International Regimes

 

By
Eric Brahm

September 2005
 

The study of international regimes has been an important part of international relations for over two decades. In essence, the study of regimes is an effort to understand the means and conditions under which states cooperate with one another. Given that this concern with cooperation is so central to international politics, it is not surprising that the major research traditions have all had input into our understanding of regimes. Despite many ups and downs in the past twenty years, the concept remains significant and important contributions continue to be made to the literature.

This essay will provide a brief overview of regimes. First, I will review what is meant by the term "international regime." Although core elements of the study of regimes have been highly contested, it has not diminished interest in the subject. With these definitional issues aside, the second part of the essay explores the different theoretical contributions of realist, neoliberal, and cognitivist scholars following the distinction made by Hasenclever et al.[1] Finally, I will conclude by highlighting a few of the puzzles that remain in the regimes literature.

What Are International Regimes?

The emergence of the study of international regimes was a significant change in the study of international organization by marking a shift away from an exclusive focus on formal international organizations. Although the term was coined in the 1970s,[2] the study of regimes really took off with the publication of a special issue of the journal International Organization in 1982.[3] In the issue, Krasner articulated a definition of regimes that has stuck with us. He defined regimes as "implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given area of international relations."[4] Regimes "are more specialized arrangements that pertain to well-defined activities, resources, or geographical areas and often involve only some subset of the members of international society."[5] Examples of regimes include CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna), the Basel Convention which governs the international movement of hazardous waste, and the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes water quality regime. Regimes may or may not take the form of international organizations. The global nuclear regulatory regime, the International Atomic Energy Agency, does take the form of an international organization, whereas the Antarctic Treaty System that emerged in 1959 operates without any administrative apparatus. Regimes vary in other ways as well, perhaps the most significant being their degree of specificity, their geographic scope, and membership.

The study of regimes has long been plagued by definitional issues and a lack of conceptual clarity.[6] These issues have never really been solved. Despite continued criticism, however, there seems to be a general consensus that the concept taps into something important. Perhaps the study of regimes has endured despite these significant problems because the question with which it is concerned, namely international cooperation, is perhaps the central issue for international relations. Although some of the earliest studies of regimes focused on their distributional consequences, research quickly shifted to try to understand how regimes are formed and transformed as well as their influence on behavior.[7] The importance of regimes is certainly evident in the fact that virtually every theoretical tradition in international relations has taken a crack at explaining some aspect of regimes. It is to these theoretical contributions that I now turn.

How are Regimes Shaped and What Effect Do They Have? [8]

Different theoretical schools of international relations put forward their own explanations for the origins of regimes and their relative influence. Table 1 provides a summary of the leading theoretical approaches. Realism directs our attention to the role of power in creating and sustaining regimes, as well as what consequences regimes may have for the distribution of power in the international system. Neoliberal insights center on viewing regimes as mechanisms that facilitate achieving optimal outcomes by reducing uncertainty. Cognitivists draw our attention to the fact that regimes are fundamentally social entities. Therefore, norms, identities and discourse are important in shaping regimes and are, in turn, themselves influenced by regimes.

Table 1: Theoretical Perspectives on International Regimes

  Realism Neoliberalism Cognitivism
Central Variable POWER INTERESTS KNOWLEDGE
Metatheoretical Orientation RATIONALIST RATIONALIST SOCIOLOGICAL
Behavioral Model RELATIVE GAINS SEEKER ABSOLUTE GAINS MAXIMIZER ROLE PLAYER
Institutionalism WEAK MEDIUM STRONG

Source: Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 1997. Theories of International Regimes. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 6.

The next subsections will review the contributions each theoretical approach has made to the study of regimes as well as their shortcomings. As will be more fully elaborated in the following section, the strengths and weaknesses of each prove complementary and open the potential for a broader synthesis

Realist Insights on Regimes

Realists contend that the nature of anarchy in the international system causes states to be primarily concerned about relative gains, i.e. their position vis-à-vis other states in the system. As a result, states will be reluctant to enter into any agreement that leaves them in a worse position relative to others, whether due to the distributional consequences or due to the costs of maintaining the regime. Despite the potential risks of entering into cooperative arrangements, realists have to theoretically account for the fact that regimes are relatively common. Broadly speaking, realists have sought to do so in three ways.

First, some have explained the creation and persistence of regimes on the basis of hegemonic stability theory.[9] In this view, regimes are the result of a hegemon that has the resources to support the regime even if others free-ride and possesses the power to compel others to participate and perhaps contribute to the regime's maintenance. As long as hegemony is preserved and the hegemon maintains an interest in the regime, the regime should persevere. Reform or abandonment of the regime should accompany either a shift in the distribution of power or changing preferences on the part of the hegemon. For example, in the aftermath of WWII, the U.S. was willing and able to support the Bretton Woods global monetary regime until it abandoned the gold standard in the early 1970s. Hegemonic explanations, however, do have difficulty accounting for variance across issue areas when hegemony is static.

A second realist focus has been on distributional issues.[10] In instances where a range of possible outcomes are optimal, cheating is no longer the big problem, but rather distributional issues and power come to the fore. Power is important in determining where on the Pareto frontier [11] the agreement occurs. In these contexts, regimes are useful for providing stability. Although they have little independence, they are important in mediating between interests and outcomes. This provides a compelling explanation in certain circumstances, but not every situation fits the model.

Finally, Grieco directs our attention to the importance of states' sensitivity to relative gains, i.e. that others may get more out of an agreement than I do.[12] States fear being the sucker and suffering relative losses. Because states are interested in security, their sensitivity to relative losses varies over time and across issue area. Thus, cooperation will be more likely in economic areas than in military ones. Cooperation should also be more likely in situations where gains are equitable. Regimes may prove useful in facilitating cooperation by mitigating cheating and allowing for the resolution of distributional issues. However, it is difficult to know how sensitive a state is to relative gains until after the fact and, even then, politicians may have an incentive to lie about their deliberations.

Neoliberal Insights on Regimes

Neoliberals start from the same assumptions as realists as to the anarchic nature of the international system. However, in contrast to realists, they posit that states are concerned primarily with absolute gains. As a result, when deciding whether to cooperate, states will evaluate what is in it for them, rather than how they will come out relative to others. Therefore, the main concern for states is whether they are getting the best deal possible. Regimes can be useful in reassuring them of this.

Early work on regimes from a neoliberal perspective argued that regimes were created to solve Prisoner's Dilemma situations where states have a common interest in cooperation.[13] Regimes can facilitate cooperation by providing information, reducing transaction costs, facilitating linkages, and lengthening "the shadow of the future."[14] Over the long run, in a modeled situation, a cooperative tit-for-tat strategy leaves an actor best off.[15] Robert Axelrod describes trench warfare in WWI as indicative of this evolution of cooperation.[16] In some parts of the front lines, an unspoken accord developed among the troops in which fighting intensified only when pressed by their superiors. Otherwise, ‘rules' of behavior developed and helped everyone survive. Because different situations can be thought of as different types of collective action problems, these early insights were developed utilizing different game-theoretic tools to provide better models for different situations. For example, a distinction can be made between coordination problems, where several Pareto-optimal solutions exist and negotiation is focused on distributional issues, and collaboration problems, where the collective aim is to reach an efficient outcome.[17] Coordination situations do not need regimes as they are self-enforcing when reached, whereas collaboration situations should be more explicitly formalized to bind actors. Assurance games exist where both actors have same preferred outcome, but the result may still be inefficient if one believes (incorrectly) that the other's preference ordering is not the same or that the other cannot be trusted to be rational. Regimes can be useful by providing information in these situations. These explanations have a functional tone to them, which often gives them a post hoc feel. What is more, this begs the question of where regimes come from if they are created to facilitate agreements in the first place.

Oran Young has taken up this last issue to create an institutional bargaining model of regime formation.[18] He argues that earlier studies have been too optimistic about reaching an agreement because they do not properly account for the uncertainty actors feel about their strategy and that of others. For this reason, states focus on the bargaining process itself rather than distributive issues, which makes cooperation more likely. Through integrative bargaining, uncertainty is reduced and a requirement of unanimity also helps reduce fears.

Neoliberals have provided important insights into how regimes can facilitate cooperation amongst states. However, a number of shortcomings remain. Aside from those mentioned above, they often underestimate the fear of cheating that states feel. A contrasting criticism comes from a cognitivist perspective. Neoliberals do not address the sociological dimension of regimes. Regimes not only facilitate cooperation, but change perceptions of oneself and one's interests.

Cognitivist Insights

Cognitivist contributions to our understanding of regimes begin with an understanding that actors' behavior is not shaped so much by material interest, but by their role in society. As such, they would contend that any exploration of regimes is incomplete without paying attention to intersubjectivity. Hasenclever et al. divide cognitivists into weak and strong versions.[19] Weak cognitivists engage in exploring intersubjective understandings in a rather limited sense. Nonetheless, their focus on how ideas emerge and are used merits their inclusion here. Strong cognitivists take intersubjectivity much more seriously, recognizing that regimes are embedded in the broader international social structure. I will discuss each in turn.

Weak cognitivists are interested in exploring the influence of ideas on actors.[20] Ideas serve to reduce uncertainty and as a means of learning. They serve as road maps, institutions, and focal points.[21] Learning may alter strategies or even goals. In such an environment, consensual knowledge and epistemic communities facilitate policy innovation, diffusion, selection, and persistence. In this view, regimes may result from an idea gaining prominence. At the same time, we need to know more about the processes by which ideational selection takes place. In addition, the connection between knowledge and material needs and between power and ideas is under explored.[22] In this view, the post-WWII Bretton Woods regime could be interpreted as resulting from lessons learned from the economic collapse of the 1930s.

Beginning from an assertion that the international system is fundamentally a social one, strong cognitivists argue that this social structure constructs actors' identities.[23] Generally speaking, strong cognitivists seek to theorize about the sense of obligation that exists and what accounts for the varied pull of compliance, such as through exploring legitimacy or persuasion.[24] Regimes can thus provide a source of self-understandings of the world. They can have both regulative effects as neoliberals and realists assert, but also constitutive effects. Regimes construct identities by delineating what are socially acceptable norms and interests. At the same time, regimes are in the process of continual self-interpretation and self-definition in response to change. Some strong cognitivists are skeptical whether positivism can allow for a real analysis of how regimes have constitutive effects.[25] This minimizes the degree to which these broad traditions can speak to each other regarding regimes.

Concluding Thoughts

A number of other issues, some rather long-standing, remain for further study. The definitional issues remain a sore point, but it has not substantially hindered the study of regimes as general agreement exists on empirically recognizing one.[26] In fact, the ambiguity may have been helpful in allowing the field to be more open to different perspectives. We need to know more about how regimes evolve once they are created.[27] Breaking down regimes into different types depending on their role (regulatory, procedural, programmatic, or generative) may help us understand different developmental paths.[28] Conceptual categories can help us trace these patterns. Furthermore, with the prevalence of regimes today, it is important to explore how regimes interact with one another, particularly if they have overlapping jurisdictions.[29] A number of criteria for assessing the effectiveness of regimes have also been put forward, something likely dependent on the type of regime.[30] In addition, cognitive understandings have proven to be important, but we need better means to assess their influence and comparative studies that examine where collective understandings are more or less likely to result in a regime. Also, the relationship of regimes and national-level processes remains under explored.[31] How domestic actors are influenced by regimes and how domestic actors influence state decisions regarding regimes are both fruitful directions for study. A final shortcoming of regime research is its state-centrism. As international governance proliferates, transnational corporations, non-governmental organizations, and other civil society groups are playing an independent role in international affairs. Regimes are being established that are either purely private or public-private combinations such as the Bank of International Settlements.[32] Further research is needed on these phenomena to determine in what ways they vary from state-based regimes.

Updated Additional Resources


[1] Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 1997. Theories of international regimes, Cambridge studies in international relations ; 55. New York: Cambridge University Press.; Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 2000. Integrating theories of international regimes. Review of International Studies 26 (1):3-33.

[2] Ruggie, John Gerard. 1975. International Responses to Technology - Concepts and Trends. International Organization 29 (3):557-583

[3] The issue was reprinted as an edited volume, Krasner, Stephen D., ed. 1983a. International Regimes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[4] Krasner, Stephen D. 1983c. Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[5] Young, Oran R. 1989. International cooperation : building regimes for natural resources and the environment. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 13.

[6] Haggard, S., and B. A. Simmons. 1987. Theories of International Regimes. International Organization 41 (3):491-517, Rochester, J. M. 1986. The Rise and Fall of International-Organization as a Field of Study. International Organization 40 (4):777-813 .; Kratochwil, Friedrich, and John Gerard Ruggie. 1986b. International Organization: a State-of-the-Art on an Art of the State. International Organization 40 (4):753-775.; Strange, Susan. 1983. Cave Sic Dragones. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.; Young, Oran R. 1986. International Regimes:Toward a New Theory of Institutions. World Politics 39 (1):104-122.

[7] Krasner, Stephen D. 1983b. Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous Variables. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Krasner, Stephen D. 1983c. Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[8] This section derives its structure from the work of Hasenclever et al. Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 1997. Theories of international regimes, Cambridge studies in international relations ; 55. New York: Cambridge University Press, Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 2000. Integrating theories of international regimes. Review of International Studies 26 (1):3-33.<Go to ISI>://000085947000001

[9] Gilpin, Robert. 1981. War and change in world politics. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, Kindleberger, C. P. 1981. Dominance and Leadership in the International Economy - Exploitation, Public-Goods, and Free Rides. International Studies Quarterly 25 (2):242-254, Kindleberger, Charles Poor. 1973. The world in depression, 1929-1939, History of the world economy in the twentieth century, v. 4. Berkeley,: University of California Press, Snidal, D. 1985. Coordination Versus Prisoners-Dilemma - Implications for International-Cooperation and Regimes. American Political Science Review 79 (4):923-942

[10] Krasner, S. D. 1991. Global Communications and National Power - Life on the Pareto Frontier. World Politics 43 (3):336-366

[11] The set of all of the possible outcomes that are Pareto optimal.

[12] Grieco, Joseph M. 1993a. Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism. In Neorealism and neoliberalism : the contemporary debate, edited by D. A. Baldwin. New York: Columbia University Press, Grieco, Joseph M. 1993b. Understanding the Problem of International Cooperation: The Limits of Neoliberal Institutionalism and the Future of Realist Theory. In Neorealism and neoliberalism : the contemporary debate, edited by D. A. Baldwin. New York: Columbia University Press, Grieco, Joseph M. 1990. Cooperation among nations : Europe, America, and non-tariff barriers to trade, Cornell studies in political economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[13] Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After hegemony : cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[14] Axelrod, Robert, and Robert O. Keohane. 1993. Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions. In Neorealism and neoliberalism : the contemporary debate, edited by D. A. Baldwin. New York: Columbia University Press, Axelrod, Robert M. 1984. The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books, Keohane, Robert O. 1984. After hegemony : cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Oye, Kenneth A., ed. 1986. Cooperation under anarchy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[15] Axelrod, Robert M. 1984. The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Martin, Lisa L., and Beth A. Simmons. 1998. Theories and empirical studies of international institutions. International Organization 52 (4):729-+.<Go to ISI>://000077536600004

[18] Young, O. R. 1989. The Politics of International Regime Formation - Managing Natural-Resources and the Environment. Ibid. 43 (3):349-375.<Go to ISI>://A1989AF20600001

[19] Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 1997. Theories of international regimes, Cambridge studies in international relations ; 55. New York: Cambridge University Press, Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 2000. Integrating theories of international regimes. Review of International Studies 26 (1):3-33.<Go to ISI>://000085947000001

[20] Goldstein, Judith, and Robert O. Keohane, eds. 1993. Ideas and foreign policy : beliefs, institutions, and political change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Haas, P. M. 1992. Epistemic Communities and International-Policy Coordination - Introduction. International Organization 46 (1):1-35, Sikkink, Kathryn. 1991. Ideas and institutions : developmentalism in Brazil and Argentina, Cornell studies in political economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[21] Goldstein, Judith, and Robert O. Keohane, eds. 1993. Ideas and foreign policy : beliefs, institutions, and political change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[22] Blyth, Mark. 1997. Any More Bright Ideas? The Ideational Turn of Comparative Political Economy. Comparative Politics:229-250, Jacobsen, John Kurt. 2003. Duelling Constructivisms: A Post-Mortem on the Ideas Debate in Mainstream IR/IPE. Review of International Studies 29:39-60

[23] Cox, Robert W. 1986. Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. In Neorealism and Its Critics, edited by R. O. Keohane. New York: Columbia University Press, Kratochwil, Friedrich, and John Gerard Ruggie. 1986. International Organization: a State-of-the-Art on an Art of the State. International Organization 40 (4):753-775, Ruggie, John Gerard. 1983. International Regimes, Transactions and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Wendt, Alexander. 1995. Constructing International Politics. International Security 20 (1):71-81, Wendt, Alexander. 1999. Social theory of international politics, Cambridge studies in international relations ; 67. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[24] Kratochwil, Friedrich V. 1989. Rules, norms, and decisions on the conditions of practical and legal reasoning in international relations and domestic affairs. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[25] Kratochwil, Friedrich, and John Gerard Ruggie. 1986. International Organization: a State-of-the-Art on an Art of the State. International Organization 40 (4):753-775 .

[26] Young, Oran R. 1999. Governance in World Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[27] Krasner, Stephen D. 1983b. Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous Variables. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Young, Oran R. 1983. Regime Dynamics: The Rise and Fall of International Regimes. In International Regimes, edited by S. D. Krasner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[28] Young, Oran R. 1999. Governance in World Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[29] Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. 2000. Integrating theories of international regimes. Review of International Studies 26 (1):3-33.<Go to ISI>://000085947000001, Young, Oran R. 1999. Governance in World Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[30] Young, Oran R. 1999. Governance in World Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[31] Haggard, S., and B. A. Simmons. 1987. Theories of International Regimes. International Organization 41 (3):491-517 .

[32] Braithwaite, John, and Peter Drahos. 2000. Global Business Regulation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Piccioto, Sol. 1996. The Regulatory Criss-Cross: Interaction Between Jurisdictions and the Construction of Global Regulatory Networks. In International Regulatory Competition and Coordination, edited by C. Scott. Oxford: Clarendon, Reinicke, Wolfgang H. 1998. Global Public Policy: Governing Without Government. Washington DC: Brookings.


Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "International Regimes." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/international-regimes>.


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