Norms are standards of proper or acceptable behavior. They
establish expectations and clarify misbehavior, thereby helping to isolate,
limit, and sanction bad behavior. Without norms, there are no norm-breakers.
They can be codified in treaties and other legal instruments, or they can be
less formal, such as those embedded in international codes of conduct. When
less-formal norms become customary international practice, they gain standing
in international law.
Norms can be particularly helpful when they encourage
transparency, because transparency measures can lead to important negotiating
breakthroughs. Extraordinary treaties that drastically reduced nuclear forces
between the United States and the Soviet Union were enabled by a slightly
regarded, multilateral agreement in 1983 in which the Kremlin permitted foreign
observers to attend conventional military exercises.
Not everyone will sign up to norms right away, and there
will always be outliers. Even so, norms can discourage unwanted behavior, even
by holdouts – but not for die-hard outliers. The speed and effectiveness of
norm building depends on the attitudes and actions of major powers, not
outliers. The most reluctant major power is usually China.
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