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FPC Briefing: Competing norms- Why defence of human rights is strategically important in a multipolar era

Article by Jacqueline Hale

December 14, 2017

FPC Briefing: Competing norms- Why defence of human rights is strategically important in a multipolar era

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the outbreak of the Syrian war many of the received wisdoms and institutions that have underpinned international action 70 years are being shaken. The US shows weakness in global leadership at a time when the tectonic plates of power are shifting. The UN is increasingly enfeebled, and the Bretton Woods institutions are sidelined as economic centre of gravity moves eastwards.


Closer to home the European Union, which together with NATO has played a role in in guaranteeing the longest stretch of European peace in history, lurches from crisis to crisis.  Brexit looms on the horizon as populists seek to renationalise policy, and question the post-war liberal consensus which underpinned the European social contract. As power shifts away from the liberal west, illiberalism, and fringe politics are on the rise in Western democracies. Whilst democratic elections and referenda across the West deliver victories to populists, elsewhere it seems that – unfettered by elections – long-standing authoritarians are consolidating power. Both the populists and authoritarians are aligned in pursuing national security at the expense of individual liberties.


It is tempting to see the ‘’values’’ battle as a sideshow to the bigger geopolitical, systemic power shift that we may now be witnessing. Charles Kupchan  has written in realist terms about how we are entering a period of global hegemonic power transfer from the US to China (starting with a putative conflict in the South China sea) but that for now we have to be content with an uncertain multi-polar ‘’No-one’s world’’.[1] The hobbling of the Security Council, with its divisions and inaction over Syria would seem to attest to this power vacuum. Academics on the left have also long-predicted America’s imperial overreach, some with more prescience than others, such as Johan Galtung, who described back in 2004 that by 2020 the US would have lost global hegemony and would be grappling with fascism.[2] But if it is true that there is a loss of a global superpower (and norm maker), it will not mean there is an ideational vacuum. In fact the global contestation of ideas is very much wound up with the practice of politics amid this power shift and it is of strategic importance both internationally and domestically to stand by the norms and standards which have built the ways of life we wish to continue.


Norms Competition


China and Russia are spoken of as realist powers, but they are working to promulgate norms too. Some are aligned with the status quo of international law and the UN Charter: For example, “non-interference” in the affairs of sovereign states, long promoted by China, has seemingly surpassed liberal interventionism, latterly embodied by Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Western misadventures in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan have boosted the norm of non-interference in Western circles, so the UK House of Commons decision in August 2013 not to militarily intervene in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by the regime, and similar US inaction, marked a clear difference in approach from the interventionism of the 1990s.[3] The symbiotic relationship between power and norm setting is clear in the US increasing unwillingness to play the policeman to existing rules (for example in response to the case of Russia’s flouting of the UN Charter through its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea), or set new ones (exemplified by Trump’s threats to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement). Whilst R2P could be seen in retrospect as a liberal norm-setting failure, existing decades-long liberal universalist norms enshrined in international human rights law are under renewed attack. An emboldened group of states at the Human Rights Council are frequently uniting behind Russia’s concept of “traditional values”, a byword for denying rights and freedoms to women, sexual and other minority groups.[4] So doing, they are asserting a world view not only at odds with universalism, but with perceived Western moral decay.


This phenomenon of “counter-norms’’ can also be seen where these norms influence behaviour in other states, as with the copy-cat LGBT laws in Central Asia, or through regional organisations founded on norms of “respect for civilizational diversity’’ and non-interference such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional bloc comprised of Russia, China and four Central Asian states. It has been argued that the support for non-interference has undermined liberal democratic principles of the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe and standardised behaviours involving the extra-territorial investigations and collusion in seizing of wanted suspects who are then bundled across borders – a practice we have seen as far west recently as Georgia.[5] In the sphere of international development assistance, new donors emerge who require much fewer conditionalities as a basis for assistance, and give more money witnessed in China’s activities in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America.[6]


But norms of liberty and universal human rights championed by the West have also been threatened from within. The state security and counterterrorist paradigm which was exacerbated post 9/11 has prevailed over existing ideas of liberty and democracy since UN Security Council Resolution 1267, which made it acceptable to blacklist ‘terrorists’ with no rules or transparent criteria for listing or delisting, a practice upheld by reciprocal nods from other states in return for support for listing their persona non-grata. Hand in hand with this undermining of the international human rights legal framework, the activities of civil society are increasingly being restricted – not only through Interpol Red Notices issued by authoritarian governments to prevent dissidents from travelling,[7] but also including within Western societies. Since the mid-2000s we have seen restrictive NGO laws developed across all continents, including within the EU, as countries have copycatted the Russian ‘’foreign agents’’ law, or sought other ways to restrict foreign funded NGOs, through legal constraints on funding, registration and other forms of intimidation. The most recent case of Hungary’s NGO law, follows this model.[8] In fact, the ramifications of Budapest’s turn to illiberalism illustrate the interplay between domestic and foreign policy in the undermining of norms and values: its position on foreign policy issues has seen it promote the use of development assistance aimed at preventing migration from Africa, and block a firm EU common position on atrocity crimes in Myanmar.[9]


This context of normative competition requires an active strategy to support the norms and values that Britain and its allies wish to see carried forward and accepted. In the first instance, this involves identifying counter-norms, but also practices of accommodation or even emulation. In the tradition of authoritarian countries seeking to claim their ‘’Democratic’’ credentials (witness Democratic Republic of Congo, GDR, and Peoples Democratic Republic of North Korea) we now have competitor schemes, such as the Russia-centred Eurasian Economic Union, which seeks to emulate, but falls short of, the European model of integration. Likewise, the emergence of Chinese-led Banks such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB Bank) which resemble in some ways the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.[10]


Standing up for universal norms and ‘’values’’


The rise of powers which contest and emulate existing liberal international norms points to the political significance of these norms and the need to defend and promote them. The relationship of liberal norms to soft power, the kind of power defined by Joseph Nye as exerting a power of attraction over actors without the need for coercion – remains as relevant as ever. Authoritarian actors continue to emulate (even if while subvert) Western Institutions in part to tap into soft power. But soft power of Western political and economic ideas and ways of life is also why persecuted and impoverished populations vote with their feet to come to Europe. The answer is not to stop the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Stymying their hopes would undermine the very soft power, arising from the European social contract that drives their ambition. It is also a cognitive mistake to think that actively undermining Europe’s social contract to the detriment of lives of its own citizens is necessary to “compete” in a level playing field with China and Russia. The policy of levelling down and competing on purely geopolitical terms with rising powers whereby the highest bidder wins, risks abandoning our standards at home. It also effectively concedes that the norm is being set elsewhere.


A more practical policy response may be to examine inherent weaknesses in the system that allow illiberal leaders to benefit from rights and privileges beyond their borders which they deny their citizens at home. It should involve fostering rules to prevent the exploitation of loopholes to entrench their positions, such as the ability of authoritarians to invest in the liberal economic and political systems – settling legal and commercial disputes in British courts, acquiring status symbols such as buying property in London, purchasing expensive private education, launching fashion lines or starting private foundations.[11] As we have seen with the Azerbaijani laundromat, this is not a problem of curtailing the ambitions of a few elite individuals, but has far broader political ramifications: it has the added corrosive effect of undermining Western institutions – be it the Council of Europe, Westminster or the European Parliament through buying politicians and influencing domestic and foreign policy.[12] Addressing this means being prepared to identify areas where economic tenets of liberalism can undermine the liberal political project of the rule of law, human rights and democracy. It may also mean introducing safeguards to foster equality of outcomes – through tougher regulations to close loopholes on areas of economic policy ranging from property ownership to taxation.[13]

This also calls for a ‘robust liberalism’ in the practice of diplomacy. The EU’s Global Strategy for foreign policy refers to a rules-based international order as one of its priorities. But political leaders and diplomats should go further, and continue to insist on the types of rules, which means bringing issues of human rights and governance to the table in political dialogues with third countries, being willing to point out violations, but also be prepared to congratulate and reward good governance, transparency, and openness to civil society. This is not primarily about positive conditionality and increasingly insignificant financial rewards, but rather about incentives linked to the prestige of belonging to a “club’’. This means examining new treaties and agreements for their compatibility with human rights standards and commitments, and being prepared to fight for – and implement – a human rights clause in trade and investment agreements. With the rise of state mercantilism by some of the West’s norms competitors in places like Africa and Latin America, it may not only be a matter of principle, but also in the interest of Western governments – including the EU – to revisit a binding international treaty on business and human rights. It means developing standards and best practices in areas where counter-norms challenge existing practices, such as electoral observation, news coverage, data sharing and privacy standards, in order to prevent what Alex Cooley terms the “anything goes’’ of multi-polarity.[14]


Being prepared to stand up for liberal norms and standards is of existential importance: practices we perceive as neutral are not a given, but could actually be contested, and ceded, if we do not fight for them. The field of ICT is illustrative: While the digital revolution offers much mileage in the liberal marketplace of ideas, it needs to be understood how the free flow of ideas and freedom of expression via social media, online and broadcast media has been understood and subverted by authoritarian actors, with political consequences. Rising state corporations such as the aptly named CCTV (China Central Television) and Russia’s Sputnik seek international influence, alongside use by Russia of social media platforms as open channels for manipulating mass audiences. The latter has allegedly influenced recent domestic Western policy debates, notably the Brexit vote, and the US Presidential election.  For promoters of freedom of speech and liberal standards the challenge will be to counteract state-sponsored influence which violates and undermines democratic principles and processes, whilst avoiding entering equivalent laws to prevent ‘foreign agents’. Rules for the concentration of media ownership and distribution will need to be tightened. Meanwhile, in the white noise of fake news, democratically elected governments will need to call out cases where standards have been flouted and norms and rules violated.  If you don’t speak up others will speak up, and define the truth, instead.


In this context foreign policy should keep a healthy distance from a discourse of values which can be relativized.  The use of the “traditional values” debate to undermine the rights of LGBT communities and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women testifies that appealing to “values’’ in foreign policy opens the pathway to contestation and undermining of principles enshrined in international law, or conventions, and even customs that have been formally, or informally agreed at the international level. Values are seen as culturally or ideologically determined and they can also slippery and manipulated over time. They can also be divisive and exclusionary: Assertions of British “values’’ surfaced in the aftermath of the Brexit vote which were repudiated by people who felt the values did not speak for them. Likewise, appeals to “European values’’ have been seen as paternalistic and exclusionary and have not been well received by counterparts.


By contrast, the discourse based on human rights, grounded in international law, provides the firmest ground we have for a normative foreign policy. It empowers the individual affected by grounding sovereignty in their experience as opposed to that of a particular nation-state, and gives minority groups (who would lose out in a majority vote) a voice. Whilst human rights are also subject to criticisms of cultural imperialism, although as I have made the case elsewhere, they and equality under the “rule of law’’ remain a language that is more universal than the exclusive notion of “values’’. New intergovernmental agreements, such as Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which have been backed by 193 countries point to a way forward. Their new language of equity, “leaving no-one behind’’,  tackling exclusion and providing for access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions[15] attests to the ongoing relevance of human rights principles of “universality’’ and indivisibility of rights, and tackling discrimination.


Conclusion – on the strategic importance of coherence


If the objective is a world in 30 to 50 years’ time governed with predictability, and a level playing field among and between nations, in which citizens enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms, it would be via the rule of law, and rules-based international order, rather than the arbitrary interpretation of values by power holders – be they American, Chinese or other. In reality, there has always been hegemonic privilege in breaking as well as setting rules, ranging from free trade to the International Criminal Court, to non-proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. Yet the role of rule setting and rule taking in the last 70 years of the post-War liberal order makes it of crucial interest to ensure that norms enshrined in key UN treaties are transferred and that a new hegemon is invested in these concepts as part of maintaining international order which suit them and others. This means it becomes strategic to speak out in favour of the rules-based international order, call out human rights violations in political dialogues, and increasingly relate normative questions of fundamental rights and freedoms to a broader set of environmental, public health and safety norms standards in fields as disparate as aviation and international trade. Policy areas where multilateral agreement has been found, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, and Agenda 2030 with its focus on universality and equity, could be instructive in navigating the choppy waters of multipolarity.


Finally, it means not allowing the practising of different standards at home from abroad. The problem of internal-external policy coherence will be an increasingly central one to defending the concepts of norms and standards, not only in the West, but also among those authoritarian actors who seek out human rights protections for themselves and their cronies, whilst suppressing those same rights at home. As the populist tide continues to set policy in the West, the biggest challenge for normative approaches in foreign policy and human rights may not be to implement robust liberalism in its diplomacy, but in the undermining of universalist and rights-based approaches in domestic policy discussions. It becomes imperative for the foreign policy community to reach across the increasingly false divide between the domestic and foreign policy arena and to reframe normative standard setting and support for human rights as part of a project grounded in everyday realities rather than abstract propositions which could be labelled “elite’’ and alien to the interests of the majority opinion.

[1] Kupchan, C., No-One’s World, The West, The Rising Rest, And the Coming Global Truth, 2012

[2] Galtung, J., On the Decline and Fall of the US Empire, 2004

[3] Realists would argue that geography and spheres of influence still matter most: Unlike the response in Europe’s backyard to protect the Kosovar Albanians, there will be no responsibility to protect the Rohingya in Myanmar, China’s neighbour.

[4] This group includes Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia frequently introduces resolutions around concepts such as the ‘’family’’. It frequently clashes with a group involving the EU and other Western democracies seeking to reassert universalism

[5] Cooley, A., Authoritarianism goes global: Countering Democratic Norms, in Journal of Democracy, 2015,

[6] ibid

[7] Hug, A., et. Al No shelter: the harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, Foreign Policy Centre, November 2016,

[8] Hungary’s NGO law introduced in June 2017, has prompted the European Commission to open an infringement proceeding

[9] Hungary led calls for EU development aid to be tied to countries’ willingness to take back migrants; and it was the only EU member state not to sponsor an OIC resolution condemning atrocities in Myanmar against Rohingya in November 2017

[10] There is an open question as to whether these new Banks will be able to adopt different norms and standards in their practices to those existing methods, and this question should be considered explicitly by Western members of the board in negotiating guidance for how they operate.

[11] The cases of fugitive Kazakh businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, and Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the former President of Uzbekistan are two prominent among many cases.

[12] Azerbaijan Laundramat reporting, The Guardian, and see also Caviar Diplomacy, European Stability Initiative

[13] Recent Paradise Papers focus on tax avoidance prominent Western individuals yet the foreign policy ramifications of abuse by authoritarians of these systems should be part of the policy response. See

[14] Cooley, A., Authoritarianism goes global: Countering Democratic Norms, in Journal of Democracy, 2015,

[15]Sustainable Development Goal 16 (the governance goal) is the closest to a civil and political rights vision. However, the ambition of goals across the agenda to achieve for everyone (without exception) access to food, health, education, and a clean environment is a rights-based approach when compared to the Millennium Development Goals;

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