Triggering the norms cascade: Brazil's initiatives for curbing electronic espionage.

Author:Abdenur, Adriana Erthal

How do rising powers engage in norms entrepreneurship on issues of global relevance? This article analyzes Brazil's efforts to mobilize support for international regulation of electronic espionage. More specifically, the article examines Brazil's reframing of electronic espionage as an issue of development and human rights (rather than merely a security one) as part of an effort to trigger a norms cascade that would significantly modify what is viewed as acceptable use of the Internet by state agencies. Through this reframing, Brazil has begun to push for broader Internet governance reform as a prerequisite for curbing electronic espionage. In assuming the role of norms entrepreneur, Brazil incurs both opportunities and risks to its role and image as an innovative multilateralist. Keywords: norms, United Nations, espionage, Brazil.


In September 2013, Brazilian president Duma Rousseff used Brazil's traditional soapbox as first speech giver at the UN General Assembly to voice concern over revelations of electronic espionage by the US government and its allies. Addressing representatives from 193 states, Rousseff called on the UN to "play a leading role in the effort to regulate the conduct of States with regard to these technologies." (1) The Brazilian government, thus, took its first public step in pushing for international regulation of electronic espionage. The speech suggested identifiable principles within a structured normative framework, presenting electronic espionage as a negative consequence of the United States' tight grip on the Internet governance architecture. How has Brazil gone about framing, advocating, and mobilizing support for its proposal for international regulation of electronic espionage? In this article, we analyze Brazil's role as a norms entrepreneur and, more specifically, its efforts to trigger a norms cascade through the UN architecture to establish new prevailing standards of conduct for peacetime espionage--and, more broadly, for Internet governance. In analyzing this case, we hope to shed light on how developing countries--typically assumed to be rules takers rather than rules makers when it comes to global issues--engage in norms entrepreneurship within global (rather than regional) debates.

This was the first time that electronic espionage had been framed as an activity in need of international regulation. Although states protest loudly when they are targets of espionage during peaceful times, until this episode states had not coordinated attempts to regulate peacetime espionage in significant ways. Indeed, faced with growing revelations about electronic espionage--especially as carried out by the US National Security Administration (NSA)--the governments of targeted states decried what they perceived as excesses, but they stopped short of calling for new rules designed to curb the practice. In contrast, the Brazilian demand was based on the premise that domestic norms alone cannot adequately address violations perpetrated through electronic espionage and that, instead, the problem requires relocating privacy issues beyond the domestic sphere to the transnational realm. Brazil's choice of institutional channel is also noteworthy. Relying on the UN not only reinforces the idea that privacy should be considered an international issue, but also boosts the role of the organization as the legitimate platform for any new regime.

In examining efforts to regulate electronic espionage internationally, we rely on a combination of official documents and speeches by Brazilian political leaders, key UN officials, and civil society organizations. We argue that, in advocating for an UN-led agenda to regulate electronic espionage, Brazil is advancing its calls for Internet governance reform. More specifically, Brazil is claiming that Internet regulation is a necessary condition for curbing electronic espionage. In advancing this claim, Brazil also accrues benefits from the process of norms entrepreneurship, reinforcing its image of multilateral leadership by mobilizing support within and across multilateral institutions. However, it also runs new risks, primarily related to its self-legitimation as a norms entrepreneur. This finding suggests that norms entrepreneurship constitutes a significant political strategy for rising powers, whose ambitions abroad usually are limited by domestic constraints such as persistent domestic development challenges that require constant engagement as well as scarcity of financial resources for pursuing more costly strategies abroad.

The article is structured as follows. First, we provide background on the concept of the norms life cycle and how this process relates to electronic espionage, examining key precedents for regulation of war-related activities. Next, we analyze Brazil's efforts to frame the issue as a multilateral agenda item as well as Brazil's political strategy in mobilizing support among other states and coalitions. In the conclusion, we assess the efforts so far and explore key challenges to and opportunities for curbing electronic espionage.

Norms Entrepreneurship and Electronic Espionage

The Social Construction of Multilateralism

Far from set in stone, the multilateral agenda is socially constructed. Key issues debated and regulated within international regimes are proposed, negotiated, and sometimes resisted by different actors, including states. The proposal, negotiation, and implementation (or rejection) of international norms can take place through a variety of area-specific regimes--"social institutions composed of agreed upon principles, norms, rules and decisionmaking procedures that govern the interactions of actors in specific issue areas." (2) When the multilateral agenda is broadened to encompass new issues, those topics are negotiated through one or more such regimes. (3)

Normative change involves two interrelated sets of problems. (4) First, change relates to how events fit in particular frames of activities deemed to be significant (e.g., categories, issue areas, regimes, functions, sectors). This refers to constitutive norms: rules that define something as a relevant issue and that allocate capacity for someone to act on the issue. Once something has been framed as an issue, norms are put forth to regulate conduct related to that particular issue--the rules of the game. These two dimensions become clear when an international event triggers the construction of a new regime: the regime is first defined in terms of an issue area, (5) and then the rules of the game are negotiated.

There are several theoretical choices available to account for the building of a new regime. Whereas neoliberal institutionalism highlights the degree of efficiency of new institutions in maximizing state preferences and providing solutions for market failures, (6) English School approaches stress the commonality of values shared among states and continuous international attempts to reproduce valued social arrangements that comprise international society. (7) In the latter case, legitimacy is a pressing issue; English School analysts stress that, in an anarchic system, authority is decentralized and rules become authoritative when internalized by an agent (partially defining its interests and, by analogy, interfering with its behavior). (8)

Our claim here is, respectively, bolder and more modest than the aforementioned approaches. While focusing on the maximization of preferences channeled through institutionalized arrangements, Robert O. Keohane recognizes that neoliberal institutionalism falls short of providing a convincing explanation for the formation of preferences and calls on constructivism to provide insights on the matter. (9) Alternatively, English School approaches rely on the premise of the reproduction (and expansion) (10) of international society through values and social institutions. Instead of these, we adopt a constructivist perspective, treating agents' preferences as social constructions that stem from norm-oriented actions on disputed grounds. In this sense, Brazil is not only calling on fellow states to benefit from joint efforts against cyberespionage, but it is actively trying to constitute the cyber-espionage issue as a major international problem and as a political priority, through norms entrepreneurship--along the lines of Martha Finnemore's analysis of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a "teacher of norms." (11) When successful, norm entrepreneurs can produce norms bandwagons that significantly alter shared ideas about what constitutes acceptable behavior, or that create new normative structures altogether. (12) According to Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, "The characteristic mechanism of the first stage, norm emergence, is persuasion by norm entrepreneurs. Norm entrepreneurs attempt to convince a critical mass of states (norm leaders) to embrace new norms. The second stage is characterized more by a dynamic of imitation as the norm leaders attempt to socialize other states to become norm followers." (13)

If persuasion and mobilization are successful, the norm cascades through the rest of the states and may elicit a process of norm internalization among those states, ceasing to be a hot topic of debate to influence more concretely the behavior of states. Completion of this life cycle depends on reaching a tipping point, which may allow new norms to become the prevailing standards of appropriateness. If there is not enough consensus among states, the proposed idea typically fails to become a norm. However, within this literature, it is unclear when the tipping point is reached. Sanjeev Khagram, James V. Riker, and Kathryn Sikkink suggest that the entry of a treaty into force can be used as an indicator, claiming that "approximately one-quarter to one-third of the actors must support and accept new standards of behavior before we can speak of the existence of a...

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