The International Relations and the International “Community” are a social construction resulted from the interaction of multiple actors. This is one of the main thesis of the IR Constructivist theory. Another main assumption of many constructivist scholars is that the international identity of states, like the individual identity, is constructed and framed in relation to the other actors in the system. The Self vs. the Other dichotomy in foreign policy, the process by which states construct their own international identity vis-à-vis the third actors in the system, can be useful in explaining dysfunctional relations between international actors and the appropriation of antagonistic discursive and foreign policy narratives.
Firstly, the construction of the Self consists in assigning to itself of meanings and ideational attributes that create the perception of distinctiveness from generic others. Secondly, the identity of the Self is shaped by the interactions with the Other(s), acquiring meaning and reframing the behaviour of the Self as a direct result of the determined social context. Also, the acceptance by the Other of the assigned role by the Self is an instrument of reinforcing the identity of the Self and its main relational assumptions (Johansson-Nogués 2009; Wendt 1998).
Furthermore, the International System always had macro-identity dichotomies that are usually framed by hegemonic or systemic actors. In the ancient world, the Greek states or the Roman Empire constructed their own Self in relation to the “uncivilised barbarians” Other and framed their foreign policy accordingly (Wagner et. all. 2014). More recently, the Cold War binary relationship between the United Stated and the Soviet Union has been framed on both parts in the same fashion. The US Self was constructed as the “Land of the Free” vis-à-vis the constructed “Evil Empire” Other. On the USSR side, the Self was constructed as the land of the proletariat and equality vs. the “Imperialist and capitalist oppressors” Other.
After the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States remained the only superpower and it started a search for a specific and adversary Other. This is how the “Rogue state,” and later the Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” appear in the US discourse and foreign policy. The post-9/11 US foreign policy was framed on this identity dichotomy of the liberal and law-abiding Self vs. the terrorist-sponsor and dictatorial Other. And, as Wendt (1998) and Wagner (2014) state, the “internal constitution of ‘rogue states’ and the breaking of international norms just partly explains the labeling of a state as “rogue,” especially because not all norm-breaker states are labeled as “rogue”.
The case of US-North Korea relationship is explanatory. Noth Korea was of little interest – from a foreign policy viewpoint – for the United States during the Cold War, and military represented a limited and specific threat for South Korea and maybe Japan. Even so, after the end of the Cold War and the development of the nuclear program by the regime in Pyongyang, the United States transformed Noth Korea in one of the most important adversaries in the international system. One more example of that makes visible the social construction of international relations and the constructed dichotomy of the Self vs. the Other is the nuclear program of North Korea. As Checkel (1998) demonstrates, the US attitude towards the degree of security risk regarding the possession of nuclear arms is dichotomously linked to the perception of the Other. The United States doesn’t have any problems with the British or French large nuclear arsenal but “the possibility that North Korea might come into possession of even one or two generates tremendous concern” (p. 236). This identity construction of North Korea by the United States is reinforced by the defiant and rejectionist behavior of the North Korea regime. The cultural macro-structure and the construction of the Other by the US partially explain its policy regarding the nuclear program of North Korea. Simultaneously, the Noth Korean discursive construction of the US as the main enemy enables the dysfunctional and antagonistic relationship between the two actors.
The construction of the Self and the Other is a fundamental instrument of the national identity of any nation and for the international identity of any state in the international system. The Self is constructed by assigning to itself a number of qualities and intersubjective meanings, but also through the socialization and interaction with other actors. The (re)construction of the Other, which is context-dependent, will define the behavior of the Self and has an important impact on the future of the relationship. The case of US-North Korea relationship illustrates our thesis and seeks to support the main constructivist statement of Steve Smith that “foreign policy is what states make of it,” a paraphrase of Alexander Wendt’s “anarchy is what states make of it.”