Media are integral feature of globalized civil society: Professor Onuf

December 21, 2010 - 0:0

TEHRAN – Nicholas Onuf says “the media have become an integral feature of an increasingly globalized civil society.”

Onuf, the Florida International University professor emeritus, believes that “they (media) put a human face on personal insecurity and remind state leaders that their acts — even those taken in the name of national, military security — have dramatic implications for the personal security of human beings in all walks of life.”
Onuf made the remarks in an e-mail interview with the Mehr News Agency conducted by Hossein Kaji and Javad Heiran-Nia.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Can we consider constant principles of ethics among actors in international system? If so, which actors do define and change the international principles and norms (such as ethical principles)?
A: In recent years, international ethics has become an important concern in a field where any such concern was long dormant—whether because realists thought prudence trumped ethical principles, or liberal institutionalists thought that they were sufficiently embodied in international law. Most of the discussion revolves around claims that specific principles are universal, that is, applicable to all people at all times. Indeed this is the programmatic thrust of modern ethical theory in both Kantian (deontological) and Benthamite (consequentialist) forms. I am myself skeptical about these claims, and not just because I am inclined, as a philosophical constructivist, toward a relativist position on ethical matters.
Modern ethics is wrapped up in the specific conditions of modernity that it forgets the everyday ethical significance of honor and hospitality. This should be obvious in any consideration of so-called traditional societies. It is, in my opinion, no less relevant to the daily lives of people in societies such as my own. The ethics of honor and hospitality are responsible for social status, rank, standing or social distance (these terms are effectively interchangeable) in every society, including international society. If leaders in the US and their advisers were ask ordinary people what patriotism was about, they would better understand the importance of honor and standing projected onto the world scene. And they would be more sensitive to what motivates Iran’s international conduct.
There are few if any universal principles of honor and hospitality. They develop to suit the needs of specific ‘worlds.’ Diplomats are keenly aware of the requirements of honor and hospitality in their world. I believe they should work harder at educating their bosses about the ethical sensitivities that ripple through everyday international relations. And I believe that scholars and intellectuals in Iran, just for example, can help all of us to leave universal claims to philosophers and theologians, and get on with what really matters to most people most of the time.
Q: One of the important challenging issues that countries have to consider is human security. What is your definition of this concept and which states like to put human security on their political agenda?
A: As a scholar and more especially as a theorist, I have not been involved in the development of the concept of human security and in thinking through its implications for the world situation today. Indeed I have been a little skeptical about this undertaking. I have always thought that the only kind of security we in the field of international relations have ever been concerned with is personal security: the physical well-being of ourselves and our families, the safety of our homes, perhaps the opportunity to provide for our own and our families´ minimal needs. I take this to be a Hobbesian conception of security, and I also take heed of Hobbes´s strong claim that personal security can only be achieved collectively.
Institutionally speaking, the modern state is the chief mechanism for collective security and, paradoxically, the multiplicity of states is the chief threat to personal security in today´s world. As a consequence, we tend to view security in strictly national, military terms and we lose sight of security as it is experienced by all of us in personal terms. While the development of the concept of human security is a useful corrective to this unduly narrow conception of security, it has the converse effect of making everything a matter of security. To treat security so inclusively is to diminish the power of Hobbes´s claim that security is, in the first instance, about physical safety. We must always remember that the primary job of the state is to provide people with personal security.
I also believe, with Aristotle, that human flourishing is the greatest good. We cannot, and should not, ask the state be responsible for human flourishing in every conceivable respect. This, it seems to me, is just what the human security movement implies. We need the state, but we need the state to work in tandem with a vibrant civil society. Civil society consists of many diverse institutions, both secular and religious. Some of these institutions will be confined to the state, but many will constitute a global civil society, which no state can ignore if its leaders are committed not just to personal security but also to human flourishing.
Q: What is the role of media in putting the issue of human security on political agenda?
A: The media have become an integral feature of an increasingly globalized civil society. They put a human face on personal insecurity and remind state leaders that their acts — even those taken in the name of national, military security — have dramatic implications for the personal security of human beings in all walks of life.
Q: Why constructivism concentrated on ontology instead of epistemology?
A: Many postmodern or poststructuralist critics of modern philosophy and social theory are unabashed relativists, for whom truth is merely what we collectively say it is. Even if most constructivists have reservations about these epistemological claims, they are also skeptical about claims that scientific inquiry fully captures the nature of social reality—claims they take to be ontological. I am myself skeptical that the binary of epistemology (knowing what is true) and ontology (knowing what is real) can be defended. Instead I find myself going back to Aristotle and talking about metaphysics.
Q: You accept the Cartesian duality of subject-object and do not deny the world out of subject (mind). You also believe that we cannot recognize all features of the world without considering discourse on them. You also argue that we cannot reduce everything into ideational things. Explain.
A: I do accept the Cartesian binary—I accept the illusion of being myself, apart from a world that I can make sense of only with the assistance of my sensory and cognitive faculties. I take this to be Kant’s view, to which I would add (as you suggest) the claim that by talking about the experience we all have individually in getting along in the world, we make sense of the world together. This Kantian constructivism is a radical philosophical stance, perhaps relativist, which most constructivists do not accept. I argue that this stance is not philosophically idealist (in the usual sense) because I do not accept the idealism-materialism binary as conceptually viable. The world always affects us materially, just as we always make the world’s materiality meaningful by subjecting it to socially mediated cognitive operations.
Q: Accordingly, what is your ontological priority about creation of social structure? Is it the idea of agents or objective factors?
A: Let me give you my view of structure first. When we ‘see’ persistent patterns in social relations, we call these patterns social structure—we make ‘something’ of what we see. When other observers see the same ‘thing’, and that something persists, it is, in my view, because agents form and follow rules, which are themselves related in and as institutions. Rules and institutions have an ‘objective’ existence to the extent we act as if they do; when structures are similarly objective, it is because we have made them into institutions. The historic balance of power is a useful illustration. Therefore, I generally avoid using the term structure and speak instead of institutions. Some agents are institutions too (think of governments), even if we normally identify agents with human individuals. They latter are agents only because rules confer agency on them, just as rules confer agency on institutions, enabling them to act on behalf of other individuals or institutions.
Q: What are the ontological differences between your idea and Prof. Alexander Wendt’s on creation of social structure?
A: According to Professor Wendt, structures that cannot be observed directly are nevertheless real if they have observable effects. Obviously I believe that the act of observation makes something real. More observers mean greater assurance that that thing is ‘real.’
Q: According to your idea, how two hostile countries, that define each other as “other”, can reach a common understanding?
A: In my opinion, countries don’t have ‘views.’ In any event, neither hostility nor otherness is an adequate, much less a total description of any ongoing (institutionalized) set of social relations.
Nicholas Onuf is one of the primary figures among Constructivists in international relations. His best known contribution to Constructivism is set out in World of Our Making (University of South Carolina Press, 1989).