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“Inter-National” Habermas: Contestation and Understanding under Conditions of Diversity

Peace Research Institute Frankfurt/Goethe University Frankfurt

Antje Wiener has an excellent intuition for the trends in world politics. The concept of contestation, which she first presented in 2004,1 became formative for international relations discourses on global orders and international norms in the following years, as scholars searched for tools to make sense of global politics that were being increasingly shaped by (fundamental) conflicts.

Wiener’s main theoretical point is that norms have a dual quality: “while stable over particular periods, they always remain flexible by definition.”2 A Theory of Contestation summarizes and further elaborates her approach to contestation, which she conceptualizes as “social practices, which discursively express disapproval of norms.”3 It presents her analytical framework to analyze such contestation and—very importantly—her normative take on contestation in global politics.

Being unable to discuss all parts of her book in this short contribution, I will focus on one specific aspect: the nascent democratic theory in her work and the normativity she ascribes to contestation. While she has distanced herself from a Habermasian research agenda on norms in global politics, I argue that her work implicitly aims to adapt Habermasian democratic theory to the international conditions of diversity—making such a democratic theory even more demanding.

An “Inter-National” World: Diversity in Global Politics

For Wiener, acknowledging the diversity of people’s backgrounds in a globalized world is key.4 Moreover, she makes a strong normative claim for global politics: both a global order and international norms require legitimation by norm users.5 For this acceptance, norms need “stakeholdership” early on.6 Beyond its normative importance, such early stakeholdership will also prevent potentially dangerous conflict over norms later on, when norms are supposed to be implemented and complied with.7

How can stakeholdership be fostered? Mere aggregation or representation of norm users’ interests is not an adequate strategy. Additionally, for Wiener, the creation of arenas for a kind of Habermasian deliberation—in other words, for exchanging arguments in a situation of mutual recognition—is also highly problematic in a global context of “cultural diversity.”8 According to Wiener, the Habermasian approach to international norms is too consensus-oriented and does not take contention sufficiently into account.9 It focuses on rational deliberation about rule change, leaving aside more emotional and culturally saturated forms of contestation.10 Following Tully’s analysis, for Wiener, Habermas is “difference-blind.”11

Indeed, the translation of a Habermasian idea of deliberation (or arguing) to international relations has its challenges. For deliberation to work in the ways envisioned, it must take place in a shared “lifeworld,” a societal context of shared values, interpretations, and perceptions.12 Only such a shared lifeworld allows for a joint framework of values, making it possible for interlocutors to understand each other’s justifications and arguments. Finding an equivalent model in a transnational context has therefore been a major challenge for international relations scholars. Most would confine the possibility of processes of arguing to diplomatic circles in which constant interaction takes place.13 Yet what happens after such diplomatic negotiations, when norms embedded in international conventions and regimes need to be implemented by states and complied with by addressees? Wiener’s concerns begin with this question.

Wiener argues that we are not living in an international, but in an “inter-national” world—a world beyond the interaction of only state actors—where individual socialization creates the background for our daily interpretation of norms.14 According to her, we do not rationally engage in rule-changing debates in the context of a shared lifeworld when contesting norms in a global context; instead, we bring our (domestically shaped) socio-cultural background to the table, making it an inter-national encounter.15 Based on our diverse individual normative baggage, we understand and interpret international norms differently. This “diversity premise”16 is central for Wiener’s approach to norms: it brings about the claim that all international norms are in a state of perpetual, latent contestation.

Discourse under Conditions of Diversity

Cultural diversity and varying interpretations of norms due to this diversity are a normal and normatively positive feature of global politics to Wiener. Things get tricky, however, when too much contestation arises, because contestation can turn into conflict (and non-compliance).17

Wiener’s main point is that we have to acknowledge processes of contestation and must create more space for them in order to prevent contestation from turning into conflict. In particular, we need transnational arenas (or “interfaces”18) to process contestation at the intermediate level between the establishment of general principles and the implementation of specific rules—which is where, according to Wiener, legitimacy is especially lacking.19 Boldly summarized: by talking intensively to each other and trying to understand why and how others interpret norms, we can “sort out the normative baggage”20 and create shared or accepted meanings. The design of such a transnational processing mechanism for contestations is not laid out in much detail in her book. Due to any such mechanism’s context dependence, it probably cannot be meaningfully outlined in any general way. Broadly, however, such processing should be based on regular and institutionalized access to these arenas for all involved stakeholders.21

I argue that Wiener’s normative approach therefore aims at translating a Habermasian focus on the power of discourse to the conditions of global diversity. The normative power resides less within contestation itself22 than within discourse.23 While difference-induced contestation activates discourse, only its processing via established institutions results in “shared understanding,”24 and finally in legitimacy. Contestation is therefore an instrument for creating a more legitimate international order:25 norms are only legitimate if contestation is institutionalized in a way that assures that the different meanings attached to norms are sorted out.

With such a perspective on discourse, Wiener presents a translation of Habermas’s democratic theory to transnational conditions of diversity. Implicitly, she shares central elements of Habermasian democratic theory. For democratic systems in domestic contexts, we cannot count on ideal deliberative processes, argues Habermas. Contestation needs to be institutionalized to allow for its (legitimacy-generating) processing; such institutionalization will assure that the voices of norm addressees will be heard and taken into account.26 Legal norms created by such an institutionalized process should, moreover, never be understood as end products, but are subject to processes of change and need to be interpreted in specific contexts.27

Besides these similarities, Wiener’s ideal of legitimacy might be even more demanding than Habermas’s. For Habermas, a norm would be valid if all participants in discourse can agree on it,28 even if participants offer different justifications for why it is valid.29 For Wiener, discourse on norms, kicked off by contestation, not only includes discourse over norm validity, but also the sorting out of the attached culturally produced meanings. Only once this step is completed are norms perceived as legitimate by norm users.

Future Research Directions

Wiener’s work highlights that a global order is shaped by diversity, which brings about the contestation of global norms. To not only analyze such contestation but to build a democratic theory of legitimate order under conditions of diversity is one of the laudable objectives of A Theory of Contestation. In doing so, Wiener also shifts the overall research agenda in international relations norm research from the question of how norms gain international validity towards contestation over application and implementation—a very important shift in my view.

Her approaches to contestation and understanding also open many venues that will be productive for furthering a more general research agenda on contestation and norm legitimacy. I will limit myself to three fields in this regard. First and most importantly, what does a “sorting out”30 of meanings attached to norms mean in practice? An answer to this question would also help assess how demanding Wiener’s normative theory really is. She argues that “the power of norms depends on the degree to which normative meaning overlaps in socio-cultural interfaces.”31 Do addressees need to find only “some” overlapping meaning? Do they have to agree on the same meanings? Or is there space for diverse understanding and interpretations of norms, as long as norm addressees are aware of such differences and as long as they agree that a norm is valid, for example, in processes of domestic appropriation and localization?32 In short: how much diversity in interpretation can we maintain in a legitimate global order?

Second, global institutionalization processes are always prone to abuses based on power asymmetries. Here, future work could explore how regular contestation can be institutionalized at a global level while avoiding the pitfalls that much critical, feminist, and post-colonialist research has pointed out; examples are the marginalization of women and of people from the global South in many global governance arrangements, where unequally distributed financial resources, language barriers, and implicit discrimination often distort negotiation and deliberation processes. It should also take on the many challenges that research on transnational democratic theory has formulated, such as how such regular contestation can be disseminated and translated for a general public, and what decision-making processes should look like.

Third, further research should also explore to what extent an institutionalization of fundamental contestation is possible and desirable. What about actors who reject not only, say, specific regulations on net sizes in the field of fishery, but also a global capitalist liberal order at a more fundamental level—be they religious fundamentalists or activists of the global justice movement? Should they be integrated into a dialogue aiming at sorting out interpretations of norms, and if so, how? Or are they to be excluded, as they do not share the more general principles of a liberal order?33 In Wiener’s proposal, the institutionalization of regular contestation seems to be desirable, because it prevents the outbreak of more radical protest. Thus regular contestation is needed, as “the potentially conflictive outcome of political contestation … either as spontaneous protest, or conducted as strategic intervention, may … be ‘tamed.’”34 Such a view is quite top-down: Why is taming an objective, and why would actors contesting norms always want to be tamed? These questions aim at supporting the development of a full-fledged normative theory of contestation and understanding—a direction I very much hope Wiener will take.


Lisbeth Zimmermann is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, in Germany. She is also affiliated with the “Formation of Normative Orders” Cluster of Excellence at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Her main research interests are: norms in international relations; international organizations; peacebuilding and the promotion of democracy; and normative questions relating to democracy and legitimacy in global governance. She can be reached at .

I would like to thank Thorsten Thiel and the two Polity reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

1. Antje Wiener, “Contested Compliance: Interventions on the Normative Structure of World Politics,” European Journal of International Relations 10 (June 2004): 189–234.

2. Antje Wiener, “The Dual Quality of Norms and Governance beyond the State: Sociological and Normative Approaches to ‘Interaction’,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 10 (March 2007): 47–69, at 49.

3. Antje Wiener, A Theory of Contestation (Heidelberg: Springer, 2014), 1.

4. Ibid., 42.

5. Ibid., 3.

6. Ibid., 68.

7. Ibid., 36 and 65.

8. Ibid., 42.

9. Ibid., 9.

10. Ibid., 11.

11. James Tully, Public Philosophy in a New Key. Volume II: Imperialism and Civic Freedom (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 42; cited in Wiener, Theory of Contestation, 39 (see note 3 above). For a critical view of such an interpretation, see Patchen Markell, who argues that “Habermas conceives of democratic politics as an unending process of contestation” and gives a more nuanced view of Habermas’s understanding of conflict and consensus, in “Contesting Consensus: Rereading Habermas on the Public Sphere,” Constellations 3 (January 1997): 377–400, at 378.

12. Jürgen Habermas, Theorien des kommunikativen Handelns. Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft (Band 2) (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1981), 182–228. This does not preclude that such a lifeworld can also be created in and through discourse.

13. Nicole Deitelhoff, Überzeugung in der Politik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2006), 126–28.

14. Wiener, Theory of Contestation, 6–7 (see note 3 above).

15. Ibid., 47.

16. Ibid., 33.

17. Ibid., 36–65.

18. Ibid., 30.

19. Ibid..

20. Ibid., 41.

21. Ibid., 4 and 68.

22. For such a view, see ibid., 27; for a reading of A Theory of Contestation as “agonistic constructivism,” see Jonathan Havercroft and Raymond Duvall, “Challenges of an Agonistic Constructivism for International Relations,” Polity 49 (January 2017): 156–64.

23. Wiener’s approach thus differs from radical democratic theories or philosophies à la Mouffe or Rancière, in which contestation has normative power by itself, as a counter-power to existing institutionalized orders.

24. Wiener, Theory of Contestation, 39 (see note 3 above).

25. See also Jonas Wolff and Lisbeth Zimmermann, “Between Banyans and Battle Scenes: Liberal Norms, Contestation, and the Limits of Critique,” Review of International Studies 42 (July 2016): 513–34.

26. Jürgen Habermas, Faktizität und Geltung: Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaats, 4th ed. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1992), 155–56. Of course this process is complex and comes with all kinds of distortions and asymmetries in our modern societies.

27. Ibid., 159.

28. Jürgen Habermas, Die Einbeziehung des Anderen: Studien zur politischen Theorie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1996), 59.

29. Only moral norms must be based on strictly universal justifications.

30. Wiener, Theory of Contestation, 41 (see note 3 above).

31. Ibid., 30.

32. In Wiener’s framework, norm users are only able to accept or reject rules at the implementing stage based on individual interests; see ibid., 30. On the differentiation of contestation into norm application and norm validity, see Nicole Deitelhoff and Lisbeth Zimmermann, “Things We Lost in the Fire, How Different Types of Contestation Affect the Validity of International Norms,” PRIF Working Paper No. 18, Frankfurt/Main, Germany 2013.

33. On radical contestation, see also, in this symposium, Christian Bueger, “Practices, Norms, and the Theory of Contestation,” Polity 49 (January 2017): 126–31, at 130; Havercroft and Duvall, “Challenges,” 161 (see note 22 above); as well as Brent Steele, “Broadening the Contestation of Norms in International Relations,” Polity 49 (January 2017): 132–38.

34. Wiener, Theory of Contestation 14; see also 53 (see note 3 above).