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What Institutions Do

Let me join Tim Lee in arguing that Justin Logan misses the point by asking "Can Tim think of a historical example where an international institution successfully constrained the action of a state in contravention of its vital interests and outside the bounds of power considerations? That is, where it was some sort of moral opprobrium or institutional respect that deterred a state from acting, rather than concern it would be defeated?"

The point is that the existence of institutions alters incentives and attitudes, shapes conceptions of interests, and therefore facilitates cooperation. In the international arena, cooperation is usually the best policy. This is especially the case when you're talking about market-based economies regulated by the rule of law, and especially especially when you've also got democracy and accountable leaders added into the mix. But for all the familiar game-theory reasons, just because cooperation produces better outcomes for both parties than does conflict doesn't mean that it's going to emerge. It's precisely in order to permit cooperation that people form organizations of all sorts -- business partnerships, neighborhood improvement councils, trade associations, governments, and, yes, multilateral institutions. That's the whole point.

March 16, 2005 | Permalink


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The WTO is the ideal institution for solving a collective action problem in which countries may find an interest or strong domestic coalitions in favor of protectionism. Instead it provides the constrains and the incentives for global free trade -which is beneficial for all- to emerge.


Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Mar 16, 2005 6:14:17 PM

The question is rather unfair anyway, in that no state is going to act in contravention to its "vital" interests, as a "vital interest" might be reasonably defined to be an interest the state will pursue regardless. There are examples of states changing their behavior because of international institutions, but those did not (by definition) involve vital interests.

Matt's point is of course right. I am just pointing out the question is silly.

Posted by: David Margolies | Mar 16, 2005 6:15:30 PM

How about all those countries that swallow the IMF's bitter medicine?

Posted by: dm | Mar 16, 2005 6:23:47 PM

Washington Naval Treaty.

Posted by: Rob | Mar 16, 2005 7:00:55 PM

he lost me when he used the word libertarian.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 16, 2005 8:50:50 PM

more seriously, how does he think the united states of america ever got formed[question mark]
sure there was a bit of a scuffle when it came to slavery, but things worked out ok for the former colonies.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 16, 2005 9:05:59 PM

Umm, The European nations giving up their colonies after World War II, mostly voluntarily.

The end of white minority rule in Southern Africa (Zimbabwe and South Africa) without wholesale slaughter.

The Soviet Union not crushing the peaceful revolutions in their client states in 1989 and caving in to Yeltsin in '91.

The Soviets not getting openly involved in the Korean conflict.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Mar 17, 2005 9:35:49 AM

Haven't these libertarians heard of Ronald Coase?

Posted by: Gareth | Mar 17, 2005 1:46:58 PM

a historical example where an international institution successfully constrained
UN: Korea 1951
UN: Suez 1956

Posted by: Scott McArthur | Mar 17, 2005 3:52:43 PM

Most cogent point: states have very few VITAL interests. Was attacking Iraq a vital interest to US? Was the steel tariff?

Given that everyday foreign affair issues concern issues that are important but not vital, nations usually find it cost effective to accept the trade-offs involved in the adherence to international law and international bodies. USA is big enough to make it unnecessary, but unilateralism is neither efficient nor cost-effective.

Bush started his foreign policy with withdrawing from a number of treaties, and now, bwahaha, North Korea is following the suit, Iran is about to and the international condemnation is tepid and it lacks the cooperation of crucial parties like Russia and China.

Breaking a treaty with Russia does not seem brilliant in that perspective. Likewise, we sabotaged ICC and secured our right to commit war crimes with impunity, but are we better off as the result?

Posted by: piotrb | Mar 19, 2005 3:21:53 PM

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