My research explores how international norms and law shape the behaviour of actors in the international system, with a substantive focus on conventional weapons disarmament, international justice, and outer space. I also maintain an active interest in International Relations theory, particularly constructivism and its intersection with rationalist theories of strategic action.
Most broadly, my work contributes to a growing interest in the strategic use of norms that aims to integrate instrumental sources of compliance (such as coercion and reputation) and normative logics of appropriateness and argumentative reasoning. Actors often pursue their interests by invoking—and often seeking to selectively interpret or modify—norms and legal rules. But not all claims are created equal: I contend that international law provides an especially powerful medium in informing the deployment and reception of instrumental normative claims. Moreover, such efforts are not cost-free, as the instrumental deployment of norms embeds actors within collective discourses and practices that can constrain subsequent policy choices.
This research agenda is centred around four more specific themes. I have participated in the recent IR interest in the nature and dynamics of contestation in global politics. I contributed to a special issue of the Journal of Global Security Studies (2019) that brings together leading norms scholars to systematically examine the processes and impact of contestation for prominent global norms. My article examines contemporary African state challenges to Head of State immunity at the International Criminal Court. Despite often vociferous challenges, I argue that contestation surrounding the indictments of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has not led to an erosion of the non-impunity norm because challenges have been largely conducted through modes of “applicatory contestation” that are less damaging to the foundational validity of the norm.
A related strand concerns the use of rhetorical entrapment in in which norm-promoting actors seek to compel change in a target actor by exploiting tensions between the target’s words and actions. My recent piece in Security Studies (2020) examines the United States’ ambivalent engagement with the global norm prohibiting antipersonnel mines. Tracing US policy change over the past 25 years, I show how transnational civil society and domestic political elites strategically deployed factual and normative claims to draw US officials into an iterative debate concerning the humanitarian harm of AP mines. Successive US administrations have sought to mitigate external critique by gradually conceding to the discursive framing of pro-ban advocates without endorsing the international treaty prohibiting the weapons. These rhetorical shifts stimulated a search for alternative technologies and incremental changes to military doctrine, tactics, and procurement that constrained US policy choices, culminating in the effective abandonment of AP mines despite ongoing military operations around the globe.
A further ongoing project examines how actors seek to bolster their own status and undermine opponents by accusing them of transgressing international norms. This research develops a series of conjectures concerning when accusations can prove successful which are then assessed through an examination of recent examples of alleged human rights and international humanitarian law violations. Strategic efforts do not occur in a vacuum, however, but are only potentially effective to the extent that claims are made within a community of actors who can respond with forms of support and condemnation. This research specifically highlights the social dynamics of instrumental norm use by identifying the nature and functions of international audiences.
I have recently begun a new research project on the international relations of outer space, supported by the Leverhulme Trust. Space-based technologies like satellites are central to virtually every aspect of life on Earth, including telecommunications and the internet, transportation and navigation, banking, agriculture, weather forecasting, intelligence and surveillance, and modern military operations. A growing range of state and private commercial actors are involved in activities like space launch and satellite production and operation, as well as envisioned opportunities for resource exploitation and even human colonisation of celestial objects. This rapid expansion of human space activities also presents profound challenges, most pressingly involving the accumulation of debris in low-Earth orbit and increasing confrontation among space powers that could involve the deployment of weapons in space. Yet IR as a discipline has taken remarkably little notice of outer space as a domain of transnational interaction. To address this gap, I am developing a series of solo- and co-authored works that examine the international security implications of space technologies, development and contestation of space norms, and the global governance of human space activities.