RESEARCH

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.

I am centrally interested in the social foundations of strategic action in global politics. Most broadly, my work is situated within constructivist accounts that regard international institutions as sites of political competition and contributes to a growing interest in the instrumental deployment of norms that integrates rationalist sources of compliance—such as coercion and reputation—and normative logics of appropriateness, argumentation and status. In addition to good-faith reasoning about the meaning and requirements of rules, actors often invoke, and seek to selectively interpret or modify, norms to advance their own objectives. 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 claims. Moreover, such efforts are not cost-free, as the strategic 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 contributed to the recent IR interest in the nature and dynamics of contestation in global politics via 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 assesses the agency and impact of 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. Current work (see below) considers the dynamics of contestation in the context of contemporary debates over the regulation of military space technologies.

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 article 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. I have recently published a brief follow-up (with Naomi Egel) at the website Just Security which updates this analysis and argues for the continued salience of the mine ban norm in US policymaking.

A further ongoing project examines how actors seek to bolster their own status and undermine opponents by accusing them of transgressing international norms. I develop a series of conjectures concerning when accusations can prove successful which are then assessed through an examination of recent alleged violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. This research specifically highlights the social dynamics of instrumental norm use by identifying the nature and functions of international audiences. Strategic efforts do not occur in a vacuum, 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.

I have recently begun a new research project on the regulation of military activities in 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 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 future opportunities for space tourism, resource exploitation, and even human colonisation of celestial objects. This rapid expansion of human space activities presents profound challenges, most pressingly involving the accumulation of debris in low-Earth orbit and increasing confrontation among space powers that could involve military conflict 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, the development and contestation of norms regulating space weapons, and the global governance of space activities.