Thursday, March 16, 2006

International Institutions: An Essay on Interest-based Regimes

Interest-based Regime Theory in International Relations


Over the last twenty-five years, IR has studied more closely issues of regime formation and regime change in international politics. This debate — like many in IR — has split along the various methodological fault lines: realism (and neorealism), neoliberal institutionalism, and constructivism (or cognitivism). Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger have regarded this debate as one between power-based theorists (realism), interest-based theorists (neoliberalism) and knowledge-based theorists (constructivism).[1] Of course, one theory has explained better than the others regime formation in international politics. Following Krasner’s classic definition of 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,” I set out to argue in favor of interest-based theories of regimes (Krasner 1982: 2). Basing this essay on the classic works of Robert Keohane, Arthur Stein and Oran Young, I suggest that these authors’ best describe regimes in international politics. Most interest-based theories are rooted in rationalism, state-centric in orientation and hesitant to conclude that “power” explains all in IR theory. For these reasons interest-based theories are particularly attractive. On the other hand, I am also sympathetic to the so-called “constructivist-turn” in IR and the “blind spots” of a rationalist ontology. While interest-based theorists have the most explanatory power, cognitivist approaches are worthwhile as critiques of the prevailing rationalist accounts.

Interest-based Regime Theory

Much of interest-based regime theory is centered on many of the assumptions developed in Robert Keohane’s seminal work, After Hegemony. Keohane’s work is grounded in a rationalist state-centric framework, in which actors are rational-egoists. In other words, actors’ behavior (generally states) is not altruistic or good-natured; rather, all states seek their self-interest with the mutual assurance that the regime maximizes the interest of all parties involved (Keohane 1984: 29, 53). For Keohane, he wondered about a world of cooperation “after hegemony,” where hegemony had eroded among superpowers, and the international environment consisted of many regimes and institutions (Keohane 1984: 49). While Keohane surmised that cooperation was hard, and could easily lead to situations of discord,[2] regimes and institutions could benefit states by incorporating cooperative strategies. By cooperation, he meant a process whereby states, “adjust their behavior to the actual or anticipated preferences of others, through a process of policy coordination” (Keohane 1984: 51). Some have referred to Keohane’s approach to regimes as contractual. In order for states interest to be realized, they must cooperate and share common interests in the issue-area with which the regime is concerned (Hasencalver, Mayer and Rittberger 2002: 30).

Keohane’s work was a response and critique of what he described as the “basic-force” models dominating IR. In short, basic-force models perceive that regimes are formed with the interests of the most powerful states involved (Bessette and Haufler 2001: 72). Looked at another way, Keohane seemed to be engaging Kenneth Waltz directly in a debate about the role of regimes in the world. Waltz was skeptical of the impact of institutions and regimes in an anarchic world order, and thought that the rise of multilateral institutions could threaten stability in the world (Waltz 1979: 171). Realist Joseph Grieco had similar suspicions. He believed international cooperation was hindered in two ways: states were concerned about cheating and states were also concerned about relative gains (Grieco 1988: 487). Grieco suggested that the optimism of neoliberals was unwarranted. Despite realist’s and neorealist’s critical analyses, neoliberal institutionalists shared many of the same assumptions about rationality, the self-interested behavior of states, and the overall systemic nature of international politics (Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger 2002: 28). However, playing on the terms generated by the neorealist camp greatly strengthened Keohane’s and other interest-based theorists work.

One of the more interesting innovations of the new neoliberal institutionalism that was not shared by neorealists was the utilization of the Prisoner’s dilemma. Borrowed from the models of economic theory, the Prisoner’s dilemma illuminates the ultimate problem with cooperation in a world of misinformation and bounded rationality. Summarized succinctly, two prisoners are given the option to accuse the other of a particular crime. By ratting the other out, or “defecting”, one prisoner would receive a lighter sentence than if he cooperated and risked defection by his counterpart. Thus, as Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger have pointed out, “defection is the dominant strategy,” because the prisoner will never get the worse sentence by doing so (Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger 2002: 45).

Scholars associated with interest-based regime theory have elaborated more on Prisoner’s dilemma since. Arthur Stein agreed with Keohane that cooperation could be harnessed in an anarchic international system and that the “distribution of power” does not explain regime formation (Stein 1982: 140). Moreover, Stein’s rationalism mimicked Keohane: self-interested, joint decision-making leads to the most optimal outcomes for all states involved (Stein 1982: 120). But Stein, generally identified with the situational-structure school, argued that Keohane and the contractual school applied the Prisoner’s dilemma in a general sense about regime formation. For situational-structuralists, the Prisoner’s dilemma can manifest itself in a variety of “situations.” Hence, different PDs give way to different kinds of regimes. Situtation-structuralists identified two such types, collaboration regimes and coordination regimes. Situations where PD-like outcomes are prominent require collaboration regimes, which are highly institutionalized and involve mechanisms which deter and, sometimes, penalize cheaters. Coordination regimes, on the other hand, are less-formal and generally are centered around one “coordination-point.” When regimes no longer agree on this coordination-point, there is no reason for the regime to exist. Cheating is minimal, if not non-existent (Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger 2002: 48-49).

Lastly, Oran Young offers further exploration of interest-based regime analysis. Young was one of the first social scientists to explore the growth of regimes in international politics. Differing from the situational-structural school however, Young suspected that leadership mattered greatly in regime formation. In a more behavioral analysis of regimes, Young speculates that “focusing on the actions of individuals [and] differentiating…among several forms of leadership,” best explained variation among regimes (Young 2001: 15). Described sometimes as the “institutional bargaining,” model, Young argues that situational-structuralists and Keohane’s contractual school ignore the tremendous amount of “behind the scenes” bargaining that states enter into in order to form a regime (Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger 2001: 69). In more recent work, Young has explored regime effectiveness and concluded that the best way to understand ineffective regimes is to “focus on the behavior of actors,” and advocated that “behavioral changes serve to alleviate the problems under consideration” (Young 1999: 278). Stein has critiqued Young for generalizing regimes as little more than agreements among actors, which Stein equates to the normal workings of international politics, not of regimes (Stein 1982: 117).

Young’s account of “institutional bargaining” is intriguing because the theory is avowedly not a rationalist account of regime formation.[3] This might seem surprising since Keohane’s rationalist, neoliberal institutional model has had such import on debates about regimes. Young argues that rationalists are too optimistic about the ability to cooperate in an anarchic world order. Whereas Keohane believes that reducing uncertainty is what motivates the formation of regimes, Young suggests that the uncertainty enables actors to form regimes (Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger 2001: 70, 73). Although Young has been considered an outlier among interest-based regime theorists, Keohane, Stein and Young all agree that actors are essentially self-interested and regimes can achieve joint gains for all by coordinating behavior.

A Constructivist Turn?: Weaknesses of Interest-based Regimes

The constructivist turn in IR has questioned the set of assumptions that neoliberals and neorealists departure from. One of the more important distinctions cognitivists and constructivists have stressed is their independence from rationalism. The rationalist account is utilitarian in nature and treats state identities and preferences as exogenous. This has frustrated cognitivists who believe in the power of ideas and knowledge as shaping preferences in a way that rationalists have ignored (Hasenclaver, Mayer and Rittberger 2001: 136).[4] Another distinction between constructivists and rationalists that has been particularly heated is the extent to which the international system can be rigorously tested by empirical observation. Rationalists have generally critiqued constructivists for a failure to test hypotheses, and constructivists have been unwillingly (and in some cases unable) to subject their work to empirical scrutiny. But as we have seen with the interest-based theorists, variation exists among cognitivists too. Prominent social constructionist Alexander Wendt is not “post-positivist” in the slightest, and thinks that science and constructivism are not opposites at all (Wendt 1999: 39). Moreover, responding to a pressure from Andrew Moravcsik and other rationalists, constructivist Jeffrey Checkel has outlined five testable hypotheses that even a rationalist could understand (Checkel 2001: 222).[5]

On the other hand, constructivists have something to offer interest-based regime theorists as well. Two points of concern are particularly prescient. First, interest-based theorists would be served well by thinking more thoroughly about the most basic assumption their hypotheses are grounded in: that actors are rational-egoists that seek cooperation to enhance their own ends. Empirically, there are possibilities where actors might not act in strictly rational-egoist terms. Robert Keohane has remarked that states sometimes might relax their “egoist” concerns which would open the way for what he calls “empathetic interdependence” (Keohane 1984: 174). As Keohane has remarked: “Much governmental aid can be explained on narrowly self-interested grounds, but this explanation may not be convincing in accounting for [some] programs” (Keohane 1984: 173). More theoretically, the strong cognitivist critique of rational-egoism argues that knowledge, which shapes beliefs and normative ideas, ultimately influences state interests (Hasencalver, Mayer and Rittberger 2001: 138). Thus to presume that self-interest is merely a “given” is problematic for the cognitive IR theorist.

Secondly, another weakness of interest-based regime theory has been the general unwillingness to accept criticism from the cognitivist camp. Interest-based theorists have demanded that constructivists should “play by their terms” or not be taken seriously. This is a serious flaw not only because it hinders open dialogue between social scientists, but also limits the possibilities of scholars learning from one another. Surprisingly, neoliberals and interest-based theorists suffered the same fate from their realist colleagues, who openly mocked their insistence that institutions mattered in global politics (See Mearshiemer 1993, and Strange 1983). International regimes, as Krasner has defined, also converge around particular principles and norms that are a regime’s “defining characteristics” (Krasner 1983: 16). Cognitivists and constructivists have examined norms at length, and potentially have a lot to offer interest-based theorists.

Conclusion and A Future Agenda

Interest-based regime theories, thus far, have best explained the goings-on of regimes in international politics. Despite disagreements between Keohane, Stein and Young about rationalism, variation of regime formation, and the extent to which PD can explain different types of regimes, ultimately these authors weave together, a build-off one another, a powerful explanation for the existence of regimes. As I have pointed out, however, the constructivist turn in IR has some merit. Although neoliberals might be unwilling to overturn their most basic assumption – that actors are rational-egoists using cooperation to achieve joint gains – there is nevertheless room to explore further this assumption. In an ideal situation, interest-based theorists might be able to subsume their constructivist counterpart. In other words, agree with cognitivists that knowledge and learning shape preferences, then go on to show why these preferences are still rational-egoist in nature. Lastly, interest-based agendas in the future could delve further into constructivist territory. By this I do not mean that interest-based theorists adopt constructivism as a starting point. Rather, interest-based theories could take into account the role of norms and ideas in politics more seriously in their work.

[1] Bessette and Haufler have tried to explicate a fourth notion of regime analysis that “emphasizes the role of the private sector in constructing regimes.” One might describe this as market, or economic-based (Bessette and Haufler 2001: 72).

[2] Discord comes about when actors do not “adjust their policies to…other’s objectives (Keohane 52).

[3] Stephen Krasner has separated Young’s work from Keohane and Steain altogether, arguing instead that he reflects more a Groatian tradition. This tradition, for Krasner, is in conflict with the modified structural orientation of Keohane and Stein (See Krasner 1983). I am comfortable linking all three authors under the same “interest-based” grouping.

[4] Constructivists disenchantment with rationalism is far different from Young’s. Young did not discount altogether rationalism as an ontological framework as some constructivists have. As I argued earlier, he was simply skeptical of the rationalist account with respect to regime formation.

[5] Of course, Moravcsik still was not satisfied with Checkel’s contribution (See Moravcsik 2001).

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