Why We Teach

Defending International Normas: The Role of Obligation, Material Interest, and Perception in Decision Making,” by Richard Herrmann and Vaughn Shannon, International Organization, Vol 55 No 3, Summer 2001, pp 621-654, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=164678&jid=INO&volumeId=55&issueId=03&aid=164677.

Another reading. Discusses a poll of opinion-leaders on international law. It would be interesting to see a similar poll done for bloggers. There is a laugh-out-loud moment in the reading where majorites want Iran to be punished regardless of Iran’s reason for doing a certain action. Apparently, some bad blood between us and the Persians.

The authors suggest an agent-based simulation to demonstrate their theories — as a former geek, I whole-heartedly applaud programmer full employment.

I titled this post “Why We Teach” because the field of “international law” and international politics generally seems to be very derivitive of teaching and learning. That is, when it’s not used as some sort of left/liberal sharia.

Norms play a role in international affairs. Few deny this. Hans Morgenthau, perhaps the best-known contemporary realist who reduced much of international relations to the pursuit of power, himself wrote that “certain things are not done on moral grounds, even though it would be expedient to do them. Such ethical inhibitionsoperate in our time on different levels with different effectiveness.” This observation directs attention to our central research questions: not whether norms matter, but how much do they matter and when? How can we explain the variation in decisions to defend norms that are violated? Why do key actors like the United States enact norms in some situations but not in others, and what does this tell us about the operation of norms in the international system more generally?

We address these questions by concentrating on prescriptive norms related to the use of force. Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink have noted the lack of attention given prescriptive norms, “those which prescribe appropriate behavior to actors,” and the importance of studying them.3 We concentrate on two norms that have been articulated and codified in various long-standing international statutes: nonintervention and the general prohibition on the use of force. The sustained and widespread acceptance of these norms makes them “robust” norms that Jeffrey Legro’s analysis suggests ought to have an impact.

We consider three ways to combine our three central concepts. First, perceptions of a situation can evoke felt normative obligation and, in turn, lead to behavior defending the norm. Second, desires to advance material interests may run counter to felt normative obligations and bias perceptions of the situation. This can lead to constructions of the situation in which seizing the material gain is framed as consistent with, even required by, moral duty.8 Third, normative rules may provide templates that structure perceptions of situations and affect both constructions of material interests and calculations on how best to advance them. Ideas in general, and prescriptive norms in particular, do not affect international outcomes the same way structures of power do. Structures of power can compel compliance after an actor makes a decision. Norms, however, affect conceptions of identities and interests in the process of actor decision making [OODA loop — tdaxp]. Prescriptive norms give rise to feelings of moral obligation to abide by and defend the norm. As Gary Goertz and Paul Diehl argue, to say the United States is affected by feelings of normative obligation is to say that its leaders and prevailing elite share certain beliefs and norms.10 Therefore, they suggest that perhaps the best way, surprisingly not used very often, to examine the role of norms is to study the thinking of a country’s elite through a survey. Such a “bottom-up” strategy would avoid essentialist stereotypes and provide empirical foundation for generalizations about the ideational landscape in the country.

The three concepts central to the theoretical issues we pursue are (1) material interests, (2) felt normative obligation, and (3) perception of the situation.We define material interests as economic and military assets that are valued by U.S. leaders. Normative obligation, in contrast, is defined as a collective expectation about the proper course of behavior that identified actors should follow in specified situations. This definition highlights the notion that normative motives involve distinctions of right and wrong. Rather than being reducible to some “optimizing mechanism,” norms carry “a sense that they ought to be followed.”

Constructivists typically use definitions that treat interests as constituted by normative ideas, arguing that norms shape interests and, therefore, cannot logically be opposed to interests. This argument rests on either particular definitions of the concepts that other scholars need not accept or is an empirical claim about the effect norms have on interests. In the latter case, the empirical claim needs to be demonstrated. In either case, the difficulty of differentiating between norms and interests, and the recognition that both are essentially ideational concepts, has directed attention away from norms and interest per se and toward different patterns of reasoning that can be connected to behavioral choices. We will adopt this same strategy.

Conceiving of different systems of logic directs attention to the mind-set of actors. Surprisingly, this phenomenological shift in theorizing has not produced a greater reliance on methods drawn from political psychology, where the study of mind-sets, cognitive reasoning systems, and decision making has a long tradition [what’s the role of Boydian thought in this area? — tdaxp]. Perceptions play a large role in both the logic of the appropriate and the logic of consequences. Perceptions of the situation define which rules, duties, and obligations are relevant as well as the type of utilitarian interests at stake. Perhaps because the study of norms in international relations research has often proceeded at the structural level and has not focused on variation in enactment, the role of perceptions has not received the attention it deserves.19 We propose to focus substantial attention on perception as a concept and use research strategies and methods to study patterns of reasoning that are well known in political psychology.

The difficulty of identifying which ideal-typical logic system (appropriateness or consequences) is a useful descriptor of any particular leader’s mind-set, and the empirical conundrumfacing any attempt to attribute behavior to one logic system or the other, have not deterred scholars from trying to make these distinctions. Finnemore, for instance, concludes that Robert McNamara’s actions at the World Bank related to the alleviation of poverty were attributable to a logic of the appropriate and not so much to utilitarian interest. She also argues that the bulk of military intervention following the Cold War has been to save civilian populations in places of little or no strategic importance and that discussions about these actions have not been about “interest and advantage” but “about responsibility and duty [Barnettian Gap].” She concludes more generally that “consequentialist utility maximization does not explain much of what goes on in international politics.” Krasner, in contrast, argues “that the international system is an environment in which the logics of consequences dominate the logics of appropriateness.” He argues that recent constructivist treatments overemphasize the impact of international norms and understate the importance of power and interest. For Krasner, “violation of or adherence to, international principles or rules is based on calculations of material and ideational interests.” He argues that rulers may honor norms, perhaps only in talk to secure resources, but when material and domestic political interests are at stake, rulers will typically allow the utilitarian logic of consequences to “trump” the logic of appropriateness.

In our scenarios, participants were asked to defend a norm, not to violate it. We chose to frame the investigation this way for two reasons. First, the norms regulating the use of force are well known, codified in many formal institutions, and likely to evoke “politically correct” responses. Although this reflects the noncontroversial discursive importance of a prescriptive norm, it does not address the more important debate over the relative impact of normative obligation on behavior. To deal with this problem, we used a technique applied in studies of racial attitudes. We created a context in which defending the norm was appropriate but the respondent could also generate an account for not defending it. Second, because too few of the emotional and material factors that might lead actors to violate a norm are activated in our scenarios, we concentrated on a more modest measure of compliance. This form of compliance, the defense of a norm, is far from trivial and is typically seen as an essential dimension of normative obligation. The defense of norms is one of the most common reasons leaders use to explain the use of force and intervention in world politics. Leaders often evoke the notion that they have an obligation to defend norms and clearly see defense of a norm as integral to the norm’s operation. Theorists typically make the same point, stressing the vital role played by society rebuking and punishing violators. Our method, in this regard, evokes Friedrich Kratochwil and John Gerard Ruggie, who argue that “whether or not violations also invalidate, or refute a law (norm) will depend (upon . . .) how the community assesses the violation and responds to it.” In our experiments we measured the differential willingness to defend a norm; if by some chance the norm generates only a sense of obligation not to violate the norm but no obligation to defend it, we should see little inclination to defend across any situation and no systematic pattern of normative defense in some situations and not others.

In the Persian Gulf experiment, U.Sfielites were also inclined to punish Iran no matter their perception of Iran’s motivation [still true if Iran was retaliating against a recognized al Qaeda attack? — tdaxp], with half favoring the use of force (Table 2, row 1c). Fewer than a quarter of those who saw Israel as aggressive were prepared to use force to punish Israel, although nearly everyone was prepared to at least apply economic pressure. In this experiment, unlike in the Bus Bomb experiment, the difference in the perception of Israel’s general motives did not make much difference in the way people responded to Israel’s attack.


In the Repel an Aggressor, Defend a Victim, and Persian Gulf experiments, we asked elites whether they would defend against a norm violation in situations where economic and security interests were at stake and in situations where they were not at stake. We found that in all three experiments, considerably fewer people were willing to defend the norm when material interests were not at stake. In situations where the victims represented no economic or security importance to the United States, U.Sfielites were significantly less willing to punish the norm violator [same way in classrooms? — tdaxp] (see Table 3, as well as Table 1, rows 1a, 2a, 3b). For instance, the probability that a respondent would be strongly willing to repel an aggressor dropped from .44 to .06, and elites were only half as likely (.23 as opposed to .48) to defend a victim when no U.S. material interests were at stake. In the Persian Gulf experiment, the probability that U.Sfielites were willing to defend Saudi Arabia was .525, and for Kurdistan the probability dropped to .184.

Table 4 arrays decisionsmade to Repel an Aggressor and Defend a Victim across the eight conditions of these experiments. In the Repel an Aggressor experiment, when material interests are present, more than 60 percent of the elites were willing to repel the attacker. In three of four situations of this type 80 percent of the elites chose this course of action. In contrast, in the four situations where material interests were not present, in only one case did even close to one-quarter of the respondents choose to repel the attacker. In the other three cases fewer than 15 percent made this choice. Consistent with the ordered probit findings reported earlier, the situational factors related to normative reasoning had the expected effect within the overriding condition of whether U.S. material interests were present or not. For example, once we took into account whether material interests were at stake, attacks that came “out of the blue” evoked more willingness to repel than did attacks coming as part of a feud [so is this a norm? similarity to GWOT. also, like a lotto-style skinner box — tdaxp] (Table 4, rows 1c and 1d compared to 1a and 1b, rows 1g and 1h compared to 1e and 1f). These effects, however, appear to be quite small compared to the effect of material interests.

The results of the Defend a Victim experiment are more complicated, although in terms of the relative effect of normative obligation and material interest they tell much the same story. In the Repel an Aggressor experiment, the vast majority of elites were willing to use force to repel the attacker and, evidently, did not see a contradiction in using force to punish those who violated the norms of not using force. In the Defend a Victim experiment, staying out of the conflict rather than defending the victim was a more typical response. As in the Repel an Aggressor experiment, however, when U.S. material interests were at stake more of the elites were willing to defend the victim than when interests were not at stake (Table 4, rows 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d). When material interests were at stake, more than 22 percent chose to defend, and in one condition more than two-thirds made this decision. When interests were not engaged, the percentage of respondents willing to defend hovered in the single digits with an important exception.

The data in Table 6 also suggest that although moral reasons play a role in elite decision making, there is substantial disagreement regarding what obligations follow from an international norm in any particular situation. For instance, among those U.Sfielites who were told that U.S. material interests were at stake, roughly the same percentage of those who defended the victim and those who did not defend the victim said moral reasons captured their thinking very well [War of Ideas / 4GW — tdaxp] (Table 6, rows 1b and 2b). Less dramatic but still indicative of difference in normative interpretation are the nearly 63 percent of elites who, when told that no U.S. material interests were at stake, said the moral thing to do was to defend the victim and did so, compared to the more than 25 percent of those who—in the same condition—chose not to defend the victim and said this was the moral thing to do

Second, the results we have presented thus far reflect trends among the U.Sfielite as a whole. This aggregate focus makes sense given our interest in the United States as a collective actor, but it may disguise important individual differences. For instance, the patterns we find may apply to certain types of Americans much more so than to other types. If this were so and a particular type of elite was in power, it would be necessary to know more about that type of elite before commenting on the applicability of our findings. To explore this possibility, we looked for a relationship between well-known fault lines in the U.Sfielite and choices in our experiments. We constructed scales to measure three dispositions that have been found to represent important divisions within the U.Sfielite. They are (1) internationalism versus isolationism, (2) accommodative cooperativeness versus militant assertiveness, and (3) liberal versus con- servative. Table 8 presents ordered probit results that suggest that there are not systematic differences between liberals and conservatives or between internationalists and isolationists when it comes to making choices in our experiments [counterintuitive! certainly not the fashion of the moment… — tdaxp]. Militant assertive elites are more likely to repel aggressors and defend victims. However, they also are more likely to forgive retaliators in the Bus Bomb experiment. This latter finding suggests that the difference between militants and cooperators probably has less to do with felt normative obligations to defend norms than with the proclivity to use force to defend material interests [divides worls into Kaplanophiles and Kaplanoskeptics? – tdaxp].

The United States because of its power is in an unusual position to defend norms and enact system standards. Also, the United States is sufficiently powerful that when it is affected by normative obligation, observers are less likely than in cases of weak states to attribute this to the pressure of external compulsion. Finally, the United States is a critical case because if prescriptive norms are to be treated as important independent determinants of international relations, they need to affect the thinking, rhetoric, and action of the strong and not just the weak [so perhaps there is no one IL? also, would argue that the teacher should also be bound by classrom socialization — tdaxp].

We did not find that U.Sfielites felt compelled to disguise in some form of justificatory ideology the priority granted to U.Sfieconomic and security interests, as Morgenthaumight have expected they would. Our participants may have provided more normatively based explanations for their choices had we asked them to defend their choices publicly. In the confines of our con. dential interview, however, they explained their choicesmostly in terms of U.S. material interest. This was somewhat more true for decisions to act than for decisions not to act, but it suggests that among the U.Sfielite, when U.Sfieconomic and security interests are at stake, taking action is mostly perceived as a morally defensible norm in its own right. This apparent intuitive realist inclinationmay be easy to understand given what Morgenthau called “nationalist universalism,” [how could one argue that this is a norm? — tdaxp] or elevating individual national interests to the level of universal normative prescription; it also may go some distance in explaining why many less powerful states respond with skepticism to U.S.-led calls for a new world order based on normative principles.

Constructing Maps

The Ground Without Foundation? Terrirtory as a Social Construct,” by Tuomas Forsberg, Geopolitics, Vol 8 No 2 (Summer 2003), pp 7-24, http://taylorandfrancis.metapress.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&issn=1465-0045&volume=8&issue=2&spage=7.

This article joins the growing series of readings and writings (presumably) leading up to International Law as a Social Cognitive Battlespace. Also fascinating because of the emphasis on Geography, maps, and other fun stuff.

During the past decade, constructivism broadly understood (encompassing postmodernism) entered and gained a lot of ground in virtually all branches of social sciences. Constructivism seemed to radically challenge established views and truths; in the constructivist genre, territory is not what it used to be, namely stable, objective and immune to human thought, since in the view of constructivists, even physical objects such as territory, are (re)created in and through the human discourse. One of the most famous but simultaneously also contested constructivist interpretations was offered by Jean Baudrillard, according to whom maps are more real than territory, as they have replaced the territory they were meant to describe. Others rather emphasised the linguistic elements of social construction: space is narrated and borders are metaphors. As a result, it has become possible to describe national borders as ‘political constructs, imagined projections of territorial power’ that reflect ‘merely the mental images of politicians, lawyers and intellectuals’.

This reconceptualisation of territory along the constructivist lines opened new and refreshing avenues for research and set up the movement of critical geopolitics. Yet, a problem in a lot of constructivist literature is something that Thomas Osborne calls ‘a macho constructionist view’ (’Look here! You thought this or that was natural but it’s not, it’s constructed all along’) of territoriality. Suddenly there was no meaningful distinction between material boundaries and symbolic ones, between real and virtual space, or between territories and flows. Much of the confusion may also have derived from the fact that spatial expressions became fashionable among postmodernists, for example Deleuze and Guattari regarded territorialisation as any institution that restricts the free flow of individual desire.7 It was thus no wonder that Alan Sokal’s famous parody article in Social Text was entitled ‘Transgressing Boundaries’. At the same time, geographers who were analysing postmodernity, such as Edward Soja and David Harvey, were probably more Marxist than postmodern.

A strong constructivist view of territory is partly trivial and partly misleading. It is trivial because objects of the material world cannot be understood without human interpretation. Discussing different ideational constructions of territories and borders, such as mental maps, contractual character of boundaries or the identity value of territories, has been part of political geography and international relations long before recent theoretical innovations. It is misleading because social constructions are always constructions of something; hence they are not entirely arbitrary and people are not able to design the world deliberately according to their wishes. Therefore constructivist insights should not be seen in contradiction with realist ontology. The view that the importance of the material world depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of that world, does not necessarily deny that there is a reality beyond the discourses. Surely, territorial boundaries are often very concrete manifestations, but we can still be interested in how the normative and symbolic elements shape and often override the direct material effects of geography.

A social constructivist view of territory does not deny the existence and effects of physical borders. Borders that simply separate people because they are obstacles that are difficult to overcome are not yet socially constructed borders. But if we suppose that people recognise that a line of stones also creates rights and obligations, such as that it is forbidden to cross the line, then we can speak of a symbolisation. State borders cannot be understood without those rights and obligations we have connected to them. Social constructions can be more or less ‘rational’; a certain concept of territory or borders is not necessarily more ‘rational’ if it is devoid of symbolic meanings. In Pierre Hassner’s view, for example, territory seen as sacred land, seat of power, and functional space, is a compromise between the mythical aspect and a rational or pragmatic one.

Social constructivists are primarily interested in intersubjectively constructed meanings, not just private perceptions and cognitions. The construction of territory and borders rests on subjective views, but it is not that individuals, be they laymen, policy-makers or scientists, construct the meanings whenever they explain them. Social entities that depend on collective understandings resist individual views of them, because the constructions are real. Hence, any analysis of how a certain group or actor has constructed social reality requires an analysis of how a particular construction became more widely shared than other constructions by the relevant collective. The Westphalian system of states, for example, emerged and developed over time, and its existence has been a fact that individuals could not escape. A number of factors affect how the system is changing, and some of them are surely material, such as the ability of nation-states to acquire and use military power.

Territory is important for ethnic groups for slightly different reasons. Anthony Smith argues that ethnie always possess ties to a particular locus or territory which they call their own. In his view territory is relevant to ethnicity not because it is actually possessed nor even for its ‘objective’ characteristics of climate, terrain and location but because of an alleged and felt symbiosis between a certain piece of earth and ‘its’ community. It is the mythical and poetic character of territory that counts. Many places such as ancient centres, historical battlegrounds, holy places and monuments or areas of natural beauty are central in the national memory and imagination. Although homelands typically entail such ideas of sites of historical memory, even ordinary landscapes can acquire an ethnic significance in the consciousness of modern generations. Yi-Fu Tuan argues that attachment to homeland is a common human emotion and it can grow simply with familiarity and ease without any explicit concept of sacredness. Territory offers a sense of roots and belonging for all individuals. Consequently, the loss of homeland is often a very dramatic experience. Although people may be able cut emotional ties to their homeland, memories of lost territories with familiar and sacred places may last well over generations. Although such processes are partly subconscious, there is a degree of choice to what extent memories are kept alive. States typically normalise territorial gains faster than the losses, but former territories can sometimes be quickly depicted as foreign when the new territorial identity of the state has become rooted in the mindset of the people [shades of BF Skinner — tdaxp].4

Nationalism and statehood are built on many elements, and the link of territory can be weaker or stronger depending on each case. Its strength varies among different cultures and historical periods. Processes of socialisation and normalisation contribute to the understanding of what is elementary for a state and where the borders of the homeland lie. Creating the idea of spatial unity, teaching the boundaries and presenting visual maps with sharp lines and different colours underlines the cartographic background elements of state and national identity. Thus a particular representation of social space is firmly connected to the social order.

Organic conceptualisation of state territory further underlines its value. For example, for Russians the concept of ‘Russian land’ is emotionally loaded. It is more than the place where they live, it is the body upon which they are dependent; it is Mother Russia. Similarly, for many Germans, ‘Heimat is first of all the mother earth that gives birth to our folk and race’. Indeed, whereas power is masculine, space is often feminine. Territorial invasion by the other is penetration that equals rape. If a great power is stripped off its buffer zones, it can find itself ‘naked’ and vulnerable. Anthropomorphic characterisations of territory have been common throughout histories. The upshot of these metaphors is that because land is female it has to be protected and it is the duty of man to die if necessary in fighting for the defence of the land.

Moreover, when a territorial identity of a state takes the form of a (female) body, it is sometimes reflected even by the physical shape of the state. Finland, for example, was often characterised as maiden, having her head and two raised arms in the north. In the Second World War the Maiden of Finland, however, lost the other arm. As a consequence the image is easily created that Finland has been dismembered and is not a whole – argument that is used by some representatives of the pro-Karelian movement. Similarly, when India was partitioned in 1947, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, it meant a break up the body of India.48 The physical shape of India, in turn, can be depicted as a heart. In a similar vein, West Bank can be called the beating heart of Israel, which underlines the indispensability of the territory to the country as a whole.49 In the context of Turkey, as well, territory is conceived as a body. Ola Tunander has argued that the recognition of local ethnic rule has been perceived as a territorial retreat. It is seen as a weakening of the state and comparable to the loss of an arm or a leg or as an amputation of part of the body of the nation itself. Because there are several ethnic minorities, the Turks have been worried that the loss of one limb could be followed by a loss of another, ending up with a state body bleeding to death.

In other words, because territory is constitutive of the identity of a state, states value territory beyond its ’rational’ strategic and economic importance. Similarly, nations value territory simply because it is their home, it belongs to them and nobody else. Consequently, nation-states have a double tie to territory that may explain the central place of territorial questions as a source of violent conflict during the past centuries. If territory is conceived as a part of the identity of states and nations, it can very well explain the tendency of territorial disputes to be dangerous. For example Erik Ringmar has argued that states can start wars in order to get recognition for their identity rather than for reasons of national interests based on any pre-existing identity [implies IL can cause wars? — tdaxp]. In his view actions that are undertaken in defence of an identity are of a peculiar kind. They are not rational actions but instead of actions that make rational actions possible. Such action is, in Ringmar’s words, undertaken ‘in self-defence in the most basic sense of the word – in defence of the applicability of our descriptions of ourselves’.

The international regime that emphasises territorial integrity and makes peaceful changes of territory difficult is a double-edged sword, because norms both prevent and launch disputes and violent conflicts [normas as war-creators — tdaxp]. On the one hand, commitments to norms such as territorial integrity have constituted the cornerstone of international law. A tight regime clearly prevents territorial disputes from emerging. On the other hand, once norms have been broken, a strong commitment to uphold these norms may lead to more rigid positions. The difficulty to achieve territorial changes by peaceful means may militarise such disputes. The Balkans may be only one recent example of such processes.

Indeed, territorial claims are often motivated by the sense of injustice. For Welch, territorial issues are among those issues that are most likely to trigger strong feelings of injustice in international affairs. Murphy argues that territorial claims refer almost always to territories that have been wrongfully taken away. In his view, the emergence of historical arguments as the dominant form of conflict justification in the post-Second World War era can be understood only against the backdrop of the development of modern international law and its relationship to national territorial sovereignty. Stephen Kocs, in turn, has come to the conclusion that the legal status of states’ boundaries appears to be a very powerful predictor of interstate war in the contemporary world. When explaining territorial conflict, he argues, we need to take more seriously states’ international legal obligations as explanations.

In the course of this article, I have tried to systemise the constructivist approach and sharpen some constructivist claims regarding territory. In doing so, I have been able to contrast constructivist claims with sociobiological theories of human territoriality or rational choice theories that emphasise the materialist economic and strategic value of territory. Although territorial entities may bear different kinds of symbolic meanings such meanings cannot be confused with social construction of territory. I have argued that two such specific constructions are especially prevalent and may help explain the tendency to defend territory by military means. First, territory is often conceived as a (female) body. Second, it is regarded as private property. Both metaphors are interwoven in normative structures that may explain why people fight over territory although in strategic and economic sense it would not be rational to do so. Although the argument for such a link in any particular context, not to say more generally, needs more empirical substantiation than here, the idea has been to demonstrate how social constructions shape human territoriality. Further research on territorial discursive practices on different geographical scales and historical and social contexts are certainly needed. It would be helpful if this research would focus on demonstrating how the constructions have been established in particular contexts and how they change, and finding out in what way and why the constructions differ from the norm or other similar contexts rather than describe the constructions and assert that they matter.