Whither norms research in times of uncertainty? A Symposium

25 November 2022, 0910 EST

We live in a time of multiple crises: a global pandemic that is still not under control; Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine with thousands dead, wounded, and millions displaced; and climate change, which is having devastating effects on the livelihood of current and future generations. Overlapping global crises — some episodic, others ongoing — seem to be the “new normal” of international politics in the twenty-first century.

With crisis comes uncertainty. Opinion polls show that uncertainty “is the emotional status most commonly shared by European citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic.” We can see that the current war in Ukraine is reconfiguring the architecture of international security, but in what ways remains unclear. The war has produced additional crises — and accompanying uncertainties — in global energy supplies and food security.

What does this increasing sense of uncertainty mean for global governance?

Approaching uncertainty in times of multiple crises

Uncertainty is a central concept in the study of decision-making, yet there is no consensus about its precise meaning. Many understand “uncertainty” in terms of a field of probabilities, which makes it relatively easy to incorporate into standard rational-choice accounts. But others disagree, arguing that uncertainty emerges “from the situational structure… in which agents cannot anticipate the outcome of a decision and cannot assign probabilities to the outcome.”

Can norms and rules-based institution still create order?

Uncertainty is context-specific as actors make decisions based on which understandings are available to them in a given situation. Given the scope of some contexts, such as climate change, their decisions can produce highly unpredictable developments. When it comes to the multiple crises of contemporary politics, three different meanings seem to be most relevant:

  • Uncertainty may refer to the fact that we have limited knowledge about an event or a situation. For example, the fog of war prevents us from getting a full picture of what is happening in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
  • Uncertainty may obtain because we cannot say for sure how actions and events affect the future. For example, we do not know how measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic affect its development and what side-effects these measures have on future developments).
  • Uncertainty can result from actors interpreting the same situations, and the same norms governing those situations, differently. We find this kind of uncertainty in debates over climate change: about the extent of the problem and how norms of global governance translate into specific policy responses.

Norms as panacea to uncertainty?

In debates about how to tackle these crises and times of uncertainty, policymakers and scholars alike point to the importance of the “rules-based order” and attendant international norms. Scholars of international relations typically define norms as intersubjective standards of appropriate behavior; norms are shared among a community of actors and regulate behavior by defining “right” and “wrong.” Norms formulate duties and obligations; they lead to expectations about how actors will behave, both in general and in response to specific conditions. Thus, norms generate a degree of predictability in political and social life, and thus a certain degree of security.

But in a world of multiple and overlapping crises, can norms and rules-based institution still create order amidst uncertainty? Do existing norms and frameworks for international cooperation enjoy sufficient legitimacy to help us navigate the interacting and concatenating effects of crises?

Norms are an essential part of global governance

Today’s crises are accompanied by fundamental disagreements about international order, ones that call into question the existence of any underlying normative consensus about world politics. A wide range of actors now actively challenge once apparently settled rules and norms. Disagreements about which rules, norms, and arrangements should prevail in international politics divide states, social groups, and individuals.

Cracks in the liberal international order and its underlying structures of inequality and racism are more visible than they have been in decades. We see a growing breakdown of norms that previously animated international forums; actors disagree about both the substance and meaning of previously important international norms.

In some areas, this breakdown is particularly acute. For example, little remained of the international arms-control regime even before Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine; the the normative validity of the often hailed “nuclear taboo” is now in doubt.

A Critical Constructivist View on Uncertainty

Norms are an essential part of global governance in a world of diverse and changing hierarchies. To survive, they must respond to a rapidly changing international system. Contestation is “the engine driving norm dynamics” rather than a stumbling block for global cooperation; treating norms as stable ‘things’ makes it difficult to see contestation as anything other than a threat to their persistence. In contrast, a processual understanding of norms can help us to tease out the complicated relationship between norms, multiplying crises, and complex uncertainty. Such an understanding of norms is mostly found in “critical constructivism.”

Critical constructivists reject the linear understanding of how norms develop that characterized ‘mainstream’ constructivism in the 1990s. They also depart from its tendency to conceptualize norms as having fixed and stable meanings. For critical constructivists, the meaning of norms depends on context and situation, norms usually develop in a non-linear fashion, and the focus of study should be on the dynamics and interactions of norms. Norms exhibit a “dual quality […] , they are both structuring and socially constructed.”

As such, a critical-constructivist approach is particularly well suited for studying uncertainty. It uncovers and examines different interpretations of the same norms and situations. It thus enables scholars to make sense of varying — and perhaps even contradictory — normative developments. Critical constructivism focuses our attention on the ways that practices of contestation are necessary to the continued legitimacy of international norms and international orders.

Uncertainty as an opportunity structure for normative engagement

Norms evolve precisely because actors critically engage with their meaning. They do so in arguments about the general validity of norms, their specific application, but also their neglect or ignorance. If we understand norms in this more processual way, then we can conceptualize norms as central “points” of reference in existing governance structures. They stabilize and mutate via debates, negotiations, and contentious practices. The degree of “uncertainty” shapes the opportunity structures for such disagreements, compromises, and contention.

Uncertainty affects every aspect of norms and how we should study them

Such an understanding also allows for the inclusion of those affected by governance structures into the analysis. It allows us to highlight their role in shaping the meaning-in-use of norms. This helps point us toward the normative implications of uncertainty, especially in the context of debates about whose knowledge should count when it comes to understanding and solving ongoing crises. Notably, many of the actors who now participate in these debates were, for a long time, excluded from them due to repression, colonialism, and epistemological violence.

Societal multiplicity has created a growing space for actors to engage in practices of norms contestation. They challenge dominant views about whose knowledge should be regarded as valid; they offer contrasting understandings of global challenges and the norms best suited to deal mitigate them.

Uncertainty affects every aspect of norms and how we should study them — from their construction, to their diffusion, to their contestation. The elusive nature of the concept of uncertainty makes its increasing salience a challenging explanatory puzzle. But it also presents us with an opportunity to learn a great deal more about the dynamics of international norms.

The remainder of this symposium presents three pioneering pieces —  attached to a more ore less critical-constructivist perspective —  that grapple with the incorporation of uncertainty into norms research. They each provide a different perspective on the overarching question guiding this symposium: “Whither norms (research) in times of uncertainty?”