Evolution of International Norms

Worth reading: review of The Internationalists. Fascinating perspective on the evolution of norms of warfare.

What norms of institutional behavior today will be considered crude and barbaric in the future? I hope that among them will be found: methods of criminal law enforcement, and the broad license granted to its officers to harass and assault people and property, as seen in today’s United States. The idea that some people (e.g., American cops) should be given authority and immunity from consequence, to use whatever force they deem appropriate to physically subdue and detain any person on virtually any pretext; should eventually be considered as barbaric as the Old convention that it was permissible for soldiers to rape, pillage, and murder civilians. This is not to say that evolving more civilized standards of behavior is easy (which is one of the themes explored in the review linked above): As long as people have the ability to transgress boundaries by force, people will also need to use (or at least threaten to use) force to constrain transgressions. The hard part is in constraining the permissible use of force. One might say that devising norms and institutions of constraint that minimize the use of force is the evolving project of civilization.

(Note that an ultimate civilization is not one that exercises no force. Any such organization would fall prey to competitors that do use force. Civilization is maximized when it minimizes the amount and nature of force employed to sustain itself.)

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