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Driving with the Rearview Mirror: On the Rational Science of Institutional Design

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2009

Barbara Koremenos
Affiliation:
University of California, Los Angeles
Charles Lipson
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
Duncan Snidal
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
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Summary

How can social scientists best contribute to the design of international institutions? Presumably our value lies in producing knowledge about design that those designing institutions need but do not have. But what kind of knowledge is that? What should a science of institutional design be “about?”

As a discipline international relations (IR) has barely begun to think about institutional design. Anarchy makes the international system among the least hospitable of all social systems to institutional solutions to problems, encouraging actors to rely on power and interest instead. Designing institutions hardly makes sense, and could even be counterproductive, under such conditions. Thus, IR has plausibly focused most of its energy so far on the question of whether institutions mattered at all. Yet designing institutions has been a big part of what foreign policymakers actually do, especially since the end of World War I. The League of Nations, UN, European Union, World Trade Organization, North American Free Trade Agreement, Association of South-East Asian Nations, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and hundreds of other international organizations and regimes have been created. Skeptics may be right that all this activity is unimportant or a mistake, but policymakers apparently disagree. And that in turn has left IR with less to say to them than it might have. By bracketing whether institutions matter and turning to the problem of institutional design, therefore, this volume takes an important step toward a more policy-relevant discourse about international politics.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2003

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