Conceptualizations of international institutions (IR approach)

Discuss the different conceptualizations of “international institutions” in the literature of International Relations. Compare the different theoretical approaches in the study of international institutions. Describe the recent direction of empirical studies of international institutions and the consequent challenges and prospects identified by its research agenda using the works on the UN, ASEAN, the EU and other international institutions as cases. Cite appropriate authors and their works.

            To start with, I wish to contextualize international institutionalism by juxtaposing it with other forms of new institutionalism, so I can provide a larger vista of what institutionalism is, and later on, also present a clearer and specific explication of international institutionalism and the approaches related to the concept. From among the seven types of new institutionalism presented by Lowndes in Marsh & Stoker, I’d like to expound only on three: rational choice institutionalism, normative institutionalism, and focus on international institutionalism. From which, I shall elaborate and discuss the approaches presented by prominent scholars on international institutionalism.

            Normative institutionalism asserts that norms and values embodied in political institutions affect, and to some extent, dictate or change the political behavior of individuals. Rational choice institutionalism assumes that political institutions can serve as arenas within which individual actors can maximize their interests. In that way, their rational interests can serve their individual and collective goals. I specifically included these two types of institutionalism to underscore the nature and rationale of international institutionalism by looking into the parallelism of these types to international institutionalism. We assume that the political institutions described in normative institutionalism are the international institutions; also we assume that individuals are the states. Therefore, if we will rephrase it to suit international institutionalism, we say that international institutions can implicitly or explicitly affect the behavior of states. Another parallelism is rational choice with international institutionalism. We assume that these domestic political institutions are global organizations. Also we assume that individual actors are the states – self-interested and egoistic yet maximizing their inclusion in an organization to serve its national interests, besides the collective goals of the institution. Therefore, if we rephrase the assumption of rational institutionalists, and place it parallel to international institutionalism, we say that states are rational actors that cooperate with other states in a particular organization to serve both collective but especially individual interests. Of course, this collaboration will require their compliance with the rules set by such institution.

            Clearly, the basic assumptions of both normative institutionalism and rational choice institutionalism, when combined, stresses the main preposition of international institutionalists: that the norms and rules embodied in international institutions implicitly or explicitly affect the behavior of individual states and that these individual states will maximize their membership in their respective organizations by either utmost or relative abidance to the rules and norms of the institution, depending on the possibilities of gaining their rational interests. In other words, it is the structure of international institutions and the behavior of individual states that contribute to the enhancement of both: the structure affects the behavior of states, and states form and enhance the institutional structure.

            International institutionalism’s roots can be traced back to the advocacies and principles of liberalism especially its neoliberal strand. According to neoliberalism, international institutions can serve as useful instrument for collaboration among member-countries. Prominent scholars like Snidal and Krasner underscore the relevance of institutions and (its related concept) of regime, respectively. While Snidal puts emphasis on the role of institutions to serve the interests of its members, Krasner specifically focuses on the functional aspect of institutions/ organizations. According to Krasner, international regimes are sets of principles, rules, norms, and decision-making procedures around which actors converge in any given area of international relations. He goes on to detail what each of the four sets mean. Principles are beliefs of fact, rectitude, or causality. Norms are standards of behavior defined in terms of rights and obligations; Rules are specified prescriptions or proscriptions and decision-making procedures are for implemention of collective choices. Joseph Nye and Keohane, in Power and Interdependence, contend that while neoliberals recognize the rational behavior of state as actors, they’d rather focus on how these rational interests can be best achieved by means of international institutions. For them, organizations serve as the most effective instrument to discuss and realize/ implement their common interests.

            Apparently, the recent direction of empirical studies of international institutions and the consequent challenges and prospects concerning it can be best understood when applied in real context of international organizations. I wish to briefly discuss this in the case of the UN, ASEAN & EU.

            The United Nations can perhaps be an example of what Bull, Watson, Jackson, Wight, and Dunne refer to as an International Society of States (English School). In the UN, every state is considered equal, at least in theory. Their respective views on particular matters are expressed in the General Assembly. In other words, the UN serves as the arena where important and crucial matters can be discussed, where treaties and conventions can be formulated and done to serve the general interest of the international community. However, Held noticed that this liberal sovereignty, or a community of states via institutions has loopholes. He asserted that states have very different characters; that there will always be spill-over effects or consequences; the tendency or risk of arrogance by the primus inter pares in crucial issues that may threaten their interests; and that international organizations are not enough to support the interest of states.

            The ASEAN is another case of an institution, regional in scope. As mentioned earlier, institutions have norms, rules, and values shared by member-states and they themselves are bound to comply with, and responsible to enhance. In the case of the ASEAN, there’s this so-called ASEAN way where 5 core principles are to be respected and followed: a.) each state should recognize the sovereignty of fellow states; b.) each state has the right to existence and territorial integrity; c.) each state should respect the rule on non-interference – meaning, a state is expected not to involve itself in the domestic political affairs of the other; d.) non-use of force; and e.) cooperation as much as possible. As recent events have shown, ASEAN member-states have attempted to comply with the shared principles of the organization, but quite weak on some matters (Burma case). According to Cockerham, the recent integration of ASEAN is relatively new because of the absence of a solid Southeast Asian identity throughout the centuries of colonization. But this is precisely why institutions are important as neoliberals and especially constructivists would contest. Institutions are social-construct that can be utilized to form and enhance a common identity among members of any particular institution. The EU had gone through it many times yet its case is still an interesting topic among scholars up to now.

            In 1993, Baldwin published the neo-neo debate. One of the six focal points therein is international cooperation. According to neorealists (Grieco et al), international cooperation is difficult to achieve and maintain. Neoliberals (Lipson and Keohane et al) argue that the insecurity among states all the more demands the formation of institutions to mitigate further misunderstandings because they will have to share common values and rules. In the end, they concluded that the future of the EU will determine the validity of each party. Nearly two decades after the publication, it appears that the EU has emerged as an important case for integration through institutionalization.


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