The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations

The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations

The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations

The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations


This book seeks to explain why different systems of sovereign states have built different types of fundamental institutions to govern interstate relations. Why, for example, did the ancient Greeks operate a successful system of third-party arbitration, while international society today rests on a combination of international law and multilateral diplomacy? Why did the city-states of Renaissance Italy develop a system of oratorical diplomacy, while the states of absolutist Europe relied on naturalist international law and "old diplomacy"? Conventional explanations of basic institutional practices have difficulty accounting for such variation. Christian Reus-Smit addresses this problem by presenting an alternative, "constructivist" theory of international institutional development, one that emphasizes the relationship between the social identity of the state and the nature and origin of basic institutional practices.Reus-Smit argues that international societies are shaped by deep constitutional structures that are based on prevailing beliefs about the moral purpose of the state, the organizing principle of sovereignty, and the norm of procedural justice. These structures inform the imaginations of institutional architects as they develop and adjust institutional arrangements between states. As he shows with detailed reference to ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, absolutist Europe, and the modern world, different cultural and historical contexts lead to profoundly different constitutional structures and institutional practices. The first major study of its kind, this book is a significant addition to our theoretical and empirical understanding of international relations, past and present.


Reading a good book inspires awe, even deference. One gets a sense of intellectual mastery, a sense that the work was forged in a single act of creation, a sense that the ideas flowed with ease. Writing a book strips away this aura. One learns that intellectual frustration lies behind each chapter, that books grow out of years of trial and error, that most ideas dry up instead of flow. Behind the story on the page lies another story, and it is invariably one of labored intellectual growth, not divine inspiration.

This book has had a long gestation. It was sparked by an interest in the development of critical international theory, a theory that treats the prevailing international order as historically contingent, a theory that explores the origins of the present system of sovereign states and asks how it might change in the future. This was paralleled by an interest in Hedley Bull's idea that sovereign states can not only form international systems but also international societies. It made sense to me that modern states share certain elementary interests and values and have constructed rules and institutions to express and further those goals.

Over time these two interests converged around a desire to understand the origins, development, and transformation of the modern society of states. I had become increasingly frustrated with Bull's account of modern international society. His description of the basic institutional framework that facilitates coexistence between states is instructive, but he fails to explain why this particular framework emerged. Why isn't modern international society organized differently? Other members of the “English School”—particularly Martin Wight, Adda Bozeman, and Adam Watson—provide clues, but nothing in the way of systematic explanation.

When first conceived, this was to be a study of modern international society alone. Two things changed that. The first was Peter Katzenstein's exhortation to “study it comparatively,” a recommendation that both excited and terrified me. Studying small states in world markets is one thing; studying big systems in world history is another. The second was a rereading of Bozeman's classic work, Politics and Culture in International History. Her tour de force taught me that different systems of states have developed different institutional practices—ancient Greek, Renaissance Italian, absolutist European, and modern sovereign states have chosen very different institutional solutions to solve their cooperation problems and achieve coexistence. This not only gave me a reason to “study it comparatively,” it gave me a mystery to unravel. Why have four systems of . . .

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