Jonas Wolff, Lisbeth Zimmermann | 2016

Between Banyans and battle scenes: Liberal norms, contestation, and the limits of critique

in: Review of International Studies, 42: 3, 513-534.

In studying the global spread and implementation of liberal norms, scholars have moved from linear notions of norm diffusion and promotion to an emphasis on norm contestation. Contestation by the supposed beneficiaries and addressees has taken centre stage in both research on the norms that underpin global governance and in studies on democracy promotion and liberal peacebuilding. While the impetus of this scholarship is normative – to overcome the taken-for-granted nature of liberal norms – the concept of contestation itself is mainly used with an analytical interest. Yet, as we show in this article, contestation also comes with – oftentimes implicit – normative connotations. Focusing on the seminal work of Milja Kurki, Oliver Richmond, Antje Wiener, and Amitav Acharya, we reconstruct these normative connotations. It turns out that the normative take on contestation is fairly conventional in all four approaches. Contestation is largely seen as a means to enable dialogue, as illustrated by Acharya’s metaphor of the Banyan tree. Fundamental conflicts over liberal norms (‘battle scenes’) are either not considered or seen as normatively undesirable. As a way forward, we propose a typology that enables scholars to empirically analyse contestation in its different expressions and suggest two strategies to normatively assess practices of contestation.

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