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


Response to Stefano Guzzini and Anna Leander

In the last decade, friends in Brazil and Europe have increasingly come to populate my world and, in the process, smudge any boundary between my scholarly concerns and my everyday life. Stefano Guzzini and Anna Leander figure significantly in this development, since we worked together in Rio and get together - chiefly in Europe - whenever we can. The Nick they know is “personally and politically engaged.” Yet the Onuf they had read is austere, detached and dark (my words, not theirs). In the long term, they think Nick may be winning. “The pessimism of Onuf’s intellect time and again seemed tempered if not conquered by the optimism of his will.” I, Nick, would like to believe this myself. The Onuf in me is skeptical.

I tend to assume that I am reasonably successful in keeping separate my private, partisan sentiments from a public, disinterested stance on all things political. That I think this is either possible or desirable suggests the degree to which I have internalized the Humean mandate to cordon off is and ought (even to say ‘possible or desirable’ reveals the hold that Hume has over me). It also suggests that I have internalized the deeply liberal separation of public and private spheres. As a scholar, my public sphere is about politics but not political. As just another guy, my political sensibilities are my business.

Such an attitude can be no surprise. I have spent the bulk of my life in the most liberal of societies, one that has accorded me extraordinary privilege. For this I am grateful. Liberalism inevitably colors who I am and what I say. Nevertheless, Liberalism distresses me deeply, viscerally (also see Cecelia Lynch’s essay). Liberals today are righteous and smug; their preoccupation with freedom overwhelms any commitment to equality and squelches liberality as a character trait. It took me years to come to grips with these feelings, for the most part privately, and to work out a personal politics that I could reveal, ever so cautiously, in my scholarship.

Anna and Stefano emphasize the importance of Liberalism as a recurring theme in my work. Conspicuously, World of Our Making makes Liberalism one of three

‘operative paradigms,’ or coherent bodies of practice structuring the contemporary social sciences. What distinguishes Liberalism is the market as a model for social relations (1989, 14-19; also see Onuf 2009). While Stefano and Anna document my longstanding interest in political economy, not least in relation to conditions of rule, they quite properly situate my understanding of Liberalism in political theory - more specifically, in the political theory of possessive individualism (see Macpherson 1962). From this point of departure it follows almost inevitably that political realists are deep-down liberals and that the great struggle in IR between Realism and Liberalism is nothing more than a parochial kerfuffle. I am grateful to Anna and Stefano for drawing attention to my sense that possessive individualism is a core feature of Liberalism, the justification for talk about international anarchy, and a much-too- limited conception of what motivates people in their social relations.

In recent years I have proposed another way of looking at Liberalism. It traces liberal theory’s wide path from what motivates us as human beings to the social arrangements that work best for us. Stefano and Anna make no mention of this late initiative. There are a few pages in Nations, Markets, and War (2006, 40-42) pointing the way, but the clearest statement is published in a place few scholars in IR would chance to look: a yearbook called Global Community (Onuf 2013). The yearbook is largely a forum for progressive international lawyers; Anna and Stefano emphasize the importance I attach to Liberalism’s expression in law (and my consternation that critical legal theorists cannot get beyond criticism).

The Liberalism that I would now have lawyers - and everyone else - acknowledge recovers an ancient focus on human faculties. Each of us has a palette of faculties enabling us to get along in life. In any population, those faculties are normally distributed. Liberal arrangements encourage each of us to do what we do best and receive the best possible rewards for doing so. In these circumstances, rewards are proportionate to contributions to the general welfare, which is thereby maximized. We are generally satisfied that a normal distribution of rewards is justified; this is liberal justice.

The elements in this model are familiar enough. People are free to develop their capacities as they see fit, markets are efficient, what’s normal feels right. Normalization links agent and structure, with normalization comes normativization, this is a co-constitutive process. Normativity means law - no wonder lawyers like Liberalism and think in terms of rights. In my view, we moderns adopted this model in all its elements as the Enlightenment came to close, and it was instrumental in making the world what it is. It could only have done so by displacing the republican model for a good society. Against this view is a large body of opinion that sees Republicanism and Liberalism somehow melding together, amid many mistakes and distortions, to form modern states and finally a globalized modernity.

My personal preference for republican arrangements has worked their way into my scholarship. I know my Aristotle, I recognize the dangers specific to republican rule, and I publicly advocate an updated virtue ethics to mitigate those dangers. The Onuf in me cannot think it matters. Under liberal auspices, the modern world is already too far along in consuming itself. Whatever Nick and his friends might wish.


Macpherson, C.B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon.

Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood. 2009. “Structure, What Structure?” International Relations 23 (2): 183-199.

- 2013. “Organizing for Good: Republican Theory in a Changing World.” In M.

Cherif Bassiouni,, Gomula Joanna, Paolo Mengozzi, John G. Merrills, Rafael Nieto Navia, Anna Oriolo, William Schabas, and Anna Vigorito, eds. The Global Community: Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence, pp. 507-533. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood and Peter Onuf. 2006. Nations, Markets and War: Modern History and the American Civil War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

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