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Resiliency dynamics of norm clusters: Norm contestation and international cooperation

  • Jeffrey S. Lantis (a1) and Carmen Wunderlich (a2)

This study examines the effects of contestation on individual norms that are embedded in larger norm clusters. We define norm clusters as collections of aligned, but distinct norms or principles at the center of a regime. Norm clusters include multiple norms that can be insulated from contestatory challenges by degrees of cohesion, institutionalisation, and legalisation. While some constructivists argue that the most important dynamic to study is ‘robustness’ of individual norms, we contend that ‘resiliency’ of norm clusters offers a richer assessment of prospects for international cooperation and long-term impact on state behaviours. Thus, this study distinguishes conceptually between different structural layers that can generate various effects in conjunction with norm contestation. We add a third, or intervening layer of explanation with norm clusters, between the intersection of norms (lowest layer) and normative structures (broadest layer). To explore this argument, comparative case studies examine the resiliency of two prohibitionary norms – the nuclear disarmament norm within the non-proliferation regime and the norm banning assassination of foreign adversaries, which is not embedded in a regime structure. While the robustness of individual norms may be challenged, our results suggest a role for resilient structures in promoting overall longevity of norm clusters.

Corresponding author
*Correspondence to: Professor Jeffrey S. Lantis, Department of Political Science, The College of Wooster, 800 E. University Avenue, Wooster, OH 44691, US. Author’s email:
**Correspondence to: Dr Carmen Wunderlich, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Baseler Straße 27–31, 60329 Frankfurt, Germany. Author’s email:; Twitter: @CarmenWunderlic
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7 Additional interesting cases would include the UN Conventional Arms Trade Treaty and Action Programme on Small Arms, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, cybersecurity norms, the Outer Space regime, the Responsibility to Protect, the chemical and biological weapon taboos, and the global drug-control regime.

8 For an overview, see Wunderlich, Carmen, ‘Theoretical approaches in norm dynamics’, in Harald Müller and Carmen Wunderlich (eds), Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control: Interests, Conflicts, and Justice (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), pp. 2047 .

9 Wendt, ‘Constructing international politics’, pp. 71–81; Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, pp. 887–917.

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13 Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, p. 896.

14 Alter, Karen J. and Meunier, Sophie, ‘The politics of international regime complexity’, Perspectives on Politics, 7:1 (2009), pp. 1324 ; Müller and Wunderlich (eds), Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control; Van Kersbergen, Kees, and Verbeek, Bertjan, ‘The politics of international norms’, European Journal of International Relations, 13:2 (2007), pp. 217238 ; Lena Krook, Mona and True, Jacqui, ‘Rethinking the life cycles of international norms: the United Nations and the global promotion of gender equality’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:1 (2012), pp. 103127 .

15 Sandholtz, Wayne and Stiles, Kendall, International Norms and Cycles of Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 67 .

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17 Wiener, A Theory of Contestation, pp. 1–2, available at: {}.

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19 While we focus on contestation within a normative community, norm clusters are usually the result of community-building efforts. Contestation might also arise in instances between distinct normative communities.

20 Kratochwil and Ruggie, ‘International organization’, pp. 753–75; Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, ‘Norms under challenge’.

21 Jeffrey W. Legro, ‘Which norms matter? Revisiting the “failure” of internationalism’, International Organization, 51:1 (1997), pp. 31–63; Richard Price, ‘Reversing the gun sights: Transnational civil society targets land mines’, International Organization, 52:3 (1998), pp. 613–44.

22 Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, pp. 887–917; Sandholtz and Stiles, International Norms and Cycles of Change, p. 5.

23 Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, ‘Norms under challenge’.

24 Kutz, Christopher, ‘How norms die: Torture and assassination in American security policy’, Ethics & International Affairs, 28:4 (2014), p. 427 .

25 Panke and Petersohn, ‘Why international norms disappear sometimes’, p. 734.

26 Axelrod, Robert A., ‘An evolutionary approach to norms’, American Political Science Review, 80:4 (1986), pp. 10951111 .

27 McKeown, ‘Norm regress’, p. 11.

28 Ibid., pp. 5–25; Rosert, Elvira and Schirmbeck, Sonja, ‘Zur Erosion Internationaler Normen: Folterverbot Und Nukleares Tabu in Der Diskussion’, Zeitschrift Für Internationale Beziehungen, 14:2 (2007), p. 281 .

29 Panke and Petersohn, ‘Why international norms disappear sometimes’, p. 734.

30 Bloomfield, Alan, ‘Norm antipreneurs and theorising resistance to normative change’, Review of International Studies, 42:2 (2016), pp. 310333 ; Bob, Clifford, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

31 Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch and Jennifer M. Dixon, ‘Norm Strength and the Norm Life Cycle’, paper presented at Temple Workshop on International Institutions and Global Governance (TWIIGG), Philadelphia, PA (4 November, 2016), p. 2.

32 Badescu, Cristina G. and Weiss, Thomas G., ‘Misrepresenting R2P and advancing norms: an alternative spiral?’, International Studies Perspectives, 11:4 (2010), pp. 354374 ; Welsh, Jennifer M., ‘Norm contestation and the Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 5:4 (2013), pp. 365396 .

33 Wiener, A Theory of Contestation, p. 2.

34 Ibid., p. 30.

35 Wendt, Alexander E., ‘The agent-structure problem in International Relations theory’, International Organization, 41:3 (1987), pp. 335370 ; Destler, I. M., ‘Trade politics and labor issues: 1953–1995’, Imports, Exports and the American Worker (1998), pp. 389422 .

36 Sandholtz and Stiles, International Norms and Cycles of Change; Wayne Sandholtz, ‘Noncompliance, Norm Resilience, and the Many Lives of Art. 2 (4)’, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, GA (24 February 2016); Wiener, A Theory of Contestation; Brunnée, Jutta and Toope, Stephen J., ‘The sovereignty of international law?’, University of Toronto Law Journal, 67:4 (2017), pp. 496511 .

37 We gratefully acknowledge this suggestion from anonymous reviewers of the RIS.

38 Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, p. 1.

39 Our understanding of norm cluster differs from that suggested by Carla Winston. She understands norms as consisting of three structural components – a problem, a value, and a behaviour. It is these interlocking norm components that she calls a ‘norm cluster’. See Carla Winston, ‘Norm structure, diffusion, and evolution: a conceptual approach’, European Journal of International Relations (online, 2017).

40 Hasenclever, Andreas, Mayer, Peter, and Rittberger, Volker, ‘Justice, equality, and the robustness of international regimes: a research design’, Tübinger Arbeitspapiere zur Internationalen Politik und Friedensforschung, 25 (1996), p. 4 ; Walker, Brian H., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, Stephen R., and Kinzig, Ann, ‘Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems’, Ecology and Society, 9:2 (2004), p. 5 .

41 Sandholtz, ‘Noncompliance’, pp. 28–9.

42 Hasenclever, Mayer, and Volker Rittberger, ‘Justice, equality, and the robustness of international regimes’; Price, Richard, ‘Emerging customary norms and anti-personnel landmines’, in Christian Reus-Smit (ed.), The Politics of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 106130 .

43 Harald Müller, ‘Introduction: Where it all began’, in Müller and Wunderlich (eds), Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control, pp. 1–19 (p. 5).

44 Krook and True, ‘Rethinking the life cycles of international norms’, pp. 110–11; Florini, Ann, ‘The evolution of international norms’, International Studies Quarterly, 40:3 (1996), pp. 363389 .

45 Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko and Hulme, David, ‘International norm dynamics and the “end of poverty”: Understanding the millennium development goals’, Global Governance, 17:1 (2011), p. 31 .

46 Krasner, Stephen D., International Regimes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983).

47 Franck, Thomas M., The Power of Legitimacy among Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 184 ; Keohane, Robert, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 9091 .

48 Keohane, Robert O., ‘The analysis of international regimes: Towards a European-American research programme’, in Volker Rittberger (ed.), Regime Theory and International Relations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 4143 .

49 Percy, Sarah, ‘Regulatory norms’, in Routledge Handbook of Private Security Studies (London: Routledge, 2016); Rublee, Maria Rost, ‘Taking stock of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime: Using social psychology to understand regime effectiveness’, International Studies Review, 10:3 (2008), pp. 420450 .

50 Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, eds David S. Meyer and Sidney G. Tarrow (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 217–39.

51 Hurd, Ian, ‘The international rule of law: Law and the limit of politics’, Ethics & International Affairs, 28:1 (2014), pp. 3951 ; Betts and Orchard, Implementation and World Politics; Job, Brian L., ‘Evolution, retreat or rejection: Brazil’s, India’s and China’s normative stances on R2P’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 29:3 (2016), pp. 120 .

52 Betts and Orchard, Implementation and World Politics, p. 1.

53 Müller, Harald, Below, Alexis, and Wiskotzki, Simone, ‘Beyond the state: Nongovernmental organizations, the European Union, and the United Nations’, in Müller and Wunderlich (eds), Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control, pp. 296336 (pp. 325–6).

54 Wiener, A Theory of Contestation, pp. 3, 14, 36.

55 Abbott, Kenneth W. and Snidal, Duncan, ‘Hard and soft law in international governance’, International Organization, 54:3 (2000), p. 422 .

56 Price, ‘Emerging customary norms and anti-personnel landmines’.

57 Kal Raustiala and Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘International Law, International Relations and Compliance’, SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 347260 (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 2002), available at: {}; Harold Hongju Koh, ‘Why do nations obey international law?’, edited by Abram Chayes, Antonia Handler Chayes, and Thomas M. Franck, The Yale Law Journal, 106:8 (1997), pp. 2599–659; Bower, Adam, ‘Norms without the great powers: International law, nested social structures, and the ban on antipersonnel mines’, International Studies Review, 17:3 (2015), pp. 347373 .

58 Harald Müller, Una Becker-Jakob, and Tabea Seidler-Diekmann, ‘Regime conflicts and norm dynamics: Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons’, in Müller and Wunderlich (eds), Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control, pp. 51–81; Percy, ‘Regulatory norms’.

59 Other factors may be at play in certain circumstances, including what some would argue is the significance of the variable of power inequality. However, this study adopts a constructivist perspective on norm development and maintenance that isolates additional possible explanations. It attempts to remain consistent with work that emphasises the fragile balance between agency and structure.

60 Beach, Derek and Pedersen, Rasmus Brun, Process-Tracing Methods: Foundations and Guidelines (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).

61 There are more than three norms enshrined into the NPT. For the sake of clarity, however, our focus is on the main normative prescriptions and prohibitions here. See, for example, Müller, Becker-Jakob, and Seidler-Diekmann, ‘Regime conflicts and norm dynamics’, pp. 52–4.

62 Müller, Becker-Jakob, and Seidler-Diekmann, ‘Regime conflicts and norm dynamics’, pp. 52–3.

63 Shaker, Mohamed Ibrahim, The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Origin and Implementation, 1959–1979 (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1980), p. 4 .

64 Lantis, Jeffrey S., ‘Agentic constructivism and the Proliferation Security Initiative: Modeling norm change’, Cooperation and Conflict, 51:3 (2016).

65 Müller, Becker-Jakob, and Seidler-Diekmann, ‘Regime conflicts and norm dynamics’, pp. 52–3.

66 Harald Müller and Carmen Wunderlich, ‘Not lost in contestation: How norm entrepreneurs frame norm development within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime’, Contemporary Security Policy (forthcoming, 2018).

67 Tariq Rauf, ‘From “Atoms for Peace” to an IAEA Nuclear Fuel Bank’ (2015), available at: {}.

68 Tom Sauer, ‘The NPT and the Humanitarian Initiative: Towards and Beyond the 2015 NPT Review Conference (Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik an der Universität Hamburg, 2015).

69 Baum, Seth D., ‘Winter-safe deterrence: the risk of nuclear winter and its challenge to deterrence’, Contemporary Security Policy , 36:1 (2015), pp. 123148 .

70 Meier, ‘The 2015 NPT Review Conference Failure’.

71 See, for example, 2015 RevCon, ‘Subsidiary Body 1: Draft Substantive Elements’ (8 May 2015).

72 Reaching Critical Will, The NPT Action Plan Monitoring Report (March 2015), available at: {}.

73 Wood quoted in Sharon Squassoni, ‘Negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Ban’, Center for Strategic and International Studies (4 November 2016), p. 4, available at: {}.

74 Res. L. 41, ‘Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations’.

75 See Joint Press Statement from the Permanent Representatives to the United Nations of the United States, United Kingdom, and France Following the Adoption of a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons, New York City (7 July 2017), available at: {}.

76 Hasenclever, Andreas, Mayer, Peter, and Rittberger, Volker, ‘Is distributive justice a necessary condition for a high level of regime robustness?’, Tübinger Arbeitspapiere zur Internationalen Politik und Friedensforschung, 36 (2000).

77 Walker, John R., Britain and Disarmament: The UK and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons Arms Control and Programmes, 1956–1975 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

78 Bello, Judith Hippler and Bekker, Peter H. F., ‘Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons’, American Journal of International Law, 91:1 (1997), p. 127 .

79 Declaration on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear and Thermo-Nuclear Weapons, UN General Assembly Resolution 1653 (1961).

80 The ICJ judges could not determine whether there should be an exception to this finding in extreme circumstances of self-defense; Matheson, Michael J., ‘ICJ opinions on nuclear weapons’, Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, 7:4 (1997), p. 353 .

81 Nina Tannenwald, ‘The UN just passed a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons: that actually matters’, The Washington Post (17 July 2017), available at: {}.

82 It remains to be seen whether the parallel existence of a ban Treaty and the NPT changes this positive assessment. Critics might argue that the proponents of a ban treaty had to take the issue outside the NPT in order to gain momentum. At the same time, the nuclear weapons ban in its preamble refers to the importance of the NPT as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, potentially framing it as yet another ingredient of the broader non-proliferation norm cluster and thus a strengthening element of the cohesiveness of the individual norms embedded in it.

83 Ford, Francis L., Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Thomas, Ward, The Ethics of Destruction: Norms and Force in International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

84 Lotrionte, Catherine, ‘Targeting regime leaders during armed hostilities: An effective way to achieve regime change?’, The Law of Armed Conflict: Constraints on the Contemporary Use of Military Force, ed. Howard M. Hensel (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015). pp. 2138 .

85 Lantis, ‘Agentic constructivism and the Proliferation Security Initiative’.

86 Bob, Clifford, ‘Rival networks and the conflict over assassination/targeted killing’, in Alan Bloomfield and Shirley Scott (eds), Norm Antipreneurs and the Politics of Resistance to Global Normative Change (London: Routledge, 2017).

87 ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’ (23 May 2013), available at: {}.

88 UNGA Third Committee, Meetings Coverage (25 October 2013).

89 Coleman, Michael, ‘The legality behind targeted killings and the use of drones in the War on Terror’, Global Security Studies, 5:1 (2014).

90 Nurick, Lester, ‘The distinction between combatant and noncombatant in the law of war’, American Journal of International Law, 39:4 (1945), pp. 680697 .

91 Bob, ‘Rival networks and the conflict over assassination/targeted killing’.

92 Brandenburg, Bert, ‘Legality of assassination as an aspect of foreign policy’, Virginia Journal of International Law, 27:2 (1987); Schmitt, Michael N., ‘State-sponsored assassination in international and domestic law’, Yale Journal of International Law, 17 (1992), p. 609 .

93 Thomas Michael McDonnell, ‘Sow what you reap: Using Predator and Reaper drones to carry out assassinations or targeted killings of suspected Islamic terrorists’, George Washington International Law Review, 44:2 (2012), p. 243.

94 Schmitt, ‘State-sponsored assassination in international and domestic law’, p. 609.

95 The United States is the only country that has enacted a clear declaratory policy renouncing assassination through executive order; Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975), available at: {}.

96 Crotty, William, Assassinations and the Political Order (New York: Harper & Row, 1971); Godfrey, Brenda L., ‘Authorization to kill terrorist leaders and those who harbor them: an international analysis of defensive assassination’, San Diego International Law Journal, 4:3 (2003), p. 491 .

97 Kutz, ‘How norms die’, pp. 425–49; Thomas, Ward, ‘The new age of assassination’, SAIS Review of International Affairs, 25:1 (2000), pp. 2739 .

98 Richard Murphy and John Radsan, ‘Due Process and Targeted Killing of Terrorists’, Texas Tech Law School, Research Paper 2010-06 (2010), p. 14, available at: {}.

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