A defining characteristic of human behavior is that we organize ourselves into groups. These groups enable us to function effectively as collections of individuals. Individuals are self-interested; they behave in a way that benefits them and seek out things that will help them. However, one individual’s interests and behaviors can compete, and indeed oppose, the behaviors and interests of another. As a result of their pursuit for their interest individuals can thus come into conflict with other individuals. The groups we create, however, function as regulators – they provide customs and laws which inhibit what the individuals within it can do. Furthermore, these groups condition the individuals within them to operate in a certain way through customs and norms, which dictate what behaviors are accepted and taboo. By doing so, they limit the extent to which individuals can seek out and achieve their interest. This has the effect of limiting the conflict that arises in the group. Furthermore, by organizing individuals into a collective, groups can enable them to collectively pool their resources to better obtain similar interests and cooperatively resolve differences in interests.
The societies of individual states often operate in this manner. Think about your own community and your own society. Laws produced by the governing institutions of that society regulate your behaviors, and the enforcement of those laws ensures that those laws are followed. Though enforcement is not always capable of stopping some behaviors, they limit them enough that those behaviors do not negatively impact the society to a great degree. Cultural values and norms within your community also shape your behaviors – for example, in what you think, who you interact with and how.
Like how individuals are restricted in their actions by laws produced and enforced by their society, states in the international system can also be restricted in their actions by laws produced and enforced by the international community. Like how individuals generally engage in specific behaviors defined by the customs and norms of their society, states can also be conditioned to engage in certain behaviors defined by the customs and norms of the international system. Eventually, like how individuals can form a peaceful and cooperative society when governed by laws, customs, and organization, the states of the international system can interact in a cooperative and peaceful manner.
How would this be accomplished? States are collections of individuals; they represent the collective interest of the people living within their society. As such, they operate in a manner like individuals do. A common assumption about international relations is that states act in self-interested ways. They engage in behaviors that will further their interest, and will seek out resources to assist in their behaviors. However, there is presently no agency capable of limiting what the states may or may not do. As such, states still come into conflict. The creation of a regulating agency, which produces and enforces laws, would be able to constrain states in their actions. There presently exists an agency which produces laws for the international community, the United Nations, but it does not possess the means to enforce those laws so that the behaviors they regulate do not harm the international system. The ways in which the United Nations could develop a way to enforce laws are numerous, and many are fraught with issues and difficulty. However, once a regulating and enforcing agency comes into being that oversees the international community, it can be expected that the states in the community will temper their behaviors like how individuals in society do.
The development of international norms and customs is something that already exists within individual societies. By developing norms of behavior and taboo behaviors, states within the international community would also be constrained in their behaviors to maintain their legitimacy and credibility. Just as how an individual in society is ostracized for breaking social norms, so too would a state in the international community be ostracized for breaking international norms. The development of norms of behavior is a gradual process, but by virtue of the fact that interaction between states occurs regularly, these norms are constantly being produced. Over time, certain behaviors will be so recurrent that they will be expected of every state in the international system. This has occurred since the beginning of civilization, and the development of a global international community and increasing international interdependent will only expand the production of these norms.
If norms are created in the international system that taboo certain negative behaviors and condone certain cooperative behaviors, the states in the system would behave in an increasingly cooperative manner. Eventually, norms could develop that expect states to follow the international laws and regulations put into place by an overseeing agency, just like how society’s norms expect us to follow the laws of our government. When this occurs, states would be less likely to break the laws that were designed to govern the system, and if they do they would be ostracized by other states in the community. Because states collectively make up the entirety of the system, it would rely upon them to enforce those laws. Yet if norms exist that allow states to coercively enforce laws on states that break them, a precedent would further be set not to break them. In this manner, a system of enforced regulation and regulation by norms and taboos would limit the behavior of states enough that they are forced to behave cooperatively and peacefully like how individuals in a society do.
Developing norms of cooperative behavior and creating a system to enforce international law has the potential to drastically change the anarchical nature of the international system and, doing so, produce a peace and cooperative international community. Of course, there is still much to be done. Slowly, the norms produced by the system will constrain state behavior, and it is possible that a mechanism to enforce law will come to fruition. Until then, unfortunately, conflict will likely continue to be a reality plaguing humanity.