Norms versus Regimes

Things have been extraordinarily busy here so I haven’t been posting much in the last few days.  As of last night, I did finally complete one important assignment for my International Organization class with Karen Alter-Hanson.

In an effort to help us prepare for our comprehensive exams, we have been instructed to write one 6-8 page paper responding to a prelim style question.  In the spirit of the exercise, we are supposed to do it in one shot without notes and without making proper citations. 

(This is a particularly difficult thing to do as my apathetic impulse exponentially conquers my other mental faculties in this final quarter of course work :-p)

The question I addressed was: “How do norms affect state behavior?”  Check out my answer below and let me know how you think I did.

Norms & Constructivist Theory: How Do Norms Influence State Behavior?

In many respects, constructivists maintain that norms have nearly identical influences on state behavior in terms of their measurable outcomes as international regimes. Identified by neoliberal institutionalists like Robert Keohane and soft realists like Stephen Krasner as the principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge on a given issue area, regimes, like norms, are neither epiphenomenal nor entirely separable from the prevailing interests of strong state actors. Both “constructivist” norms and “neoliberal” regimes (and by extension the norms that they associate with these regimes) impose constraints on appropriate state behavior and structure the field of state interaction in contexts of collaboration, cooperation, and competition. Adherence to these norms or regimes is also seen by both as a critical signaling mechanism by which states and other relevant actors demonstrate the credibility of their normative and institutional commitments to playing by particular rules of the game. Perhaps even more importantly, constructivists and neoliberals alike acknowledge that this adherence may be, at least initially, instrumentalized by states in pursuit of particular interests even while domestic institutionalization or socialization with respect to the regime or norm is lacking.

Where agreement is fundamentally lacking is with respect to the causal priority assigned by each camp to their respective instruments. For neoliberals, norms are particular procedural instruments that arise and develop meaning in the context of interstate negotiation of the substantive content of these regimes. Norms impose constraints on states primarily and perhaps solely insofar as they operate within the framework of the international regime. Regimes may be relatively expansive (as with territorial sovereignty) or limited (as with free trade in the context of NAFTA), but in either extreme their influence is taken as an intervening variable between the initial preferences of states and their behavioral outcomes. This view is entirely consistent with game theoretic frameworks developed by Keohane, Oye, and Stein who view regimes as instruments to maximize joint gains and increase the predictability and Pareto-optimality of interstate interactions. In this context, norms do not have direct impacts on state behavior but rather are reflective of the terms of the international agreement by which states abide. Outcomes are then determined by state concern with the particular costs or suboptimal outcomes associated with violating these agreements of which norms are merely regulatory guidelines.

Constructivists take serious issue with this instrumental depiction of international cooperation. They argue that where states have been thoroughly socialized to the norms in question, they serve not as intervening variables altering expected state behavior but are rather analytically prior to negotiation and constitutive of the state’s identity. It is only in comprehending how this identity is constituted that one can accurately and reliably analyze both what beliefs and interests a state will maintain and how they will interact in an international setting. In this framework, regimes are better understood as an institutional manifestation of deeply embedded state interests and values. Rather than having effects on the procedural outcomes of state interaction, norms both circumscribe and prescribe the range of appropriate behavior in which a state may engage in a particular issue area. For Ruggie, cooperation in the international arena thus takes on the character of collective intentionality whereby intersubjectively held beliefs serve as the basis for sustainable cooperation.

More so than the neoliberal focus on regulative rules that coordinate behavior, constructivists insist that deep positive-sum interactions are traceable to the prior collectively shared constitutive rules that determine the character of that behavior. Cooperation as a product of adherence to a norm is thus not only seen instrumentally as a means to maximizing individual state gains but as a moral imperative arising from a need by states and individuals to do what is right. Finnemore and Sikkink insist that it is this quality of “oughtness” that sets norms apart from other guidelines of behavior. Whereas neoliberals focus on the relative costs and benefits of regime compliance structured by the rules and enforcement mechanisms enacted through international agreements, constructivists emphasize the ideational framework that gives meaning to cost-benefit calculations. The belief shared among most states, for instance, that they should cooperate to prevent the outbreak of interstate war is seen to be discursively prior to and as consequential as states’ motivation to cooperate in order to avoid the negative material externalities that arise from such violence. There is nothing deterministic about this calculation of interest. Lacking a moral framework in which making war is seen as a depraved act, it may be seen as a perfectly legitimate means to acquire territory, assert dominance of one’s ideology, or capture resources. Where these particular benefits are intersubjectively understood to be of greater value relative to the cost in terms of lives lost and resources expended, the balance between restrictive and permissive conditions may be fundamentally different even where “objective” conditions are identical.

In less extreme illustrations, both Hedley Bull and Christian Reus-Smit make similar arguments about the influence of norms on the “nature” of international society and the constitutional international order respectively and, by extension, their influences on state behavior. For Bull, international order is maintained when members share common interests, adhere to common rules, and construct common institutions to administer, enforce, and legitimize these rules. Extending beyond instrumental logics, he further argues that the common (or at the very least highly compatible) interests, values, and cultures of its members necessarily constitute society. Where such concordance is absent, one cannot speak of a common international society nor can one imagine a stable international order. For Reus-Smit, even the fundamental institutions that define international order are subject to prior constitution by intersubjectively held ideas and norms. Pointing to the differences between ancient Greek and modern international society, he notes that although sovereignty existed as a fundamental institution in both, the constitutional structure in the former was founded on interstate arbitration while in the latter it is dependent on legislative codification of interstate relations. Although the material conditions in the two periods were undoubtedly dissimilar, he argues that it is the differing hegemonic beliefs about the moral purpose of the state and differences in the accepted norms of pure procedural justice that dictated these different expressions of state sovereignty.

The challenge can be reasonably advanced, however, that these approaches are no less reifying of discursive understandings of political conditions and state interests than are those assumed by neoliberals and rationalists. Assuming a moral prerogative for the defense of state sovereignty, for instance, is no more revealing of the mechanisms by which norms influence state behavior than are those which rely on more instrumental explanations. It is here where the work of Finnemore and Sikkink is potentially useful. Their three-step norm “life cycle” is both a useful delineation of the mechanisms by which international norms come to matter in the domestic arena and an explicit acknowledgement that normative adherence by states may initially be itself instrumental in nature. Given that their focus is on how norms are internationally diffused, they do not give an account of how norms themselves emerge or become meaningful prior to their spread. That said, their account of “norm emergence” by which norm entrepreneurs begin to put pressure on domestic political environments to socialize themselves to existing international norms by challenging and subverting existing domestic practices provides at least one compelling argument as to how exposure to international norms may begin to shift the terms of domestic discourse. As the norm begins to enter the “reasonable” public discourse in a Habermasian sense, state authorities will often at least instrumentally recognize and internationally adhere to its guidelines and prescriptions in what Jeffrey Checkel calls Type I adherence under the influence of domestic and international normative suasion. Through a much longer process of intensive socialization resulting from external international pressure and domestic activism, states may actually come to internalize the norm such that it takes on a taken-for-granted quality where adherence to the norm is no longer controversial. Having achieved Type II adherence, practices dictated by the norm are now seen as “the right things to do.” While in the first period, the norm can be seen as exercising its influence at an intervening level, by the second the state is so thoroughly socialized that the norm should shift prior domestic preferences altogether.

The extent to which this actually occurs, however, is highly contested. While it seems undeniable that logics of appropriateness have an impact on the range of appropriate state action, it would clearly be a mistake to abandon altogether the instrumental logic of consequences and their accompanying situational and systemic constraints. Challenging the causal priority assigned to normative conditions by constructivists as well those assigned to material conditions by realist and neoliberal contenders, Jack Snyder asserts that empirical realities are always mutually constituted by the dynamic interaction between material, institutional, and cultural factors. To view any social outcome as a product of any one of these perspectives in isolation is to miss entirely the important contributions and insights of the others just as efforts to nest each in any causal priorities misconstrues the open, historically path dependent, and strategic interactions that constitute true political outcomes. Snyder’s depiction of constructivist theory as inherently subject to the weaknesses of cultural determinism is certainly unfair. However his more substantial criticism that theoretical approaches with transformational ideational aspirations, represented here by first wave constructivists, must be actively cognizant of existing material and institutional conditions is right on the mark.

Not unlike constructivism’s own preoccupation with the mutually constitutive roles of actors identities and interests in the international sphere, the incorporation of material and institutional factors is necessary to understand the form and function of norms as well as the conditions under which they have meaningful impacts on state behavior. To make this argument, however is not akin to suggesting that international norms and the regimes they constitute are merely intervening variables between state preferences and behaviors. Rather it is to better specify the actual factors that contribute to and constitute preferences and identities both prior to and during formal interstate interactions. This view readily accounts for a more diverse set of contingent factors that alter actors’ normative preferences beyond elementary ideological goals resulting from both shifts in endogenous conditions at home (including those catalyzed by foreign norm entrepreneurs) and the introduction of exogenous factors on the international stage.

The sum effect is that both a social constructivist approach and Snyder’s “systems of action” corollary are able to do something that neoliberal institutional approaches cannot, namely explain meaningful, deep, and lasting cooperation. In the neoliberal world, because states form regimes instrumentally to facilitate greater transparency and reduce transaction costs, these actors’ interest in both constructing and maintaining them are contingent on their continued generation of positive sum gains or, at the very least, an absence of negative utility. In an “ideal” rational choice world, where these conditions are violated, regimes should either substantially weaken or cease to exist. Because in the real world these conditions do not hold, neoliberals are left with the largely unsatisfactory explanation that regimes are sticky because path dependent developments makes defection increasingly more costly than remaining in a sub-optimal regime. Constructivists, on the other hand, are able to explain this behavior in terms of continued non-instrumental gains. By pointing to the intersubjectively understood ideas and normative commitments of states that exist prior to the construction of regimes and those that may develop around them over time, the fact of cooperation becomes mutually constitutive rather than a mere marriage of convenience. This focus may lead constructivists to underestimate or under-appreciate the prevalence of instrumental compliance. However, the efforts of these scholars to move international relations beyond the analysis of regulative rules to the constitutive elements of cooperation and competition themselves is necessary if the base assumptions of rationalist state interests are to be either critically legitimated or fundamentally challenged.

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