideology and stresses the need for a “dominant liberal power” to enable economic cooperation. From this vantage, in the nineteenth century, British hegemony might be seen as having supported the classical gold standard, until interwar British collapse undermined the classical order. Likewise, in the twentieth century, the post–Great Depression rise and (as some argue) decline of U.S. hegemony might explain international monetary change, from the Keynesian Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate system to the current order.
More explicitly highlighting the material sources of domestic preferences, Peter Gourevitch stresses the effects of economic crises—defined as “major” economic downturns and shifts in the “geographic distribution of production”—on domestic preferences and transnational support for international regimes. Given some fluctuation in relative factor endowments, political agents will apply their reallocated resources to successfully (or unsuccessfully) defend their policy preferences. Gourevitch argues that material shocks alter the bases of domestic coalitions, as “social actors, affected by their situation, evaluate alternative policies in reaction to the likely benefits or costs.” Thus, to explain post–Great Depression Keynesian cooperation, Gourevitch stresses the effects of the crises of the 1930s on the relative position of capital and labor, arguing that labor-led coalitions advocated the adoption of Keynesian policies as alternatives to austerity.
Offering a somewhat greater stress on the autonomy ideas from a comparative vantage, scholars like Elinor Ostrom and Douglass North provide a more nuanced view of the interplay of power and ideas. They cast competitive pressures as often mediated and constrained by formal institutions (e.g., constitutions, rules, and laws) and informal structures (e.g., conventions, norms, and standards of behavior). To be sure, such institutions, even if they can exert a path dependent effect on behavior, still leave the fundamental material impediments to collective action in place.
In this light, despite their merits, these international and comparative analyses ultimately remain wanting for the same reason as basic materialist theories of hegemonic war. First, the effects of the distribution of capabilities in abstraction from the social context are indeterminate. Where states share a sense of the common interest, no hegemonic capabilities may be needed to maintain stability. Conversely, where such positive identification is lacking, no level of capabilities may be sufficient to guarantee stability. Second, the shift to a focus on domestic interests and practices does not resolve the problem of the indeterminacy of incentives, since domestic incentives are often equally unclear. For example, neither firms, nor unions, nor representatives of civil society can identify their “true” interests in abstraction from some intersubjective setting. Through much the era following the depression, for example, representatives of business and capital came to recognize the existence of shared interests in rising wages as a means to bolster demand. Finally, concerns for “major” crises run aground on the inability to precisely define what counts as a “major” change. Even exogenous shocks must be interpreted in a larger context, requiring a more explicit stress on paradigmatic debate over varied Classical or Keynesian economic theories.
In light of these objections, constructivists have stressed the importance of the social context to stability and change. Ruggie has once again played a key role in developing such arguments, reflected in his stress on not only “power” but also “purpose” in explaining the rise of the Bretton Woods system after the depression, in which the state assumed an active role in advancing shared corporate and labor interests in rising employment, demand, and output. Mark Blyth builds upon Ruggie’s insights, introducing a dynamic stress on the construction of crises to explain “great transformations” in economic arrangements in international and comparative settings. Blyth rejects frameworks that treat international political development as progressing through a series of self-apparent exogenous shocks. He instead defines crises in terms of their intersubjective impact, arguing that they occur during periods of uncertainty, when agents “are unsure as to what their interests actually are, let alone how to realize them.” Blyth argues that, given uncertainty, state and societal interests can only be defined in terms of the ideas agents themselves have about the causes of uncertainty.
Drawing on the insights of Keynes, constructivists thereby cast uncertainty as a condition under which there is no scientific basis to form any calculable probability. In this light, economic crises matter as they reshape the terms of policy debate. In other words, as Keynes once put it, “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” Indeed, reactions to the subprime crisis of 2007 to 2009—as it drove the Bush and Obama administrations alike to engage in Keynesian “lender of last resort assistance”—cannot be understood outside an understanding of Keynes’s own ideas. The subprime crisis did not “speak for itself ” in compelling such policies, but rather spurred debate over the role of the state in society and has legitimated a renewed acceptance of deficit spending and the need for financial reform.
Scholarly debates over the sources of political-scale change broadly concern the importance of material or social forces. From materialist perspectives, while agents might adapt with greater or lesser degrees of skill to exogenous shifts, they cannot fundamentally evade the exogenous constraints of the balance of military or economic power. In contrast, constructivist perspectives highlight the influence of the shared ideas that shape interpretations of material incentives. Perhaps more important, these frameworks have important implications for the scope of agency, progress, and reform. Materialist approaches arguably obscure the full scope of agency, limiting it to mere adaptation. These approaches suggest that agents can only respond to material shifts with differing degrees of skill, and that efforts at transforming international or domestic systems in fundamental ways are likely to be frustrated as proponents are selected out of the system. In contrast, constructivists highlight the role of agents in giving meaning to material changes, in ways that can reshape shared understandings, state and societal interests, and institutional possibilities. In this sense, the materialist-constructivist debate is rooted in enduring controversies over not simply the nature of structural constraints, but broader questions of agency, progress, and change.
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