A Farewell to Norms

28 February 2012, 2121 EST

Here’s something funny: I’ve been so mired in studying how international norms emerge for the past few years that I haven’t given much thought at the theoretical level to how they fall apart. To be fair, constructivists have paid much less attention in general to norm death than they have to norm creation. Finnemore and Sikkink’s “norm life cycle” stops at norm internalization. And even though scholars like Patrick Cottrell have pointed out that new norm creation itself usually happens by killing off old norms or institutions, there’s not a lot of studies about how norms collapse.

Then along comes Dick Price‘s student Ryder McKeown with an article I missed (thanks to Betcy Jose for sending it my way). McKeown modifies Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life cycle argument by extending their model to include “norm regress” and illustrating this dynamic through a discussion of US revisionism around the torture norm.

Constructivist literature on norms has hitherto suffered from a `nice norm bias’ that does not adequately take into account the reversibility of so-called `internalized’ norms like the one prohibiting torture. Through an examination of the rhetoric, policies and practices surrounding US interrogation after 9/11, this article addresses omissions in constructivist literature by providing a theoretical model to explain `norm regress’, or the death of norms. It claims that the torture norm is suffering a crisis of legitimacy within the United States and any future incidences of torture by liberal states may well bring about a crisis of legitimacy in the international norm itself.

To be honest, I am not especially convinced by McKeown’s empirical findings on this particular case. First, he seems to build too much of his case for the impact of US norm violations on torture norm strength on the fact that the US public has been relatively apathetic about the behavior of its government. But it seems to me that the appropriate indicator is the reaction of the international community, since the torture norm’s effects are constitutive of identity among states, and primarily affect state-society relations when torture is practiced against a state’s own citizens (as opposed to foreigners). McKeown doesn’t have good indicators of international reactions to US violations, so other studies should follow up on that.

Second, I think that his discussion of the relationship between moral authority, norm violation and norm decline is fuzzy. He suggests that norms can tolerate violation (that is they are “counterfactually valid” to use Kratochwil’s terms) only when they are not violated by those actors with moral authority. But to the extent that norm-following behavior constitutes state identity (like, “civilized” v. “rogue” states) wouldn’t violations undermine a government’s moral authority as much as the norm itself, and if so wouldn’t the impact on the norm be little or none? At any rate, if he’s on to something here I’d want this presumed effect specified better and to see some evidence of which way the causal / constitutive arrows point otherwise these are just competing hypotheses.

Nonetheless the article is extremely rich with insights and ideas, some of them very counter-intuitive primarily because of the blinders of our theoretical boxes. For example, it’s conventional to think of the Bush Administration as simply a norm violator, but McKeown additionally treats the US under Bush/Cheney as a sort of “counter-normative entrepreneur”:

The tactics of the Bush Administration and their supporters have much in common with the transnational campaign to ban landmines, only in this case they have essentially re-framed a humanitarian issue as a security one to bring what I consider torture back within the purview of the state.

I have no idea how to assess this statement, but I love the freshness of it. McKeown is suggesting that norm regress is more damaging to a norm than mere violations. I’m not sure he’s shown that, but it’s certainly true that claiming a norm doesn’t or shouldn’t or no longer applies is a different act than violating and trying to deny it. And it makes me wonder whether human rights activists’ strategy of trying to force the Obama Administration to clarify its policy on arbitrary killing of terror suspects, for example, is not going to be a self-defeating strategy. Better that they pretend that’s not what they’re doing than openly claim the right to do it, if McKeown is right.

He still needs more data – more cases, clearer measures of relative norm strength – to show he’s right. However I think this article is a substantial contribution to the norms literature simply by drawing our attention to the subject of norm decline and proposing a set of empirically testable propositions. Norm decline is a promising research agenda for up and coming constructivist scholars.