John Karlsrud, Norm Change in International Relations – Linked ecologies in UN peacekeeping operations (London & New York: Routledge, 2016), 172 pp.

Reviewed by: Jan Lüdert (Assistant Professor, School of Applied Leadership, City University of Seattle, Washington, USA)

John Karlsrud’s Norm Change in International Relations – Linked Ecologies in UN Peacekeeping Operations, adds a practitioner’s view to scholarship concerned with the relevance of Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs). More specifically, the author focuses our attention on the United Nations as a “competitive arena” for multiple actors engaged in the development of peacekeeping norms. Karlsrud’s main objective is to substantiate how “linked ecologies”—defined as informal and formal linkages between “various environments that are involved in the development of peacekeeping norms and policies, such as member state and UN officials, academic scholars, think tank officials, and NGO activists”—are “crucial in driving norm change” (p.7). He achieves this by empirically tracing how on the ground “practices” are “codified into doctrine and guidelines” and how such codification shapes conventions and basic norms that undergird peacekeeping operations (ibid.). By opening the black box of the UN, Karlsrud effectively accounts for how bottom-up agency and alliances influence the evolution of norms in IGOs. Unlike other books on the subject, and because the author worked in various capacities for UN peacekeeping missions, this volume offers “an insider’s eye” (p.10) and one that focuses on “how practices evolve on the ground and what impact these may have for development in the organization” (p.12). Karlsrud’s book—by drawing attention to the underreported role of non-state actors in processes of norm contestation—thereby challenges state-centric explanations. His scholarship, as such, will be of interest to academics, bureaucrats, diplomats, and practitioners alike.


Karlsrud develops his argument over seven concisely written chapters. In Chapter 1, the author situates his professional background in a succinct contextualization of UN peacekeeping since the end of the Cold War. In Chapter 2, Karlsrud offers an eclectic theoretical framework drawing on constructivism, the sociology of professions, and practice theory. Chapters 3 to 6, all previously published article length case studies, aim to substantiate the conceptual framework on linked ecologies and the UN as a competitive arena. As part of this approach, Chapter 3 investigates practices by Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSG) as “norm arbitrators.” Karlsrud here finds that SRSGs balance conflicting norms by establishing “generative ambiguity” that enables UN staff in the field to act and, at times, against the wishes of dominant states (p.66). Chapter 4 applies the linked ecologies framework by highlighting the role of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, academics, and think tank policy experts to the normative evolution and current status of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). By augmenting available explanations on norm entrepreneurship, Karlsrud persuasively shows how informal alliances between various actors advanced the R2P norm change process from inside and outside the UN (p.86). Chapter 5, examines the development of the “integrated mission” concept in UN peacekeeping (p.95). Apart from underscoring how the concept developed “from the working level up,” Karlsrud identifies eight analytical features that make up the linked ecologies framework. These include, amongst others, the testing of normative traction outside formal UN venues, actors shifting roles inside and outside the UN (“revolving doors”), the essential role of state allies (specifically Norway) as well as that environments “must be ripe for a norm to proceed, and often there may be only a temporary window of opportunity” (p.113). Chapter 6 takes a broad look at the UN as a central convener for multiple actors engaged in normative contestation and change. By widening the “arena” concept in International Relations, Karlsrud poses in the case of UN policy on peace and security, that when “ecologies link up in a balanced manner” relationships between various actors can be “symbiotic.” Yet, he also cautions that such relations can become “skewed” when either the IGO gains too much leverage or Western academics and think tanks “set the agenda to the detriment” of member states in the Global South, as IGO principals (p.135). Chapter 7 offers an overview of the main findings, final observations and recommends future areas of research. Karlsrud underscores that the analytical choice of “taking a process-oriented view” to norm change helps balance constructivists understandings on the co-constitution between structures and agency (p.145). He argues effectively that IGOs are neither unitary organizations nor epiphenomenal agents acting solely on the behest of states and their interests but that they are better treated as internally heterogeneous sites of action that remain porous to external actors’ authority, expertise and influence.

Ultimately, Karlsrud shows that there is much to gain from treating IGOs as nested venues for multiple agents to contest global norms. In this way, he adds to emerging scholarship that treats IGOs as more than sites for “dysfunctional behavior, pathologies, and organized hypocrisy.” He illustrates instead how actions and practices by agents inside and outside an IGO “include instances of norm change where the relationship between existing norms is rebalanced” (p.145). As a work of scholarship, Karlsrud’s integration of interview data by UN staff, state diplomats, policy experts and academics is, if in part overly descriptive, well executed. Chapter 5 does an especially fine job at bringing the analytical framework to life through the marshaling of primary evidence. It offers a set of eight scope conditions of how norm change occurs through fine-grained empirical explanations. Indeed, his empirical descriptions of various actors’ authority, professional career trajectories, decisions and expertise enrich our understanding of IGOs and especially by shedding light on the complex pathways of normative contestation and change.

Karlsrud’s theoretical grounding and execution bridges constructivist explanations by Barnett, Keck, Sikkink, Finnemore, Seabrooke et al. with a focus on practices as espoused by Adler and Pouliot (p.38). Certainly, emphasis on praxis is central to his work. While such a focus is welcome, there are several sections where Karlsrud tends to leave the reader hanging by shifting between augmenting as well as critiquing constructivist theories. For instance, there could have been a more explicit explanation of what he views as the “Pavlovian grip that the concept of ‘bureaucratic culture’ puts on individual agency” in constructivist IR theory (p.33). To reinforce his conceptual model of linked ecologies and the UN as a competitive arena, it would have been especially helpful, to engage recent scholarship on norm contestation by Antje Wiener and others. By integrating this line of scholarship, the central tension of states seeking to minimize sovereignty costs, on the one hand, and the UN’s commitment to human rights and humanitarian norms on the other would have been more persuasive. In the final analysis, Karlsrud’s move to take agents’ practices center-stage provides a much-needed focus on how purposeful actions from the bottom up impact the evolution and uptake of norms in global governance. As IR, and the study of IGOs more specifically, becomes increasingly concerned with these issues Karlsrud’s work will continue to resonate. A logical step for developing Karlsrud’s praxis turn further, would be to extend the universe of cases to other Intergovernmental Organizations and global governance issue areas.


Feature image photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, RenseNBM