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International relations theory and multilateralism: the search for foundations

  • James A. Caporaso


Why has the concept of multilateralism not played a more prominent role in theories of international relations? The prima facie case for the importance of multilateral activity in the international realm would seem great. The world, we constantly tell ourselves, is increasingly drawn together. The Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck argues that most external effects of production and consumption are external not only to the household but also to the country in which they occur. According to many different indicators, interdependence is on the increase in nearly all parts of the world. International political economists talk about global indivisibilities, ranging from peace to pollution. Most important international problems-including pollution, energy, managing airline traffic, and maintaining rules for trade and investment-intrinsically involve many countries simultaneously. What makes a problem international is that often it cannot be dealt with effectively within the national arena. Costs and benefits spill into the external arena. These external effects are frequently so great that domestic goals cannot be accomplished without coordinated multilateral action.



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1. Lindbeck, Assar, “Economic Dependence and Interdependence in the Industrialized World,” From Marshall Plan to Global Interdependence (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1978), pp. 5986.

2. Masefield, Thorold, “Co-prosperity and Co-security: Managing the Developed World,” International Affairs 65 (Winter 19881989), pp. 114.

3. Niskanen, William A., “The Bully of World Trade,” Orbis 33 (Fall 1989), pp. 531–38.

4. Claude, Inis L. Jr, “The Balance of Power Revisited,” Review of International Studies 15 (04 1989), pp. 7786.

5. Emmanuel, Arghiri, Unequal Exchange: A Study in the Imperialism of Trade (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972).

6. Indeed, this is precisely what Keohane, Robert O. does in After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).

7. See the following works of John Ruggie, Gerard: “Unravelling the World Order: The United States and the Future of Multilateralism,” mimeograph, University of California, San Diego, 1989; and “Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution,” in this issue of IO.

8. See Ruggie, “Multilateralism.”

9. For a discussion of diffuse reciprocity, see Keohane, Robert O., “Reciprocity in International Relations,” International Organization 40 (Winter 1986), pp. 127.

10. Lisa L. Martin, “Interests, Power, and Multilateralism,” International Organization, forthcoming.

11. See the following works of Haas, Ernst B.: Beyond the Nation-State: Functionalism and International Organization (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964); and When Knowledge Is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organizations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

12. Ibid.

13. For a discussion of this aspect of Monnet's philosophy of transnational cooperation, see Monnet, Jean, Memoirs, trans. Richard Mayne (London: Collins, 1978).

14. See Ruggie, “Multilateralism.”

15. Ibid.

16. For creative theoretical suggestions along these lines, see Martin, “Interests, Power, and Multilateralism”; and Keohane, Robert O., “Multilateralism: An Agenda for Research,” International Journal 45 (Fall 1990), pp. 731–64.

17. See Harrington, Joseph E. Jr, “Non-cooperative Games,” in Eatwell, John, Milgate, Murray, and Newman, Peter, eds., Game Theory (New York: Norton, 1989), pp. 178–84.

18. I understand that the assumptions I have used to characterize the individualist approach can be and have been relaxed in both international relations theory proper and game theory. My approach here is a device used to see how far this simplified model can take us.

19. Oye, Kenneth A., “Explaining Cooperation Under Anarchy: Hypotheses and Strategies,” World Politics 38 (10 1985), pp. 124.

20. For the logic behind this approach, see Kreps, David and Wilson, Robert, “Reputation and Imperfect Information,” Journal of Economic Theory 27 (08 1982), pp. 253–79; and Kreps, David, Milgrom, Paul, and Wilson, Robert, “Rational Cooperation in the Finitely Repeated Prisoners' Dilemma,” Journal of Economic Theory 27 (08 1982), pp. 245–52.

21. See Hardin, Russell, Collective Action (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); and Taylor, Michael, The Possibility of Cooperation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

22. Keohane, , After Hegemony, p. 75.

23. Axelrod, Robert, “The Emergence of Cooperation Among Egoists,” American Political Science Review 75 (06 1981), pp. 306–18.

24. Schuessler, Rudolph, “Exit Threats and Cooperation Under Anonymity,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 33 (12 1989), pp. 728–49.

25. Taylor, , The Possibility of Cooperation, p. 83.

26. Ibid., p. 105.

27. Ibid.

28. North, Douglass C., “Transaction Costs, Institutions, and Economic History,” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, vol. 140, 1984, pp. 717.

29. Here, I am speaking of rewards and penalties resulting from different moves within the game, not from resources outside the game. The latter would amount to an enforcement mechanism.

30. Taylor, , The Possibility of Cooperation, p. 105.

31. Ibid.

32. Ruggie, , “Unravelling the World Order,” pp. 2627.

33. Keohane, , After Hegemony, p. 90.

34. Ibid.

35. Martin, “Interests, Power, and Multilateralism.”

36. Ibid.

37. Yarbrough, Beth V. and Yarbrough, Robert M., “Reciprocity, Bilateralism, and Economic ‘Hostages’: Self-enforcing Agreements in International Trade,” International Studies Quarterly 30 (03 1986), pp. 78.

38. See, for example, Schuessler, “Exit Threats and Cooperation Under Anonymity.”

39. Sebenius, James K., “Negotiation Arithmetic: Adding and Subtracting Issues and Parties,” International Organization 37 (Spring 1983), pp. 281316.

40. Orbell, John M., Dawes, Robyn M., and van de Kragt, Alphons, “The Limits of Multilateral Promising,” Ethics 100 (04 1991), pp. 616–27.

41. Taylor, , The Possibility of Cooperation, p. 82.

42. Elster, Jon, “The Market and the Forum: Three Varieties of Political Theory,” in Elster, Jon and Hylland, Aamund, eds., Foundations of Social Choice Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 103–32.

43. Rapoport, Anatol, Fights, Games, and Debates (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960).

44. See Farrell, Joseph, “Communication, Coordination and Nash Equilibrium,” Economic Letters, vol. 27, 1988, p. 209. If there is only one Nash equilibrium, the equilibrium outcome might result without communication. I am indebted to Richard Sherman for this point.

45. Orbell, John M., van de Kragt, Alphons, and Dawes, Robyn M., “Explaining Discussion-Induced Cooperation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (05 1988), p. 811.

46. Frankel, Jeffrey A. and Rockett, Katherine E., “International Macroeconomic Policy Coordination When Policymakers Do Not Agree on the True Model,” American Economic Review 78 (06 1988), pp. 318–40.

47. Ibid., p. 318.

48. Putnam, Robert D. and Henning, C. Randall, “The Bonn Summit of 1978: A Case Study in Coordination,” in Cooper, Richard N. et al. , Can Nations Agree? Issues in International Economic Cooperation (Washington, D. C: Brookings Institution, 1989), pp. 12140.

49. Ibid., p. 13.

50. Ibid., pp. 18–19.

51. Ibid., p. 110.

52. Ktohane, , After Hegemony, p. 31.

53. Eichengreen, Barry et al. , “Hegemonic Stability Theories of the International Monetary System,” in Cooper, Can Nations Agree? pp. 255–98.

54. van de Kragt, Alphons, Orbell, John M., and Dawes, Robyn M., “The Minimal Contributing Set as a Solution to Public Goods Problems,” American Political Science Review 11 (03 1983), pp. 112–22.

55. Ibid., p. 114.

56. Ibid., p. 116.

57. See Orbell, Dawes, and van de Kragt, “The Limits of Multilateral Promising.”

58. Dawes, Robyn M., van de Kragt, Alphons, and Orbell, John M., “Not Me or Thee But We: The Importance of Group Identity in Eliciting Cooperation in Dilemma Situations: Experimental Manipulations,” Ada Psychologica 68 (09 1988), pp. 8397.

59. Ibid., p. 86.

60. Orbell, Dawes, and van de Kragt, “The Limits of Multilateral Promising.”

61. Schelling, Thomas C., The Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 5758.

62. Orbell, Dawes, and van de Kragt, “The Limits of Multilateral Promising.”

63. This does not mean that cooperation does not occur in this region. It just means that there are no significant differences in cooperation across groups that promise (short of universal promising) and groups that do not.

64. Orbell, , Dawes, , and van de Kragt, , “The Limits of Multilateral Promising,” p. 265.

65. Ibid.

66. The contemporary literature on institutions is voluminous and growing rapidly. For an overview of one kind of “new institutionalism,” see March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P., “The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life,” American Political Science Review 78 (09 1984), pp. 734–49. For an overview of recent work in international relations, see Keohane, Robert O., “International Institutions: Two Approaches,” International Studies Quarterly 32 (12 1988), pp. 379–96. For a survey from a rational choice perspective, see Shepsle, Kenneth A., “Studying Institutions: Some Lessons from the Rational Choice Approach,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 1 (04 1989), pp. 131–47. Finally, for an overview of sociological approaches, see Powell, Walter W. and DiMaggio, Paul J., eds., The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). My use of the term “institutional” does not exactly replicate the usage of any single approach. Yet it draws heavily on John Ruggie for his emphasis on ideas and norms, on Stephen Krasner for his notions of path-dependence, and on Robert Keohane for his arguments about the ways in which institutions shape incentives.

67. For a description of this approach, see the special issue of Joumal of Economic Issues, vol. 21, no. 3, 09 1987.

68. See North, Douglass C., Structure and Change in Economic History (New York: Norton, 1981); North, “Transaction Costs, Institutions, and Economic History”; Williamson, Oliver, Markets and Hierarchies: Analysis and Antitrust Implications (New York: Free Press, 1975); and Williamson, Oliver, The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (New York: Free Press, 1985).

69. See March and Olsen, “The New Institutionalism.”

70. See Mirowski, Philip, “The Philosophical Bases of Institutionalist Economics,” Journal of Economic Issues 21 (09 1987), pp. 1001–37.

71. See Coase, Ronald H., “The Nature of the Firm,” Economica, vol. 4, 1937; reprinted in Ronald H. Coase, The Firm, the Market, and the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 33–55.

72. See Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Krasner, Stephen D., Defending the National Interest: Raw Materials Investment and U. S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1978); and Katzenstein, Peter J., “Introduction: Domestic and International Forces and Strategies of Foreign Economic Policy,” in Katzenstein, Peter J., ed., Between Power and Plenty (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), pp. 322.

73. For a similar, but not identical, motivation, see Ikenberry, G. John, Lake, David A., and Mastanduno, Michael, “Introduction: Approaches to Explaining Foreign Economic Policy,” International Organization 42 (Winter 1988), pp. 114.

74. This is not a trivial point. It is one that is passed over too quickly in the collective action literature. This literature, of which hegemonic stability theory is one expression, generally assumes some form of mixed-motive game in which outcomes (payoffs) can be improved through coordination of behavior. That is, it assumes the existence of some contingent pairs of strategies which, if played, will yield better outcomes than the noncoordinated solution would provide. If the structure of interests is zero-sum, a hegemonic distribution of power would have markedly different consequences.

75. Ruggie has made this point numerous times. See Ruggie, John Gerard, “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order,” International Organization 36 (Spring 1982), pp. 379415; and Ruggie, “Multilateralism.”

76. Institutional approaches need not be methodologically holist, however. They may be committed to the view that individuals are the ultimate units of society and still treat complex social structures and institutions as describing important emergent effects. In this sense, the ontological argument may be misleading in that it is easy to glide from the ontological position that individuals are the ultimate units to the theoretical position that all causation has an individual locus. I am indebted to discussions with Ronald Jepperson for this point; see his article entitled “Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism,” in Powell, and DiMaggio, , The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, pp. 143–63.

77. In “International Institutions,” p. 384, Keohane stresses that institutions constrain activity, shape expectations, and prescribe roles.

78. For this viewpoint, see Giddens, Anthony, Central Problems in Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 4995.

79. The phrase “the needs of institutions” may raise some eyebrows, especially for methodological individualists. What I have in mind here is not some reified entity with motives similar to individuals. I am simply thinking of types of organized complexity that may be quite important for a collectivity even though they are unimportant or perhaps damaging for the individual. Complex divisions of labor may be alienating for the individual but crucial for societal survival. Hierarchy may be undesirable for everyone in the firm yet necessary for competitive profit levels. The theoretical source supporting this viewpoint is evolutionary theory where the forces operating on institutions are selective pressures in the environment. Thus, institutional decline, survival, and change can be seen as results of a blind trial-and-error model with selective winnowing by environmental forces.

80. Ruggie, John Gerard, “International Responses to Technology: Concepts and Trends,” International Organization 29 (Summer 1975), p. 567.

81. In referring to realist international relations theory here, I am not including the literature on psychological images, cognitive structures and perception, and perceptual distortion in crisis decision making. Without devaluing this literature, it strikes me that its purpose is more to identify the sources of perceptual distortion than to argue how better means-ends knowledge or alternative interpretive models can facilitate cooperative outcomes.

82. See, for example, Haas, Peter M., “Do Regimes Matter? Epistemic Communities and Mediterranean Pollution Control,” International Organization 43 (Summer 1989), pp. 377403; Goldstein, Judith, “The Impact of Ideas on Trade Policy: The Origins of U. S. Agricultural and Manufacturing Policies,” International Organization 43 (Winter 1989), pp. 3171; and Adler, Emanuel, The Power of Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Since the time my article was written, a special issue of International Organization has been published on this subject. See Haas, Peter M., ed., “Knowledge, Power, and International Policy Coordination,” International Organization 46 (Winter 1992), pp. 1390.

83. March and Olsen, , “The New Institutionalism,” p. 739.

84. Wendt, Alexander and Duvall, Raymond, “Institutions and International Order,” in Czempiel, Ernst-Otto and Rosenau, James N., eds., Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1989), p. 59.

85. See Keohane, “International Institutions”; Kratochwil, Friedrich V., Rules, Norms and Decisions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); and Jackson, Robert H., “Quasi-States, Dual Regimes, and Neoclassical Theory: International Jurisprudence and the Third World,” International Organization 41 (Autumn 1987), pp. 519–19.

86. The work of Richard Ashley and Friedrich Kratochwil seems to be grounded in culturally acquired norms and practices. According to Hayek's conception of rules, however, our rule-based behavior has its origins in evolutionary processes and is the result of blind trial and error and selective retention. Consequently, rules are arrived at unconsciously and are “hard-wired” in the biological organism, at least in part. For a discussion of Hayek's theory of rules, see Galeotti, Anna Elizabeth, “Individualism, Social Rules, Tradition: The Case of Friedrich A. Hayek,” Political Theory 15 (05 1987), pp. 163–81.

87. Kratochwil, , Rules, Norms and Decisions, p. 12.

88. See Perrow, Charles, “Economic Theories of Organization,” in Zukin, Sharon and DiMaggio, Paul, eds., Structures of Capital: The Social Organization of the Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 128.

89. See Caporaso, James A., “Introduction: The State in Comparative and International Perspective,” in Caporaso, James A., ed., The Elusive State: International and Comparative Perspectives (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989), p. 12.

90. For an important exception, see North, Douglass C., “Institutions and Their Consequences for Economic Performance,” in Cook, Karen Schweers and Levi, Margaret, eds., The Limits of Rationality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 383–401. On p. 392 of this chapter, North recognizes that the neoclassical economics literature on institutions focuses primarily on institutions as efficient solutions to problems of economic organization.

91. Gerschenkron, Alexander, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1962).

92. See Ruggie, “Multilateralism.”

93. See Ruggie, “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change”; Alker, Hayward R. Jr, “The Presumption of Anarchy in International Relations,” mimeograph, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1986; and Ashley, Richard, “The Poverty of Neorealism,” in Keohane, Robert O., ed., Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 255300.

94. See the following works of Haas, Ernst B.: Beyond the Nation-State; Tangle of Hopes: American Commitments and World Order (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969); and When Knowledge Is Power.

95. Goldstein, Judith, “Ideas, Institutions, and American Trade Policy,” International Organization 42 (Winter 1988), pp. 179217.

96. Wendt, Alexander, “Sovereignty and the Social Construction of Power Politics,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Washington, D. C, 1990.

97. See Keohane, “International Institutions.”

98. See Taylor, The Possibility of Cooperation; and Schuessler, “Exit Threats and Cooperation Under Anonymity.”

99. See Sandier, Todd and Tschirhart, John T., “The Economic Theory of Clubs: An Evaluative Survey,” Journal of Economic Literature 18 (12 1980), pp. 14811521.

100. See Alker, Hayward R. Jr, “Rescuing ‘Reason’ from the ‘Rationalists’: Reading Vico, Marx, and Weber as Reflective Institutionalists,” mimeograph, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1990, p. 10.

101. Inayatullah, Naeem, “Redefining Sovereignty,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 1990.

102. See the following works of Robert H. Jackson: “Quasi-States, Dual Regimes, and Neoclassical Theory”; and Negative Sovereignty in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Review of International Studies 12 (10 1986), pp. 247–64.

103. DiMaggio, Paul, “Interest and Agency in Institutional Theory,” in Zucker, Lynne G., ed., Institutional Patterns and Organizations: Culture and Environment (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1988), p. 3.

This article was prepared for the Ford Foundation West Coast Workshop on Multilateralism, organized by John Gerard Ruggie. I am grateful to the Ford Foundation for financial support of the project. I also acknowledge the support of the Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Chair at the University of Washington as well as the Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra. For their comments on earlier drafts of my article, I thank William Drake, Jeffry Frieden, Ronald Jepperson, Robert Keohane, Edgar Kiser, Stephen Krasner, Lisa Martin, George Modelski, Richard Sherman, Janice Thomson, Alexander Wendt, and several anonymous reviewers for International Organization and Columbia University Press.

International relations theory and multilateralism: the search for foundations

  • James A. Caporaso


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