The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Security Council and Norm Creation

February 9, 2012

It’s easy to think of the Security Council as essentially a reflection of great power interests when we see outcomes such as the failure of a resolution calling for President Assad’s departure.

However I am re-reading Cora True-Frost‘s article on the other side of the Security Council this week, and thought I’d flag this article as an excellent example of scholarship about the power and politics of such international organizations as norm consumers / diffusers. In short, her work reminds us that the UNSC not only sometimes wields (through its members and procedures) institutional and coercive power, but (even when no action is take) it also wields significant productive power in global society.

True-Frost’s argument is really about norms, not institutions, but the paper details the Security Council’s role as a pivot in Marty Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink’s “norm life cycle” argument. F/S argue that for norms to “cascade” they must be accepted by a wide variety of both states and international organizations. The argument dovetails with my work and that of Cliff Bob on the significance of institutional “superpowers” in specific issue areas “adopting” norms as a means of socializing states. For Cliff, these “gatekeepers” can be NGOs; I’ve found that depending on the issue area the most highly central organizations may also be international secretariats. In either case, for new ideas to proliferate through the fabric of global society they must be adopted and carried by a wide variety of international bureaucracies in the issue area associated with the new norm.

Finnemore and Sikkink do not develop a theory of how socialization of “network hubs” by norm-entrepreneurs works, and that’s where my new book picks up. I’ve been building on Cliff Bob’s gatekeeper model which sees hubs as agenda-vetters, but the language of True-Frost’s model is that organizations like the UNSC might be better understood as “norm consumers.” That is, they are inherently receptive to new ideas and have evolved over time to incorporate this agenda-carrying function into their mandate.

The examples she provides are the thematic resolutions on Threats to International Peace and Security (TIPS) resolutions, including those on protection of civilians, women peace and security, children and armed conflict, HIV-AIDS, peacekeeping and the like. These are human-security related resolutions that both set the agenda for specific issue areas and legitimize/reproduce the concept of human security within the Security Council architecture. These resolutions also result from a process that tends to be more open to advocacy networks and epistemic communities – the sorts of actors from which new ideas often percolate to the highest levels of international society.

For my project, what interests me is some of the theoretical distinctions she’s drawing (is she describing norm production or simply issue proliferation? I think there’s a difference) and her ideas about the nature of the relationship between the SC as an institution and other human security-minded entities through which ideas percolate before they take root in the discursive fabric of international society.

For Duck readers, this post is just a rambling reminder that in between thinking of the Security Council as a reflection of power politics and/or a failed and defunct institution in need of reform, we should remember its productive as well as institutional power. This power – including the power to legitimate the concept of human security – accounts for the fact that the UNSC now considered internal human rights violations as a threat to international peace and security worthy of a debate at all.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.