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Cowhey: Domestic institutions and the credibility of international commitments

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Cowhey. 1993. Domestic institutions and the credibility of international commitments: Japan and the United States. International Organization 47 (spring): 299-326.


Like medieval monarchs, modern great powers face credibility problems. Even though they may find it advantageous to use multilateral institutions, they always have the power to renege on commitments to other countries.

A state's domestic institutions (X) affect its international credibility (Y) (more specifically, Y is the credibility of a commitment made by a great power to a multilateral regime). Three variables matter:

  • X1: "Collective goods": Whether politicians have incentives to produce public or private goods. Cowhey doesn't say it, but this sounds like Bueno de Mesquita et al's selectorate theory. US leaders have incentives to produce public goods; cronyism in Japan creates incentives to produce private goods.
  • X2: "Division of power": If Cowhey had written a few years earlier, he would have called this "the number of veto points." Power should be divided enough that decisions are hard to come to and hard to change once made. (MacIntyre argues that states should have an intermediate number of veto points to avoid rigidity on the one hand and volatility on the other. Cowhey seems to favor something closer to rigidity, but obviously there must be enough flexibility that treaties can be ratified in the first place). The divided majoritarianism in the US meets this standard; Japan's parliamentarism does not.
  • X3: "Transparency": A game theorist would call this informational symmetry. If the great power wants to renege, can other states find out soon enough to cut their losses? The high transparency in American debate makes this possible; Japan's closed system does not.


These institutions only apply to democracies. How, then, could the USSR or China ever make a credible commitment? They make commitments, and other states accept these commitments, so there must be some mechanism by which non-democratic great powers can make credible commitments. Wouldn't these same mechanisms also enable the US to make credible commitments?