Norms, Sovereignty and the American Empire

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The status and political significance of international institutions and norms in shaping international affairs has been a source of a long-standing debate in the discipline of International Relations. The dominant tradition of International Relations, so-called Realism, holds that military and economic power are determinant forces in international affairs. Conversely, norms (and institutions) play only a secondary role in shaping state policy. Realists accept, of course, that international conventions and norms of conduct help ease some of the tensions associated with an anarchical system of sovereign states. But, so the argument goes, these behavioural conventions cannot significantly modify the Realpolitik of sovereign nation-states jealous of their interests.

And yet, despite the apparently unassailable rationale of the Realist argument, international norms are important inasmuch as even the most powerful states routinely appeal to some conventions and standards of international behaviour and justice to account for their actions. It is noticeable, for instance, that the US and the UK went to war in Iraq on the flimsiest of excuses. Most probably, the war was planned and eventually executed by these two governments without paying much attention to international norms and conventions. Nevertheless, there must have been a reason why the two felt compelled to go embark on the rather tortuous, futile and often humiliating journey in the United Nations system and other international bodies in order to appear legitimate in the eyes of an amorphous body they called, “the international community”. As theories of performative discourse demonstrate, performance, ritual and habitual appeal to international standards of behaviour cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric; they modify the behaviour of “actors” and may hence be considered a factor shaping the character of international relationship.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

More about this publication?
  • Global Norms for the Twenty-First Century
    Norms in the contemporary world system are no longer established exclusively through inter-state agreement but increasingly, are becoming truly global. This collection brings together critical studies on this complex process. Written by authors from eleven different countries, the book challenges the often convenient rationalisations of regime theory, the governance approach, and 'post-national' or 'cosmopolitan' democracy, in order to explore the practical, theoretical and ethical implications of the new world of global norms.
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