Tag: international institutions

Classroom Activity: When Silence Says a Lot

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on international institutions, specifically the impact they have on patterns of armed conflict. The first half focused on peacekeeping, which works better (under some conditions) than many appreciate, while the latter focused on how international institutions can deter bad behavior even if they lack enforcement power. The argument, which I previously laid out (in a somewhat different form) here, is that international institutions need not have the power to punish so long as the statements they make have an impact on the likelihood that someone else will do so.

If institutions issue reports condemning bad behavior, which they don’t always catch, but never go out of their way to praise good behavior, then one might think that they only influence beliefs when they issue reports. But that’s not correct, at least if governments are even weakly Bayesian. Every time a report is not issued about a given state violating international law or otherwise misbehaving, a little more information is revealed.

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Classroom Activity: Institutions as Epiphenomena and Screening Mechanisms

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on how international institutions promote cooperation.

In that lecture, I presented the epiphenomenal critique, which I think establishes an important baseline, then went on to discuss specific mechanisms by which institutions might solve coordination problems, collaboration problems, and problems of trust/fear of exploitation (the three primary explanations I offered for why states sometimes leave money lying on the ground). The first half of the activity sought to illustrate the epiphenomenal critique more clearly, while the second tests their understanding of the theoretical model I used to demonstrate the even if institutions merely serve as screening mechanisms, they may still facilitate cooperation that would not otherwise occur (as I’ve discussed here before).

The decisions they faced in the first part were pretty simple.

My expectation, which proved accurate, was that most of those who chose to cooperate would sign the treaty while most of those who did not would not. A significant number of non-cooperators signed the treaty, but fewer than did not, and only one cooperator chose not to sign the treaty. Thus, their behavior produced a fairly strong, though not perfect, correlation between cooperative behavior support for an international treaty that, by design, absolutely did not matter at all.

This didn’t seem to impress them much. I’m not sure if that’s because the epiphenomenal critique is so intuitive that they already understood it clearly or if this exercise failed to clarify things or what. I guess I’ll find out how well they understand this point after they submit their answers to the midterm.

The second half was more challenging.


Here, the students face the same set of decisions as player 1 in the Model of Reassurance I discussed in the lecture they were to have listened to before class. In that model, there is an equilibrium where the blue type of player 1 (which is the type they’ve been assigned here) proposes an agreement, then cooperates with 2 if and only if 2 accepts the agreement, while 2 accepts the agreement and then cooperates if blue, but rejects the agreement and does not cooperate if red. Two important conditions for that equilibrium are: the red type finds the cost of the agreement too high for it to be worth mimicking the behavior of the blue type in hopes of tricking player 1 into trusting them; yet the blue type finds that cost acceptable. Note that these conditions are met here. So a student who is really on top of the material would notice that if they propose agreements to all five countries then cooperate only with those that accept would have no reason to fear exploitation and could expect to earn more points (30 if just one of the five other countries turned out to be blue, which was precisely what happened when I determined their types randomly) than a student who adopted any other strategy.

Unfortunately, very few students selected the optimal strategy.

What most did, strangely enough, was to propose no agreements and cooperate with no one. Now, I understand the latter part. If you failed to understand how institutions can eliminate trust problems, particularly under conditions that just so happen to be met here, then it would make sense to play it safe. In fact, I set things up to ensure that cooperation would not be appealing if the trust problem couldn’t be solved. But what I don’t quite get is why so few of the non-cooperative students proposed agreements. I guess they were afraid that the other side would accept, thereby costing them five points, but weren’t willing to trust that anyone who accepted the agreement would cooperate. Or, more likely, they didn’t understand that they could condition their answer to the second part on whether the other side accepted their agreement. And that’s undoubtedly because I made them submit their answers before I assigned types to the five countries (which was key to determining whether they’d accept agreements, and which I wanted them to see me do so they didn’t think the outcome was rigged), but I instructed them to tell me separately what they would do in response to acceptance as well as what they would do in response to rejection. Sadly, virtually no one did so. I thought I was clear about that, but obviously I wasn’t clear enough. Next time, I’ll have to really drive home the fact that they not only can but should tell me what they would after each possible response by the other side to their proposal.

So, I guess I’ll be seeing a lot of them again on Monday, when they get their usual chance to redo the activity.

On the upside, when I explained why the optimal strategy was what it was, most of them seemed to understand. I would have liked to see some of them figure out on their own, as that would indicate that they had a good grasp of the key point of the lecture the activity was paired with, but at least the activity served its purpose.


The Importance of Screening

Editor’s Note: this is an abbreviated version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

In my previous post, I articulated one way international institutions can deter bad behavior. In this post, I’ll argue that even if we assume institutions don’t have access to information that isn’t already available to states, they still matter more than some appreciate.metal_detector_airport_2_350w_263h

One of the most prominent criticisms of institutions is that they are epiphenomenal—that they put a name on behavior that would have occurred anyway. That is, some have argued that the good news about compliance is not necessarily good news about cooperation because treaties may simply screen rather than constrain.

But the one does not necessarily imply the other. That is, even if institutions merely screen without constraining, this may nonetheless give us cause to celebrate international institutions. Below, I discuss a result from a formal model in which institutions screen but do not constrain—a model where the willingness of any given state to comply with a cooperative outcome is the same regardless of whether they join the institution. But it is nonetheless true in this model that fewer states would cooperate in the absence of institutions. In other words, when assessing the impact of institutions, we have to be very clear about what our standards are (as Martin and others (1 and 2) have argued). There is an important distinction between the claim that institutions alter state preferences and the claim that they merely separate nice, trustworthy types from bad, untrustworthy types, and I do not wish to downplay it. But it is nonetheless true that screening matters.

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The Importance of Angry Letters

Editor’s Note: this is an abbreviated version of a post that originally appeared on my personal blog.

How can international institutions foster cooperation given that they lack enforcement capability? One view, quite simply, is that they can’t. This view is shared by realists and many outside the academy. HansBrix

Many would argue this critique is unfair. It is too easy to jump from “can’t control rogue states” to “completely worthless” or “false promise” or what have you. Even states that view one another as friends sometimes fail to reap all the possible benefits of international cooperation due to coordination problems, collaboration problems, etc, and institutions may help such states leave a little less money lying on the ground. There’s also pretty strong evidence that UN peacekeeping works, particularly when it has the consent of all the parties involved. Sure, that’s an important caveat, but we shouldn’t trivialize the large number of lives that have likely been saved as a result of the UN’s efforts.

But let’s set those things aside. Is the best we can say about the UN that it helps those who want to be helped but is of no real consequence to the behavior of “rogue” states? I would argue that the answer is “sort of, but only if we adopt a fairly extreme definition of ‘rogue’.” But if we don’t define “rogue” states as those that do misbehave, but those who would like to, then the answer is almost certainly no, the UN does not just allow the good guys to do a little bit better on the margins. It actually changes the intentions of those we might otherwise see as bad guys.

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Institutions, Norms, and Cooperation

A strong correlation between cooperation and membership in international institutions is not enough to establish that international institutions cause cooperation.   If we’re to claim that institutions matter, we need to at least identify mechanisms by which institutions might promote cooperation among actors who would otherwise be disinclined to cooperate with one another.  The mere fact that such mechanisms can be articulated does not itself tell us whether the correlation is causal, but it lends a certain measure of plausible to causal interpretations that would otherwise be lacking.

Indeed, scholars have identified a variety of such mechanisms, from raising reputation costs to solving coordination problems to monitoring compliance and thereby overcoming information problems.  But even committed neo-liberals will generally grant that these arguments merely identify ways in which institutions provide a little push that can make the difference when (and only when) states almost meet the conditions under which cooperation would occur in an anarchic world.  And if that’s all that institutions do, then they can’t really matter all that much, can they?
Actually, yes.

If you grant that international institutions matter at the margins, you’ve already conceded that they make a big difference to the overall level of cooperation we can expect to observe in the international system.  See this post over at my personal blog for an explanation.


Political theory vs. political science

My Theories of International Relations course spent this week discussing Rousseau, a theorist whose relevance to international relations is a little unclear at first glance. Hobbes and Locke have been — if badly — imported into the canon of IR theory, largely through the use of their definitions of the state of nature as accounts of the international system. Individuals in Hobbes’ state of nature, famously, lead lives that are “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short,” as they are perpetually on guard against someone else’s killing them; IR realists often use this as a description of the relations between sovereign states, notwithstanding Hobbes’ own contrary thoughts on the matter of relations between states. Locke’s state of nature, by contrast, shows up in IR liberals’ account of the international system as primarily characterized by a global commitment problem; individuals for Locke, and states for IR liberals, are rational enough entities to adhere to their contractual agreements unprompted as long as they benefit from those agreements, and problems only arise when benefits are unclear or the terms of the contract itself has to be adjudicated.

I could go on elucidating the parallel, but the point is that Hobbes and Locke have some claim to being included on an IR theory syllabus because of this (mis)appropriation of their thought by contemporary IR scholars. Rousseau is another case, since as far as I know no one uses Rousseau’s account of the state of nature to describe the international system; even Alex Wendt’s tripartite updating of views of the international system uses Kant, not Rousseau, as the alternative to Hobbes and Locke. So what are we to make of poor Rousseau, with his concerns about popular sovereignty and the problem of how to preserve the natural liberty of individuals under conditions of modern social life?

Imagine my surprise, then, when this month’s chosen article for our faculty-and-PhD-student IR theory reading group here on campus — the lead article in the 2009 issue of International Organization, co-authored by none other than chart-topping influential scholar of IR Robert O. Keohane — turned out to contain precisely the kind of reflection that would have been strengthened by a dose of Rousseau. I say “would have been” because, sadly, Rousseau is nowhere in evidence in the piece. Instead, we are treated to a somewhat stilted conceptual discussion about aspects of democracy, a discussion which then abruptly turns into a set of testable hypotheses about the correlation between the public’s attentiveness to an issue and the extent to which the issue is governed by a multilateral international organization. The problem here is that these two tasks — philosophical reflection on the character of democracy and the testing of hypothetical claims about how an issue-area is governed globally — have basically nothing to do with one another. This makes it doubly odd that Rousseau doesn’t show up, since Rousseau is very clear on the difference between an exercise in philosophical legitimation and a concrete, empirical study of some specific issue or society. Keohane to the contrary, whether some institution is democratic or not is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research will even in principle put an end to the philosophical question of whether some institution is democratic or not. Rousseau knew this; it’s too bad that Keohane, and most of the rest of the IR field, has forgotten it.

The central puzzle in the IO article concerns what is sometimes called the “democratic deficit” displayed by international organizations. Unlike a state government, the traditional argument runs, which is directly accountable to their public and which can be directly influenced by the public’s actions, international organizations are distant from the public and for the most part insulated from popular agitation. The people can’t vote on what the IMF or the WTO or various organs of the UN do, which makes those institutions look “undemocratic” if by democratic we mean repsponsive to the people’s moment-to-moment express wishes. Keohane and his co-authors argue that participation is actually only one component of democracy, and that participation is not even the most important component; combating special interests, protection minority rights, and encouraging collective deliberation are, if anything, more important components of democratic practice. They call this “constitutional democracy,” and suggest that the basic idea is that popular rule can be enhanced by “complex procedural requirements” (p. 9). They are obviously not the first to suggest this, and James Madison shows up fairly often in the piece, along with more modern constitutional liberals like Robert Dahl or E. E. Schattschneider. The novelty here is extending the argument beyond the boundaries of the sovereign territorial state, and suggesting that multilateral international organizations, although relatively immunized from direct popular participation, can be likewise constitutionally democratic.

Here’s the first place where Rousseau might have been helpful. On p. 15, the authors make the following rather convoluted series of claims:

While constitutional democracy in our conception emphatically does not imply that the government should act as the majority prefers at any given time (that is, it is not government by poll or plebiscite) the essence of democracy is that in the long run, after due deliberation, the people rule. It would therefore be undemocratic for an elite multilateral institution, cosmopolitan and working in what its members considered the good of all, to override repeated demonstrations of informed, rights-regarding, fairly represented popular will. This would be benign technocracy, perhaps, but not democracy.

What is convoluted here is that the authors seem to lack a solid grounding for the argument that something insulated from direct public participation can nonetheless represent rule by the people; as a result, they have to blur the boundaries by suggesting that an institution can prove its democratic character by being responsive, at least in the long run, to what the people claim to want. But this, in turn, means that the only difference between a constitutional institution and a regular one is that the constitutional institution is somewhat slower to respond — and the qualitative distinction between constitutional democracy and participatory democracy collapses. One might easily imagine any given popular movement calling for greater “democracy” when facing a multilateral international organization, being told that the organization is looking after long-run interests, and replying by simply insisting that the timeline be accelerated and the institution conform to the public expression of its will in the moment, because there is no significant or fundamental difference between responding to the people’s declared wishes now or in a few months/years. And Keohane and his coauthors explicitly reject the argument that it is sufficient for an organization to be acting in the people’s actual interests even if the people don’t know what those interests are; democracy, it appears, can mean nothing but doing what the people say that they want.

Enter Rousseau, who famously distinguishes between the sovereign and the government: the sovereign is the people assembled as a whole, whereas the government is what the sovereign establishes in order to handle day-to-day business. The sovereign, so to speak, only acts constitutionally, establishing the rules of the game and the parameters for governing; actual ruling is carried out by the government, which has to remain within the parameters established by the sovereign (which speaks with the General Will as opposed to any particular interest — indeed, as opposed to the “will of all,” i.e. what everyone says that they want at any given moment). The government derives its mandate and its authority from the act of collective, or general, will, and what makes it “democratic” is not whether it is at all responsive to the people at any given moment, but whether it is adhering to the constitutional mandate that it was given at the outset. If the people want to re-do that mandate, Rousseau suggests, all they have to do is to assemble as the sovereign, and the government automatically disbands because its jurisdiction ceases; then the sovereign can establish a new constitution and government, complete with “censorial tribunals” and other mechanisms designed to prevent the government from getting too far away from the constitution.

My point here is not that Rousseau is necessarily correct about any of this. In particular, there is a key ambiguity involving how one ascertains whether an expression of will is truly general and hence constitutional, as well as a particularly thorny problem involving the relationship of a general will to standards established by other groups of people or to claims about universally valid norms. Instead, my point is that introducing Rousseau into the discussion would help to clarify the issues involved — if the authority of a multilateral international organization can be traced to a constitutional document or expression of a general will, that puts a different spin on the whole debate. But no Rousseau in the article means no considerations of this sort, so we are left with a bit of a conceptual muddle.

The other thing that Rousseau does for the discussion is that he makes it clear that discussions about democratic legitimacy are philosophical discussions, not empirical ones. It is clearly not a realistic expectation that a government would disband simply because the people showed up as a unit and told it to disband; that said, Rousseau’s point is not that this is a feasible empirical scenario, but that the jurisdiction of the government ceases when the people assemble as the sovereign — if it remains in power, it does so by sheer force of arms, deprived of the legitimacy it enjoyed when it was operating under a popular constitution. Rousseau is not operating in the sphere of empirical facts, but in the sphere of moral principles, which is where a discussion about democratic legitimacy ought to be carried out. This is because when one boils it down, principles like “rights” and “authority” are something other than merely empirical objects. The validity of a claim to authority depends not on the simple claim itself (or, parenthetically, even on whether the claim is accepted; we can easily imagine a claim being accepted even though it is not, strictly speaking, morally correct — and it doesn’t matter which system of morality one uses to evaluate that correctness), but on whether the claim is defensible within some moral frame of reference. Whether a government is legitimate and whether a government behaves in some particular way are different kinds of issues, and Rousseau — like most political philosophers — troubles himself with questions of legitimacy, leaving questions of behavior for others.

Not so Keohane and his coauthors. After their conceptual discussion, which takes up most of the length of the article, they proceed to elucidate an empirical research agenda characterized by observable implications and testable hypotheses:

In areas of the highest priority to the public, where relevant publics are very highly organized and attentive, multilateralism will tend to be subject to more directly participatory democracy, whereas where publics are less organized and attentive, nonparticipatory mechanisms will be used.

Ignore for a moment that this formulation is basically tautological, unless there were some way to determine the public’s priorities without observing how they act in various issue-areas. And ignore the fact that this formulation shifts the focus away from whether an organization immunized from public participation is democratic to how particular issue-areas are governed by the public, and in so doing basically presumes away the entire animating question of the first two-thirds of the article (since “the public” is governing the issue-area in either case, by this definition). The most profound problem here is that this hypothetical proposition has nothing, diddly-squat, nada to do with the conceptual discussion that preceded it. The empirical proposition that publics act on their interests, and that those interests can be correlated with particular kinds of organizational outcomes and arrangements, is completely separate from the conceptual question of whether a nonparticipatory organization can be a democratic organization. One simply doesn’t matter to the other, because they operate in different conceptual spheres: whether something is democratic is a moral or philosophical (or political) question, while the effect of a certain kind and degree of public attentiveness on how an issue-area is governed is an empirical or causal (or scientific) question. Neither has any implications whatsoever for the other.

Now, it is of course always possible to claim that because democracy means being attentive to the (to steal a phrase from Madison) “permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” we can ascertain whether an institution is democratic by determining whether it upholds those interests. (The authors reject that option.) Or we could claim that democracy means responsiveness to the people’s will in the long term, and see whether an institution was democratic by determining whether it was in the long term repsonsive to the will of the people over whom it governs. But neither of these operations would settle the question of what democracy means, or whether an institution is democratic in some global or universal sense. Regardless of the results of any given empirical assessment of an institution, someone else could come in with a different definition of “democracy” and demonstrate that according to that definition, the institution either was or was not democratic. Empirical measures can’t resolve the debate unless we have prior agreement on the relevant conceptual standards; hence, empirical tests of hypotheses, or empirical traces of process, can’t tell us whether constitutional democracy is “actually” democracy — which is what the article seems to suggest. Rather, political philosophy inhabits its own sphere, separate from empirical controversies about how things factually hang together.

Just to be clear: what bothers me in the article is the fact that the authors appear to be trying to assimilate philosophical investigation/discussion to empirical research. It does not, however, follow that I think that philosophical discussion can actually resolve the question of what “democracy” is; I actually don’t think that it can, and I would rather characterize any discussion of “democracy” as a political discussion, and any resolution to that discussion as a contingent political settlement. But that’s a separate issue. My point for the moment is that I don’t think that Keohane and his coauthors can actually do what they are setting out to do, which is to resolve a philosophical controversy with empirical data. And when the lead article in the most important journal in our field, co-authored by the most influential person in our field, promulgates this kind of methodological confusion, I feel that it merits an extended response. In the end, you just can’t get there from here; the best way to get where they want to go is not to start where they start, and not to imagine that empirical social science can do things that it simply cannot, constitutively, do.


Justice in Niger

The judicial organ of ECOWAS has found the government of Niger guilty of failing to prevent slavery within its borders.

“The landmark ruling, the first of its kind by a regional tribunal now sitting in Niamey, Niger’s capital, ordered the government to pay about $19,000 in damages to the woman, Hadijatou Mani, who is now 24.

Slavery is outlawed throughout Africa, but it persists in pockets of Niger, Mali, Mauritania and amid conflicts like the one in northern Uganda. Antislavery organizations estimate that 43,000 people are enslaved in Niger alone. Ms. Mani’s experience was typical of the practice. She was born into a traditional slave class and sold to Souleymane Naroua when she was 12 for about $500. Ms. Mani told court officials that Mr. Naroua had forced her to work his fields for a decade. She also claimed that he raped her repeatedly over the years. Ms. Mani brought her case to the court this year, arguing that the Niger government had failed to enforce its antislavery laws.

This is a significant ruling not just in Niger and not just in regards to the slave trade. However, I wonder if it’s significant in the ways that some antislavery activists in the region are claiming. For example:

“For 17 years, we have been working towards bringing slavery to the attention of the authorities,” said Ilguilas Weila, president of Timidria, a Niger antislavery advocacy group, in a statement. “This verdict means that the state of Niger will now have to resolve this problem once and for all.”

That’s not at all clear to me, since like some other regional courts the Community Court of Justice does not actually have the power to enforce its rulings. As my former professor Robert Darst liked to say, the absence of teeth means it has less power than Judge Judy, whose guests sign contracts agreeing to abide by her rulings; the contracts, though not the rulings themselves, are enforceable through tort law in a US Court. By contrast, no authority will punish a state who simply ignores such rulings; so they tend to be what states will make of them. There is a real question as to whether Ms. Mani will see a penny of this money, or whether the shaming effect of this ruling will have a long term impact on the enforcement of anti-slavery laws in Niger.

But it may. It is notable that the Niamey government does have such laws on the books and is not in the business of openly condoning or winking at slavery. In recent years the policy has been one of denial (as opposed to justification), suggesting a growing, acknowledged opprobrium; and what this case does is invalidate such denials. This may force the government to adopt stronger anti-slavery measures, since it clearly wishes to convey that it opposes the practice. It’s one thing to deny a practice is occurring; it’s another to excuse it once public evidence is presented by a neutral third party. The press attention to the verdict will help.

The case will also draw much-needed attention to the persistence of slavery in West Africa (let’s hope that it doesn’t obscure similar practices elsewhere in the world). Anti-slavery activists claim there are at least 40,000 people kept as slaves in Niger; smilar conditions exist in Mauritania and Mali.

Beyond the immediate impact on Nigerian law enforcement (if any), on Ms. Mani, or on anti-slavery activism, the case will have an impact in another respect: it is one in a growing trend in international jurisprudence that places the responsibility on states for human rights abuses inflicted not by agents of the state, but by citizens on one another. We can expect to see this case cited by activists and lawyers concerned with many other private human rights abuses such as domestic violence, honor killings, and hate crimes.


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