In the era of globalization, the international system operates by a plethora of worldwide regimes that regulate a gamut of interstate activity, ranging from security concerns to economic partnerships. From the 20th century to the present, states have become increasingly beholden to an abundance of international rules and institutions. It is difficult to conceive of an arena of global intercourse free from regimes, where states are not obligated to follow agreed-upon prescriptions and practices. While many scholars accept that such regimes provide much-needed guidance in the anarchic international system, there is a great deal of disagreement between liberal institutionalists, realists and social constructivists as to how international regimes form, evolve and perform. After reviewing the different theoretical assessments of regimes, I call for greater theoretical refinement to these distinct frameworks in order to more fully address and explain persistent questions surrounding international regimes.
Krasner (1982) defines regimes as “sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations” (p. 186). A classic example is the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was founded on an commitment between nations to the norms and principles of free trade and the removal of tariffs and other trade barriers. As the GATT evolved into the World Trade Organization (WTO), its members developed and amended its rules and systems to realize this commitment, especially as new members from the developing world pushed for new terms that reflected their place in the global economy. Krasner distinguishes between “structuralists” (realists) who see the causal variable behind regime formation as political power, with hegemonic countries using their substantial influence or coerce other nations to support a regime supportive of their interests, and “modified structuralists” or liberal institutionalists, who portray regimes as voluntary agreements that permit members to cooperate and realize mutual interests rather than engage in cutthroat competition.
Krasner (1985) supplies evidence of the realist approach to regimes in his analysis of growing demands by developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s for economic regime reform on the basis that the status quo was exploitative and unfair to less developed economies. The validity of such claims aside, Krasner argues that the developing countries are unlikely to succeed unless the global balance of power moved against the United States and its Western allies. From the realist perspective, the regimes promoted by the U.S. stem from hegemonic interest rather a desire to guarantee optimal outcomes for all member states via free and fair collaboration. Scholars have adopted similar stances with many other regimes. Chorev and Babb (2009) claim the U.S. has used global financial institutions to intrude into the decision-making of developing nations to force them to adopt neoliberal economic policies. Similarly, Kuziemko and Werker (2006) find that the U.S. has used its control over UNICEF to greatly increase foreign aid to countries that rotate onto the United Nations Security Council, especially in years where important diplomatic events occur. In essence, the realist perspective holds that regimes serve as a means by which hegemonic countries, through hook or crook, impose their world order.
Of course, this begs the question as to why such subordinate states would continue to adhere to regimes counter to their interests. While Shanks, et al (1996) found that, between 1981 and 1992, most of the international organizations that emerged during that decade were dominated by wealthy Western countries seeking to expand their economic activity, it was regional organizations limited to geographic location rather than universal ones that had tended to die off in that period. This is noteworthy as poorer states would be more likely to exercise influence and find common cause in small, regional groupings than indiscriminate ones open to hegemonic dominance. One potential explanation lies in game theory and the desire of actors to coordinate strategies, even if it means a possible suboptimal outcome. For example, Italy’s first preference would be for a place on the U.N. Security Council, but since it is more likely that its regional economic rival Germany would benefit from a new spot thanks to support from its allies, Italy instead advocates for a common European Union seat on the Council. To return to the developing world and trade with the West, even though it is unlikely that terms more favorable to less developed economies will be realized as long as the balance of power remains with the U.S. and the other industrialized Western nations, it is far better to trade with the West under disadvantageous terms and lobby for reform than to adopt economic isolation and be denied the chance that some sort of mutually acceptable compromise could be reached. Hence, they accept an undesirable status quo.
In contrast, liberal institutionalists perceive international regimes not as grudging compromises but rather as rational agreements that curb the excesses of anarchy. In the anarchic international system, there is nothing stopping states from selling weapons to dictators, disrupting trade with protectionist policies or polluting the planet in various ways for the sake of outcompeting rival nations. States may be inclined to cooperate rather than compete to avoid such undesired behavior, but they are faced with the prisoner’s dilemma: like two partners in crime separated for interrogation by the authorities, states know that their best interest is to work together, but since there is no assurance they will not be betrayed, it is rational to defect first than risk being the victim of defection. Liberal institutionalists acknowledge that hegemonic countries sometimes are required to enforce certain rules via their power, citing the “free rider” problem found in the social movements literature that predicts some actors will not contribute to the sustaining of a movement because they know someone else will do so (Olson 1965). Yet liberal institutionalists also argue that, once collaboration is consolidated, states will follow the rules of cooperation even without a hegemonic enforcer because they have learned that cooperation is better than unrestrained competition. Accordingly, consolidated regimes will survive even after the removal of a hegemonic power from the equation, and even should a state defect, it can expect that it will be treated in a reciprocal manner – that is, it too will be subject to intense competition, leading to suboptimal results (Keohane 1984). Regimes essentially promote themselves through learned behavior.
When it comes to formulating regimes, liberal institutionalists argue that states shape them according to their interests. Koremenos, et al (2001) build on the “folk theorem” of rational cooperation arising from repeated interaction, asserting that states design institutions around structural constraints derived from past choices (path dependence) and subsequently modify those institutions over time as they encounter requirements to do so. They note that the effective regimes that tend to get reproduced provide “select incentives” to member states to encourage rule adherence, thus preventing the “free rider” problem from persisting as an issue. Overall, institutional designs that demonstrate themselves to be efficient are later emulated when states construct new regimes. In terms of their outcomes, Haftel (2007) finds that regimes are effective in mitigating violent conflict and promoting peaceful resolutions through a combination of economic interdependence and regular meetings among state elites, as such relations decreases ambiguity and uncertainty between states. As much of the literature on economics and security suggests, states can employ their position in economic regimes to send signals to adversaries about their resolve and their intentions, reducing the need for direct aggression.
A critique lobbed at liberal institutionalists is that their glowing diagnoses of international regimes emerge from the luxury of hindsight; institutional designs that survive and thrive must have been formulated rationally, while those that struggle and fail must be underpinned by irrationality. Social constructivists such as Wendt (2001) challenge the assumption that the expected consequences of institutional design necessarily match the real outcomes. States, he argues, design regimes not according to their instrumental function alone, but also factor in considerations of normative appropriateness. Rather than operating according to egotistic self-interest as the liberal institutionalists posit, states follow their own internalized values. For example, while it might make logical sense for liberal states like Great Britain to seek further integration into the common market of the European Union, normative values of sovereignty and nationalism lead to widespread skepticism and even hostility toward such steps, even if the adoption of the euro would not make Britain an iota “less British.” Furthermore, certain regime types and institutional designs will empower certain actors who, in turn, will wield influence in the establishment of future designs; indeed, referring back to Shanks, et al (1996), much of the growth in institutions during the 1981 to 1992 period were due to emanations, second-order institutional organizations that emerged from prior ones. Moreover, Wendt notes, what designers of regimes may intend from the start is not necessarily what remains the guiding force behind the institution moving forward. On both points we can refer back to the GATT/WTO as a useful example. The GATT began as a project of the great powers in the postwar period with the goal of fostering greater free trade. As such, a great deal of power was vested into the leading economic powerhouses of the industrialized West. When the GATT transformed into the WTO, it was those countries given agenda-setting power that largely determined the principles and rules of the WTO. Yet the inclusion of developing countries in the expanded regime meant that intentions had changed; the principles and rules now had to account to the interests of the poor, developing countries as well. Thus the current WTO, much larger than the GATT but also subject to more disputes and seemingly endless rounds of negotiations, is far different in character and function than its founders likely intended.
While it is difficult to conclude which of the above approaches to regimes and their formation is fully satisfying in isolation, it certainly does seem as though the liberal institutionalist is perhaps the least compelling. Wendt’s criticism that much of what is termed “rationally designed” is neither very rational nor freely designed is quite valid, and it makes sense that scholars should afford attention to particular contexts – both for differing norms as well as disparate historical contingencies – to grasp how regimes are formed and how they operate. For example, one may be inclined to agree with Haftel about the peace-promoting effect of institutional arrangements by considering the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the purely macro level, but closer analysis suggests that the postwar peace in Europe owes itself to the regional integration of economies and institutions, whereas the lack of conflict among the ASEAN states can be attributed to long-standing norms of respecting sovereignty and non-interventionism stemming from postcolonial sentiment and non-alignment during the Cold War (Acharya 2009). Yet social constructivism does not afford as much causal significance to political power as it probably should; while states do factor in the propriety of their actions into their calculations, historical evidence abounds of states employing the appearance of legitimacy and benevolence to mask actions rooted in greed and desire for profit. Examples range from the “white man’s burden” of the colonial period to the “humanitarian interventions” of the modern era that are all too often thin justifications for violating the sovereignty of other nations in order to further the interests of a hegemonic aggressor. There is merit to the notion that there is cultural relativity when it comes to values, yet it is probable that the famous realist norm of “The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must” is a guiding principle when it comes to the actual exercise of state power.
There are scholars who do call for a nuanced approach to the study of regimes and evaluation of their performance. Gutner and Thompson (2010) advocate for analyses of institutional processes as well as outcomes, and discuss how performance may be traced to internal or external actors. This echoes the work of Mahoney and Thelen (2010), who argue that institutional change is often gradual, with vested interests acting as external veto players to reform while internal actors have varying degrees of discretion to implement their change. To understand how change occurs or fails, it is critical to understand the relative position of such actors. For example, how did the International Monetary Fund (IMF) evolve from a global financial stabilizer to a tool of the Washington Consensus, attaching neoliberal policy prescriptions as loan conditions to developing countries? Was this due to “mission creep,” as economists like Joseph Stiglitz argue, with free market fundamentalists overzealously promoting such a direction from within the IMF? Or was this due instead to the sort of “mission push” claimed by Naomi Klein, with the U.S. using its commanding influence in the IMF to subject nations to “shock therapy” in order to penetrate their markets? A comprehensive framework that affords equal attention to the relative power of internal and external actors permits scholars to factor in the internal ideologies of regimes, the role of political power in promoting or hindering actions, and how particular historical moments may result in different dynamics and outcomes in a particular epoch.
Although there seems to be agreements between scholars on the need for international regimes in an anarchic world, little else about regimes seems to broker much accord. Despite this cacophony, we should not reject all extant theories of regimes, their origins and their performance, but instead refine perspectives to find an nuanced, comprehensive theoretical framework that serves us well. By being particular rather than parsimonious, we may succeed in moving scholarship forward.
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- Wendt, Alexander (2001). “Driving with the Rearview Mirror: On the Rational Science of Institutional Design.” International Organization 55(4): 761-799.