What's in a norm? Mapping the norm definition process in the debate on sustainable development.

Author:Hadden, Jennifer

This article examines the trajectory of sustainable development as an evolving international norm from 1992 to 2012. It observes that sustainable development has been broadly diffused and institutionalized. Yet it is generally recognized that it has not prompted widespread change in the behavior and policy priorities of states: an outcome the article characterizes as a "failure to launch." It explains the stalling of the norm by drawing attention to the protracted norm definition process. It analyzes an original dataset of speeches given at UN conferences on sustainable development, revealing how actors interpret the norm at three different time points. The analysis focuses on the breadth of conceptual consensus that emerges from these actors' interpretations and the depth of behavioral expectations implied by the collective discourse. It suggests that the shifting content and unstable discursive consensus regarding sustainable development has impeded the norm's ability to become a meaningful focal point for coordination and a legitimate constraint on state behavior.

Keywords: sustainable development, international norms, norm life cycle.


From the late 1980s onward, sustainable development became a widely accepted policy frame intended to reconcile the principles of economic growth and development with the need for protection of the world's environmental resources. It benefited from the support of powerful norm entrepreneurs who pushed the issue on the world's agenda at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It was enshrined in international law with the creation of two high-profile treaties and three nonbinding agreements that attracted over 150 signatories.

But unlike other norms with similar attributes, it is widely recognized that sustainable development has had only lackluster performance in many areas. (1) Twenty years after the watershed Earth Summit, there are major gaps in global sustainability, especially with regard to global environmental goals. (2) Seeking to explain this trajectory, we build on recent work that emphasizes the various pathways that norms can take after their initial articulation, including backsliding, reformulation, and dissolution. (3) We add to this catalogue by characterizing the trajectory of the sustainable development norm as a "failure to launch." Despite a highly promising start, extensive institutionalization, and possession of many characteristics that scholars identify as favorable to norm acceptance, we note that sustainable development never takes off on the path to effectively constraining state behavior. (4)

Positioning sustainable development as a crucial deviant case that challenges existing theories of norm proliferation, we seek explanations centering on norm definition as a process, rather than on institutionalization as an outcome. (5) Formalizing an underspecified discourse is a tempting strategy for norm promotion in urgent issue areas. However, we argue that whereas the shifting content of the sustainable development norm facilitated its rapid diffusion as a discursive frame, it has also underpinned the norm's disappointing performance. As Harriet Bulkeley et al. note in their review of the sustainable development agenda, "The concept's greatest strength, its tremendous flexibility, may also be one of its core weaknesses." (6)

To do so, we analyze an original dataset of speeches given at UN conferences on sustainable development, revealing how actors interpret the norm at three different time points. Our analysis focuses on the breadth of conceptual consensus that emerges from their interpretations and the depth of behavioral expectations implied by the collective discourse. Our goal is to explain the failure of sustainable development in generating a dynamic that would have reflected and facilitated growing internal consistency and practical impact of the norm. Drawing on work across the rationalist-constructivist divide, we observe that norms can influence state behavior either by becoming focal points for coordination or through gaining increasing legitimacy over time. (7) We connect the lack of specificity and agreement about norm content to its inability to influence behavior along either of these pathways. We suggest that lessons from this case speak to ongoing debates about global sustainability as well as other important areas of global governance.

Norm Definition and Dynamism

Beyond the Norm Life Cycle

Norm-guided actions are embedded in social relations that lead members of a well-defined community to act in accordance with the behavioral standards constituting their shared identity. (8) A norm's impact will be greater if a higher number of actors see themselves constrained by the shared understanding implicit in the norm. The norm life cycle argument describes the process through which norms attain such ever-wider reach. It defines the stages through which a norm passes from its origins to widespread acceptance: emergence, cascade, and internalization. (9) Institutionalization is generally deemed a catalyst along this path. Some authors recognize the fact that not all norms make it to the final phase of widespread acceptance (10) while others point out that competing norms frequently contradict one another (11) and interfere with the life cycle process. However, the possibility of backsliding in the norm evolution process has been largely neglected in existing accounts. (12)

A quick survey of patterns in international norm promotion shows that it is possible for norms to be institutionalized prior to earning traction in terms of their coherence. In fact, that is a common strategy of those promoting them, in hopes that the norms' increased prominence will secure widespread support over time. (13) Defending that strategy, scholars and policymakers in the field of environmental politics have often argued that "agreements in principle" are valuable because they can be gradually transformed into stronger international law. (14) The argument rests on assumptions about the process of transformation of soft international law into hard law or its practice-driven equivalents. (15) This is also the premise that underlies the scholarship differentiating between norms based on their ability to gain prominence. Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, for example, argue that norms are more likely to be widely diffused when they have certain intrinsic qualities, including belonging to certain issue areas, benefiting from key framing, or linking to other norms and becoming established at the international level. (16) Relying on the assumption of predictable evolution in norm attributes, however, is a risky strategy by those wishing to promote a norm. In increasingly complex and dense policy environments, further augmented by layers of variously mature institutions, even the most powerful actors lose control over the norm formulation agenda. (17)

To explain the faltering of sustainable development described in the following section, we reach beyond deterministic assumptions about norm promotion in two important ways. First, we question the idea of institutionalization stickiness and highlight the limitations of the norm life cycle model, including its ability to accommodate diverse paths of norm evolution. (18) We introduce evidence that stands contrary to the claim that resonant framing and institutionalization are equally functional and individually sufficient mechanisms for norm promotion. (19) Sustainable development did achieve widespread acceptance by states and institutionalization in treaties and international organizations. But its international support did not result in widespread consistency of action or conformity of behavior. We characterize this outcome as "failure to launch."

This brings us to the second area in which our work departs from past approaches. We note that the first generation of norm scholars often assumed the internal coherence of norms to better examine their effects. (20) As noted by Mona Lena Krook and Jacqui True, early constructivist work often reflected a "crucial tension" between the seemingly static nature of norm content and the dynamic nature of the norm life cycle, keeping silent on what it means for a norm to be collective or how clear the corresponding behavioral expectations must be. (21) Similarly, the world polity school analyzed the diffusion of universalistic models for behavior without problematizing the emergence, content, or contradictions of these models. (22) More recent literature extends norm scholarship by documenting how norm content shifts at various stages of norm evolution. (23) We reach beyond these insights by examining a key process--norm definition--and how it pervades discussion and contestation at all points in the (re)formulation of the sustainable development norm.

We draw attention to the failure-to-launch process because it holds lessons for other cases where norm building becomes an important part of global governance. (24) This approach echoes other critics, who have suggested the potential "hollowness" of institution building without conceptual clarity. (25) We join still others in noting the linkages between norm definition and norm dynamism--Krook and True argue that "ambiguities that make a norm's evolution possible may also lead to shifts and modifications in its content over time, producing varied effects when translated into practice." (26)

Sustainable Development: A Failure to Launch

Sustainable development initially seemed to have a bright future. Nearly a decade after the foundational Stockholm conference of 1972, the UN established an independent commission in 1983 to look into opportunities to reconcile the twin aims of environmental protection and economic growth. The World Commission on Environment and Development produced the report Our Common Future in 1987, highlighting the need for all countries to introduce development strategies that are compatible with...

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