Negotiations and ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power

By Lena Partzsch

Lena Partzsch (biography)

What can we learn from international relations about how ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power can be used in successful negotiations, for example, for pathways to sustainability? Here I build on Ian Manners’ (2002) concept of “Normative Power Europe”. He argues that the European Union’s specific history “pre‐disposes it to act in a normative way” (Manners 2002: 242) based on norms such as democracy, rule of law, social justice and respect for human rights. I explore the broader ramifications of the normative power concept for empirical studies and for practical negotiation and collaboration more generally.

First, the concept of normative power implies that the spread of particular norms is perceived as a principal policy goal, whether that relates to foreign policy, environmental policy or other kinds of policy. This requires understanding:

  • which norms the actors involved in negotiations pursue;
  • whether these identified norms are internationally shared norms;
  • which interests these norms support, especially if they are narrow or sectional.

Second, normative power assumes that joint action is possible. “Power with” implies learning processes that allow actors to question self-perceptions and to actively build up new awareness (Partzsch and Fuchs 2012). This requires understanding:

  • if all relevant actors are involved in the negotiations and contribute to finding consensus or compromise;
  • whether there are mutual learning processes that allow actors to develop a new understanding of what is just and what is unjust;
  • whether there are instances of persuasion and learning in negotiation and collaboration.

At the same time, we should not lose sight of asymmetries due to some actors’ potentially privileged material or ideational capacities.

Third, the concept of normative power assumes that public actors (eg., governments) can enforce particular norms on business and civil society, such as respect for human rights. This requires understanding:

  • whether the actors with public authority can regulate other actors and, also, the scale at which they can act;
  • what the prospects of success are, ie., will business and civil society actors actually change their practices in the face of negotiated rules to do so.

These three criteria can be used as a theoretical framework to analyse rule-making processing, including empirically (Partzsch, forthcoming). The criteria and associated questions are summarised in the table below.

Normative power criteria and associated questions

Practical implications

One use of these ideas is in designing international negotiations, where ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power is based on universal norms. Where norms come into play that are not universal, proactively involving “power with” and staying open to learning about other norms and being able to change one’s own positions is crucial. Finally, commitment to the adopted rules and their public enforcement are also important outcomes.

These ideas may also be useful in negotiations on smaller scales, such as in research collaborations. I would be interested to hear how you think they may be useful in your work.

Manners, I. (2002). Normative power Europe: A contradiction in terms? Journal of Common Market Studies, 40, 2: 235–258.

Partzsch, L. (Forthcoming). The new EU Conflict Minerals Regulation: Normative power in international relations? Global Policy.

Partzsch, L. and Fuchs, D. A. (2012). Philanthropy: Power within international relations. Journal of Political Power, 5, 3: 359–376.

Biography: Lena Partzsch PhD is Professor of Environmental and Development Policy at the Institute of Environmental Social Sciences and Geography, University of Freiburg, Germany. Her research interests lie in the fields of international relations and sustainability governance.

7 thoughts on “Negotiations and ‘normative’ or ‘ethical’ power”

  1. Dear Lena,
    Thanks. Very informative. I wonder about the ways, techniques and mechanisms that a power (eg China) can turn into a normative power. Is there any literature on this issue?

    • It depends on the normative intention of that actor (e.g., China). An actor, who has more resources than others, can use these resource to pursue selfish interests (e.g., China securing its access to resources in Africa) or common goals (e.g., China investing in infrastructure expansion in Africa to improve livelihoods). Sometimes such interests and goals overlap. Then separating the two is mainly an analytical matter. The EU is often said to have turned into an actor with increasing geostrategic intentions.

  2. Dear Lena,
    Thanks for sharing your work and reflections. I find the framework very interesting to understand decision making and power dynamics. Two thoughts: 1. I like the idea of normative power considering joint action. Understanding who the “relevant actors” are is always a challenge and is subjected to several interpretations and interests. Does Manners or your work provide any criteria to understand what stakeholders are relevant in international negotiations? 2. I see cooperation and leaning are at the core of the normative power concept. However, my experience suggests that in my field, international development, it is not common to meet actors and groups willing to change their practices based on collective learning, because that implies losing power, authority, move from their comfort zone, etc. Have you identified case studies or experiences that can illustrate this ramification of the normative power concept?
    All the best,

    • Dear Leandro,
      I agree with you. It is so sad that many – perhaps most – people working on issues such as poverty alleviation are first of all interested in their own personal stakes. However, I do not think that all of them are – and we should actually study the latter in order to understand how to make a difference.
      In democratic theory, we use the term of ‘citizen’ instead of ‘stakeholder’. Who is a citizen is mainly defined in geographical terms. Normally, you have citizenship of the country on which territory you live. Likewise, you belong to a community if you physically live on the territory of that community (of course, there are also ethnic definitions of citizenship). I have not yet approached the question of who is a stakeholder in a presciptive way. In my analyses, I first identified who was considered a stakeholder and who else was affected by the decisions made. However, thinking about it, I probably always had the idea in mind that all people living in a respective area should have a say.
      In an article with Doris Fuchs, we argued that philanthropy is “power with” in international relations, and we discussed this for the cases of Bill Gates and Michael Otto:
      Thanks for you comment,

      • Many thanks for your response Lena. I’ll look at the resource you share. And I look forward to learning more from your work. All the very best.

  3. Thank you Lena for these insights in the theory and practical implications of normative power.
    You raise the question if “actors with public authority can regulate other actors”. I agree that this is a key question. I would add: Are actors with private authority able to stimulate public actors to improve their norms and performance. In some contexts NGOs or companies might even be more progressive than governments.


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