Lisbeth Zimmermann über Antje Wiener, Contestation and Constitution of Norms in Global International Relations (2018)

Antje Wiener ist, nach Professuren an den Universitäten von Belfast und Bath, seit 2009 Professorin für Politikwissenschaft, insbesondere Global Governance, an der Universität Hamburg. 2012 hat sie gemeinsam mit James Tully die Zeitschrift Global Constitutionalism gegründet, seit 2017 ist sie By-Fellow von Hughes Hall an der Universität Cambridge. Contestation and Constitution of Norms in Global International Relations, erschienen 2018 bei Cambridge University Press, ist entstanden im Rahmen eines opus magnum-Fellowships der Volkswagen-Stiftung,

Lisbeth Zimmermann ist Professorin für Internationale Beziehungen an der Zeppelin-Universität Friedrichshafen. Sie hat 2012 an der TU Darmstadt promoviert und Forschungsprojekte an der Goethe-Universität und der Hessischen Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung geleitet. 2017 erschien Global Norms with a Local Face. Rule-of-Law Promotion and Norm Translation (Cambridge University Press).


Antje Wiener’s new book Contestation and Constitution of Norms in Global International Relations coherently integrates her decades-long research program on the contestation of norms in international politics and gives deeper insight into her normative thinking about the role of contestation in global politics.

Wiener’s exploration of the theme started with an interest in contestation around compliance with international norms in the context of European accession and the UN Security Council. She went on to study the role of cultural practices in European community-building in the “Invisible Constitution of Politics”. In her new book, Wiener presents empirical case studies on contestation of international norms and combines these with a decidedly normative approach. In a first conceptual and empirical step, she gives a holistic mapping of scales and stages of contestation – differentiating sites where contestation can take place over global norms. Most importantly, she distinguishes two types of contestation: reactive contestation – which essentially encompasses non-compliance or breaches of norms; and proactive contestation, which engages with the normative structure and aims at changing it. This potential to engage and change normative structures is key for Wiener and linked to a normative argument: All affected should have a say about norms; and the more people around the world can change the global normative structure (proactive contestation), the more legitimate it is.

The three detailed case studies cover contestation around the Kadi case, in which the European Court of Justice reviewed EU directives on the enforcement of human rights-sensitive Security Council resolutions, the development and application of the United Nations Convention against Torture, and the perpetration of violence against women during wartime. Wiener analyzes to what extent we can observe proactive contestation and thereby changes of normative structures. She also critically maps who has agency to change international norms – and where there is room for improvement. Wiener also argues that a proactive engagement with norms can best take place if rules emerge at the meso-level between broad principles and very specific regulations.

Of course, the book offers ample material and insight for broad discussions about global politics and the particular role of contentious practices.  In this short review, I will focus on three issues which might open up broader discussions of how global politics can be made more legitimate and perhaps also more democratic.

A first point refers to the distinction of proactive and reactive contestation. There is a clear normative argument linked to this distinction. For Wiener, proactive contestation is the preferred type as it is linked to agency to change normative structures. This intuitively seems right: if people engage, they gain ownership, they make norms their own and appropriate them. Wiener links this principle to work in political theory (James Tully) and to international law (Ingo Venzke). Yet the question arises if reactive contestation is per se always normatively less desirable. Reactive contestation does not need to be exhausted by breaching a norm. It can be the voicing of a negative position with regard to a norm (if a specific regulation or a broader principle) – without any interest in engaging in an existing institutional structure to change it.

There is the possibility that contesting actors might not have the “agency” to engage in proactive normative shifting – although they very much would like to. But it is a different issue if actors do not want to engage, saying: We do not want to play by your rules. We are dissidents! We do not want to slightly shift and change, we want to overthrow! This echoes debates about dissidence and opposition (Daase/Deitelhoff) and resistance. In Wiener’s approach, there is an implicit interest of actors to constructively engage in existing institutional structures (see also Zimmermann). How do you deal with the active decision to disengage and resist theoretically, and what does it mean normatively for the creation of a more legitimate world order? This is an important question in times like ours, in which we observe a rise of more radical types of contestation of a multilateral order and its basic norms.

The second point refers to the introduction of the concept of “sustainable normativity”. For Wiener, all who are affected should be able to participate in the creation and in the adaptation of international norms and institutions. This is based, as explained above, on a strong normative argument about norm ownership and appropriation. Yet where are the limits of appropriation? Wiener argues that also the US administration used proactive contestation in the case of the ban on torture under the UN Convention. The administration proactively engaged in a global discourse about torture to undermine and change the ban. For what normative claims exactly did they create normativity? Or put another way: When can we talk about normative change and when about norm replacement, where actors, by engaging in contestation, create normativity for an alternative norm?

Even more interesting is the question of when we do reach a “sustainable” level of normativity. Wiener argues that we have to look at ‘the modicum’. It is not always possible for everyone to participate; we have to take context into account (chapter 3): Contingent structures shape how much and what kind of access is possible at a specific time in a specific context. In particular, in moments of a balance of proactive and reactive contestation, sustainable normativity of international norms can still exist, even without general participation. While, again, this seems intuitively right – as full access of all affected to all international negotiations around norms seems impossible to organize, of course, one instantly thinks about the limits of this contingency argument. Imagine that someone argued that “discrimination on the grounds of gender is such a long-established normative structure, we have to take that into account. The modicum for sustainable legitimacy is still reached if less women are allowed to participate and engage in the creation or reshaping of international norm.” This does not seem very persuasive. But who sets the barrier and how?

As a last point, I shall also quickly engage with one very important claim in Wiener’s book. Wiener classifies the book as part of a Global IR perspective where the role of the academic is one of an intervener. The aim of the author is to put the contestation of stakeholders into conversation and hear voices which normally remain unheard. This is a very important project which rethinks central assumptions in theory-making and rejects the ideal of the “neutral” scientific observer.

Still, from the perspective postcolonial theory, a criticism needs to be raised: How do you deal with the problem of representation (a problem Spivak dealt with when criticizing the Subaltern Studies Project in her seminal “Can the Subaltern Speak?” text in an even more fundamental way). From this perspective, emancipation is not possible by “representation”. Following the strategy of the intervener, the academic researcher is the active part, making voiced heard, while the stakeholders still remain passive. The researcher chooses who will get a voice and who is represented.

Moreover, the stakeholders, who are represented in the case studies, are surprisingly Western and well-equipped with agency. For example, in the case of the Torture Convention, a Western civil society-based litigation network, presented as the counterpart to contestations of the US administration, probably does not really have problems to make its voices heard – although it might not always be successful in its fight against torture.

Also: would our normative perspective on norm ownership and creation of legitimacy look different with the inclusion of normative struggles where the transnational civil-society actors are the “bad guys”; transnational religious groups in the case of a struggle around sexual reproduction or LGBT rights, or rightist groups in the European Union? Do we still opt for full access and inclusion, and how do we deal with their contestation?

Does better access to contestation create a more sustainable, more legitimate global order that we should strive for – even in the case of radical contestations which put central norms of the international order in question? This is the core problem our societies struggle with at the moment. Wiener has presented a convincing manifesto for wider agency to voice contestation and more access to institutional spaces where norms can be changed and adapted, creating thereby a more legitimate global order. Simultaneously, we observe central political shifts all over Europe and in other parts of the world which put this basic assumption under stress: for example, how much dialogue and space for voicing of opinions do we want to offer to right-wing extremists in a public space? Do we have to shelter international norms against norm challengers who aim at watering them down or do we offer spaces for dialogue? I do not have final answers to these questions, but I am very much looking forward to how Wiener will deal with these normative issues in future work.

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