The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Norm’s my uncle

October 6, 2005

I spent most of yesterday reading through a great many scholarly articles on the influence, or lack thereof, of “norms” on outcomes in international politics.

Discussion of international norms – where they come from, how they spread, who adopts them and why, how they change over time, and so forth – are a prominent aspect of the constructivist research program in the discipline of International Relations.

The broader debate about the relative importance of norms in world politics is, in fact, hugely consequential to a wide variety of policy issues, including the merits of Bush foreign policy, international terrorism, nonproliferation, China’s future role in the world, and so on. For example, one of the big aims of the “War on Terror” is to create a strong norm against terrorism, with the goal of making people less likely to engage in it and states less likely to support it.

So, in the interest of “weav[ing] back and forth between the specialized languages of academe and the vernacular of public debate,” I thought I’d post some thoughts about yesterday’s exciting time spent on JSTOR, EBSCOHOST, and not a few publisher-specific e-journal websites.

When international-relations scholars talk about “norms,” they generally mean the same thing: “collective expectations for the proper behavior of actors within a given identity.”[fn1] Norms can be thought of like short programming scripts. They take the form of “if an actor is type X in situation S, then s/he should do action A.”

If you want a typical example of a list of norms, consult the Hippocratic Oath. Most famous among them is, of course, the injunction that a doctor should do no harm to his or her patient, which amounts to “If an actor is a doctor in the situation of treating a patient, the actor should do no harm to that patient.”

Norms influence social and political behavior in a number of different ways. Scholars often talk of “regulative,” “constitutive,” and “evaluative” effects. [fn2] These aren’t really different types of norms (as some claim), but different dimensions of the way norms shape political action.

Take the example above. It is a regulative norm, in that doctors who internalize it are more likely to try to save lives than those who don’t. It is also a constitutive norm, helping to define the subject-position of “doctor.” And it is also an evaluative norm, shaping how others’ evaluate whether a doctor is acting in an appropriate manner and is, or is not, a “good” doctor.

A lot of early constructivist work focused on showing that “norms matter” in international politics: that ideas about appropriate behavior shape how states (or other international actors) behave. To outsiders, this might seem a bit silly. After all, don’t France, the United States, and Israel behave in ways that are inexplicable without reference to their political culture, their sense of identity, and even to widely accepted ideas about the proper behavior of states? The fact that we encounter the influence – regulative, constitutive, or evaluative – of norms in everyday life lends plausibility to the notion that international politics is influenced by a wide range of norms.

This trajectory of research makes more sense if we think about arguments made by, on the one hand, realists and, on the other hand, scholars influenced by microeconomic approaches to human behavior (which stress the way in which actors make strategic calculations in their attempt to pursue their preferences and interests).

Realists, in particular, have long been skeptical of the “power” of norms; this skepticism was a defining feature of realism as an approach to international politics critical of so-called “idealists” and their putatively naïve faith that the problem of war could be solved, and state behavior more generally channeled in more ethical directions, through “international public opinion,” “moral suasion,” deliberate international institutions, and better developed international legal frameworks. For realists, such forces only matter when they can be backed by force, or the threat of force. Because the international system is anarchical – because it lacks a world government to enforce codes of conduct – states can ultimately do whatever they want. Because states need to look, first and foremost, to their own security, they also do not have the luxury of believing that norms will bind the decisions of others. Since no state can do so, no state will – or, more accurately, states that try to will find themselves in real trouble down the road. For realists, the Wilsonsian experiment of the interwar period provides stark evidence of the irrelevance of international norms on key issues of war, peace, and great-power conduct.

Recent constructivist work on norms is no longer focused on arguing with realists. Instead, “norms constructivists” now largely pursue more precise questions: where norms come from, how they spread, how they shape domestic politics, how they are shaped by domestic politics, whether or not they have “life cycles,” the role of transnational movements and international institutions in promoting adoption and compliance with international norms, and so forth. Indeed, Andrew Cortell and James W. Davis Jr. recently argued that

[T]he constructivist turn in international relations scholarship has succeeded in demonstrating the effects of norms, both in guiding the interactions of states with one another as well as influencing the domestic political debates that give rise to foreign policy outcomes.[fn3]

My sense is that Marc Lynch would strongly agree with Cortell and Davis.

I am not so sure. At the very least, I think there’s still much to be gained from arguing about whether, and to what degree, “norms matter.”

There are a number of quite technical reasons why I think constructivist scholarship on the impact of norms doesn’t make as good a case as many within the research tradition believe. I’ll only discuss two of those here.

First, process versus outcomes. I’m a big fan of the analysis of processes, but there is a real sense in which some constructivists might be conflating the two. If we look, for example, at the development of specific policies – such as the anti-landmines treaty, negotiations over nonproliferation, environmental regulations, and so on – we will usually find a great many non-governmental organizations, experts, and other advocates deeply involved in the process. It is easy, therefore, to conclude that they made a difference. But it is actually a different matter entirely whether their participation determined the ultimate policy outcomes. Daniel Drezner has made this point forcefully in recent work.

There’s a deeper problem. If we ask “principled actors” (as they’re often called) how they influenced negotiations (or even those who sat in on sessions with those actors) they’re likely to say that they had a great deal of influence. They have strong incentives to do so, whether because they need to justify their own careers or because they want to trumpet their importance to others. I’m not suggesting that they’re lying, but that they have reasons to inflate their importance. They may, indeed, have influenced the process in demonstrable ways, but that’s a different matter from finding out whether or not they – or the norms they advocate for – were determinative in the outcome.

The upshot is that a premature focus on technical issues of process can hide larger issues about the magnitude of influence norms, and their advocates, have on international outcomes.

Second, norm creep. If we start from the premise – which I think is reasonable – that norms matter in international politics, then we face an interesting question: what, exactly, are we testing? Norms don’t simply involve deontological autism, in which actors simply behave in moral or ethical ways regardless of the consequences. Normative scripts involve both appropriate ends and appropriate means for pursuing those ends.

It may be normative appropriate, given a ‘realpolitik script,’ for states to ignore the rights of others in the pursuit of their own security (in fact, one major strand of realism suggests that realpolitik is a normative script generated and reinforced by anarchical orders). In that sense, a lot of early constructvism didn’t test “norms” against “non-norms” explanations: they tested whether one particular norm was a more efficient explanation for international outcomes than another particular norm.

Such tests are themselves problematic, because actors always adjudicate between different conceptions of self, different scripts, and different incentives when they take courses of action. Particularly in complex situations, involving aggregate actors (such as states), high levels of uncertainty, and competing pulls, it is more reasonable to think about the role of norms as a both/and rather than an either/or proposition, both with respect to different norms and other sources of behavior. Constructivists recognize this in their core arguments about social processes, but they don’t necessarily build it into their methods. My own view is that doing so would enrich our understanding of the way that international politics works, even at the cost of explanatory elegance.

I don’t want to tar a lot of interesting work with these comments; some of the “process” work I allude to above implicitly or explicitly grapples with the second set of problems I identify. Still, I’m less convinced by norm-constructivist triumphalism than I once was; I definitely don’t want to see it emerge as an excuse for short-circuting important debates about the importance of norms in world politics. In the final analysis, if norms don’t matter in the way constructivists think they do, there’s little point in focusing on extremely specific questions about their adoption and diffusion.

Thoughts? After all it isn’t like I’ve got a paper sitting around dealing with some of these issues or anything :-).

1Peter Katzenstein, “The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, p. 5.
2Martha Finnemore and Katheryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change”, International Organization, 52,4 (1998), pp. 891-892.
3Andrew P. Cortell and James W. Davis, Jr. “When Norms Clash: International Norms, Domestic Practices, and Japan’s Internalisation of the GATT/WTO ” Review of International Studies 31,1 (January 2005), p. 3.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.