Writing

Describe and analyze the competing claims of pluralist and
realist accounts in the formation of international regimes.

March 2003

In the international system, which is a system of anarchy, it is important for institutions and laws to be coordinated in an effort to keep the global stage from falling into chaos; that is, the system must be anomalous. One such institution is that of the regime, which has had a momentous impact on foreign affairs, especially within the past century. The increased influence of regimes within the international system has sparked debates from various schools of thought, the two most prominent being realism and pluralism. By understanding the theories of both parties, one can examine the similarities and contradictions between them and fully understand their points of view on the formation of regimes.

Before this can be accomplished, it is important for one to understand the general concepts of regimes and regime formation. Thought many definitions of this do exist, all can agree on the fact that regimes are sets or systems of rules, principles, norms, and procedures that affect the actions of actors and govern them by uniting their sentiments or aims.1 That is to say, this intricate organisation – which is, in fact, a “conceptual creation, not [a] concrete entity[sic]”2 – regulates the global stage and incorporates a large degree of institutionalization, wherein the creation of procedures of decision-making and further enforcement is a key feature.

The four key points of a regime – rules, principles, norms, and procedures – require a bit of explanation in their own right. Rules are the most straightforward aspect, mainly dealing with specific actions or differentiating conflicts found between principles and norms. Principles, then, are simply theories regarding the purpose of the regime or how the global system should function. One example of a principle is that regarding the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), in which the foremost proposal was to have an international authority supervising the “mining of the seabed of the high seas” for purposes of protecting the increasing reliance on the ocean floor.3 Norms, perhaps the most important aspect, recognise the “rights and obligations of states”4 by determining standards by which the actors should behave. Short-term interests may be compromised in the hopes that the other actors with whom the state has relations may, in the future, respond with assistance on their own accord. This is the theory of reciprocity that is so inherent to regimes: the idea of ‘quid pro quo,’ or repaying one’s actions or efforts in equal measures. Finally, the decision-making procedures organise the specific guidelines by which states should behave, which are regularly changed or updated as time progresses and as the regime expands. One must understand that regimes in themselves are not simply ad hoc, or one-time only, creations, but are instead susceptible to changes on the global stage and consequently transform as such.5

Regimes are the most responsive to budding conflicts or changes in world order;6 however, they are rather gradual in their formation, which involves three stages: centralizing norms, then centralizing both norms and rules, and finally enforcing these rules through, for example, economic sanctions. A regime must go through a process of diplomatic negotiation and numerous panels. In all, this process can take up to ten years just to get from the first to the second stage, during which the world order and aims of the actors could have changed numerous times; the Kyoto Protocol, for example, was given until 2014 to be implemented. One can see that regimes rely on the concept of interdependence, which is the mutual sensitivity or vulnerability of two or more states to the actions of each other; relationships are therefore asymmetric, where the hope for ultimate gains outweigh the possible costs. This can be given the preceding adjective of ‘complex’ to imply a low salience of military threat and a lack of hierarchy of issues.

The analysis of regimes rests with two general schools of thought: the realist perspective, and that of the pluralists. The examination and consequent theories regarding regime formation are similar in certain areas; however, enough differences exist to provide both parties with an opportunity to be critical of the other. On the broadest point, both realists and pluralists tend to agree that a regime’s norms, rules, and principles balance the aims of the actors involved in such interactions.7 That is, each state affects the goals of the regime through its relations with the other actors while not surrendering its sovereignty, as regimes fall under the heading of ‘foreign policy.’8 It is also considered true that the international system is, in itself, anarchical, and that states operate within it as rational actors, cooperating with each other when the need for a regime arises. The formation of regimes, finally, encourages a balance in the international system.9 These are all fundamental thoughts of both the realists and the pluralists.

However, this is where the differences in theory begin to emerge. The realist school of thought understands regimes in the context of states competing for power in the context of security and consequent security predicaments, and is therefore critical of them. Those with whom a state is competing become apprehensive when security is improved; here, one can see the traditional realist obsession with relative power relations.10 Thus regimes arise from the need for hegemonic stability, as interstate relations require more cooperation the stronger one power grows. The decline of hegemony implies the decline of regimes, although some argue that there is the possibility for ‘hegemonic afterglow,’ understood to mean the time after the fall of a superpower when “factors such as inertia, habit, or fear of instability resulting from change work in favour of the regimes [which] the once dominant state had established at the height of its power.”11 To realists, the balance of power is essential to global order, but is difficult to maintain. Conflict is hastened by the shift in power of rising and declining states;12 thus the role of the hegemony is highly influential, and a strong hegemonic power assures more worldly cooperation, as they tend to “participate actively in a number of issue-areas simultaneously … [and their power can] induce [actors] to negotiate.”13

The general international system demands that actors – specifically states, who are, to realists, the component units, rather than specific governments or associations1415 Basically, behaviour is altered by states when changes occur within the ‘payoff matrix.’ That is, “when material interests on the long shadow of the future suggests that rewards for cooperation are great, states may alter the strategies by which they pursue their interests.”16 This explains the flexibility within and the lengthy amount of time allotted to the formation of regimes, wherein actors must coordinate in the hopes of reaching their own goals. One must also note that this constant need to cooperate, or, to put it in other terms, the struggle for survival, prevents any state from growing so powerful so as to ignore the well-being of others.17 The possible long-term results affect a state’s decision to act within a regime, as the success of a regime relies on the relative equality of future gains.

However, realists do realise that this is, in fact, asymmetrical; the relationships between the West and the Third World, for example, found that the less-powerful latter followed principles and norms that would perhaps not be represented in regimes unless there was a switch in the balance of power.18 There is no universal acceptance of the West’s liberal principles and norms, yet past regimes are based upon them, and are very selective in nature. For example, issues such as banking, plutonium, and Iraqi nukes all attract elaborate rules and enforcement, whereas, say, child poverty, water supply, and human rights do not. Thus realists believe that regimes do not greatly influence the international system, as they are far too differential in their formation and therefore do not benefit the global scene as a whole, but rather specific areas, such as the Global North. In recent years this has become less of an issue with the advent of sustainable development, or an attempt to bring together two agendas or issues that had previously been thought of as irreconcilable. For example, the Rio Declaration of 1992 saw the North focusing on environmental protection; the South would not consent to signing until a clause was added regarding Southern development, as a result of the monstrous debts owed by the South to the North. Still, realists continue to find discrepancies within regime foundation, and with regimes in general.

For pluralists, regime formation is based less on the struggle for power and relative gains; more emphasis is placed on the collaboration of states for the “promotion of the common good,”19 and on the expectation for peaceful relations rather than security dilemmas. The outlook is particularly benign in comparison to that of the realist thinkers, and stresses the importance of interaction between states and societies.20 However, the international system obstructs the process of regime formtaion based on its anarchical nature, and pluralists are convinced that states are focused solely on all possible absolute gains and are hence wary of others. That is to say, pluralists see regimes as a means of lessening this wariness, through the aforementioned idea of reciprocity. For example, “the International Atomic Energy Agency [(IAEA)] is entrusted with monitoring members’ compliance with the substantive regime provisions,”21 thus decreasing the chance for what states would fear as back-stabbing. To explain this fact, pluralists turn to economics, for they consider the international system to be similar to the economic market, as both are anarchical yet tend toward equilibrium. This tendency toward equilibrium is contingent upon the role of the one-power hegemony.22 Likewise, the creation of regimes stems fromt he idea that competition will overrun cooperation, unlike the realist idea that regimes transpire through an international desire to cooperate, though the anarchical system deters this.23 To pluralists, regims are formed to organise rational plans of action in order to curb the competition. This can be seen through the numerous economic game theories that are used, including the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ and the ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ to describe the various interests and actions involved in the different types of regimes; for example, “‘collaboration regimes’ based on formal contracts and ‘coordination regimes’ based on conventions.”24

Game theory involves two possible actions between two actors, which can be either cooperative or competitive. Through rational thought, the actors can arrive at the most positive outcome for their own interests. ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ offers an explanation for most state actions by providing four possible outcomes for the two opposite actions.25 These varying options indicate the relative ease of regime formation, wherein the regime offers a larger guarantee of collaboration among states. The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ game, as well, maintains that more than one outcome is possible in the quest for an optimal result. For pluralists, interests are geared toward the short-term, with collaboration and, on a lesser scale, coordination being put into practice.

The theory put forward here is not, as the realists believe, that the existence of hegemony is the means of maintaining a regime, but rather that the system of reciprocity drives regimes forward. Thus “inspection and surveillance facilities [are becoming] very important to ensure that the states are operating within the parameters of the regime.”26 Regimes assist the increase in transactions and contacts in “changing attitudes and transnational coalition opportunities.”27 As mentioned before, less emphasis is placed on the dilemma of security than on the importance of peaceful relations between states. This is entirely a contradication to realist thought.

The differences between the two schools of thought – realist and pluralist – and their theories on regime formation outweigh many of the similarities; however, some general points are in accordance with both. The international system is inherently anarchical, and regimes provide a mechanism for stability, as they are based on cooperation between states. However, the pluralist view of regimes is much more benign than that of the realists, who see regimes as differential, giving preference to those who organise them. Despite this, regimes continue to influence the international arena, and will doubtless continue to do so for many years to come.



1 Krasner, Stephen D. International Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983. pg. 2. See also Keohane, Robert O. and Joseph S. Nye. Power and Interdependence. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977. pg. 19.
2 Ruggie, John Gerard. Constructing the World Polity. New York: Routledge, 1998. pg. 87.
3 Armstrong, David. The Rise of International Organisation: A Short History. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1982. pg. 120.
4 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 303.

5 Krasner, Stephen D. International Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983. pg. 3.
6 Bohman, James. “International Regimes and Democratic Governance: Political Equality and Influence in Global Institutions.” International Affairs. Vol. 75 (1999), pg. 500.
7 Kratochwil, Friedrich, and Edward D. Mansfield. International Organisation: A Reader. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994. pg. 95.
8 Taylor, Paul. International Organization in the Modern World. London: Pinter Publishers, 1993. pg. 3.
9 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 301.
10 Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Nuclear Learning and US-Soviet Security Regimes.” International Organization. Vol. 41 (1987), pg. 371.
11 Hasenclever, Andreas, with Peter Mayer and Volker Rittberger. “Integrating Theories of International Regimes.” Review of International Studies. Vol. 26 (2000), pg. 9. See also Lake, David A. “Leadership, Hegemony, and the International Economy: Naked Emperor or Tattered Monarch with Potential?” International Studies Quarterly. Vol. 37 (1993), pg. 459-489.
12 Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Nuclear Learning and US-Soviet Security Regimes.” International Organization. Vol. 41 (1987), pg. 371.
13 Kratochwil, Friedrich, and Edward D. Mansfield. International Organisation: A Reader. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994. pg. 111.
14 Haas, Ernst B. “Words Can Hurt You.” From Krasner, Stephen D. (ed.) International Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983. pg. 47.
15 Krasner, Stephen D. International Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983. pg. 356.
16 Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Nuclear Learning and US-Soviet Security Regimes.” International Organization. Vol. 41 (1987), pg. 373.
17 Hasenclever, Andreas, with Peter Mayer and Volker Rittberger. “Integrating Theories of International Regimes.” Review of International Studies. Vol. 26 (2000), pg. 9.
18 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 310.
19 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 301.
20 Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Nuclear Learning and US-Soviet Security Regimes.” International Organization. Vol. 41 (1987), pg. 372.
21 Hasenclever, Andreas, with Peter Mayer and Volker Rittberger. “Integrating Theories of International Regimes.” Review of International Studies. Vol. 26 (2000), pg. 7.
22 Haas, Ernst B. “Words Can Hurt You.” From Krasner, Stephen D. (ed.) International Regimes. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983. pg. 49.
23 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 313.
24 Hasenclever, Andreas, with Peter Mayer and Volker Rittberger. “Integrating Theories of International Regimes.” Review of International Studies. Vol. 26 (2000), pg. 8.
25 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 309.
26 Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 310.
27 Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Nuclear Learning and US-Soviet Security Regimes.” International Organization. Vol. 41 (1987), pg. 373.