Is anarchy really ‘what states make of it’?

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The frontispiece of the book 'Leviathan' by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse / CC
Photograph: Is anarchy what states make of it? Photograph: The frontispiece of the book 'Leviathan' by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse / CC / CC

Alexander Wendt’s influential essay, ‘Anarchy is what States Make of it’ posits that with the absence of a world government, the ‘anarchy’ that states live in does not have to be a self-help system. His argument is a Constructivist one, finding its inspiration in the inability of the dominant Neorealist and Neoliberal schools to explain growing international developments at the end of the Cold War in the mid to late 1980’s[i].

Wendt’s proposition that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ is a challenge to Kenneth Waltz’s structural or neorealist emphasis on states as rational actors who determine their decisions based on the material capabilities of themselves and other nations[ii].

Wendt, on the other hand, theorises that in a state of global anarchy[iii] a self-help system does not necessarily follow and there can be several kinds of anarchy[iv] based on how state identities and interests are defined in that circumstance.[v]

While theoretical, his argument holds particular interest with what they can tell us about international developments today. The recent normalising of relations between the United States of America and Cuba after over 50 years of suspicion and aggression is a case and point. As the Islamic State congeals and emerges and a de facto state Wendt’s arguments offer more insight than the number of weapons each party has. How are the good, the bad and the ugly relationships formed; how do friends become foes, and foes become friends?

Wendt’s argument is theoretically convincing about state identity formation. Most of the time it is methodological limited because it can be seldom used to watch an emergent interaction with a completely new group; free of any, or limited, prior interaction. In that regard, it is best used retroactively as a historical tool to try and find the first cause; the needle in the haystack of how countries began to get to know each other. Governments may well change hands regularly, but in their institutions and in the minds of the populace there are already preconceptions, conceptions and, of course, misconceptions, of other countries that are near impossible to change overnight.

As such Wendt’s argument, and constructivism overall, have never usurped Realism as the dominant methodology for understanding state actions. It can, however, provide a fundamental bedrock for explaining relationships that work and ones that fail.

Wendt contends the neorealist tenet that “self-help and power politics”[vi] must follow from a system of anarchy does not follow “logically or casually.”[vii]  Rather, states – as the “territorially monopoly over organised violence”[viii]– and their identities in the anarchical realm are forged through their symbolic interaction (whereby states learn to relate to each other as friends or enemies) with each other. While he maintains the neorealist Waltzian assumption that states operate under a condition of anarchy[ix] and that they are the main unit of analysis in international relations theory (for the purposes of proposing a scientific theory), Wendt rejects that anarchy is perennial and cannot be changed.[x]

States, according to Wendt, are pre-social. They have some constitutive features[xi] in their domestic institutional order and understanding of the five national concerns – “physical security, autonomy, economic well-being and collective self-esteem”[xii] a priori of encountering other states.  Wendt ‘brackets off’[xiii] any further domestic relevance, arguing that further understanding of international relations come from encountering other states. This is done by the process of “ego and alter”[xiv] where socialisation is accomplished by physical interaction between states[xv] and forming identity constructions based on the action-reaction basis. Social configurations are not “objective like mountains but neither are they subjective like dreams”[xvi] but rather are intersubjective – based around interactions. States have no Classical Realist attributes of power or glory seeking, but rather all relations and security understandings come from the “process of signalling, interpreting and responding “ which creates, over a long enough period, intersubjective definitions and norms of established behaviour and “reciprocal typifications.”[xvii] Ideational structures and actors therefore “co-constitute and co-determine each other.”[xviii]

The implication of Wendt’s theory anarchy – based on socialisation – is in fact the consequence of identity formation and not something that exists prior to it.  Anarchy can take different cultures or “ideational instantiations”, each with its own set of behavioural norms. The Hobbesian realm where “only power matters”[xix] or “actor compliance to certain behavioural norms”[xx]; the Lockean rivalry where states compete with each other or Kantian cooperation; where structures of cooperation and reciprocal norms of respect for territorial rights and sovereignty prevail.[xxi] These are all reproduced through “regular practice producing mutually constituting sovereign identities”[xxii] which ultimately “transform[s] understandings of security and power.”[xxiii]

Deterministic realist arguments are therefore incorrect, as systems can be changed according to intersubjective norms. The ideational emphasis on the system of anarchy rather than the material restrictions highlighted by neorealism suggests the possibility of change if identities are recast and new norms institutionalised. Indeed, “If self-help is not sustained, it will die out.”[xxiv]

However, these propositions have come under criticism from constructivists and neoliberals alike.  Wendt’s bracketing of domestic level or unit analysis and using a state based methodology[xxv] demonstrates neglect for the rise of non-state actors and leaves “unfulfilled potentials for a possibly far deeper theory”[xxvi]. The rise of non-state actors, including militant Islam and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’[xxvii]altered how state’s viewed their own security.

Yet this process of changing identity was put in motion by non-state actors with a grievance against American Imperialism (something that is both material and ideational) indicating the “socialisation processes internal to a state can change the state’s identity and interests independently of [state] interaction.”[xxviii] Neoliberal institutionalism has previously examined the domestic effects on international anarchy  as has constructivist thought and concluded it is key – Wendt’s postulation of state supremacy is ill-matched in an era witnessing the decline of state totality over what influence they have over anarchic conditions.

Wendt’s argument also poses difficulties when the internal and the external characteristics of a state are separated. To be aware of what is a domestic contribution and what is an external influence on a state’s formation requires experience with both.  This is not possible however if states are pre-social according to Wendt’s own argument.[xxix] Therefore the differentiating of these realms is paradoxical as a state of sovereignty must have preceded its inception so that state formation could be clearly categorised into the internal and external. Wendt’s argument underestimates cultural dilution before sovereignty existed and overlooks pre-existing historical ties that could affect state behaviour and define relations in an anarchical condition. States aligning along historic cultural and civilisation[xxx] ties is one theory for post-Cold War anarchic divisions. If true, this invalidates the concept of states as exclusive spatial and historic territories with no prior international socialisation.

For example, this was demonstrated with the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo[xxxi] which were not only cultural and religious conflicts but unit level disputes that challenged the United States to become more than its uninvolved identity had previously allowed in the Cold War. In conjunction with the effects of unit level influences that affect anarchical relations, the rise of non-government organisations, specifically human rights organisations that influence states by appeals to cultural links rather than state/ governmental ones. Non-state actors pose a significant challenge that states no longer shape anarchy.

Realists also criticise Wendt’s argument and would choose to focus more on the material reality of anarchy and less on the ideational impact of Wendt’s methodology. First, the three cultures that Wendt highlights as being possible under anarchy are subject to falsification and manipulation.[xxxii] Similarly, there is no way to tell what is a genuine identity change and a behaviour modification. If ‘anarchy is what states make if it’, and is one of the three cultures outlined by Wendt is subject to a facade, then there is no way to measure the truthful effects of norm internalisation.[xxxiii]

 In contemporary politics this is clear with ‘rogue’ states; those which may make pretences of adhering to international norms or treaties but will flaunt them if it is in their national interest. This is the case of North Korea, who signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1990’s but left in 2002[xxxiv] to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. Similarly, Iran continues to allegedly defy international treaties in pursuit of its own nuclear weapons programme. Despite socialisation with a majority of NNPT states, the identity of these rogue states have not altered and they are bound by regional and global concerns for their own security, not of ideational international norms. These concerns are not going to change in the face of presumed security threats. The possibility of deception is an expected realist concern; however, it is an inability of Wendt’s theory to properly assess the kind of deception which ultimately invalidates it by its inability to assess the effects of honest state behaviour on the anarchical realm without presuming self-help.

Secondly, Wendt’s constructivist argument cannot address the complexities of the security dilemma as seen by state leaders.[xxxv] The “problem of other minds”[xxxvi] and the difficulty in deciphering motives of states make breaking the cycle of self-help an exceptional task. In conjunction with present fears, states and their leaders must be cautious as to “predator”[xxxvii] states that may emerge in the future. “Realism only needs states to be uncertain about the present and future interests of the other”[xxxviii] to create a cycle of mistrust. Indeed, Wendt comments that it only requires one state to create a system of mistrust[xxxix]. As Wendt recognises it is often difficult to know everything about another state and to interpret their intentions correctly.[xl] Despite this, he does not offer a mechanism where alter and ego can interpret each other better and avoid this cycle of mistrust because of fear of misinterpretation. Anarchy as a self-help system becomes a deterministic outcome without the epistemological methods to know completely what the intentions of another state are and to bypass security concerns. Realists would comment that without this, anarchy is left as an explanation for the behaviour and not an institution to be engaged with.

Thirdly, while it can be argued that some contemporary developments such as the expansion of NATO and growth of the European membership suggest a collective norm of cooperation, it can also be argued that this is a Western-centric perspective[xli] that does not give consideration to other regions of the world where cooperation is not entrenched. This would lead to a position of multiple world anarchies, leading to a conflict between how these ‘worlds’ would cooperate each along the lines predicted by Samuel Huntingdon’s essay, The Clash of Civilisations? In addition to this, Wendt’s use and consideration of the idea of cooperation can be deemed as a loaded word – cooperation as advantageous pursuits – can be realpolitik in disguise, thus casting doubt on the motives of state engagement in supranational organisations.

Ultimately, Wendt’s attempts at positing a grand theory to explain anarchy as a social construction created from state interaction fails but offers many benefits as a philosophical and historical tool to explaining state relations. Its inability to account for contemporary developments and the boxing of domestic unit considerations as well as previous influential encounters between cultures leaves it as an oversimplified theory. Anarchy, therefore, can be said to have been created by states because it is an ontological product of states existence, but this means that the conditions in which states operate are not completely conditional on social encounters, but rather material needs and cannot be predicted by Wendt’s constructivist theories.

It can be agreed therefore that states are a part of anarchy, and define it with how they operate within it. Ultimately, Wendt’s argument is a useful starting point to analyse the past formation of states while realism remains the most useful international relations theory for interpreting how states will potentially operate in the future. Anarchy is not what states make of it, but they do contribute to it.

[i] K.M Fierke, “Constructivism” in T. Dunne, M. Kurki, S. Smith, eds.,  International Relations Theories (Oxford: New York, 2007), p.167

[ii] Jack Donnelly “Realism and International Relations” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.50

[iii] Andreas Behnke, “Grand Theory in the Age of its Impossibility: Contemplations on Alexander Wendt” Cooperation and Conflict 36, 121(2001), p. 122

[iv] Alexander Wendt “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics” International Organization Vol. 46, 2 (1992), p. 394.

[v] Maja Zehfuss “Constructivism and Identity: A Dangerous Liaison” European Journal of International Relations Vol. 7, 315 (2001), p. 316

[vi] Wendt 1992, 394

[vii] Wendt 1992, 394

[viii] Merima Zupcevic “Can Alexander Wendt’s Approach Provide a Convincing Constructivist Account of International Politics?” CEU Political Science Vol. 03 (2008), p. 295

[ix] Behnke, 122

[x] Wendt 1992, 392

[xi] Wendt 1992, 402

[xii] Zehfuss 2001, p.320

[xiii] Dale. C  Copeland “The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism” International Security, vol.25, No. 2 (2000),p.203

[xiv] Wendt 1992, 404

[xv] Wendt 1992, 404

[xvi] Jeff Coulter, “Remarks on the Conceptualisation of Social Structure” (1982) in Wendt, 1992, 406.

[xvii] Wendt 1992, 405

[xviii] Copeland 2000, 190

[xix] Wendt 1992, 415

[xx] Copeland 2000, 189

[xxi] Wendt 1992, 412

[xxii] Wendt 1992, 413

[xxiii] Wendt 1992, 414

[xxiv] (Wendt p.369)

[xxv] Zupcevic 2008, 294

[xxvi] Zupcevic 2008, 297

[xxvii] Zupcevic 2008, 296

[xxviii] Copeland 2000, 203.

[xxix] Behnke 2001, 128

[xxx] Samuel P. Huntingdon, “The Clash of Civilisations” (London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2002), p.43

[xxxi] Zupcevic 2008, 297

[xxxii] Copeland 2000, 206

[xxxiii] Copeland 2000, 202

[xxxiv] BBC News. North Korea Claims Nuclear Test. [Online]. Available at: (9 October 2009)

[xxxv] Copeland 2000, 199

[xxxvi] Copeland 2000, 199

[xxxvii] Wendt 1992, 408

[xxxviii] Copeland 2000, 199

[xxxix] Wendt 1992, 408

[xl] Copeland 2000, 201

[xli] Zupcevic 2008, 300


Behnke, A. “Grand Theory in the Age of its Impossibility: Contemplations on Alexander Wendt” Cooperation and Conflict 36, 121(2001): 121 -134

BBC News. North Korea Claims Nuclear Test. [Online]. Available at: (9 October 2006)

Copeland, D.C.  “The Constructivist Challenge to Structural Realism” International Security, vol.25, No. 2 (2000) 187 – 212

Coulter, J.  “Remarks on the Conceptualisation of Social Structure.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 12( 1982) in Wendt, 19922, 406.

Donnelly, J., (2000) Realism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fierke, K.M, “Constructivism” in T. Dunne, M. Kurki, S. Smith, eds.,  International Relations Theories  – Discipline and Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Ch. 9

Huntingdon, S.P., 2002. The Clash of Civilisation and the Remaking of the World Order. London. Simon and Schuster.

Mearsheimer, RN., 2007. Structural Realism. In T.Dunne, M.Kurki & S.Smith, eds. 2007. International Relations Theories – Discipline and Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press. Ch.4

Wendt, A.  “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics” International Organization Vol. 46, 2 (1992), p. 391 – 425

Zehfuss, M., “Constructivism and Identity: A Dangerous Liaison” European Journal of International Relations: Vol. 7 (3) (2001): 315 – 345

Zupcevic, M., “Can Alexander Wendt’s Approach Provide a Convincing Constructivist Account of International Politics?” CEU Political Science Vol. 03 (2008), 293 – 304

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About Alastair Stewart 256 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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