How Norms Die

The White House at sunset, January 22, 2014. Photo via Obama White House.

By Tanisha M. Fazal and Seva Gunitsky.

The Trump administration has challenged the global order on multiple fronts, from free trade to the US commitment to NATO. Any successful dismantling of the liberal international order would mean the overturning of some fundamental norms that undergird the current system. Some, like the norm against territorial conquest, have been around for quite a while. Others, such as the responsibility to protect or international election monitoring, are relatively new.

What would it take for these norms to die? International relations scholars have tended to focus on how norms are born and spread, rather than on how they die or disappear, but current trends make this question more important than ever.

We suggest two possible pathways for norm death, one quick and one slow.

First, norms might weaken when they are challenged “at the edges” rather than head-on. Minor infractions could quietly chip away at the norm until they reach a critical mass. Here, Russia’s annexation of Crimea may be instructive. Russia did not attempt to take over all of Ukraine (as opposed to, say, Iraq’s attempt to annex Kuwait in its entirety); this may qualify as challenging the norm “at the edges.” Such challenges are likelier to have long-term consequences for the tenure of a norm if they are not met with a strong defense, or if violations are not punished by key international supporters. Interestingly, Russia also justified its takeover of Crimea with reference to other n­orms, such as self-determination and democracy.

While Russia’s annexation of Crimea did not go unchallenged, the forcefulness of the response has not been commensurate with that of the original invasion. This is good for avoiding military escalation, but less useful for forcefully upholding a weakened norm. And what now appears to be a very live possibility of the US withdrawing from the post-World War II institutional architecture that it created – much of which is premised on the stability of international borders – could also undermine the norm against conquest.

But other norms might be vulnerable to a quick takedown, going out with a bang rather than a whimper. Even seemingly entrenched practices can quickly fade away when powerful states no longer see them as legitimate. Two centuries ago, for example, Britain’s crusade against international slave-trading ended what had been a long-lasting, profitable, and widely accepted practice. Colonialism, likewise, remained an accepted part of state behavior for centuries before swiftly becoming intolerable shortly after the Second World War. This normative transformation was caused by many factors, but one of them was the rise of a bipolar world in which both superpowers expressed loud (though hypocritical and self-serving) preferences against European colonialism. The result was a swift delegitimation of the old colonial systems and a transformation of the norm of sovereignty. Both world wars, in fact, triggered massive changes dealing with norms of colonialism, female suffrage, laws of war, post-conflict justice, and global human rights.

The life and death of global norms, in other words, has often been tied to sudden transformations of the international system. These global shocks rearrange the hierarchy of great powers but also trigger cascades of normative reform. The Soviet collapse and end of the Cold War, for example, led to massive changes in the legitimacy of key global practices like external election monitoring, democracy promotion, and humanitarian intervention.

If Trump is serious about forcing a change in the global order, we should soon see some long-standing practices being challenged, whether intentionally or not.­ Some of these, like the idea of a Western security community, seem deeply entrenched and therefore inviolable. But as the history of the past century suggests, norms can be surprisingly fragile and disappear quicker than anyone expects. There is nothing natural or inevitable about the “norm of free trade” or the “norm against territorial conquest”. Those who seek to maintain specific norms must therefore be alert to challenges large and small, direct and indirect. Often, these norms are underpinned by hegemonic preferences – and when these preferences change, so might expectations of legitimate behavior. If that’s the case, Trump’s challenge to the global order could keep making waves even if he doesn’t overturn the boat.

Tanisha M. Fazal is Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a regular contributor at Political Violence @ a Glance. She is the author of State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation (Princeton University Press, 2007). Seva Gunitsky is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and the author of Aftershocks: Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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