The Dissolution of Norms

In an increasingly interconnected and digital world, recognition of and adherence to unified norms of cyber governance are of paramount importance if order and security are to be maintained. Simply put, nations, and to a lesser degree – individuals – must agree to guard the digital commons and to refrain from engaging in nefarious acts of cyber hostility against each other in order to preserve the peace and to ensure the Web’s continued utility. All of this is quite obvious and intuitive, and requires little further exposition.

The problem with the bulk of the theoretical frameworks designed to deal with these concerns is that they have been fashioned upon precedent frameworks, frameworks that are profoundly dated, pre-digital, and predominantly Western. They are anachronisms repurposed for postmodernity. These models presumed that the West would always be ascendant, that warfare would always occur in real-time, and presumed the continuing primacy of the Western rationalist approach to global governance. Specifically, these models presume the universality of rationalism. The presumption is that every nation is largely the same, with largely consonant goals, and have a similar willingness to place economic concerns ahead of various other passion projects.

The assumption was that every nation, particularly the powerful ones would submit to rules of warfare because they collectively understood the dangers of not doing so: mutually assured destruction, increased and unsustainable costs, instability, insecurity, etc. It was taken for granted that the weaker (non-Western) nations would take the lead from the advanced (Western) nations in this regard and that this state of affairs, this world order would be accepted by all as being prima facie beneficial for all.

Man makes plans, and God laughs. 

The West fell. The BRICs rose. Rather than the homogeneity, hegemony, order and unification of norms pledged to the world by the West, we instead have the diversity, multipolarity, chaos, and competing norms proffered by the Rest. And what norms those are: China reneging on accords, China pilfering data, Iran doing…whatever the hell it is that Iran does, Russia maliciously accessing government intelligence, and the list goes on.

The failure of norms. The failure of Western norms as non-Western players come to the fore.

Nothing demonstrates the failure of universalism and to a certain extent, diversity better than this current state of affairs. Though this particular breakdown is occurring on the macro level, there is a clear parallel on the micro level. Fundamentally, the macro problem and the micro problem are the same:

(1) Equality does not exist and different people are incapable of adhering to the same standards. Therefore, differing standards must be adopted for differing peoples, increasing costs for everyone

(2) Differences made to coexist in close proximity eventually lead to destruction.


Digital interconnectivity creates a historically unprecedented  degree of global proximity, but not all nations and peoples are inclined to engage with this Brave New World in a civilized, orderly fashion. The norms set forth to govern this world are seen by many not as norms, but rather as illegitimate, arbitrary rules that may be flouted if and when beneficial to the flouter.

“The norm” is the standard. There can be but one standard, one “right way” of doing things. There may be deviations to the right or to the left, but the standard remains: immutable, the lodestar. The creation of norms arise from common culture, a common understanding of the world, a common value system. The former Western powers had (and still have) much in common. These commonalities provided the basis for their post-1945 conduct towards each other. Trust based societies with respect for the rule of law and for national sovereignty; equals. These characteristics make them predictable, orderly, and highly unlikely to engage in cyber hostilities against each other of their own accord. The operation of internalized norms, one might say.

The problem is that now, culturally alien unequals have a seat at the table. Entities with no respect or use for the rule of law are expected to abide by law and keep lawlessness at bay. Entities with radically divergent interests and objectives and with radically divergent outlooks are expected to converge (or at least set aside differences) for the greater good. This is an impossibility. Order must necessarily break down under this strain, making the world a profoundly less secure place for all. If order is to be maintained, parallel systems of governance must be created to apply to different peoples, at once repudiating equality and destroying the very concept of norms.

There can be no security without norms, and there can be no norms without homogeneity, hegemony, and common culture. Diversity precludes security. You may have one or the other, but never both.

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