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The Social Construction of War

by Mitchell Binding

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Second Lieutenant Mitchell Binding is currently awaiting Phase III Helicopter training, and is using the time to complete the first year of a Master’s of Arts in International Relations and Contemporary Warfare through King’s College, London.


The current resurgence of nationalism and emergence of “post-fact” politics offers an interesting opportunity to study how war is socially constructed.1 I argue, in line with a constructivist framework, that actors are induced to act based upon a socially constructed reality; this reality is formed by norms and identities. The extent to which war is socially constructed matters most when observing how much actors can manoeuvre within this construct, to which the answer is, very little. I first explain why this question even matters, and clarify concepts that are prerequisite to a comprehensive understanding. I then address the core of this article: the ways that war is socially constructed, and the extent to which this is so. As with any honest analysis, my arguments are then tempered with a discussion of their limitations. Finally, I support my conclusions with a broad overview of case studies, preferring a broad approach to demonstrate the ubiquity of our findings.

Who Cares?

Whether a scholar, practitioner, military officer, activist, political leader or engaged citizen, it is instructive to reflect upon war as a social construct. The dialogue regarding international relations (IR) has fixated largely upon realist and liberal mindsets. Both paradigms offer many contributions to the field. Realism offers a pleasing straight-forward logic, and is supported by examples throughout the historical record.2 Liberalism, and Liberal Democratic Peace theory (LDP) particularly, shares the same “rationalist” foundation as realism, although with some fundamentally different assumptions, offering a different, more optimistic prognosis for global affairs.3 Indeed, modern liberalism has been the bedrock of the Western-led order for most of the last century, and so, it has played no small part in IR. Both approaches have major shortcomings, however. Realists are criticized with ignoring many of the most important factors in the international system.4 Liberalism has contributed to the undertaking of many ‘illiberal’ wars in seeking to spread democracy, which many argue has weakened the normative order that the West has sought to uphold.5 Both are criticized with having a Western-centric worldview that does not transfer to other perspectives.

By reflecting upon how IR theory is instead constitutive, we understand that actors’ conceptions of war and peace form the environment within which they act.6 This is important because it changes how we understand why things happen in the international system, and how best to address them – an endeavor that seems relevant, given the changing political and normative environment around the globe today.


The first issue is to clarify the term ‘socially constructed.’ Actors cannot separate themselves from the system within which they act. In the constructivist view, there is a difference between material and non-material factors, or ‘brute facts’ and ‘social facts.’7 It is the non-material or ideational factors that shape the international system and the way actors and states interact.

The ideas, norms, and cultures of actors and states are what create war. To be clear, this view does not hold war as ‘non-real,’ or something that can be wished away by changing how we think.8 As will be discussed in more depth later, anarchy, war, and other major elements of the international system are created by ideas, norms, and cultures that constitute an ‘intersubjective medium,’ whereby the actions of each actor and state affect those of every other.9 Because these normative constructions have been acted out, interpreted, and reinforced countless times across centuries, they are virtually hard-wired into the international system.

So then, why not simply adopt a rationalist approach? This is no small question, but the short answer is that in doing so, theorists and practitioners exclude a considerable amount of nuance. Not only do they misunderstand key aspects of the international system (i.e., lacking understanding of the end of the Cold War and its reasons), but they also say little about terrorism, international crime, migrant crises, environmental issues, gendered politics, domestic politics, or really anything not at the interstate level.10 These issues have all played increasingly important roles in IR, and rationalist approaches ignore them to their detriment.

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The United States Capitol building in Washington, DC.

So, after criticizing the two primary rationalist paradigms in IR, it is necessary to provide an alternative. The answer to many of the above issues, and to the stated research question, is tackled best by constructivist thinkers and the English School. These two schools of thought share similarities in their thinking, with some important differences.11 The primary difference between the two relates to their approaches: constructivists see through a socio-political lens, while the English School prefers to view through a historical lens. Generally, however, the two have similar ideas regarding the role of ideas and norms in interstate relations, and indeed, some scholars have been working to merge the two schools.

The most important concepts in this ‘third way’ – constructivism, rooted in the English School – are those of norms, identity, and culture. To constructivists, these fundamentals are responsible for the construction of international society and its constituent parts, such as anarchy, peace, diplomacy, and war.12

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St. Basil’s Intercession Cathedral in Moscow.

War as Social Construct

To understand war as a social construct, we need also to understand how states themselves are social constructs. The material aspects of a state are apparent: its territory, population, economy, and materiel are all indisputable aspects of the state.13 States are also created and defined by ideas (capitalism, democracy, communism), cultures (religious, secular, ethnic), and norms (rule of law, revanchist, conciliatory).14 Social construction is further illustrated by examining how a state could exist without territory, or territory without state (governments can operate in exile or while occupied).15 As the international system changes, states’ borders adapt and sometimes cease to exist altogether, even though its material properties are still intact in some capacity.16 The people as constituting a state can be questioned as well; the identities and cultures that constitute a state are often not homogenous, and often do conflict. Cultures regularly exist across state lines, and are often one of several within borders.17 The state can, in fact, be observed as the formulation of three distinct but critical parts; the territory and material factors make up only one part, with the other two being the ‘idea of the state’ and the ‘institutional expression of the state.’18 This trinity illustrates how material factors are only a part of that which comprises a state.

Viewing the state as a social construct influences how we observe the relations between them. These relations, as well, are influenced and often constituted by norms. If states are themselves constructs, then the anarchical structure that they comprise is also socially constructed.19 Norms are both regulative and constitutive; norms regulate the conduct of war (such as the United Nations charter and alliance treaties), yet without the rules and norms that constitute war, it would cease to exist altogether.20

This connection is described by the concept of agent-structure. Political scientist Alexander Wendt, one of the core social constructivist scholars in the field of IR, explains that ‘regular practices produce mutually constituting sovereign identities (agents) and their associated institutional norms (structures).’21 In other words, the agents in a system, in aggregate, create the structure within which they act. The system thereupon influences or regulates actions, which then feed back into the structure. This leads us to the conclusion that states, through their practices, constitute war.

This can be applied in understanding why realist and liberal thought is pervasive. Realism focuses on anarchy and the balance of power (or threat) and the systemic pressures that this places upon actors; if most actors in the world understand it to be Hobbesian in nature, then they will all act in a zero-sum, distrustful manner in the interest of self-preservation.22 Liberalism sees the same system but allows for norms of cooperation between like-states that make it feasible, through an iterative long-term version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to break away from eternal conflict.23 If every actor believes that cooperation among states is not only possible but very beneficial, then all would act accordingly to protect the groups and their own interests. These two discrete worldviews have been necessary for and constitutive of the conflicts and wars (as well as peace) seen throughout history.24

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Big Ben and Westminster Bridge – London.

Questions of Extent

Arguing that war is a social construct leads to the conclusion it is socially constructed to the full extent. I will attempt to answer a more fruitful question: to what extent can actors manoeuvre within this social construction?

As mentioned briefly earlier, the view that war is socially constructed does not mean that it is illusory or intangible, or can be abandoned at will. The norms that constitute war are pervasive, and are further influenced by feedback from the agent-structure system.25 This means that the extent to which actors can manoeuvre is limited.

The most important consequence of this is that actors essentially must act within a realist system because that is what has been repeatedly constructed.26 Naturally, liberalism still holds ground and LDP is still relevant, but most of history goes to the realists – and we seem currently to be returning to a balance-of-power mentality. For instance, realists have for years predicted the resurgence of a great-power competition-based order once the ‘unipolar’ order began to decline.27 We see this now between Russia, China, and the United States (US). The European Union (EU) is also on fragile ground and faces the serious possibility of disintegration, possibly leading to less friendly competition between Great Britain, France, Germany, and perhaps Italy.28 This is the result of the reification of realist thought in international politics and strategy, and is why actors struggle to manoeuvre within the social construction of war.


As with every approach in IR, constructivism comes with limitations. The most relevant involve the often complex nature of the constructivist argument, the difficulty in establishing guidelines for the analysis of norms, and its difficulty in predicting developments in IR. Many have argued that viewing war as socially constructed is overly complex, without any of the attractive simplicity of rationalist approaches (particularly of realism). Scholars have discussed the immense complexity of the norms and identities at each level of analysis, and how they affect each other in often circular ways.29 These complex normative relationships can make it very difficult to analyze and understand how they constitute a system.

The complexity in studying norms is made no easier by the difficult methodologies that must be adopted to study them. Some scholars have provided methods for analysis, but subjective and ill-defined concepts such as norms, identities, and culture are not easily assessed.30

The constructivist approach also struggles to anticipate directions of change, as it is not possible to predict the nature or transmission of ideas, whereas a rationalist or systemic approach could predict how countries will act based on what the structure dictates.31 Security practitioners require a certain applicability of concepts to the real world to devise forward-looking policies. The complexity and unpredictability of norms and ideas could make the constructivist approach less appealing.

Having acknowledged these limitations, it is important to note that none of them negate the reasons for understanding war as a social construct. Rationalist approaches still fail to understand the normative causes for the structures and institutions that they observe, or their consequences.32 Thus, constructivists do not aim to displace realism or liberalism, but to collaborate with them. Some have said that constructivism is not much more than a complement to realism,33 but it seems more accurate that realism and liberalism could both be subsumed under constructivism.

Overview of Case Studies

For the purposes of this article, a broad sampling of case studies is best suited to demonstrate the application of a constructivist approach to the real world. Such an approach inevitably sacrifices depth; I take a broad overview of both historical and contemporary examples to provide a sense of the many possibilities for applying a social construction understanding to war and IR.

Scholars have written on the role of norms, identity, and culture in numerous cases from the last century. University of Virginia’s Professor Jeffrey W. Legro, another specialist in IR, analyzes the lead-up to the Second World War, disagreeing with traditional arguments, and focusing instead upon how organizational cultures in Britain and Germany inadvertently escalated toward conflict.34 Dr. Elizabeth Kier, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, studies offensive versus defensive doctrines related to French military culture during the interwar years, finding that militaries do not inherently prefer the former.35 Harvard professor Dr. Alastair Iain Johnston discusses the prevalence of cultural realism in China during Mao Zedong’s reign, finding that offensive realpolitik has been internalized by Chinese leaders by historical events over centuries.36 Boston University’s IR Professor Thomas U. Berger assesses the tendencies of both Germany and Japan, since the Second World War, to buck the realist trend by being extremely hesitant to resort to military means because of cultural and historical factors.37 Doctors Richard Price (University of British Columbia) and Nina Tannenwald (Brown University) use a normative approach to explain the non-use of chemical and nuclear weapons in instances where the deterrence model does not hold up.38 Then, Dr. Robert G. Herman tackles the fall of the Soviet Union, showing that ideational factors led to the end of the Cold War more than material ones.39

The beginning of the current century has provided many case studies as well. We have witnessed the War on Terror and the construction of its narrative on both sides.40 As the UK departs the EU and hastens its demise, and the US nationalistically turns inward and away from its allies, the world witnesses the incipient decline of the Western-led order.41 The vacuum is filled by two resurgent great powers: Russia rejects the normative hegemony of the West and so acts aggressively to attain former glory, while China looks to re-establish itself as the powerful Middle Kingdom.42

World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo/D96F4G

Chairman Mao Zedong.

Much of the change we have seen over the last several years has nought to do with changes in material capabilities (although China and Russia have been building and utilizing newfound material strengths). The changes have come from ideational factors: nationalism and populism are on the march across the West as a result of disenfranchisement with elites and globalization.43 Russia’s fall from super power status, and China’s cultural memory of its “century of humiliation” drive both of these countries.44

Many cases will resemble realist situations. For example, relations between the US and China will likely decline, and may fall into Thucydides’ Trap, whereby rising powers and established hegemons come to inevitable conflict.45 But this is not necessarily the case; it is just as possible that more peaceable ideas take hold. The breadth of case studies surveyed here supports the claim that war is socially constructed, and so realist conceptions will not necessarily hold.


Realism and liberalism have long dominated the dialogue in IR, but they are both limited in their power to understand war, since neither pays due attention to the importance of norms, identities and cultures. These factors constitute the actors, states, and structure of the international system, and so are crucial for a comprehensive understanding – even more so when considering what the most important security issues facing Canada are today. This constructivist approach provides essential nuance when approaching terrorism, international crime, migrant crises, environmental issues, and the myriad other complexities to which we will contribute our best solutions. Utilizing a constructivist approach, the global normative environment will be interesting to study over the coming years as the world faces fundamental changes.

United Nations Multimedia photo #715035

Secretariat Building at United Nations Headquarters.


  1. “Word of the Year, 2016,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed 2 January 2016, at
  2. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001) Kobo ebook, Ch 6.
  3. Robert O. Keohane and Lisa L. Martin, “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory,” in International Security, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1995), p. 50.
  4. “The limitations of Realism,” WSO Course Content, at
  5. John M. Owen, “How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace,” in International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1994), p. 88; Michael W. Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 4 (1986), p. 1154.
  6. Constitutive as opposed to explanatory, prescriptive, or emancipatory; “Module introduction,” WSO Course Content, at
  7. Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” in International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 2 (1992), p. 399.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid, p. 401.
  10. a) Robert G. Herman, “Identity, Norms, and National Security: The Soviet Foreign Policy Revolution and the End of the Cold War,” in The Culture of National Security, Peter J. Katzenstein, (Ed.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 278.b) John J. Mearsheimer, “Structural Realism,” in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith, (Eds.), 4th edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 65. c) Liberals care about the domestic level regarding the type of government. They believe in norms but as fixed and rational. d) Christopher Layne, “Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace,” in International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1994), p. 6.; Zeev Maoz and Bruce Russett, “Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Peace, 1946-1986,” in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 87, No. 3 (1993), p. 624.
  11. This difference is not important here. Reference Kevork Oskanian, “The English School as Global Crossroads: From Methodological Eclecticism to Cultural Pluralism,” E-International Relations, 3 August 2013, at
  12. As definitionally separate from the international system. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 4th edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 13.
  13. Barry Buzan, People, States & Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era, 2nd edition (Colchester: European Consortium for Political Research, 2009), p. 69.
  14. Wendt, p. 413; Buzan, p. 74.
  15. Buzan, p. 69.
  16. Jaroslav Tir, Philip Schafer, Paul Diehl, and Gary Goertz, “Territorial Changes, 1816-1996: Procedures and Data,” in Conflict Management and Peace Science, Vol.16, (1998), pp. 89-97, at
  17. Buzan, p. 76.
  18. Ibid., p. 67.
  19. Wendt, p. 395.
  20. Peter J. Katzenstein, introduction to The Culture of National Security, Peter J. Katzenstein, (Ed.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 22.
  21. Wendt, p. 413.
  22. “Conversations with History: Kenneth Waltz,” University of California Television (UCTV), 15 February 2008, at
  23. Arthur A. Stein, “Coordination and Collaboration: Regimes in an Anarchic World,” in International Organization Vol. 36, No. 2 (1982), p. 304.
  24. David M. Edelstein, “Why Realists Don’t Go for Bombs and Bullets,” in Foreign Policy, 21 July 2010, at; “Conversations with History: John Mearsheimer,” 37:00, posted by “University of California Television (UCTV)” on 7 February 2008, at; Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “Democratization and the Danger of War,” in International Security Vol. 20, No. 1 (1995), p. 6.; John M. Owen, “Iraq and the Democratic Peace: Who Says Democracies Don’t Fight?” review of Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War, by Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder, in Foreign Affairs Vol. 84, No. 6 (2005), p. 123.
  25. Wendt, p. 413.
  26. Ibid., p. 410.
  27. Mearsheimer (2001) Ch 10; Marc M. Wall, “PacNet #52: The Great Eurasian Rebalancing Act,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 July 2014, at
  28. “2017 Annual Forecast: Europe,” in Stratfor, 30 December 2016, at
  29. Paul Kowert and Jeffrey Legro, “Norms, Identity, and Their Limits: A Theoretical Reprise,” in The Culture of National Security, Peter J. Katzenstein, (Ed.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 465.
  30. Alastair Iain Johnston, “Thinking about Strategic Culture,” in International Security Vol. 19, No. 4 (1995), p. 47; Theo Farrell, “Constructivist Security Studies: Portrait of a Research Program,” in International Studies Association Vol. 4, No. 1 (2002), p. 61.
  31. Jack Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” in Foreign Policy, 26 October 2009, at
  32. Kowert, p. 455.
  33. Michael C. Desch, “Culture Clash: Assessing the Importance of Ideas in Security Studies,” in International Security Vol. 23, No. 1 (1998), p. 166.
  34. Jeffrey W. Legro, “Military Culture and Inadvertent Escalation in World War II,” in International Security Vol. 18, No. 4 (1994), p. 109.
  35. Elizabeth Kier, “Culture and Military Doctrine: France between the Wars,” in International Security Vol. 19, No. 4 (1995): p. 66.
  36. Alastair Iain Johnston, “Cultural Realism and Strategy in Maoist China,” in The Culture of National Security, Peter J. Katzenstein, (Ed.), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 217.
  37. Thomas U. Berger, “Norms, Identity, and National Security in Germany and Japan,” in Katzenstein, p. 318.
  38. Richard Price and Nina Tannenwald, “Norms and Deterrence: The Nuclear and Chemical Weapons Taboos,” in Katzenstein, pp. 115-116.
  39. Robert G. Herman, “Identity, Norms, and National Security: The Soviet Foreign Policy Revolution and the End of the Cold War,” in Katzenstein, p. 273; Nina Tannenwald and William Curti Wohlforth, “Introduction: The Role of Ideas and the End of the Cold War,” in Journal of Cold War Studies Vol. 7, No. 2 (2005), p. 4.
  40. K. M. Fierke, “Contructivism,” in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith, (Eds.), 4th edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 173.; Philip Bump, “President Obama is Right That Guns Kill More Americans Than Terrorism. So Do Lots of Other Things,” in The Washington Post, 27 August 2015, at; Anup Shah, “War on Terror,” in Global Issues, 7 October 2013, at, Rainer Hulsse and Alexander Spencer, “The Metaphor of Terror: Terrorism Studies and the Constructivist Turn,” in Security Dialogue Vol. 39, No. 6 (2008), p. 572.
  41. “2017 Annual Forecast,” in Stratfor, 30 December 2016, at
  42. Conradin Weindl, “After Ukraine Part II – Russian Great Power vs. European Normative Hegemony: What is at Stake in Eastern Europe?” in Strife, 6 May 2015, at; Lilia Shevtsova, “Efforts to Contain Russia Are Failing,” in Chatham House, 4 January 2017, at
  43. “The Consensus Crumbles: The Economists Who Foresaw the Backlash Against Globalization,” in The Economist, 30 June 2016, at; “The New Nationalism,” in The Economist, 19 November 2016, at
  44. Matt Schiavenza, “How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History,” in The Atlantic, 25 October 2013, at
  45. Graham Allison, “Thucydides Trap Case File,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 23 September 2015, at