The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Between Theory and Practice: The Utility of International Relations Theory to the Military Practitioner

  • Published
  • By Col Miguel A. Cruz, USAF; Capt John J Brabazon, USN; Col DeDe S. Halfhill, USAF; & Col Scott M. Ritzel, USAF


Theory is nothing but systematic reflection on phenomena, designed to explain them and to show how they are related to each other in a meaningful, intelligent pattern, instead of being merely random items of an incoherent universe. Every discipline requires theory to guide research, to provide a basis for explanation, and if possible, to lead to a probabilistic predictive capability.


James E. Dougherty and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, 2001


Policy, particularly national security policy, is based on the policy makers’ understanding of the world and their perceptions of state behavior, often as illustrated by senior advisors. Political leaders often use elements of international relations (IR) theory when articulating solutions to national and international security dilemmas. These solutions then translate into policies capturing courses of action for accomplishing national objectives with varying strategic implications. Realist policies can translate into actions designed to increase relative power and influence, sometimes with heavy emphasis on the military instrument. Liberalist policies can prompt activities designed to increase international trade and interdependence. Constructivist policies usually put emphasis on international norms and law. Generally, military professionals are more concerned with the application of military power than with understanding IR theory, considering the latter the province of academics, diplomats, and economists. Given the influence of these theories in policy decisions and that national security policy shapes military strategy and the practice of war, senior military advisors should strive to gain a larger understanding of the utility of IR theory. After all, the use of the military instrument is a political decision.

This article advances the argument that theory influences the policy makers’ view of the world in ways that impact policy development and, by extension, defense strategy. Thus, it is an indispensable weapon in the senior military advisor’s arsenal. However, these theories tend to overemphasize or underestimate attributes such as power, interdependence, or norms; their insights are therefore best considered in combination versus isolation, especially when articulating national security policy. We present our argument in four sections. Section one produces a working definition of great-power competition (GPC) to set the context in which the subsequent theoretical variables are observed. Sections two to four evaluate the most influential theories of international politics to: capture their origin and salient propositions, evaluate how they help explain US national security policy within the context of GPC, and offer some policy implications. To be clear, the intent is not to prescribe “best practices” concerning the use of theories in policy development. The goal is to establish the extent to which theory plays a factor in national security policy and explore some ways in which it does. In other words, the goal is to discern the utility of theory in policy development, and by extension, to the military practitioner.

National Security Policy in the Age of Great-Power Competition

Policy is an instrument of government action. It is composed of government processes and activities designed to alleviate a problem—or related problems—and set more desirable future conditions. In the national security realm, policy is an instrument to attain security and prosperity by advancing national interests and mitigating threats to those interests. In turn, perceptions and understandings of how the world works influence a state’s definition of national interest, significant threats, and the appropriate responses to address both. IR theories offer ways to explain how the policy makers’ view of the world can lead to policy determination, thus, affecting military strategy. Whereas policy is a statesman’s instrument, theory is an essential tool of statecraft. Political and military advisors must understand this reality if they wish to influence policy formulation.

In the post–Cold War unipolar world, the United States adopted the practice of developing policy and strategy capturing prioritization useful to budgetary or military execution that protected interests worldwide. US strategic documents have been compared to a Christmas tree with issues in every corner of the globe festooning the tree as ornaments.1 Because these US national strategy documents usually listed so many threat countries and complex issues, they seldom articulated a clear prioritization of national security interests. By contrast, the current National Security Strategy signals a significant shift in the strategic environment and provides more specific guidance. It points out that the central challenge to US prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by revisionist powers like China and Russia, who want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.2 The GPC era has reemerged. Senior policy makers are developing national security policy to address this change in the strategic environment based on perceptions and biases that can be explained through IR theory. As such, military practitioners should be able to provide recommendations based on a good understanding of these theories.

Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, great powers have been sovereign states with the capability and capacity to exert global influence. The standard for measuring great-power status has generally been determined through international consensus, as in the Congress of Vienna, or through permanent membership on the United Nations (UN) Security Council. In practical terms, the permanent members of the UN Security Council are representative of the world’s current great powers. Some preconditions for great-power status may include significant military capabilities, the ability to affect international economic markets, and an undisputed level of influence in international law and diplomatic negotiations. Other competitive spaces for great-power interaction can include a nation’s influence in scientific exploration, technological development and innovation, or their ability to operate in space and cyberspace. In short, GPC does not necessarily involve aggression, violence, and war.

Of course, competition is not the exclusive realm of great powers. As discussed in the sections below, non-state actors like violent extremist organizations (VEO) can become part of a state’s national security calculus, often prominently. President George W. Bush’s War Against Terror following the 11 September 2001 events and the two wars that follow are good examples. Yet, the current NSS defines great powers as the main challenges to US security and prosperity. Understanding this context is paramount. While China’s claims in the South China Sea, Russia’s territorial expansion, and VEOs’ efforts to establish an Islamic caliphate represent their respective means to remain competitive, only China and Russia represent great-power competitors. This examination defines GPC as a great power’s ability to remain competitive by establishing preferred security and prosperity options vis-à-vis other great powers while simultaneously working to diminish those offered by competitors. In other words, “a jostle for global influence.”3 What does this mean for US policy? As stated up front, perceptions always influence responses. The sections that follow will show how IR theories provide different lenses with which to observe, explain, and anticipate policy decisions, and how each perspective produces different responses with varied implications.

Realism and the Primacy of Power

The foundations of realist theory lie in the ancient world and extend to contemporary times. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides offers that “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made war inevitable.”4 His account of the impact of fear, honor, and interests still dominates realist thought today. The primacy of power or constant search for power among states is the single-most important element in realist theory. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the current NSS, conceived on the basis of principled realism, characterizes the current international environment as “extraordinarily dangerous. . ., filled with a wide range of threats.”5 Concepts like the state, anarchy, self-help, survival, and balance of power are part and parcel of the realist’s thought and constitute the main propositions contained within the three major manifestations of realist theory: classical realism, neorealism, and neoclassical realism.

Classical realism is “concerned with the sources and uses of national power in international politics.”6 Classical realist theorists like Hans J. Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger write extensively about national power but say little about the constraints that international politics place on the state. The state is the main actor in international politics. To be fair, classical realism was never an established school of thought per se but rather a vast collection of writings “by different authors for different purposes and in different contexts over the course of 2,500 years.”7 Nonetheless, classical realism set the foundation for realism’s theoretical basis, one that centers on power with the state as its champion.

Conversely, structural realists or neorealists focus on the constraints the international system places on the decision making of states. One of Kenneth Waltz’s basic premises is that the structure of the international environment is anarchic. It lacks a legitimate central authority with the capability to bring order among states.8 Though they differ in size, ideology, power, and wealth, states are similar in that survival is their main goal.9 Because the nature of the international structure is anarchic, a state’s response is always one of “self-help.”10 Thus, states try to discern disproportionate advantages from other states and work to increase their own capabilities or join with other states to balance the perceived imbalance of power.

Lastly, neoclassical realism bridges domestic and international politics and relates domestic structures to international structures.11 Where classical realism and neorealism put primacy on the state or the international system, respectively, neoclassical realism holds that state behavior in the international environment is “the result of complex patterns of interaction within and between both levels.”12 Neoclassical realists still believe survival is the ultimate goal of the state and also hold true the concept of balance of power. However, they also account for other internal and external variables such as the role of strong state leaders or bureaucratic organizations as influencing elements in state behavior.

From a realist perspective, GPC is a contest for power and influence where only the strong win. Because the United States is still considered the dominant world power, policy choices within this context can be defined as hegemonic security as they capture ways with which to preserve hegemony. In this context, the current NSS represents a response to the perceived rebalancing of the world order in terms unfavorable to the United States. The “shrinking” of US advantages and the “modernization and build-up” of rival state capabilities demand the United States take actions to preserve its preeminence.13 Realists will also observe the principled realism resident within the NSS represents the rejection of liberalist détente policies and the belief that Chinese and Russian inclusion in established international institutions and global trade could transform them into willing and trustworthy partners. China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence, and North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear aspirations are as consequential to the United States as Athens was to Sparta in Thucydides’ time. Stronger influence from these states, be it economic, diplomatic, or military, challenges US influence and undermines the international system the United States help put in place after World War II. Thus, hegemonic security policies within a GPC context will likely translate into increased military spending, aggressive diplomatic tactics, and protective economic measures designed to preserve US hegemony.

From a realist perspective, the Trump administration’s “America First” policy highlights the primacy of US national interests in a “self-help” international context and that the domestic and foreign policies within the NSS are meant to favor the United States first. While President Barack Obama’s NSS language was intentionally inclusive toward allies and partners, President Trump’s NSS looks at other countries in terms of how they can best serve US interests. It defines the US strength as not only a vital interest to the American people but also as an essential condition to world order.14 In typical hegemonic fashion, an “America First” policy highlights not only the primacy of US interests, but the necessity of those interests as a precursor for world peace. It justifies the US pursuit of power and influence by making it the sine qua non of international order.

In the aggregate, realism explains the US willingness to engage in arms races with other great powers and its attempts at discerning other states’ intentions in order to develop new capabilities to counter them. It helps to explain the United States’s search for power and influence in international fora as well as how domestic and international constraints affect the policy-making process. Most importantly, as Robert Keohane offers, realism provides a good starting point for the analysis of state relations, since “its tautological structure and its pessimistic assumptions about . . . state behavior serve as barriers against wishful thinking.”15 However, realism can overemphasize the role of power on state behavior.

Hegemonic security policies are almost exclusively mechanisms to attain or maintain power. They do not recognize the influence individuals and their view of the world can have on national policy and state behavior other than as sources of power and influence. They also discredit the role of common values, ideas, and the overall role of society in policy development. Realism’s vision of how national security policy ensues independent of the element of power is somewhat narrow. Thus, realist hegemonic security policies are likely to miss the mark in certain situations, and this highlights some implications for national security policy making.

For example, the fact that VEOs have the ability to not only challenge the United States but also represent a significant factor in US national security policy calculus, bring into question the state as the only driver in international relations. Richard H. Haass argues that the current international system is now dominated by a multitude of actors, all vying for influence. That is, there is neither a single state dominating the international system (unipolarity), nor is there a group of states managing it (multipolarity). The world, according to Haass, is nonpolar.16 Nongovernment organizations (NGO), multinational corporations, and even some megacities and provinces also contribute to this diffusion of power. From this perspective, states are not the only actors in the international arena. A national security policy tailored exclusively to deal with great powers would be incomplete. The rise of non-state actors has opened the door to configurations of power not realized until recent times. National security policy must account for this reality.

In addition, the actions a state takes to ensure its own security are sometimes perceived as threats by other states. These actions can lead to conflict and the use of force. President Trump’s intention to pull the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as a result of Russian noncompliance is a case in point. The United States still enjoys practically uncontested dominance in the military realm. Thus, hegemonic security policies that overemphasize security concerns will focus on maintaining that advantage. In the case of the INF Treaty, the advantage includes new investments designed to modernize US nuclear forces to meet both Russian and now Chinese nuclear advances. Arms races have also expanded to newer operational domains such as space and cyberspace, especially given the relative lack of international norms bounding activities in these realms. As the saying goes: when you carry a big hammer, issues tend to look like nails. That is all well and good until the time other hammers emerge.

To be fair, a national security strategy on the basis of principled realism can be misleading. The term principled recognizes the importance of ideas, values, and principles; albeit placing preeminence on those the United States espouses. This term highlights an interesting contrast in the relationship between theory and practice. While theory’s main role is to help explain phenomena, policy’s role is to advance interests in terms favorable to the state. Policy makers do well in using elements of theory to explain national policy but should not let theory be the determining factor. Realism-based policies can overemphasize the role that security concerns play in international relationships. A state’s overall perception of its own standing within the international system shapes the choices it makes but is not the only factor. Values and domestic factors also affect foreign policy.17 Realism explains why states resort to force to ensure their security. However, not even the most powerful state can navigate a complex international system by itself. Even in an anarchic society, states can achieve their goals through cooperation. This is better explained through a liberalist perspective.

Liberalism and the Importance of Interdependence

Liberalism has its roots in the idealist theories of Immanuel Kant, and later, the policies of Woodrow Wilson. The phrase, We are better together than we are alone captures the essence of Liberalism. Liberalist theorists posit state interactions are affected not only by political matters but also by economic ones, especially in a globalized, interconnected world. As such, in contrast with realists, liberalists maintain trade, commerce, and economic treaties that lead to interdependence make enduring cooperation among states possible. The creation of international institutions capable of managing these political and economic interactions is crucial in liberalist thought. Thus, the liberalist view is predominantly institutionalist. From a Liberalism perspective, partnering with other nations is better than going it alone. Coalition efforts are preferable to unilateral action. International trade, and the interdependence it produces, goes farther toward promoting security and prosperity than economic protectionism. Globalism offers better security guarantees than Nationalism. Concepts such as democracy, interdependence, trade, commerce, institutions, and cooperation form the basis of liberalist thought.

Outward engagement is a necessary element in the liberalist school. Stephen Walt distinguished Liberalism from realism by stating: “whereas realism emphasizes the enduring propensity of conflict between states, liberalism identifies several ways to mitigate these conflictive tendencies.”18 Central to this idea is the value liberalists hold in spreading democracy beyond US borders, which dates back to the early 1900s during President Wilson’s tenure. Walt highlighted Wilson’s emphasis on spreading democracy as the key to world peace, and his claim that democratic states were inherently more peaceful than authoritarian states.19 This Wilsonian view generated the belief that democracies don’t go to war with other democracies. Jack Snyder calls this “the closest thing we have to an iron law in social science.”20 Thus, democracy is an essential condition in liberalist-focused national security policies.

Snyder captured two additional core principles to help explain how democratic states realize the promise of this “iron law.” He suggests that strong economic ties among partnering nations and the proliferation of international organizations will strengthen peace. He identifies institutions and global commerce as the main policy implementation instruments and precursors for cooperation.21 However, cooperation is not limited to the economic aspects alone. It also includes direct interaction on security issues.

For liberalists, GPC is a team sport. Liberalists contend that states cannot guarantee their security by simply increasing their power. States must cooperate if they are to ensure their security. Policy choices in this fashion can be described as cooperative security, with democracy, institutions, and economic interdependence as paramount conditions. These three core principles form the basis of the liberalist’s approach to security and prosperity. Snyder suggests these principles are not mutually exclusive and that as trade and finance forge stronger ties between nations, democratic norms will spread.22 As economic ties emerge, so, too, are institutional arrangements that give birth to political partnerships, shared international norms, and the overall spread of democracy.

The primary propellant within this democratic domino-effect is trade, and the economic aspect is ultimately at risk if the “iron law” of democracy is not realized. As such, national security policies based on the premises of cooperative security will focus more on establishing strong diplomatic relations and solid economic ties between states, than in maintaining military preeminence or a strong military presence. In fact, a reduction in military capabilities could be a necessary precursor to economic cooperation. North Korea’s nuclear tests cancelation is a precondition for US support, for example. Walt observed that economic interdependence discourages states from using force against each other because warfare threatens each side’s prosperity.23 Liberalists perceive this threat to prosperity as too high a price to pay and assume the same line of thinking from other nations.

Liberalism, however, is not without controversy. While it is true that democracies tend not to fight each other, some argue they are “prone to launch messianic struggles against warlike authoritarian regimes” or simply intervene in the affairs of smaller states when they are unfit to resolve international issues by themselves.24 As suggested earlier, a “principled” America First policy indicates the need for American principles as a precursor for world order. Prescribing democratic institutions, liberal government, and a market economy can lead to the belief that democracy is a precondition for security. For the United States, this translates into democracy in the likeness of American democracy.

A global crusade in the name of spreading democracy can, and has in the past, lead to conflict. One of Liberalism’s major drawbacks is that the theory fails to recognize transitions to democracy are often violent, and that democratic regimes only survive if they safeguard military power and security.25 This negative aspect of Liberalism is manifested in current US–Middle East relations. Implementing what former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice called “an amalgam of pragmatic realism and Wilsonian liberal theory,” President Bush promised to fight terrorism by “spreading liberal democracy” to the Middle East.26 Since that promise, only Afghanistan has adopted a new constitution, organized presidential, parliamentary, and provincial council elections, established ministries to deliver services to the Afghan people, and developed a vibrant media and committed civil society.27 Yet even with the establishment of these democratic components, Afghanistan and the Middle East are still significantly violent regions. From this perspective, cooperative security policies do not preclude the need for suitable military capabilities or the occasional use of force.

However, Liberalism highlights the cooperative potential of “mature democracies.”28 These mature democracies possess the governmental bodies that have the capacity to build effective partnerships to influence GPC. This is done by leveraging Liberalism’s main instruments to establish international institutions, secure membership within existing ones, and facilitate global commerce through various forms of mutually beneficial trade arrangements. From this perspective, cooperative security policies focus on addressing global challenges through an institutional approach. Participation in international organizations such as the UN, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization of American States, and the International Atomic Energy Agency become the focus of such policies. They become the catalyst for security as they afford states the capacity to address the world’s problems with a unified front, create prosperous outcomes for international partners, and help states compete on the global stage consistent with the interests and values of member nations.

For example, the International Monetary Fund is capable of providing debt relief packages to impoverished countries in Africa to free local resources for the advancement of democracy, societal support, or basic agricultural needs. Similarly, the WTO has jurisdiction to levy various forms of economic sanctions upon bad actors in response to any number of international violations. Moreover, the UN is capable of providing responses to humanitarian needs, emerging security threats, and unfavorable balance of power shifts by global competitors. When states respond to challenges through international institutions, their actions carry credibility and legitimacy. Outward engagement and security cooperation benefiting the many as opposed to one nation based on self-interested unilateral action is at the heart of the liberalist theory.

Cooperative security policies can also be executed through direct state-to-state alliances to target specific objectives. In February 2019, the United States, in cooperation with Denmark, successfully blocked a Chinese effort to invest in the development of an airport in Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk.29 Chinese financing for this project could have led to China eventually gaining control of runways on an island where the United States has a missile-tracking Air Force base.30 The United States convinced the Danish government to back the loans in direct countermeasure to China’s global ambitions to challenge American power.31 It is important to note that this strategic negotiation transpired under the current administration’s “principled realism” agenda as captured in the NSS.32 Although this approach is antithetical to the realist’s traditional view, it suggests the presence of flexibility within an administration’s NSS is important in holistically addressing challenges in a dynamic world. More importantly, it highlights that policy formulation and policy execution are not always the same thing—an insight of great value to senior advisors. Cooperative security policies within a GPC context, as in the above example, can be limited in scope and tailored to a specific outcome.


(US Air Force photo by TSgt Jared Marquis)

Figure 1. Thule Air Base, Greenland. Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark Margrethe II tours an antennae station at Detachment 1, 23rd Space Operations Squadron, as Capt Theodore Givler, Det. 1, 23rd SOPS commander, explains how the equipment works 11 July 2015. The queen visited Thule as part of her annual visit to Greenland.

In summary, the liberalist theory posits that democracies don’t go to war with other democracies. To promote this belief, liberalists embrace a strategy of outward engagement that leverages on international institutions and global economic interdependence to spread democracy. The theory isn’t without flaw, specifically given the violent nature of democratic transformations. Yet, when put into motion with mature democracies, international institutions, global commerce and state-to-state partnerships, liberal policies can help advance security and enable states to compete successfully with great powers.

The preceding sections have showcased two of the most prominent IR theories. On one hand, Realism explains how the structure of the international system sends states on a constant search for power; in the case of the United States, hegemonic power. On the other, Liberalism explains the importance of establishing processes for state-to-state cooperation based on institutions, economic interdependence, and democratic governance. Both hegemonic and cooperative security have distinct policy implications. However, neither Realism nor Liberalism say much about the role of society in policy making. Some scholars contend that international politics is socially constructed and that such construction impacts state behavior. How ideas and norms in international fora inform policy is best described through a constructivist point of view.

Constructivism and the Necessity of Norms

Constructivism first arrived and gained popularity in the IR community shortly after the end of the Cold War. The end of the 45-year standoff was not foreshadowed by traditional realist and liberalist theories. The belief that states are self-interested entities competing for power, or that cultivating institutionalism among states could lead to a secure international environment left realist and liberalist communities unprepared to predict this historical transformation. By focusing predominantly on external factors such as the state or international institutions, both realists and liberalists failed to observe and give credence to the agency of internal elements such as individuals and their power to influence such change.33 Both realists and liberalists failed to predict the end of the Cold War and the international order that followed. Nicholas Onuf coined the term constructivism in 1989 to describe how the interaction between states are socially constructed and how norms play a key role in doing so.

Norms, ideas, regimes, laws, and practices are key principles in the constructivist view. Norms, whether domestic or international, influence what states should do. How states execute these rules are known as practices. Norms and practices are vital to the sociopolitical makeup of states and when backed up by laws, they become institutions and regimes. In the international environment, these institutions and regimes define appropriate behavior and acceptable practices and help redirect those who act contrary to these norms via sanctions, fines, or other punitive actions.34 Section one described some ideological aspects of national policy. While perceptions of how the world behaves influences national security policy, national ideas and values define what constitutes good or bad behavior, and thus, also influence the norms and practices a state espouses. That is, policy is based on society’s (and the policy maker’s) perception of what security and prosperity should be, which is influenced by society’s values. In other words, policy is socially constructed, a fact that extends to international relations.

As it pertains to IR, constructivists assert states are not focused exclusively on seeking power. Furthermore, they assert that institutionalism and economic interconnection do not ensue by themselves. Constructivists posit our world is best understood as a distribution of meaning, rather than one of wealth, that may or may not be regulated by institutional frameworks.35 Society (to include international society) is created by norms formed when a critical mass of agents accept and adhere to these norms. The Geneva Convention that established the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war is a case in point. For constructivists, ideas, values, beliefs, actions, and perceptions are key drivers in the state’s perception of reality and thus, state behavior.36

There are three main constructivist schools of thought. The first is norms-based and argues that the development of international norms accounts for the constitution and behavior of agents. It further posits that norms are important in the international arena because they regularize behavior and often limit the range of choices actors can take. As an example, the Geneva Convention and the resulting law of armed conflict and rules of engagement prescribe that countries do not attack noncombatants, bomb mosques or hospitals, and should limit civilian casualties during war. The second school is rules-based and sets its roots on the linguistics and definitions of rules and how these rules develop systems that guide and constrain the actions of agents. This school also helps explain why certain actors break or follow rules and what that means for the international community.37 The third, and most prevalent school, is social constructivism. Social constructivism showcases the effects of social variables on the formation of agents and structures in an attempt to explain and predict future international behavior.

Alexander Wendt argues the causal attributes in which states find themselves internationally are not given, but rather, constructed by social practices that emanate from the interactions between states and define how states are expected to behave in a given situation. For Wendt, the realist view of self-help and power politics does not follow either logically or causally from anarchy and that if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, it is due to process not structure. In other words, “anarchy is what states make of it.”38 For Wendt, states only perceive themselves in a self-help environment if they conform to a zero-sum definition of national security where the gain of security for any one state means the loss of security for another. For constructivists, the so-called security dilemma is a social construct resulting from a condition in which states are so distrustful that they make worst-case assumptions about each other’s intentions. As a result, they define their interests in self-help terms. Conversely, the security community or institutionalism liberalists espouse is but a different social construct—one composed of shared knowledge and mutual benefits in which states trust one another to resolve disputes without war.39

Constructivists also posit that states can have differing conceptions of security.40 Some states may perceive security in cooperative ways, attempting to maximize their security without affecting the security of another (nonzero-sum). The relationship between the United States and its major allies—Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—is a good example. The fact that 500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than five North Korean nuclear weapons is a telling example of social construction of friends and adversaries.41 Understanding this dynamic requires knowledge on the current social connection between the United States and Great Britain vis-à-vis North Korea and that maintaining relationships with the former goes beyond the number of nuclear weapons. From a constructivist perspective, nuclear weapons by themselves do not have any meaning unless we understand the social and relational contexts. However, it is important to recognize that relationships change over time. After all, the United States and Great Britain were at war once. States have the capacity to change or reinforce the existing structure or social relationship. They can construct their reality and policy is a way to do so.

From a constructivist perspective, GPC is a construct based upon great powers’ perception of evolving patterns and norms of behavior among them. As such, national security policies within this context can be defined as normative security. The main theme in constructivism is that “reality” is an ideational social construct dependent on prevailing beliefs, expectations, context, and situation. There is competition between powers because states make it so. In a social analogy, it is interesting to note that in the 1980s, the idea of getting in a car with a stranger or meeting people online was anathema to a safe practice. Today, people use online technology to pay a total stranger for driving services in vehicles they don’t know, all in the name of convenience. Similarly, constructivism can explain why German political identity shifted from militarism to pacifism following the atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime during World War II.42

Normative security policies tend to focus on establishing common expectations of acceptable state behavior. For example, the entitlement of a state to rule over a bounded territory and the recognition of that right by other actors are foundational to modern international relations and rarely contested.43 The concept of sovereignty is in fact one agreed upon by a plurality of nations since the Peace of Westphalia. It is a de facto norm in international society. However, even internationally-recognized principles such as nonintervention and sovereignty have been rethought to encompass the responsibility of states to act in the face of humanitarian needs.44 Normative security policies also become important in new operational environments such as space and cyberspace, where advances in technology as well as state and non-state activities are generating conditions and threats that far exceed most states’ capabilities. The United States has seen little need to advocate for norms that promote responsible use of space and cyberspace. However, the proliferation of technology has brought China and Russia closer to parity with the United States. Leadership in establishing these norms and regulations can help the United States shape them in favorable terms.

The value of a theory that emphasizes the role of national ideologies, identity, and norms in the GPC era cannot be overstated. Constructivist thought can provide insights about the ideas and values in the current international order and how these can be used to construct acceptable rules of behavior in areas like space and cyberspace, for example. Also, borrowing Haass’ nonpolarity concept, understanding the influence of non-government organizations and multinational corporations in political decision making is equally important. These organizations often succeed in provoking change by exposing violations or illegal activities that counter the established moral standards professed, at least rhetorically, by a state’s political leadership.45 In such cases, establishing supporting value-focused policies when doing so is advantageous to national interests makes sense.

Unfortunately, normative policies can lead to an assumption of primacy of one state’s beliefs over others and this reduces the possibility of cooperation. For example, Normative security policies that seek to impose norms and values like western values upon groups with diverging values, such as Islamic states, is often quoted as a source of conflict by VEOs. The 2017 NSS formulates policy based on a “strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.”46 In reality, the “principled” aspect of the policy recognizes the importance of values and norms. Yet, the realist portion of the policy stresses the primacy of US principles. In practice, this can translate into the alienation of states or groups with diverging principles instead of operating in concert with the norms and ideas that shape other states or groups without sacrificing US values. The salient point here is that when it comes to execution, theoretical approaches are not mutually exclusive. As Robert Gilpin posits, “governance at any level, whether national or international, must start on shared beliefs, cultural values, and most of all, a common identity. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in a global civic culture, and few common values unite all the peoples of the world.”47 Normative policies assume all states perceive norms the same way and as such, will live by them similarly. A constructivist approach and related normative security policies can mean different things to different people. For senior advisors, this highlights the importance of understanding the policy from the perspective of other states, not only our own.

Constructivism helps to understand and navigate the complex ways in which states as well as influential non-state actors engage with one another, how they define themselves and others, and how these shape the boundaries of the world within which they act.48 It helps explain how norms based on common ideas and values can help promote security and cooperation, and how significantly different ideologies can lead to conflict. Constructivism goes a long way in explaining how individuals and organizations influence policy decisions. However, constructivism alone can’t answer all policy issues. There are obvious gaps that require the application of realist and liberalist perspectives to comprehend modern international relations.49 In today’s complex, ever-changing environment, no theory is comprehensive enough to stand alone.50 Policy makers and senior advisors should consider the insights of each theory when articulating national security policy.


Theory cannot claim primacy over practice and implementation, but its understanding is a useful precursor for both. This is the central argument of this examination. As senior advisors, how we choose to explain national security issues inform the solutions we propose. Because national security policy is important to the practice of military affairs, it is paramount that senior military leaders develop a good understanding of those aspects affecting policy formulation. Improving this understanding can provide a stronger foundation for senior military leaders to engage more effectively with civilian leaders on defense-related policies.

IR theory helps describe how policy makers see the world and how this influences policy making. Theory influences their perspectives and inform their biases and thus, deserve study and analysis. Three predominant schools of thought attempt to explain the way states behave: realism, liberalism, and constructivism. In general terms, realism focuses on state power, typically in relation to other states. For the United States, realist policies can translate into hegemonic actions designed to maintain preeminence in the world. Liberalism stresses the emphasis on democratic institutions and economic interdependence. This can prompt policies designed to maximize international cooperation through international bodies and trade at the expense of defense-related capabilities. Constructivism highlights the influence of shared norms, values, and ideas on state behavior. Normative policies generally focused on establishing international rules and norms of behavior states are expected to follow with heavy emphasis in the diplomatic and legal arenas. Theory, however, is no panacea. While these theories offer useful frameworks with which to observe international relations, they tend to either overemphasize or underestimate attributes in state behavior such as the primacy of power, the importance of interdependence or the necessity of norms.

Thus, policy making and subsequent execution relying on one theory at the exclusion of others is risky. Senior military officers and policy advisors cannot be content with simply knowing what policy is. They must understand what policy does and the mechanisms available to recommend appropriate and effective policy. Having an understanding of how perceptions of the world and state behavior affect policy decisions is a way to do so. In this regard, IR theory remains essential for understanding world events, explaining their causes, assessing their impacts, and proposing suitable solutions. As Snyder suggests, “to use the insights of each of the three theoretical traditions as a check on the irrational exuberance of the others.”51 There is utility in theory, but it is the practitioners’ role to determine how they apply. Most importantly, it is the practitioner’s job to make the best use of them in order to advance national goals.


Col Miguel “MAC” Cruz, USAF

Colonel Cruz (BA, Sacred Heart University; MPA, University of Puerto Rico; MPhil, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies; MS, Inter-American Defense College) is the chief, Space Force Enhancement Division at the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, Pentagon, Washington, DC.


Col Scott M. Ritzel, USAF

Colonel Ritzel (BS, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; MBA, Webster University; MS, Air Force Institute of Technology) is executive director, Nuclear Enterprise Support Office at Headquarters Defense Logistics Agency.

Colonel DeDe S. Halfhill, USAF

Colonel Halfhill (BA, University of Iowa; MA, American Military University) is the special assistant for public affairs to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon, Washington DC.

Capt John J. Brabazon, USN

Captain Brabazon (BS, Pennsylvania State University; MAT, Jacksonville University) the executive officer at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.

1 James Ellis Jr., James N. Mattis, and Kori Schake,Restoring Our National Security” in Blueprint for America, ed. George P. Schultz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016), 6–7.

2 James N. Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Pentagon, 2018).

3 Benn Steil, How to Win a Great-Power Competition: Alliances, Aid, and Diplomacy in the Last Struggle for Global Influence,, 9 February 2018,

4 Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to The Peloponnesian War (New York: Free Press, 2008), 16.

5 Donald J. Trump, National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States of America (Washington, DC: White House, December 2017), I.

6 Steven E. Lobell, Norin M. Ripsman, and Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 14–16.

7 Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro, Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy, 16.

8 Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979), 102.

9 Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 91.

10 Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 104.

11 James E. Dougherty and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Politics (New York: Longman Inc., 2001), 88.

12 Doughtery and Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Politics, 89.

13 Trump, NSS, 3.

14 Trump, NSS, 1.

15 Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 245.

16 Richard Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow US Dominance,” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 3 (May–June 2008): 44.

17 Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Politics, 89.

18 Stephen M. Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories,” Foreign Policy (1998): 29–46.

19 Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories,” 32.

20 Jack Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” Foreign Policy 145 (2004): 52–62.

21 Snyder, One World, Rival Theories,” 59.

22 Snyder, One World, Rival Theories,” 56.

23 Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories,” 32.

24 Snyder, One World, Rival Theories,” 52–62.

25 Snyder, One World, Rival Theories,” 59.

26 Snyder, One World, Rival Theories,” 54.

27 USAID, “Afghanistan Democracy and Governance Fact Sheet,” 10 October 2017,

28 Snyder, One World, Rival Theories,” 55.

29 Drew Hinshaw and Jeremy Page, “How the Pentagon Countered China’s Designs on Greenland,” Wall Street Journal, 10 February 2019,

30 Hinshaw and Page, “US Foiled China’s Plan.”

31 Hinshaw and Page, “US Foiled China’s Plan.”

32 Trump, NSS, 1.

33 Angie Selvaggio, “Ideas, Identity, and Interests: A Study on US-Russian Relations in the Post Cold War World” (Birmingham, AL: Samford University, 30 March 2012),

34 Nicholas G. Onuf, World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), 341.

35 Selvaggio, “Ideas, Identity, and Interests.”

36 Sarina Theys, “Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory,” 23 February 2019,

37 Dana Tandilashvili, “Classical Realist and Norm-Based Constructivist Analysis of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and Annexation of Crimea,” Classical Realist and Norm-Based Constructivist 49, no. 1 (2015), 14.

38 Alexander Wendt, Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 395.

39 Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

40 Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It.”

41 Theys, “Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory.”

42 Theys, “Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory.”

43 Tandilashvili, “Classical Realist and Norm-Based Constructivist Analysis.”

44 Ian Hurd, “Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics,” International Organization 53, no. 2 (1 April 1999), 379–408.

45 Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” 52–62.

46 Trump, NSS, 1.

47 Robert Gilpin, Global Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 402.

48 Tandilashvili, “Classical Realist and Norm-Based Constructivist Analysis,” 14.

49 Simon Allcock, “Explaining Russia’s Intervention in Syria in September 2015,” E-International Relations Students, 25 February 2016,

50 Theys, “Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory.”

51 Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” 52–62.

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