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The False Promise of International Institutions

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Ryan Overfield

on 5 November 2013

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Transcript of The False Promise of International Institutions

Research Premise
Cooperation in Realist World
Exists but inhibited by
Relative gains concerns
Cheating concerns

Absolute vs. Relative Gains
must be concerned with relative when considering balance of power
relative gain thinking hinders cooperation

agreements are hard because concerns of cheating combined with relative gain thinking lead states to assume they will lose ground

Cooperation has existed, but is done to maintain balance of power and ensure security
All done in context of competitive world where states have powerful incentives to take advantage of one another

Discussion Questions
Mearsheimer focuses on the question of whether institutions can help avoid war. He shows they have not and then discredits the role of institutions in international politics. Is this fair or can institutions be useful in contexts other than stopping wars?

Mearsheimer says that policymakers will rely on institutions to address global problems at their own peril. Is he right? Do you believe the world would be a safer place if all international institutions were eliminated tomorrow?

Do you believe that communitarian philosophy prescribed in critical theory has not been met because the international political system will always operate on realist premises or do you believe it is because the world has not yet perfected the use of institutions?

Mearsheimer indicates that U.S. values are incompatible with the realist tradition. Many felt the Obama presidency was going to bring these values in line with U.S. foreign policy, yet to date it seems that the realist theory has prevailed. What would it take for an individual to act on their values as opposed to traditional security practices where U.S. foreign policy is concerned? Is it possible?

Do institutions push states away from war and promote peace?

Looks at major IR theories with institutions at core

Liberal Institutionalism

Collective Security

Critical Theory

Poses four questions:
What are institutions?
How do institutions work to cause peace and what is the causal logic of each theory?
Is the logic explaining institutions compelling?
Does the evidence support these theories?

Utility of Institutions

Merely a reflection of distribution of power in the world
Based on self-interested calculations of great powers
No independent effect on state behavior
Not an important cause of peace

Institutions can alter state preferences and change state behavior
Discourage calculations based purely on power
Are independent variables that can move states away from war
Realism vs. Institutionalism
The False Promise of International Institutions
John J. Mearsheimer

Graduate of West Point
Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago
Article published in 1994
Seminal work "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics" published in October 2001
What are Institutions?
Mearsheimer's definition:

"...a set of rules that stipulate the ways in which states should cooperate and compete with each other."

Core Tenants of Realism

Five Assumptions:

1. International system is anarchic
2. States possess some offensive military power
3. Can never be certain about intentions of other states
4. Basic motive driving states is survival
5. States are rational and think strategically about how to survive

All of this leads to security competition

Security Competition
1. States fear each other

2. Each state has goal of surviving

3. States aim to maximize relative power position over other states

"States are, in other words, both offensively-oriented and defensively-oriented. They think about conquest themselves, and balance against aggressors; this inexorably leads to a world of constant security competition, with the possibility of war always in the background. Peace, if one defines that concept as a state of tranquility or mutual concord, is not likely to break out in this world." (p. 12)
Institutions in Realist World
Simply forum for states to act out their own self-interest

Balance of power still primary variable that effects state behaviour

Liberal Institutionalism
Robert Keohane

Does not address whether institutions cause peace

Does not focus on security realm

Focuses on explaining cooperation where states have "mixed" interests

Looks at economic and environmental interests

Rules assist in the effort

Collective Security
Deals directly with how to cause peace - proper management of military power

Institutions required to manage military power

Accepts premise of realism, but strives for world order that moves beyond balance of power considerations

States must alter behavior by:
-Renouncing use of military force
-Equating national interest with the broader interest of the international community
-Trusting each other

Collective Security Flaws

-Free-rider problem
-No explanation for how states will come to trust each other
-Demanding requirements to confront aggressor
-able to distinguish between aggressor and victim
-assumes all aggression is wrong
-historical relationships prohibitive to siding against some states
-historical relationships prohibitive to instilling trust
-how to distribute burden of confronting aggressor
-rapid response is difficult due to planning involved
-escalates local conflict to international conflict
-automatic response to aggression impinges on state sovereignty
-contradiction of using force to stop aggression

-mixed record
-no place with great powers
-still reflect realist balance of power
-only good in short-term
Critical Theory
Aims to transform the international system into a "world society" where states are guided by "norms of trust and sharing"

How we think and talk about the world shapes practice as opposed to structural concerns being primary force for realists

National interests are international interests

Move from system based on anarchy to system based on community

Critical Theory Flaws
What determines adoption of ideas?

Critical theory does not have answers to following questions:
-Why has realism been dominant discourse?
-Why is the time ripe for realist ideas to be unseated?
-Why will realism be replaced by more peaceful ideas?

Critical theory is wishful thinking without empirical evidence

Three institutionalist theories are flawed and do not support any reason for optimism about role international institutions can play in creating peace

Institutions matter little and misplaced reliance on institutions will lead to future failures

Paradox in U.S. that optimism around institutions remains despite no evidence of their importance in international relations


Realism Opposed to U.S. Values
-War is inevitable
-Does not distinguish between good and bad states
-Long U.S. history in opposition to realism
Liberal Institutionalism Flaws
Does not address relative gains despite accepting premise of realism that states are self-interested actors in an anarchic system

Security linked by virtue of reliance on economy; cannot be avoided

To be repaired, theory must answer:

1. Can institutions facilitate cooperation when states seriously care about relative gains or do institutions only matter when states can ignore relative-gains considerations and focus instead on absolute gains?
2. When do states not worry about relative gains? - answer to this would define the realm in which liberal institutionalism applies

Conclusion: does not provide sound basis for understanding IR in post-Cold War world; makes modest claims about impact of institutions, steers clear of war and peace issues, and focuses on less ambitious work of explaining economic cooperation; overlooked relative gains and empirical examination of theory has been scant.
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