International Relations Identity and Foreign Policy
Srdjan Vucetic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0250


One way of looking at the essence of society and politics is through efforts to claim and disclaim, and otherwise make and unmake, who we are, who they and others are, were, or aspire to be, in a given time and space. The simplest label for this approach is “identity”—a convenient shorthand for a large but often sparsely connected scholarship. In foreign policy analysis (FPA), a subfield of international relations (IR), this scholarship emerged in the 1990s under the rubric of constructivism. “Conventional constructivists” developed frameworks for understanding how identities guide thought and action, particularly focusing on how state identities inform foreign policy processes and how international structures shape the formation of state identity. In doing so, conventional constructivists engaged, and were engaged by, FPA researchers working in more established traditions. Signaling fidelity to the relational, multitudinous, never-settled ontology of identity formation, “critical constructivists” instead opted for the concept of “identification” to analyze the co-constitution of foreign policy practices and political subjectivities. Vigorous debates between and within the proponents of these approaches, in addition to many critiques of constructivism, have greatly increased and refined the theoretical and empirical contributions on identity and foreign policy. The latest research on how political constructions of us, them, and others shape, and are shaped by, foreign policy practices routinely mobilizes ever-newer concepts, theories, and methodological packages. General Overviews is a collection of “shortcuts”—that is, journal articles and chapters in handbooks that delineate the basic parameters of this literature. Fundamentals annotates sources that have proven to be exceptionally influential in setting this research agenda. Loosely structured by IR’s idea of regions, The next sections provide a world tour of sorts, covering Africa and the Middle East, Asia, The Americas, Europe, The Post-Soviet Space, and Comparative and with reference to both acclaimed and more overlooked contributions to scholarship. The essay concludes with a small selection of works representing “New Directions.”

General Overviews

Consisting only of articles and chapters, this section is meant for a busy student. Williams 1998 is a classic take on the liberal underpinnings of much identity theorizing in IR. Zehfuss 2001 takes issue with Alexander Wendt’s influential conceptualization of identity. Wæver 2002 is an agenda-setting piece on discourse-theoretic and discourse-analytic approaches to identity in IR, Berenskoetter 2010 offers a critical review of the literature, arguing that identity does not have a “core” meaning and that the uses and abuses of the concept are embedded in different and often incommensurate theoretical and normative positions, rendering it quintessentially contested. Kowert 2010 offers a discussion on state identity and foreign policy from a perspective of constructivist IR, covering its radical, critical, rule-oriented, conventional and other hues. Epstein 2011 pokes holes in conventional constructivism while introducing a Lacanian perspective. Schemenauer 2012 considers the problems with the modern idea of preconstituted, sovereign subject while laying out an alternative approach. Drawing on the author’s two book-length critiques of the use and abuse of the concept of identity in IR and beyond, Lebow 2016 does something similar. Vucetic 2017 takes another long look at the literature on the identity-foreign policy nexus, including its origins, evolution, and main debates. Rumelili and Todd 2017 is a helpful discussion of how to study the processes of identity change.

  • Berenskoetter, Felix. The International Studies Encyclopedia. Vol. 6, Identity in International Relations. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Building on years of experience of teaching the subject at SOAS University of London (his long syllabi from the 2010s are all available online), Berenskoetter provides a lucid account of identity-based research in IR, suggesting in the end that an identity “perspective” or “lens” allows scholars to see previously overlooked and hidden of aspects international politics. Another call for focusing on identification over identity.

  • Epstein, Charlotte. “Who Speaks? Discourse, the Subject and the Study of Identity in International Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 17.2 (2011): 327–350.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066109350055

    Like Wæver 2002, Epstein makes a convincing case for the discursive approach to the study of identity, arguing that state identities can be studied so long as we do not presume the state has a unitary self. Rather than borrowing psychological insights for theorizing the self, Epstein urges fellow IR-ists to read Jacques Lacan more closely, particularly his distinction between subject-positions and subjectivities.

  • Kowert, Paul A. The International Studies Encyclopedia. Foreign Policy and the Social Construction of State Identity. Vol. 6 Identity in International Relations. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Rather than promoting naïve state centrism, Kowert argues that identity-based research enables researchers to study both concrete policies and the constitution of inside/outside dynamics. The author discusses key elements and frustrations in defining state identity and offers a helpful two-by-two categorization of constructivist research on the subject.

  • Lebow, R. N. “Identity.” In Concepts in World Politics. Edited by Felix Berenskoetter, 73–87. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781473921436.n5

    Tracing origins of identity from early modern Europe to the modern-era tension between our reflexive and social selves, the author reviews several inherent and perhaps fatal limitations in the more recent thinking about identity at the collective level, such as research on nationalism or, in constructivist IR, on ontological security. Rather than attributing ontological standing or causal powers to identity, Lebow advises students to theorize affiliations, roles, bodies, and other processes of identification.

  • Rumelili, Bahar, and Jennifer Todd. “Paradoxes of Identity Change: Integrating Macro, Meso, and Micro Research on Identity in Conflict Processes.” Politics 38.1 (2017): 3–17.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263395717734445

    A discussion of what the authors call three paradoxes: identity/difference, continuity/change, and consensus/contestation. Articles in the special issue showcase ways of analyzing identity change, or the continual challenges of constituting unity and identity, of securitizing difference, of adaptation to changes in the other, and of coherence out of multiplicity and hybridity.

  • Schemenauer, Ellie C. Gender, Identity, and the Security State. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. Edited by Renée Marlin-Bennett, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190846626.013.19

    An overview of feminist insights about the co-constitution of gender identities and the security state covering a number of literatures from the early 1980s vintage work of Judith Hicks Stiehm, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Cynthia Enloe, and Carol Cohn onwards. Argues the subject should be viewed as that which is produced through practices of corporeality/embodiment, social processes, discourse, institutions and other power relations, including knowledges applied to it.

  • Vucetic, Srdjan. “Identity and Foreign Policy.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Edited by William R. Thompson, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.435

    Looking at “trading zone” between different forms of constructivism on the one hand and various FPA traditions on the other, the author considers the differences in the assumptions and arguments associated with different approaches, while also addressing select methodological issues. Concludes with a discussion of what Vucetic thinks are good future research avenues: practices of identification, non-European and non-Western conceptual and empirical approaches, and greater reflexivity and pluralism over causation.

  • Wæver, Ole. “Identity, Communities and Foreign Policy: Discourse Analysis as a Foreign Policy Theory.” In European Integration and National Identity: The Challenge of the Nordic States. Edited by Lene Hansen and Ole Wæver, 20–49. London: Routledge, 2002.

    The founder of securitization theory in IR and an influential discourse-analytic framework for investigating the relationship between identities and foreign policy. Discourse, argues Wæver, can explain broad policy patterns but not details. (The volume remains a very useful text for understanding the foreign policy of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway.)

  • Williams, Michael C. “Identity and the Politics of Security.” European Journal of International Relations 4.2 (1998): 204–225.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066198004002003

    William argues that we cannot understand contemporary debates over the nature of security without due attention to identity and, in turn, to what the author calls the “liberal sensibility.” Further contends that a conception of identity has been constitutive of all major IR theories, partly because of their proponents’ desire to remove their conceptualization of politics and security.

  • Zehfuss, Maja. “Constructivism and Identity: A Dangerous Liaison.” European Journal of International Relations 7.3 (2001): 315–348.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066101007003002

    An instructive foray into the debate between critical and conventional constructivism mentioned in the introduction, focusing especially on Wendt’s conceptualization of identity (see Wendt 1999, cited under Fundamentals). Zehfuss develops an alternative framework for constructivist theorizing of the identity-foreign policy nexus, which she then illustrates it with reference to Germany’s “never again war” discourse and the German military deployments in the Balkans in the 1990s.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.