Constructivism and Realism: a comparative analysis

On several basis it can be justified that constructivism gives more comprehensive vision of the world than realism. Let us justify this with certain case studies.

Realism and constructivism are two dominate theories of international relations that offer different explanation and insights in explaining the behavior of nations and nature of international politics . Realism explains the anarchic nature of the world, focuses on self-interest of nations and role of power. It argues that states can even go for war to defend themselves and every action of state is motivated by its desire to maximize power and it is justified because it is nature of man and states.On the other hand, the constructivism is relatively new theory that emphasizes the impact of  ideas,norms, values and identities on state behavior. It holds on “ideational” view of reality. This argues that states are not meant to be only selfish whereas it is ideas and beliefs that give rise to state’s behaviour. It is a movement in IR theory that examines how changing norms and actors identities help shape the content of state interests. Though realism is still prevalent today, it could be argues that constructivism explains the world more logically than realism.

How is constructivism more relevant than realism?

On several basis it can be justified that constructivism gives more comprehensive vision of the world than realism. Let us justify this with certain case studies.

The realism believes that states urge to maintain their maximum power and buildup of

nuclear arsenals and other weapons are essential to reflect that power. The states should maintain balance of power and states should feel threatened from the state having same capabilities like it. According to this, the US should feel more threatened from 225 UK nuclear weapons than from 30 nuclear weapons of North Korea. But realism has failed to explain that why US feels greater threat from North Korea and not from UK. Constructivist scholars would point out the shared history,shared alliance and shared norms that tell that US and UK are not threat to each other.

Realists believe that states have been selfish and will remain so because acquisition of power and satisfaction of self-interests are primary goals of state. Struggle for power is struggle for self-help. But this claim of realism have failed to prove that how Europe has turned into peaceful region after being the originator of two world wars in first half of twentieth century that killed million but now war is unthinkable. Constructivists hold that states identities are complex and changing and arise from interactions with other states-through process of socialization. Over time the states will conceptualize each other.

Realism asserts that states are primary actors in international relations and the structure is anarchic with no central government to rule the world where states would be reluctant to cede sovereignty to a supranational identity. This anarchic system makes it inevitable for states to accumulate power and to ensure survival. The realism fails to give the satisfactory reason of creation of United Nations and why states listen to the resolutions passes by the UN. Here constructivism holds the ground by arguing that the shared norms of peace, ideas to work as community, beliefs and values about effectiveness of supranational entity, these have led the states to construct their reality as member of community of the states.

Constructivists proponents argue that states interests and identities are intertwined. States may value some status or reputation that are based on social interaction and not on material needs as realism believes. Switzerland is recognized as neutral, non aligned state it does belong to EU or NATO and joined UN in 2020). this gives Switzerland power and prestige, not military power and might, but diplomatic power to intervene in important international affairs and because of its identity as not biased, it is likely for Switzerland to have greater voice in world affairs that mostly shape its interests. Realism has failed to explain that how these interests are identity-based interests and not self-based interests.

Another field of constructivist research focuses on international norms and their ability to constrain state actions. While realism is based on logic of consequences, constructivism is based on logic of appropriateness (how should I behave in this situation). The NPT which entered into force in 1970, aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, promote disarmament and facilitate the peaceful use of nuclear energy.For realists, states’ decisions to join the NPT are driven by their desire to avoid the costs and risks associated with nuclear proliferation. Constructivists view the NPT as more than a strategic tool; they see it as a manifestation of international norms and shared beliefs about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

The foundations of many regional organizations have put realism in difficult situations as it is limited to explain that how states cooperate and go for pursuit of absolute gains rather than relative gains. The integration of Europe as European Union(EU) is manifestation of constructivists claim that states actions are guided by shared ideas,norms and beliefs and EU is based on idea of European unity. The use of Euros as currency and establishment of euro-zone emphasizes that states cooperate and their cooperation is bases on shared identity. Similarly, the OIC, the union of Muslim countries, the SAARC, the union of South Asian countries and many more and portraying that states collaborate on basis of ideas, norms and shared values.

Realism struggles to explain the emergence and acceptance of responsibility to protect( R2P). according to realism, the states primarily act in their self-interest and are less likely to intervene in other states affairs unless their own security is directly threatened. Constructivism on the other hand explains the emergence of R2P through the lens of shared norms and values of protection of human rights.


While realism remains a crucial framework for understanding the different aspects of international relations, the constructivism gives the more nuanced and often more relevant explanation for contemporary issues and events. Constructivism’s focus on the role of ideas, norms, and identities helps explain phenomena that realism struggles with, such as the end of the Cold War, European integration, the rise of human rights norms, and international cooperation. These case studies and explanation illustrates how we can give priority to constructivism over realism.

Eman Fatima
Eman Fatima
The author is in 4th semester, student of BS International Relations at GCUL. She is interested in politics, global affairs, middle-east politics, conflict studies and international politics.