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

Rule 1 - In political theory: break with liberal theorizing

It is a commonplace to reach a discussion about international rule by first qualifying and then removing the idea of international “anarchy” For it either refers to a negative or residual category of “having no world government,” which is empty, or it suggests something like the absence of order and rule, even disorder and chaos, which is wrong. The first reading is empty, since no behavioral consequences are necessitous, as research, mainstream and other, has shown quite some time ago.2 And the second is simply wrong, since there is no necessary logical link between the absence of a central government and the inexistence of rule or order (Onuf 1975b). With the first move, the presumption of international “anarchy” undermines the possibility of a meaningful theory of action in international relations and IR. With the second, it masks large parts of a theory of domination in world politics. This is quite a feat for a concept that some herald as the main contribution of IR theory. The nefarious conceptual effects of “anarchy” can even be seen in attempts to overcome it. Since anarchy is often and shallowly paired with a single opposite, usually called hierarchy, the conceptual imagination remains caught in the original and mutually residual setup of the domestic and the international, or various ad hoc qualifications of hierarchy (Walker 1993 is still the best reference for this). As this section will show, Onuf would have none of this. The way to break with the conceptual barrier of anarchy will lead him to oppose Liberalism(s) while also presenting a defense of the Enlightenment.

There have been different ways to reconceptualize rule beyond the anarchy problematique. One strategy, often followed by political scientists, is to resurrect the variety of domestic types of governments, or types of hierarchical international systems, such as empires (see e.g., Nexon and Wright 2007). Political economy followed a different path and had initially inspired a resolute resurrection of theories of domination. This was fundamental for the dependency tradition, but later also for its realist or critical protagonists3 (although more recent developments have weakened this, at least in the United States).4 Yet another path follows a more sociological lead and tends to see international society with Bourdieu or Foucault inspired lenses, to name two prominent approaches. They focus on, for instance, symbolic violence and transnational elites or the mechanisms of (self-)discipline usually connected to governmentality, where the absence of a central government and diffusion of authority (and responsibility) is the very mode and mechanism of international governance.5

Onuf comes from a different tradition for understanding rule, by now less prominent in IR theorizing, namely international legal theory. This is to be understood almost literally Robert Tucker writes in his foreword to the translation of Kelsen’s Principles of International Law that “in preparing this edition I received valuable help from my research assistant, Mr. Nicholas Onuf” (Kelsen 1966, vii). Although it would of course be too strong to reduce all the specificities of Onuf’s approach to that origin, it makes an important difference. International legal theory provides a bridge between a social and a political theory to think world order, since it cannot really think one without the other, even if this has become quite common in IR theory. Indeed, one could argue that it is the legal theory that constitutes the realm where his Constructivist social theory meets an international republican tradition.

Onuf’s first step to reach an understanding of the international is, as already mentioned, to free IR theory from the dominant ways of thinking “order.” Onuf’s assessment of the main IR theories, Realism and Liberalism, is straightforward, although it may be confusing for IR scholars. For he insists, correctly, that Realism is the stronger liberal political theory (liberal in a more British or political theory sense), whereas IR Liberalism is only a weak version. As Onuf concisely puts it:

In liberal terms, independent agents (rights-holding individuals, independent states) come first; they create society for their own convenience. In the narrowest such terms, self-regarding agents need accept no other limits than the ones that are imposed by other agents and material circumstances. When agents consent to limits, they do so provisionally and instrumentally. In the context of contemporary international thought, this is the language of realism. Evidently, realists are stronger liberals than anyone who is conventionally described as liberal.

(Onuf 1998, 5)6

The weaker IR liberals approach order from the same starting point as the realists, but include a societal component through regimes. Still, those regimes are connected to theories of action only, by focusing on their effects on behavior. They do not really add up to a coherent vision of an international society that includes all other regimes and in which, as Onuf argues, international law plays a constitutive role (Onuf 1994, 8, 14). In other words, the stalemate in thinking international order/society stems from Liberalism itself, which is an ideology that “systematically connect[s] the individual and society through the medium, and in the idiom, of rights. States become rights-holding individuals by analogy; the power of this analogy effectively grants unearned credibility to the concept of state sovereignty” (Onuf 1991, 429). With this move, the conceptual blackmail of the anarchy-sovereignty problematique is in place and can be eternally issued to discipline the thinking into two alternatives.

Onuf is determined to break with this form of liberal theorizing - a break he initiates with conceptual history to recover a lost tradition. Onuf draws on conceptual history to make visible - and recuperate for present politics - how the liberal conception of international relations came into place and which plural traditions it merged, but in so doing also submerged. He distinguishes two phases in the Enlightenment, in which only the second is “Liberalism” as he understands it, whereas the first is “Republicanism.” Onuf sees the prevalence of the liberal theorizing of international politics as tied to two developments that undermined Republicanism at the end of the eighteenth century: the move from natural to positive law and the move to the “liberal” (possessive) modern state, which appeared with the second stage of modernity In the new world of states, the existing “idiom of statecraft” or “dialect of empire, of power and prerogative” adapted and combined with an unrelated language, “the language of possession and thus of rights” (Onuf 1991, 435; 1998, 20, 126). This link was made possible by the resurgence of (private) Roman law, since it provided the conceptual antecedent in the notion of property, dominium, which, in turn, permitted “the development of a natural law of nations, jus gentium, by analogy with Roman law principles. In particular, Roman law analogies gave the law of territorial jurisdiction much of its content” (Onuf 1998, 131; slightly revising his earlier account in Onuf 1991, 437). With this division, domestic and international discourses parted company, whereas they used to be linked in republican thought. And so the move to positive law is mainly told in the shift from the law of nations to international law, whereas a shift from cosmopolitan Republicanism to progressive Liberalism becomes confined to the domestic level.

And so he also uses this conceptual history to free international law from its excessive (legal) positivism showing how legal rules instead constitute a fundamental regime of international society According to Onuf:

The international legal regime dominates the congeries of regimes constituting international society because its rules provide the chief agents in that society with their standing as such, and the scope and formality of these rules provide agents and observers alike with an unavoidable frame of reference.

(1994, 15)

These regimes are not to be thought of as “international” versus “domestic,” or, to put it differently, if they happen to be, then not because there is a fundamental distinction between the two spheres, but because their field of rules may end up being confined to one of the two. The inside/outside divide is no necessity, but a re-produced system tied to the liberal sovereign order and its fate.

With a conceptual history that recuperates an Enlightenment tradition less tainted by Liberalism and that focuses on the central (indeed constitutive) role of international law, he sets out to recover Republicanism as a tradition for making us return to, and newly imagine, a more convincing conception of international society In Republicanism, society follows neither the strong nor the weak liberal program; it is neither the result of struggling individual right-bearers in a system of selfhelp, nor the cooperative devices in a system of cost-benefit calculi. Instead, society derives from human association, in which relations are not distinct between or within polities. “In the absence of association (republic, society), there is no agency and there can be no agents. In the world of states, independence is provisional and limited, sovereignty must be divisible, or there can be none” (Onuf 1998, 5). In such an association, hierarchy is taken for granted, indeed made visible. If domination is simply a characteristic of all social relations, that visibility allows it to be more easily moderated by the common good (or later: civic virtue).

In the end, the legal theorist sets out a political theory that recovers a tradition of the international with distinctive features from the realist and weak versions of liberalism. In a further move, he replaces the rule of rights with the rule of rules - that is, he displaces the liberal relationship between the individual and society based on rights, with a relation based on rules. Here, republican political theory meets a post-Weberian social theory that combines a theory of domination with a theory of action. With this move, Onuf also leads us from political and legal theory to social theory (and not vice versa, as a reading that takes its origins in his 1989 classic would have it) via language.

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