Making norms for uncertain times to come

28 November 2022, 0900 EST

At the 1939 World Fair in New York City, the big attraction was “Futurama,” an exhibition put on by the U.S. car manufacturer General Motors. Every visitor to Futurama received a souvenir — a small blue-white badge that read “I have seen the future.” That is, the future presented by (at the time) one of most influential companies in the world, one built around its main product: the automobile. Yet the exhibition wasn’t exactly wrong. It was part of an effort to sell Americans on automobile-centric planning and development: its “theory of the future” produced a future (or, in current jargon, became “performative“) of endless “highways and horizons” connecting people and industries, supposedly creating prosperous communities and infinite freedom.

While much has changed since then, some things remain very much the same. Industrial conglomerates, entertainment companies, politicians, and activists still draw images, tell stories, and set normative expectations about what a desirable — that is, for instance: sustainable, democratic, or just — future could look like.

Powerful actors attempt to make their preferred norms seem certain — that is, inevitable and natural. But the future and the norms that render it possible are inherently uncertain. Futurama offered one possible future, one of many competing visions of what the world could look like years from then. We should dare to “make” our own future by setting its dominant norms and rules.

Between norms and aspirations

Critical-constructivist International Relations (IR) scholarship agree that norms are dynamic processes within global governance. As a result, norms and their meaning are contested as they are adapted and implemented within different realms. Moreover, I argue that only translation into socio-technical and socio-cultural objects renders norms meaningful. Accordingly, we can identify norms not only in objects such as international law and resolutions but also in their operationalization via everyday, even mundane practices.

Such process-oriented approaches to norms bring with them many advantages. However, they have also fragmented scholarship on norms and restarted a debate about the conceptual “core” of norms among international-relations scholars.

This debate involves the idea that research in the field, including work focused on norms, should be increasingly concerned with future-oriented problems, such as the effects of the climate crisis on the broader global environment, biodiversity, conflict over resources, and migration.

Martha Finnemore and Michelle Jurkovich argue that we need to develop better understandings of “The Politics of Aspiration.” Aspirations are oriented toward the future; aspirational politics often involves no specific claim about how actors should behave in the here and now, but rather focuses on general goals to be realized at some indefinite future time. Thus, Finnemore and Jurkovich conclude that objects of aspirational politics, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, are not manifestations of norms.

Future-making with norms

That does not mean, however, that either scholars or practitioners should treat norms as irrelevant to the politics of the future (or indeed other area that seem outside of the purview of norms). We will most certainly not achieve any goals for the future if we do not act right away, which requires translating norms into specific contexts. Put differently, actors can make norms that concern a particular future, even when those norms and visions for the future are deeply contested.

The future is an essentially relative concept. When does it start? “Now,” as a famous saying goes, “tomorrow” as political campaigns would suggest, or “decades from now”? In fact, multiple possible futures exist alongside, but not independently Social action requires synchronizing different knowledge about possible futures — a task which hinges upon the politics of norms. After all, if we conceptualize the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement as ‘non-norms’, then how can they compel action? Actors will need to invoke normative obligations and connect them to possible futures. They can so by translating these norms from written words and conference halls to stories and images that touch the “everyday” world and life of people.

We cannot guarantee an indefinitely open future. Norms will always be contingent on knowledge about “the normal.” We can and must imagine a future, because one will come regardless. If we concede future-making to others, the future we want (and need0 may be less likely.

The future of norms? Green Deals and the Paris Agreement

But how do our imaginations of a future translate into norms, as we tend to understand them in the study of IR, practically? Concluding this contribution, I want to focus on two current developments worth a closer look at: the E.U. and U.S. Green Deals and the Paris Agreement.

Within the European Union, as in the United States, politicians have re-invented the ideas of “deals” to render a sustainable future possible against the backdrop of climate deniers and unilateral industrial policies. The Green Deals make a promise to citizens and collective actors on how the way to the future can look like. Making a deal, in that understanding, involves an offer and a return. In conjunction with civil society actors, political actors envision a future horizontally and vertically. They reconfigure and synchronize discourses, political levels and timeframes – they cast back from and explain what exactly being “green” could look like and what role people could play in a future they aspire. Actors can decide if they are willing to buy into that vision and if they want to contribute to making that future more certain.

Of course, that future may not materialize even if we follow the relevant norms. Will the Green Deals succeed in this norm translation and provide a real alternative imagination of the future? This remains open. But other than fragmented policy initiatives relating to global norms, they promise to offer a more comprehensive architecture for a future sketched on one paper rather than on several dispersed jigsaw pieces.

In April 2021, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany decided in a landmark judgement that the Federal Government’s climate law of 2019 was unconstitutional since it did not consider the rights of future generations and, thus, violated the Paris Agreement. Just weeks later, the district court of The Hague, Netherlands, ruled similarly against the transnational oil company Shell.

While quite different as matters of law, both decisions reaffirm the Paris Accord as a norm, an object that governance actors, states, and companies ought to respond to. Individual lawsuits, not “blaming and shaming” or socialization, did this. Citizens and civil society organizations went out and painted the picture of their future and what it would look like if norms didn’t matter. They fundamentally contested the substantial and procedural plausibility imaginaries, states and companies are telling, and demand inclusion in the practice of future-making.

In this light, the slogan “I have seen the future” becomes a shared promise.

I thank the organizers of this symposium and all participants or the world café session “Whither norms research in times of uncertainty?” at the German Political Science Association’s Academic Convention 2021 for the lively debates. I am particularly indebted to Rasmus Bellmer, Sassan Gholiagha, and Johanna Speyer whose comments have helped to shape these reflections.