Believe it or not, the gray battleship of the establishment’s fleet, Foreign Affairs, published an article decrying the use of cluster bombs during the Vietnam War. I can believe it because I was the author. How in the world did this staid journal publish an essay by an anti-war activist titled, “Weapons Potentially Inhumane: The Case of Cluster Bombs,” in its April 1974 issue?

Here’s my theory: The Council on Foreign Relations had recently chosen William Bundy, brother of McGeorge, as its new editor of Foreign Affairs. Both men were heavily involved in the Vietnam War, McGeorge as the national security adviser for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Bill as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The latter’s appointment as editor of Foreign Affairs elicited howls of protest within the Council which, like the rest of U.S. society, was riven by divisions over the war. My hunch is that Bill Bundy, who didn’t know me from Adam, published this article as a rejoinder to those who opposed his appointment, and as a personal declaration of editorial independence.

My article was a period piece, written when creating a norm against the use of cluster bombs was completely beyond the pale. Instead, I proposed feeble operational and procedural limits on their use. For those who think that arms control is a hopeless affectation or a cadaver waiting to be buried, consider this: In 2008, representatives from over 100 nations gathered in Oslo to adopt the text of a Convention to ban the development, production, possession, transfer and use of most types of cluster munitions.

When treaties aren’t possible, codes of conduct that establish norms will do. Curtailing the use of cluster bombs, like land mines, has been an exercise in progressive norm-building. In both cases, arms control has not been driven from the top down. The United States, which usually is behind the wheel for arms-control initiatives, has barely been in the back seat for Conventions dealing with cluster bombs and land mines.

It’s easy to take potshots at the Convention on Cluster Munitions. There are plenty of important outliers besides the United States, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, and Brazil. Many Arab states have also kept their distance. A nuclear-related treaty without these signatories would not help very much. Why, then, seek normative measures in this instance? One reason is because cluster munitions, unlike nuclear weapons, have often been used on battlefields.

Norms are broken, especially at the outset, and especially by outliers. Since the turn of this century, cluster bombs have reportedly been used in civil wars within Syria, Sudan, and Libya; during clashes between Russian and Georgian troops; by Israeli forces against Hezbollah in Lebanon; by American and British forces in Iraq; and by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The outliers listed above aren’t surprising. What’s most notable about this list is that includes the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.

The continued battlefield use of cluster munitions provides more ammunition to skeptics of the CCM. What’s the use of arms control that doesn’t change the behavior of outliers but constrains the military options of responsible states? This familiar argument, if carried to its logical conclusion, would result in a world without any sustainable controls over weapons that have extraordinary lethality and/or indiscriminate effects.

Norms matter. They set standards for responsible behavior. They clarify outlier status. Without norms, bad behavior is far less condemnable and harder to stop. If and when outliers want to improve their forlorn status, accepting norms is one way to do so. Conventions also have value for states that wish to disassociate themselves from outliers. The United Kingdom signed the CCM in 2008 and ratified it in 2010. Martin Butcher emailed me that, as of September 2012, seventy per cent of the UK’s stocks have been destroyed. He adds, “The UK does not allow the US to stockpile cluster munitions in the UK. We do have an issue with some UK companies continuing to finance clusters abroad, but that is getting worked out.”

When major powers fail to sign Conventions, outliers enjoy greater political cover. When major powers use these weapons because of perceived military imperatives, they place themselves in very poor company. When major powers avoid using “branded” weapons but don’t sign up, they find themselves in limbo, an awkward cul-de-sac where leadership contracts.

Norms relating to branded weapons, such as cluster munitions and landmines, have already demonstrated their utility. They have reaffirmed outlier status and provided mechanisms to change it. They have shaming and shrinking effects on non-outlier states that use branded weapons. Over time, these clarifying effects strengthen norms.