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Rhetorical Adaptation and Resistance to International Norms


Scholarship on states’ responses to international norms has focused on commitment, compliance, and noncompliance; paying insufficient attention to responses that fall outside these categories. Beyond simply complying with or violating a norm; states contest, resist, and respond to international norms in a range of ways. I identify rhetorical adaptation as a central form of resistance to international norms. Rather than simply rejecting a norm or charges of norm violation, such a strategy draws on a norm’s content to resist pressures for compliance or minimize perceptions of violation. Theorizing the relationship between norms’ content and states’ resistant rhetoric, I identify four types of rhetorical adaptation: norm disregard, norm avoidance, norm interpretation, and norm signaling. To probe the plausibility of these propositions, a case study of Turkey’s post-World War II narrative of the Armenian Genocide traces a sequence of rhetorical adaptations over the past six decades. Building on the case study, I then draw out generalizable insights into the uses and effects of rhetorical adaptation. Connecting theoretical concerns in political science with the interdisciplinary fields of genocide studies and memory studies, I delineate the ways in which actors instrumentally use norms and expand understandings of the forms and effects of so-called norm takers’ agency.

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