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Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal: The rational design of international institutions

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Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal. 2001. The rational design of international institutions. International Organization 55 (autumn): 761-799.

"Institutions" are "explicit arrangements, negotiated among international actors [not exclusively states], that prescribe, proscribe, and/or authorize behavior." This includes anything from the WTO to diplomatic immunity.

Y: How institutions are designed. Five components:

  • Membership rules (MEMBERSHIP) (universal, regional, exclusive)
  • Scope of issues covered (SCOPE) (single-issue, multiple-issue; which issues are linked?)
  • Centralization of tasks (CENTRALIZATION) (not just centralized enforcement, but also e.g. centralized information collection)
  • Rules for controlling the institution (CONTROL) (how are decisions made; what are the voting rules)
  • Flexibility of arrangements (FLEXIBILITY)

The authors seek to go beyond Keohane. Keohane established that repeated interaction can produce rational cooperation (what the authors call the "folk theorem"). But "If cooperation is within reach, why it is not always grasped? To answer that, we must go beyond any simple, optimistic interpretation of the Folk theorem. Although we assume that the general conditions of international interdependence are propitious, individual issues have features that make achieving and maintaining cooperation more problematic. Moreover, the standard Folk theorem conclusion needs careful refinement when applied to more realistic situations, where competing equilibria are in play, many actors are involved, and uncertainty is high." In addition, the authors want to explain how cooperation will occur, not just that it will occur. Problems of the folk theorm:

  • 2x2 games like PD capture only enforcement, but not distribution: if states have different preferences, which point on the Pareto frontier will they settle on?
  • uncertainty also matters, as do problems caused when large numbers of parties interact.


X: six of them

  • enforcement problems (efficiency)
  • distributional problems (equity)
  • Number of actors and the asymmetries among them (capabilities affect who wins in the bargaining over distribution)
  • Uncertainty about behavior, the state of the world, and other's preferences [three separate variables]


"Our work departs significantly from the earlier cooperation literature [e.g. Keohane 1984]. Because decentralized cooperation (supported by the Folk theorem) is difficult to achieve and often brittle, states devise institutions to promote cooperation and make it more resilient. But the form these institutions take varies widely. Often the necessary institutions are fairly minimal and simply reinforce the underlying conditions for cooperation, perhaps providing the information necessary for bilateral bargains. Other times, more complex problems may require a larger institutional role--such as when an issue involves actors with very different resources and information. Under these circumstances, institutions can play a major role in facilitating cooperation."