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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


Chris Brown

In the mid-2000s two books by major philosophers were widely read as foundational for a new “turn” in political theory; Raymond Geuss’s Philosophy and Real Politics (2008) and Bernard Williams’s posthumous collection In the Beginning was the Deed (2005) set the scene for the “new political realism”.1 The central feature of the new political Realism is an assertion of the autonomy of the political; contra much modern analytical political theory, politics is not a branch of applied ethics and political theory should focus on real political actors. Geuss’s slim volume is a useful polemic, but Bernard Williams offers something more substantial (although equally slim) as might be expected from one of the most important philosophers of the last half century Williams, who died in 2003, was a moral philosopher who was skeptical of morality and meta-ethics, a critic of both utilitarianism and Kantianism, instead focusing on “how should we live”, a question he answered with reference to the Classical Greek masters and to Nietzsche.2 He turned to explicitly political theory in the 1990s and the essays collected in In the Beginning are the main fruit of this move - although, of course, politics was never absent from his earlier works.

In the key essay of the collection, “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory”, Williams critiques two accounts of the relationship between politics and ethics. First, he identifies the enactment model whereby principles, concepts, ideals and values are formulated in theory, and politics is given the task of enacting what has been formulated, using persuasion or exercising power; utilitarian thought takes this form - consider, for example, Peter Singer (1972) on world poverty and famine relief, where his principles generate a model which we are required to enact in our political life: suffering is bad, we should stop bad things happening if we can, distance is irrelevant - politics follows and is governed by these principles. Then he outlines the structural model where theory lays down the conditions under which power can be justly exercised; unlike the enactment model, this account of morality does not directly tell us what politics must achieve, but rather sets constraints on what politics can rightly do - the classic illustration here is Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1970), which offers a theory of just institutions which constrain but do not direct action. Habermasian theory works on similar lines. In both these models the moral is prior to the political - Williams terms this political moralism, and contrasts it with political realism, which reverses priorities. The first, unavoidable, political question is that of securing order, and the “basic legitimation demand” is that order be secured in a way that is acceptable to all. The basic categories of political life are the weak and the powerful, and the basic political assumption is that the powerful will abuse their power unless constrained from doing so. As this formulation would suggest, Williams is a liberal of a sort, but his is the “Liberalism of fear” set out by Judith Shklar (1994; 2004) rather than the Liberalism of Rawlsian and post- Rawlsian justice theory

The “new political realism” of Williams and Geuss is focused on the implications of their critique for domestic politics; Thomas Nagel, although not identified with this turn in political theory, made a not dissimilar attack on the post-Rawlsian global justice industry in an essay “The Problem with Global Justice” (2005), but Williams himself had little to say on such matters.3 The one essay in In the Beginning that actually addresses international issues directly is the text of a lecture on “Humanitarianism and the Right to Intervene”, which is disappointingly unoriginal and appears to be unaware that anyone other than Michael Walzer had written on the topic.4 This distance from, and perhaps disdain for, the international relations (IR) literature goes beyond simply the field of international political theory in the narrow sense. It is also quite striking that the IR version of “Realism” features virtually nowhere in the literature of the new political Realism. Admittedly the recent revival of “classical” Realism came in the 2000s, too late for it to register with Williams at least, and the “structural” Realism that was dominant in the 1980s and 1990s has little connection with the agenda of the new political realists, but the ur-texts of Niebuhr, Carr, Morgenthau, Herz, Wolfers et al. were available had anyone been interested, and one might have felt that they should have been.5 These classical IR realists were not addressing the same agenda as Williams or Geuss, but the affinities are, nonetheless, pretty clear and the critique of Moralism is much the same, even if the moralists themselves were rather different. It is strange that they should feature so little in the new discourse, although, as will become apparent later in this paper, there may well be good reasons for this neglect (Williams 2008).

So, where does Nick Onuf come into all this? The link suggested by the title of this paper is, in fact, little more than a conceit, drawing on the coincidence that the Goethe tag used by Williams in one of his essays and appropriated by Hawthorn to title the collection as a whole, is also set out, this time in the context of a longer extract from Faust, at the outset of Onuf’s masterpiece World of Our Making (1989 [2012]. Given the difficulty of pinning down a meaning to Goethe’s lines - which have been used by a great many thinkers and to different effect - it would be obtuse to treat this as more than a coincidence and, in any event, if Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature is a reliable guide, the quotation has been dropped from the reissue of World of Our Making. Still, there is a puzzle here which it may be worth exploring; some of the themes of Onuf’s book - the critique of positivism, utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism, the positive approach to the virtues - and some of his sources - Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle - would be congenial to Williams, and, conversely, I doubt if Onuf would have any argument with Williams’s critique of the enactment and structural models of politics. And the Liberalism of fear that Williams expresses, though different from, has affinities with Onuf’s Republicanism. They would, I think, agree on the critique of political moralism - how then do they not agree when it comes to the endorsement of political realism? Williams may have had only a hazy understanding of what IR’s classical realists had to offer, and this may explain why he had little interest in their work, but Onuf was well versed with that discourse and rejected it. How is it that two writers who seem in many respects kindred spirits end up in very different places? Or perhaps they are not in different places? If Williams was right to neglect the contributions of the IR realists, and Onuf was also right to dismiss this contribution, then perhaps the two writers are actually on the same page, and the new political realism of the 2000s is a very different animal from the revived Classical IR Realism of the same era. In any event, a short exploration of the relationship between Nicholas Onuf and political realism may be a valuable exercise.

It might be thought that one route to an answer to this question could be via an exploration of the relationship between Realism in the philosophical sense and political realism. Onuf is very clearly an anti-realist in the former sense - his version of Constructivism does not, I think, deny the existence of what John Searle (1996), following and adapting G.E.M. Anscombe, calls “brute facts”, but it does rest on the assumption that social or institutional facts depend for their existence on human agreement - that is, are “constructed”. Moreover, although Onuf is not a Kantian in the normal sense of the term, his position clearly has affinities with the kinds of Kantian Constructivism engaged in by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice and, in a different way, by Jurgen Habermas in his account of “ideal speech”; in both cases, “justice” and “truth” are conceptualized as the product of human agreement, albeit under artificial circumstances, via the “original position” or an “ideal speech situation”, respectively Since Rawls and Habermas are the poster boys for the political Moralism that Williams and Geuss excoriate,6 it could be that the, admittedly tenuous, link between Onuf’s Constructivism and the Kantian variety might explain his, Onuf’s, hostility to Realism - perhaps there is a link between his opposition to a realist account of science and his opposition to political realism?

This is a seductive argument, but it does not work. It actually illustrates a common misunderstanding, namely that Constructivism is in itself a substantive theory of politics and/or international relations. Not so. As Samuel Barkin has recently argued at length, there is actually nothing oxymoronic about the term “Realist Constructivism”, although it will seem so to those readers who rely on introductory textbooks to get their fix on IR theory (2010). It is actually the case that most self-proclaimed Constructivists - including Onuf - have been, and are, opposed to Realism while most self-proclaimed realists reject Constructivism, so it is not surprising that summary accounts of the field present the two positions as antithetical, but in fact this opposition is strictly contingent and to make it fundamental involves a misunderstanding of the nature of both approaches. Realism is a substantive theory of international politics, Constructivism is not; Constructivists are making a general point about the nature of knowledge in the human sciences (i.e., that it is reflexive and intersubjectively created), and this general point may or may not be compatible with one or other variety of Realism - there is no necessary hostility between the two camps. Looked at from the other end of the argument the same point applies; it is possible to be a realist when it comes to ontology and epistemology while at the same time rejecting realist accounts of morals and ethics. Interestingly, in a book written just before the Constructivist movement in IR really took hold, Martin Griffiths presented a strong argument to the effect that the political realists - he investigated Morgenthau, Waltz and Bull - were, in fact, Idealist in their approach to the nature of reality (1992).

So, there is no generic Constructivist reason why Constructivists generally reject political realism and, for that matter, no realist reason why realists generally reject Constructivism, which means we have to look for something more specific. In this case that means we must go to the text and ask why Onuf rejects Realism and, perhaps more to the point, whether the Realism he rejects, which is that of Morgenthau and Waltz, is actually the same as, or relevantly similar to, the realism that Williams espouses.7 The first thing to note is that although on page one of World of Our Making Onuf sets himself the task of reconstructing the discipline of International Relations; in fact the book only marginally engages with the conventional literature of the field - and that, I think, is the point of the enterprise. Onuf’s premise is that International Relations has to be understood as occupying at best one small corner of a general and comprehensive social theory and whereas the conventional IR literature wants to protect and defend that small corner from outside influences, he wants to break down these defenses and open the field to that wider world of social theory. In the opening pages of the book he notes the seminal role of Hans Morgenthau in promoting both a conception of the field as limited to power politics and a particular understanding of the scientific study of international relations, and the rest of World of Our Making is devoted to deconstructing these moves and reconstructing the field along different lines.

Thus it is that when in Part Two he moves away from “Rules” to the study of “Rule”, and immediately addresses the issue of anarchy, he does so though a reading of Hobbes et al. shaped by an essay by the Skinnerian historian of thought J.G.A Pocock rather than through the anarchy problematic sketched by Kenneth Waltz (Pocock 1981). IR realists only enter his story later in the chapter entitled “World Politics”, and their role is actually to narrow the notion of world politics into something closer to power politics. Realists have, he argues, been central to the constitution of the discipline of International Relations but, regrettably, they have carried out this feat by carving out from the wider motion of world politics those particular spheres that are covered by the skill-sets of the diplomat and the soldier. This Clausewitzian reading of what the discipline involves is already narrow and made narrower by Morgenthau, who stands in here for all the classical American realists; Morgenthau’s (1967) famous formulation that “[the] main signpost that helps political realism through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power”8 sets in stone a liberal conception of “interest” as a matter of calculation, and is inimical to even the limited engagement with other social forms and sources of power that realists Raymond Aron and E.H. Carr at least recognized and sometimes promoted (Onuf 1989 [2012], 240). This notion of interest, which can make no space for law and understands “rules” in strictly cost-benefit terms, is entrenched further by Kenneth Waltz, who redefines classical Realism in the language of microeconomics, thereby taking it even further away from the wider agenda of politics. In an interesting formulation which deserves to be quoted, not summarized, Onuf brings home the critique of Realism very powerfully:

Realism has never really argued the primacy of guns over goods, or good deeds. It has argued the primacy of those whose voices speak of war, the need for guns, the protection of goods, the absurdity of abstractly good deeds in a world of adversity Realism cannot hear voices that speak of believing or persuading, making or trucking, much less growing or healing.


This picture of Realism very much reflects the consensus of 1980s “critical” international relations. Just as there are echoes of Richard Ashley’s (1986) critique of Neorealism in Onuf’s characterization of Realism as based on a utilitarian calculus, so there are echoes of Robert Cox’s (1986) account of critical theory in this account of realists as organic intellectuals unable to hear those voices which do not speak the language of power. What is interesting is, first, whether it stands up as a critique of the IR realists, and second, whether this critique of Morgenthau, Waltz et al. would be equally accurately applied to Williams and Geuss.

As to the first of these questions, in the nearly thirty years since the publication of World of Our Making it is certainly the case that there has been a dramatic revival of interest in classical Realism. In particular, whereas in the 1980s Morgenthau’s standing was very low, it is now very high; Christoph Frei’s outstanding 2001 biography has traced Morgenthau’s intellectual roots in Weber and Nietzsche, and William Scheuerman (2009) has traced his relations with legal theorists of right and left in 1920s Germany; Richard Ned Lebow (2003) and Michael Williams (2008) have written at length on the complexity and subtlety of Morgenthau’s politics; Campbell Craig (2004) and Scheuerman (2013) have explored his writings on world government and the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Much of this work has been designed to separate Morgenthau’s legacy (and that of writers such as Arnold Wolfers and John Herz) from the structural Realism of Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer to the disadvantage of the latter, yet Waltz’s legacy has also been reassessed favorably in recent years, and on most policy issues - in particular in their opposition to Neoconservatism - classical and structural realists are at one, and generally offering good sense (Booth 2011). Put all this together, and Onuf’s summary dismissal of (classical) Realism looks like a mistake, the product of a time- bound reading rather than a deep engagement with the sources.

But re-reading Onuf’s critique of Realism for the first time in years in preparation for writing this paper, I am struck by the thought that perhaps his apparently crude reading of Morgenthau gets closer to the truth than the much more sophisticated readings that have become current in the twenty-first century. It is customary now to dismiss the crude formulations of Morgenthau’s “six principles” as unrepresentative of the depth of his work, added at the behest of his publisher - yet there they are at the front of the book that was his most obvious contribution to the discipline, a book that went through many editions in his lifetime, and which he appeared to regard as his magnum opus. Is it right to set these expressions of power politics aside as unrepresentative of his work? Again, it is clear that when Morgenthau writes of scientific theory and the “laws of politics”, he is not doing so as a candidate for membership of the “Scientific Study of International Processes” Section of the ISA, and his Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (1946) is a good indictment of behavioralism and scientism avant la lettre - but is the latter quite as substantial a text as we have come to think? And have not an awful lot of student minds been put out of joint by some of the more egregiously pseudo-scientific statements of Politics Among Nations? We may admire Morgenthau’s essays collected in Truth and Power (1970), but is there not something a little off about the claim to speak truth to power? Scholarly reputations, as we know, go in phases - Morgenthau died in 1980 and in the years immediately after (and indeed immediately before) his death his standing was indeed low, perhaps too low, but, arguably, it is rather too high today. Again, the standing of prominent IR realists such as Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt is also quite high today because of their general opposition to the use of force by the United States and their promotion of a more passive foreign policy stance in relation to the Middle East in particular - but the critique expressed in the extended quote from Onuf presented above still stands. These realists speak for the interests of the powerful; they may define those interests more intelligently than many current and past US office-holders, but there is no doubt that they are still hearing the voices of power, of those who stress “the absurdity of abstractly good deeds in a world of adversity” and not the voices of the dispossessed, the losers in the game of world politics.

There is, in summary, a lot to be said for Onuf’s critique of IR Realism even if he is less impressed by the “tragic vision” of world politics that Morgenthau espoused than we have been taught that we ought to be. But what of the New Political Realists? Clearly Onuf could not be expected to engage with a movement that did not emerge until a decade or more after the writing of World of Our Making, but it is still interesting to ask whether the strictures he delivers to the IR realists would also apply to Williams - and my judgment would be that they would not. I can see no reason why Onuf would object to the proposition that the first political question is that of securing order, always supposing that Williams’s “basic legitimation demand” that order be secured in a way that is acceptable to all is met. Again, the “Liberalism of fear” is deeply conscious of the propensity of the powerful to ignore the voices of the weak, and the main thrust of Williams’s work is to promote the protection and interests of the weak. His opposition to political moralism is not based on opposition to the project of achieving a just society, but rather to the belief that ethical theory can pin down and circumscribe the political process - and, again, I see no reason to think that Onuf would wish to negate this opposition.

Where the real gap is to be found is between the new political Realism of Williams and Geuss and the classical Realism of Morgenthau et al. It is no accident that Williams is so little interested in the work of the latter, and contra Bill Scheuer- man, there is no reason to think that his or Geuss’s work would have been improved by a deeper reading of the IR realists. The metaphysical musings on the tragic nature of political life favored by the latter are an understandable reaction to the nature of international life, but they are of little value when it comes to the attacks on liberal “ideal” theory, attacks which are at the heart of the project of the new political realists. In short, it seems to me not unreasonable that Onuf and Williams should be yoked together by their fondness for a Goethe aphorism - there is no incompatibility, and much in common, between Onuf’s Constructivism and Williams’s version of political realism.


  • 1 The European Journal of Political Theory Special Issue ‘Realism and Political Theory’ 9(4) 2010 is important in identifying the turn towards Realism in political theory, including in its ambit the work of‘agonist theorists such as Bonnie Honig as well as Williams and Geuss.
  • 2 Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1973, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), and Shame and Necessity (1993) are key texts.
  • 3 The fact that this paper was published in the house journal of political Moralism added salt to the wound.
  • 4 Irritatingly, no details as to when this lecture was presented are given in the text, nor to whom, although the text itself suggests it was to the Oxford Refugee Studies Programme and in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
  • 5 In earlier works Geuss dismissed Morgenthau and other IR realists as purveyors of realpo- litik, but without any extended analysis of their work.
  • 6 There is a division of labor here - Geuss mainly concentrates his fire on Habermas, whereas, for Williams, Rawls is the key political moralist.
  • 7 For the sake of convenience, and because of the restricted scope of this essay, the focus here will be solely on World of Our Making, which is, I think, in any event justified by the standing of this work, which is incontestably Onuf’s masterpiece.
  • 8 This is one of Morgenthau’s “six principles of political realism”.


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