War and the Power of Standards

The unleashing of unprovoked acts of violence against the people of Ukraine has both horrified and united much of the world against Russia. Even historically neutral Switzerland has condemned Putin’s aggression. And aid is flooding into the beleaguered democracy from around the world.


Not because the Russian Federation has breached any existing treaty, but because Putin has violated widely shared standards of conduct and decency. And while nations have the sovereign right to withdraw from written agreements, they are powerless to disavow an international consensus over what nations may and may not do. Or to avoid the consequences when they violate that consensus.

Standards vs. Laws

The superior power of standards over laws is rarely appreciated. Yet hundreds of thousands of standards manage everything from telecommunications to information technology to professional certifications to almost anything else we can imagine. And while these private sector developed standards are often referenced into law, a far greater number are followed entirely voluntarily. In other words, the enormous benefits of a thoroughly standardized world are achieved without the use of legislatures, police, courts, or prisons.

The source of this surprising behavior lies in the fact that standards are created through a system that requires consensus. That system incorporates rules that guarantee that all may participate, that every stakeholder can be heard, and that each concern will be fairly considered. This level playing field reassures relevant stakeholders that they have more to gain than to lose by helping develop standards, and then adopting them. In other words, the uptake of standards is based on trust and self-interest rather than compulsion and the threat of punishment.

But standards do not come into being only through formal organizations. They also arise from a public consensus over what behavior is justified and what is not. Those standards, as we are seeing today, can be more powerful than Security Councils, treaties, or prior political assumptions. In country after country, public outrage over Russian aggression has pushed governments and even sports federations to act in ways that might otherwise be against their political or economic best interests. Even corporations are voluntarily taking actions they would normally resist if required by pending legislation.

It is easy to imagine how Vladimir Putin might forget that standards hold more power than treaties. Like other autocrats living in the bubbles of their own authority, he has learned that standards can be flouted at home through the heavy handed means a police state can wield. But the ability to violate standards ends at an autocrat’s borders, and a strongman forgets that hard truth at his peril.

Standards and the Will to Defend Them

If the brave citizens of Ukraine have a hope for survival, that chance lies in the continuing power of standards to rally freedom loving people everywhere to Ukraine’s defense. But this war may well grind on and public interest may flag. The peoples of the world will need to remember that the defense of standards everywhere represents the best protection against enemies anywhere.

Through this lens and in no small way, the ultimate fate of Ukraine will help signal the path of our own futures. Standards do indeed have power, but only when backed by the sustaining will of those that believe in them.

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