Nicholas G Onuf's conceptual history

Alexander D Border

The American Civil War was the first fully modern war; there would have been no war had the North and the South not been modern nations. In the same sense, World War I and II were civil wars fought by modern nations to the limits of civilized conduct - and beyond. Nations, markets and war have made the modern world what it is - for better or worse. The liberal imagination emphasizes the good in modern history. Even if national imperatives, market forces, and the risks of unlimited war threaten the modern world with moral and material catastrophes, and perhaps even with destruction, the liberal imagination can only look ahead. Modernity has burned all bridges and scorched the earth behind it; there is no going back.

(Onuf and Onuf 2006)


Social Constructivism has largely established itself as a mainstream theoretical approach, along with Realism and Liberalism, in the study of international relations. Yet its emergence as a coherent framework since the late 1980s with specific ontological, epistemological and methodological positions reflects a certain evolution from its initial critical moment. What emerged in the 1990s and beyond as via media social Constructivism was a set of compromises with rationalist or neopositivist methodologies to make it in essence a practical enterprise in a rapidly changing world. This domestication of social Constructivism seen especially in Alexander Wendt’s (1999) attempt at bridging the paradigmatic gaps between the linguistic turn and Realism/Liberalism’s Rationalist/Materialist core carried with it certain suppositions and implications about how to explain and understand international relations. Nonetheless, the emergence of via media social Constructivism cannot be divorced from the context of events in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Such events shaped social Constructivism by making the world appear much more malleable to a particular Western form of progressiv- ism and Liberalism. As Daniel Levine and I argue, via media social Constructivism reflects less

a coherent alternative account of world politics within the academy than with the ideological transfixing effects of events from the outside: a triumphalist Western discourse about the transformation of political conflict into the real of administration, management, cooperation and especially the supremacy of economistic modes of thinking (qua rational political action) that held much of the popular and intellectual culture of the era in its thrall.

(Barder and Levine 2012, 588, emphasis in original)

What I wish to suggest then is that this depoliticization in via media social Constructivism imbibed a liberal attachment to the potential of progress.[1] Whether in terms of the theorization of global anarchical shifts to a Kantian culture of anarchy composed of ‘friends’, a teleological argument about the inevitability of the world state, the rise of security communities, a global civil society that transcends state self-interest, transnational forms of global governance, the homogenizing effects of global capitalism, etc., a general perception emerged over the course of the 1990s that there was something particularly different about the practice of global politics that made it appear less political and more amenable to rationalistic processes of administration and adjudication.2 Put differently, depoliticization implies a theoretical Archimedean point which sees radical incommensurable ontologies as fading away, revealing instead the generalized acceptance of a largely pacific liberal- democratic world united by the homogenizing effects of the market. This, in other words, is perceived to be the promise of modernization and the rationalization of the lifeworld that much of via media social Constructivism attached itself to.

In contrast to this depoliticization at the core of via media social Constructivism in its fundamental compromises with rationalist/neopositivist international theory, Nicholas Onuf’s rule-based approach never loses sight of relationship between linguistic social construction and meaning of what ultimately constitutes political society. By emphasizing the regulative and constitutive importance of rules through deeds for the emergence of the political qua rule, Onuf’s framework is as much a political theory of international relations as a social theory. As he writes in World of Our Making:

availability, no, the unavoidability of rules - and of politics - the persistence of asymmetric social relations, known otherwise as the condition of rule.

(1989 [2012], 20)

Whether one speaks of the international or the domestic, the constitution of political society is striated by rules that guide - but do not determine - the distribution of “advantages” to particular interests effectuating the “condition of rule”. However, what is also interesting to note is precisely the relationship between the constitution of political society as such through rules and the condition of political crisis that calls into question this relationship. Political crisis, in this case, can be interpreted as the condition whereby agents in word and in deed no longer accept - through an act of judgment - the particular social meaning of rules and thereby potentially challenge or call into question the legitimacy of rule. In other words, Onuf’s formulation of the relationship between rules and rule comes into sharper focus when thinking about the conditions of political crisis to highlight the social fabric of rules that constitute, regulate and legitimize a particular political (domestic or international) order.

My aim in this contribution is two-fold: to explore this relationship between political society and crisis in Onuf’s work and to highlight its importance for thinking and theorizing beyond the reification of our contemporary concepts. What I wish to show is that Onuf’s collaborative work with his brother Peter Onuf deserves to be read alongside his main writings in the social theory of international relations as an important and profound way of thinking about modern history and its relationship to the present. What Nicholas and Peter Onuf accomplish is to show us a different way of doing international relations theory at a time when a ‘historical turn’ appears nascent in the field (McCourt 2012).

  • [1] believe that there are two such general properties pertaining to political society in all its manifestations. One is the pervasive presence of rules which, inguiding, but not determining, human conduct, gives it social meaning. Whenever rules have the effect of distributing advantages unequally, the result is rule,which is the second general property of political society. The prevalence ofrule reflects the importance that people attach to advantages rule - throughrules - helps them secure and maintain . . . The paradigm of political societyis aptly named because it links irrevocably the sin qua non of society - the
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