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How Strategic Norm-Shaping Undergirds America’s Command of the Commons

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Document pages: 58 pages

Abstract: The United States government established a Freedom of Navigation program in 1979 with the mandate to conduct diplomatic and military activities to protest other states’ excessive maritime claims and encourage those states to harmonize their claims with U.S. interpretations of international law. Despite the prominence of this program in U.S. maritime strategy, there have been no systematic studies of the patterns in U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs). This paper presents a dataset of all U.S. FONOPs conducted since 1991, which shows that the United States does not conduct FONOPs vis-à-vis all excessive maritime claims everywhere in the world every year. The frequency of such operations varies across time and space. This paper thus develops a theoretical explanation for how the United States decides to conduct FONOPs when and where it does. This paper hypothesizes that the United States uses FONOPs as part of a strategic effort to shape international maritime norms in ways that sustain its command of the sea by legitimating its naval access to key straits and littorals. The paper then outlines a research design for testing this theory and implements the first stage of that empirical strategy. Using statistical data, process tracing, and discourse analysis, this initial plausibility probe demonstrates that a theory of strategic norm-shaping is a strong candidate for explaining patterns in U.S. FONOPs.

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