The end of a norm.

One perennial argument in international relations is that between realists on the one hand and idealists and constructivists on the other. Idealists believe in the perfectability of humankind and in the ability to interject moral and ethical authority into international affairs. Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush adopted this approach to US foreign relations, Carter with his human rights policy and Dubya with his Pax Americana doctrine for transforming the world into the neoconservative’s preferred image. Closer to home, the Lange government’s non-nuclear declaration appealed to the higher minded elements in the global community.

Constructivists are not as prone to believe in the power of moral authority in international affairs. Instead, they believe that the behaviour of international actors can be constrained and regulated  by international norms and institutions. New Zealand’s support for multinational institutions and multi-lateral approaches to international conflict resolution, as well as its support for  international norms such as those embodied in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are examples of constructivism in foreign policy. Idealists and constructivists dovetail in their belief that multinational institutions and norms can promote better international behaviour than otherwise would obtain.

Realists do not believe this is possible. Realists operate on the premise that because there is no moral, ethical or ideological consensus in international affairs, and because there is no superordinate authority to consistently and effectively enforce its rules of conduct, then the world is effectively in a state of nature (as used by Hobbes). Absent Leviathan in international affairs, states and non-state actors pursue their interests checked only by the relative power of other actors. Self-interest, not morality, rules the day. Classical realists see war as a systems regulator and military force as the ultimate determinant of power. Neo-realists (who emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s) believe that economic power is more important than military might and that the exercise of economic power determines the ability of actor’s to project force in defense of national and self-interest. They used the example of the USSR as a case where military power did not equate or supersede structural power in the long-term course of foreign affairs.

For realists international norms and institutions are nice and ideally preferable, but are no substitute for self-interested power projection as the basis for international stability. Realists see a place for idealist-based international institutions and norms in peripheral areas of international behaviour, but not in core areas of national interest. Thus saving whales can be approached via constructivist means, but securing trade routes and borders cannot.

In the realist view, international actors need to fend for themselves in the last instance, and therefore should approach the global arena with a view to best defending their own interests rather than those of the world community as a whole. Where national power is insufficient to defend core interests, alliances are constructed to do so. Contrary to the perception that realists are military hawks, realism is risk and war adverse in any circumstance where core national interests are not at stake. They do not believe in perfectability campaigns such as democracy and human rights promotion, nor do they believe in wars of choice fought to promote a preferred political outcome or moral ideal. Realism, at its core, is pragmatic and self-limiting.

The Syrian crisis has shown that when it comes to enforcing international norms the global community does not have the will or capability to do so. The bulk of world opinion is against US military intervention to punish the Assad regime for using sarin gas against his civilian population (not once, but a total of at least eleven times in the past 18 months). This occurs in spite of the 1927 and 1993 international bans on chemical weapons and the 1997 international convention calling for the destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles. The political leadership of the majority of nation-states oppose the use of force to punish Assad for his war crimes (I will leave aside for the moment the question of who did the gassing, as the focus here is on international norm violations). Amongst those who believe that Assad should be punished (including the National government), only France appears willing to go to war. Even the US Congress is divided on the issue.

That is striking. The ban on chemical weapons is one of the oldest international conventions. It has obvious moral weight. It has been ratified by over one hundred countries. Images of the victims of the latest attack have been compelling and transmitted world-wide. One would think, if idealists and constructivists are correct in their views of the international community, that Assad’s transgression of such an important norm would prompt a call to arms by fair-minded people the world over. Yet it has not. To the contrary, it has elicited apathy, denial, disinterest or fretful handwringing by the world at large.

What this demonstrates is that when push comes to shove, pragmatism and self-interest trump idealism and constructivism in world affairs. While seemingly promising on the surface, the Russian proposal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons to the UN can also be seen as a cynical ploy to give Assad some time to disperse his chemical weapons stores while continuing his counter-offensive against the rebels by conventional means (which the Russians are supplying). I say that because ensuring the transfer of Syria’s several thousand tons of chemical agents will be lengthy and exhaustive process that will require thousands of foreign technicians on the ground in Syria, and assumes perfect cooperation by the Syrian authorities and the rebels in the midst of a nasty civil war. That is an optimistic view at best, and something that idealists and constructivists may believe possible if a negotiated settlement can be reached under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

However, the Russians are no idealists when it comes to foreign relations and international affairs. Instead, they are very much informed by realist notions of inter-state behavior, so it is safe to assume that their proposal has less to do with humanitarian concern and more to do with Russian power projection and strategic interests in Syria and beyond.

One could argue that the same is true for the US and its allies, and that the call for military intervention by the US against the Assad regime has little to do with humanitarian concern or international norm enforcement and more to do with the geopolitical competition between Iran and its proxies (including the Assad regime) and the Sunni Arab world and the West. This view is backed by the misuse by NATO of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to justify the Libyan intervention. Under R2P foreign military intervention is justified in order to protect vulnerable populations from the depredations of their governments or in the face of government incapacity to defend them against the violence of others. But in Libya it was used as a pretext for forcible regime change over the objections of the Russians and Chinese. Given the outcome, that has for all intents and purposes killed off R2P as an international norm.

The situation with enforcing the norm against use of chemical weapons is even more fraught. Besides the reluctance of the global community to enforce a norm in a conflict in which most have no strategic stake, there is the problem of its prior unsanctioned use. Not only did Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war (with the CIA providing targeting data to Iraq fully knowing that Saddam intended to use chemical weapons against Iranian troop formations). More recently Israel has used white phosphorous (another banned agent) in Gaza and the US used white phosphorous in the Battle of Falluja. In both cases the dense urban combat environment made it impossible to discriminate between civilian and military targets, so their use was arguably criminal even if there were not a ban against them.

In each of these instances the perpetrator used chemical weapons because it was felt to be expedient and because they could get away with doing so. Although there was some hue and cry about their use, no effective action was taken against any of these perpetrators. Only later, in the first Gulf War, was Iraq’s prior use of chemical weapons used to justify the military response to his invasion of Kuwait (and even then his suspected chemical weapons stockpiles were not destroyed by Desert Storm and the US-led alliance refused to help the Shiia uprising against him in the wake of his defeat).

Israel and the US have paid no price for having used chemical weapons in recent years.

Moreover, in spite of the 1997 convention on destroying chemical weapon stockpiles, it is widely believed that most countries that had them at the time (including the US, UK, Israel and Russia), failed to completely eliminate them from their respective inventories. Others, such as Syria, never signed up to the chemical weapons ban and thus have proceeded to develop that capability as a deterrent and a hedge against conventional military defeat.

All of which to say is that at least when it comes to the ban on use of chemical weapons, idealists and constructivists have been proven wrong and realists have been proven right: besides the strategic calculations of many nations that advise against involvement in the Syrian conflict, regardless of the outcome the international norm against using chemical weapons is not worth the paper it is written on. It is, as they say in Spanish, letra muerta.


17 thoughts on “The end of a norm.

  1. I go back and forth on whether to welcome or fear the abandonment of the essentially wishful thinking that underpins the international norms approach to international relations. A rule-based society is inherently better than one dependent upon strength.

    Having said which, neither the US nor Russia have completely destroyed their CW inventory. But neither country trains its forces in their use and there is really nothing to suggest anything more sinister than penny-pinching as the reason for their failure to destroy a collection of unusable weapons that are nothing more than toxic relics of the past.

    But the #1 thing protecting us all from CW is ultimately their lack of a place in modern warfare. It is interesting to see that the handful of occasions that have seen them used since WW1 share many qualities with that conflict. Specifically an enemy incapable of protecting itself or retaliating, and relatively immobile fronts.

  2. Oh and the other thing that comes to mind. The (Western) public is disproportionately horrified by the use of chemical weapons for a couple of reasons. The first being the generalized horror caused by the thought of being poisoned. The other is of course that have gotten to see women and children, and grown men, twitching and frothing their way to death from organophosphate poison. They have not on the other hand gotten to see the endless parade of shattered bodies shredded by fragmentation bombs and high velocity bullets, because that would be too harrowing for the delicate sensibilities of the audience. Which leaves them with a very flawed understanding of what is happening in Syria.

  3. Markus: I take your point in both comments. Anthony Cordesman wrote a good piece on why chemical weapons are no worse than an IED or mortar attack on a crowded market. Due to space constraints I omitted to write about how advances in weapons guidance systems have made CW delivery more precise yet less viable as a tactical option. Hence their favored utility as a deterrent or hedge against conventional defeat, although as you point out the choice of targets has a lot to do with the ability of that target to retaliate.

    I am still struggling with why Assad or his subordinates would order a CW attack (assuming that they did). He could have pointed the finger at a “rogue” commander or unit to absolve himself, or he could have assumed that he had called Obama’s red line bluff with the more limited CW attacks that preceded this last one. He could have Russian or Iranian guarantees of direct military involvement in his defense even if he did use CW, but that seems highly unlikely. So I am left with the question as to why he would choose to authorize their use if he did in fact take Obama at his word.

    My gut feeling is that he did so because he had assurances from others that he could get away with it in the face of the obvious lack of international consensus on norm enforcement and the reluctance of the US and its allies to get overtly involved in yet another conflict that was not central to their strategic interests (although as I said in the post, a case could be made that Syria is, in fact, central to the geopolitical balance in the ME).

  4. I suppose one argument for his turning to CW is that he is actually doing much worse than we think he is and is turning to anything he has to hand. But something about that doesn’t feel right. The “Iran is using Syria to test boundaries and redlines” is somewhat appealing as an argument but again….. Presumably he doesn’t have the resources to lay down effective artillery bombardments in the outskirts of Damascus. Which brings you to the whole, why in Damascus? And why didn’t you jam the cellphone networks, and why and why and why. The last thing you do in this sort of campaign is make it easier for the opponent to secure direct outside intervention, against you. Intervention on your side isn’t that much better but that’s a whole other issue. (I’ll leave that discussion to Niccolo)

    The importance of Syria seems fairly indisputable. But is it important to the US? Probably not. The Obama administration clearly doesn’t care about Israel to anything like the degree of previous administrations, the US gets token amounts of oil from the ME anymore and frankly there is a cynical argument to be made that the US actually benefits from seeing this dumpster fire keep on burning. It consumes the resources of enemies and “friends” that would be used elsewhere to cause us more difficulties. Many of the worst outcomes that are predicted to afflict us as a consequence of the Syrian conflict will be products of its ending, not of its continuing. On top of that, if Turkey and Saudi Arabia aren’t willing to commit themselves to intervening, what should we?

    And of course why would NZ want to get involved at all? Protect international norms, sure, but NZs primary protection in the world is that it is far off the beaten track and doesn’t have anything that anyone else particularly wants, and we are currently in a economic competition and expansion phase of global history. When/if we return to a naked strength pushing and shoving phase international norms won’t be much more use than Neville Chamberlain’s piece of paper.

    And having actually had to take the trouble to view reporting and insurgent video from Syria I feel comfortable saying that given the awful choice I will watch someone die from nerve gas any day over watching them thrash bloody shattered limbs in all directions as their entrails and life’s blood drain out of them onto the floor. Seeing what happens to people who are in a T-72 when its hit by an ATGM ain’t pretty either. But then, burns never are.

  5. The propaganda battle waged on YouTube by Assad loyalists and various rebel factions is morbidly fascinating. It seems that they want to “out-atrocity” each other. Having observed fair bit of the combat reportage, I will say that assuming a firing position that involves holding your weapon above your head or at arms length around a corner and discharging random bursts of small arms fire in the general direction of the enemy is a less than efficient means of waging war.

  6. Hugh:

    I am not sure what norm you are referring to. The R2P doctrine emerged in response to the Rwanda massacre, and was reaffirmed by UNSC resolution in 2006. It was used as the basis for the military intervention in Libya, with Russia and the PRC abstaining from the vote to authorize the use of force under R2P. R2P is specifically (and only) authorized to respond to genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and/or ethnic cleansing. Needless to say, it would be applicable in Syria but that possibility has not been mooted as a result of the Libyan precedent.

    The Rwandan genocide did not involve CW so is not germane to the discussion here.

  7. I mean more broadly, the norm that international organisations and powerful western countries would intervene in the third world when certain lines were crossed.

    But if we’re going to specifically talk about chemical warfare, surely the norm was broken in 1988 when the Iraqi government used chemical warfare against Kurdish insurgents, to widespread apathy from the international community?

  8. Although on further thought, the Rwandan example, even if not directly relevant, does show that a norm, once broken, can be repaired.

  9. Hugh:

    Please read the entire post before commenting. I mention Saddam’s unpunished use of gas in the post. As for Rwanda, there was no formalized international norm against ethnic cleansing at that point. That is why R2P was developed, because it became clear that preventing such atrocities in non-strategic states was of little concern to the international community. R2P was designed to give UN sanction and formal legal basis to preventing or responding to such acts.

  10. Pablo, you mentioned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, but the anti-Kurdish campaign wasn’t part of that war – it happened at the same time, but the Kurds weren’t Iranians. I presumed you were talking about Hussein’s unproven use of weapons against Iranian regulars. But, OK, I guess you weren’t.

    My larger point is that when we talk about ‘norms’ it’s usually something less formal than the specific interstate conventions you are talking about. There may not have been a clear interstate agreement to intervene in the case of genocide, but there was a clear, if informal, sentiment among the general population of western states that genocide was horrific and everything should be done to prevent it. Not a formalised one, it’s true, but if we are to speak of norms we need to look beyond the letter of treaties and UN resolutions.

  11. Hugh:

    Hussein’s use of CW against Iranian troops is well known but went unchallenged by anyone other than Iran, which is why I used that example rather than the Kurds (since there was an outcry about that use, although the result was the same: nothing happened). I am well aware that Kurds are not Iranians.

    In this post I have focused on formal norms–the prohibitions on CW use in particular–and the lack of enforcement of them. Informal norms such as what you describe have even less standing in international relations because they are subject to interpretation and virtually unenforceable. Formal norms are supposed to be enforceable but in practice often are not.

    Your take on informal norms reinforces my point–they are idealistic in nature and do not hold up under pressure because it is left to individual states to adhere to or enforce them. That is why realism trumps idealism and constructivism.

    In any case we have now, once again, moved off the thrust of the post, so lets conclude this discussion.

  12. First of all, the west’s disproportionate horror of chemical weapons is because that (until recently) they have direct experience of the use of them on their own soldiers within living memory during the Great War. Secondly, the norm hasn’t died. Just this specific incident has seen a combination of war weariness and loss of trust in the ruling elites (Snowdens revelations and Iraq revealing the public are regularly told a pack of lies) leading to a public that no longer believes what it’s leadership tells it. In business to politics to the intelligence agencies – at this juncture the elites who run them have run out of credit with the public, and this whole Syrian fiasco is evidence of that.

  13. Sanctuary:

    The CW norm is dead because no one wants to enforce it, and it has not been enforced in the modern past. As I said in the post, the global public is indifferent and political elites are wary. Because the US has played loose with the truth in order to justify the Iraq invasion, there is very little trust in its claims, and although some political elites support the role (such as the National government), both the US public and the world at large are tired of it playing self-appointed global constabulary.

    The issue is why is such a seemingly important norm unenforceable? Realism posits that no major strategic interest is at stake amongst those who could unilaterally enforce it, and the international community is simply incapable of doing so given differences in views. That would seem about right to me.

    Of course the Russian disarmament proposal could be seen as one means of norms enforcement, so it will be interesting to see how things pan out.

  14. Pablo, I think with this:

    “The issue is why is such a seemingly important norm unenforceable? Realism posits that no major strategic interest is at stake amongst those who could unilaterally enforce it, and the international community is simply incapable of doing so given differences in views.”

    You’re right on the money. Saddam’s 1980’s use of CW went unpunished because he was acting in the US’s strategic interests. Assad isn’t (and I’m not convinced he was responsible) but the US would seem to be rather overstretched at the moment, not to mention all the other strategic complications, and this Syria situation looks really amazingly complicated to me (just how many proxy wars are we seeing there?).

    I am extremely curious as to how this Russian proposal will pan out.

  15. There are no international norms. There are only interests.

    The US needs to be held to account for its brutality – white phosphorous, drones – but by whom?

    Obama’s speech to the UN is truly enlightening, or frightening, especially this extract, speaking on the poor buggers who happen to live in the oil rich Middle East:

    “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.”

    In other words, middle finger to you, world, from a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

    Meanwhile, as the ‘free flow of energy” is assured, the planet will burn.

    I have a 5 year old. I worry about her future because the storm is coming, regardless of the current calm.

  16. Luc:

    From your first sentence I gather that you are a classical realist. Then I read the rest of your comment and recalled previous ones and remember that you are, in fact, quite idealistic in nature. So there is a contradiction in your position. Skepticism is not a true middle ground.

    Moreover, you are wrong. There are international norms, established over the years, by those (as mentioned in the post) who seek to counterbalance the “might makes right” logics that reductionists see as the vulgar logic behind realism. Everything from the Geneva Convention to Laws of the Sea and fishery conventions are, in fact international norms. That they are often honored in the breach, no more than self-enforcing and/or violated from time to time does not detract from the fact that, from time to time, the international community tries to overcome the self-interest rationale that underpins crude realism.

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