When this volume was in draft, an enthusiastic reviewer wondered what its ‘through-line’ might be. Theory is the obvious candidate. This term shows up in the book’s title, four times in its first paragraph, in every chapter, hundreds of times altogether. Yet theory is a misleading term for what holds this collection of loosely related essays together; a looser term, such as theorizing, might be better. As linguistically mediated activity ranging from speculation to stipulation, it offers insufficient guidance as a red thread running through a patchwork of essays attending to a number of themes. Metatheory is another possibility. Theorizing about theorizing is an activity, a craft, a vocation, a through-line. This is what the author does: high modernist theorizing, complete with fancy language, in late modern circumstances. Storytelling. Margin-making. Mythmaking. World-making.
Seyla Benhabib is an exceptionally influential political theorist, whose work international theorists have too often overlooked. Chapter 6 seeks to remedy this neglect by putting her Habermasian background and Arendtian concerns into perspective and then by addressing her effort to derive universal principles of ethical conduct from a powerful assessment of liberal modernity. International theorists are to be faulted for failing to appreciate the extent to which the modern world in all its complexity is a necessary frame of reference for their deliberations. Benhabib’s struggle to save liberalism from itself falters for much the same reason. She fails to see that modernism in literature and the arts is an age-defining political project. Responding as it does to functional differentiation in modern society, rather than the rationalization of modern societies, modernist concerns subvert progressive liberal sentiments.
Chapter 3 picks up on one of the author’s early concerns: Johan Galtung’s schematic yet powerful work on the structural properties of aggression, violence and imperialism. Galtung’s model of radical inequality, which he applied so tellingly to centre–periphery relations in the modern world, is generalizable to almost any society. The key is to see how the pervasive presence of structural inequality and exploitation is effectuated with rules, manifest in rule, yet marginalized in liberal thought. International theorists routinely ignore or misconstrue structural inequality among states even as—or because—it is institutionalized in the conditions of rule framing world politics. Reconceptualizing Galtung’s structural model by reference to three primary kinds of rules and three generic forms of rule honours a long-standing intellectual debt and affirms the ethical thrust of Galtung’s life’s work.
Chapter 1 has its origins as a response to Morton Kaplan’s System and Process in International Politics, in which he modelled several ‘types’ of international systems and stipulated ‘rules’ for each type. At the time, students of comparative politics adopted structural-functionalist conceptions of social systems and their functional requisites (rules by another name), and international theorists posited a succession of systems, consisting of numerous autonomous, interacting political systems, or states, from the Renaissance to the present. The anthropological literature on ‘primitive systems’ points in a different direction; defining culture in functional terms points up the material conditions in which any system functions. Comparing international system, however crudely, by reference to population density and climate zones suggests an alternative to Kaplan’s approach. Flirting with vulgar materialism for comparative purposes, this alternative was bound to fail—as would any rapprochement in the study of comparative politics and international relations.
Chapter 13 develops the author’s reflections on the origins of constructivism in the field of International Relations, occasioned by a workshop sizing up a quarter-century of constructivism in the field. The ‘dinosaur’ insisted that the ‘question of foundations’ is never off limits for constructivists and then argued that we humans are cognitively equipped to fill the world with ‘moderate-sized dry goods’. The way we make useful, moderate-sized social objects with material properties, the way we infuse them with value (which is what makes them goods), the way we do it together through a myriad of cognitive and linguistic operations: this is exactly what seems to entrance constructivists. And only constructivists. Everyone else starts with goods already in place. Suitably revised, these remarks ended up as the Foreword to an excellent symposium volume called Constructivism Reconsidered.
Chapter 8 sketches four ethical systems of contemporary interest. Two of them lend themselves to universalizing claims, one urging right conduct and the other counselling good behaviour. Together they support liberal modernity without due consideration of the functional arrangements undergirding modernity’s modernist moment. Postmodern ethics is implicitly situational and half-heartedly systematic. Lately subject to much discussion is virtue ethics—an ancient ethical tradition identified most of all with Aristotle. At the centre of virtue ethics are the four cardinal virtues (wisdom or prudence, courage, justice, seemliness), all demanding self-control. The status concerns identified in the preceding chapter link social conditions to self-control and virtuous conduct to standing in society. When virtues become duties, the result is an ethical system better suited to the challenges that an overextended modernity faces in the decades ahead.
International Theory at the Margins reprints 13 of the author’s essays, all of which originally appeared in publications not often or readily accessed by most scholars and advanced students in the field of International Relations. They address themes of marginal concern to international theorists at the time of their publication (ranging from 1982 to 2018). They explore philosophical issues, such as reconciling social construction with materiality. They work through conceptual issues, such as relating power to powers. They touch on historical issues, such as epochal change in the modern world. They raise ethical issues, such as reliance on virtue. They investigate the properties of language such that the ‘world’ is what we say about it.
The essays in this volume approach these themes, and the issues they raise, from a variety of perspectives, variously augmenting the author’s well-known treatments of performative speech, rules, and the conditions of rule in every society, including international society. They build on the work of giants from Aristotle to Foucault. They draw on the work of diverse contemporary international theorists, including Johan Galtung, Morton Kaplan, Joseph Nye and James Rosenau. They evince a disposition to systematize what others leave aside. They raise more questions than they answer. They stay at the margins and make a virtue of doing so.
This book brings together thirteen of Nicholas Greenwood Onuf’s previously published yet rarely cited essays. They address topics that Onuf, a celebrated international theorist, has puzzled over for decades, prompting him to develop a distinctive perspective on international theory as social theory. Among these topics are the problem of materiality in social construction, epochal change in the modern world and the power of language.
Building on the work of giants, from Aristotle and Cicero, Hume and Kant, to Derrida and Foucault, and drawing on diverse contemporary theorists, including Seyla Benhabib, James Der Derian, Johan Galtung, Morton Kaplan, Joseph Nye, James Rosenau, Elaine Scarry and Kenneth Waltz, the book ranges over the margins of the field and settles on issues that have never been put to rest.
The editors of a modest Danish journal (no longer published) commissioned essays for a project imaginatively called ‘The Nines’. They had noticed that major statements of international theory appeared in the ninth year of most decades in the last century. 1989 was the year Friedrich Kratochwil published Rule, Norms and Decisions, and the author published World of Our Making—books largely responsible for launching constructivism in the field of International Relations. That same year saw publication of a symposium volume, called International/Intertextual Relations, staking out a poststructuralist stance for the field. For poststructuralists, the world is a text subject to as many readings as there are readers; there is no grand narrative. For the author, every text is embedded in a story; modernity is a grand narrative; the volume gets a sympathetic if critical reading.
The Introduction to this collection of essays proceeds in three sections. The first draws on Jacques Derrida and draws attention to margins and marginality, thereby situating the author as negligent essayist and unrepentant systematizer, theory as margin-making, and the field of International Relations at the margins of the social sciences. The second section assays the author’s enduring preoccupation with cognitive faculties, materiality, the universality of human experience, metaphors and models in social construction, causality in relation to potentiality and obligation, agents and their powers, duty and the common good, the rise and decline of the modern world—all in relation to the author’s much cited work on world-making. The last section suggests that the volume’s essays, as ordered, tell a story about the author’s unswerving commitment to theory and theorizing over six decades.