International Institutions and Stability

By Eric Gomez

The international system can best be thought of as a complex web of economic, political, and social relationships that are constantly changing to reflect new realities. This astounding complexity is reflected in the various theoretical approaches and viewpoints that scholars of international relations have used to make sense of it all. One of the most important assumptions made by most theorists has to do with the anarchic nature of the international system. Unlike domestic political systems, there is no official hierarchy to the international system; no one state has the final say over what other states can and cannot do.[1]

One of the most detrimental effects of anarchy is the uncertainty that it produces in international politics, which leads to mistrust among states over each other’s intentions. Since the end of the Cold War, some of the negative effects of anarchy have been mitigated by the existence of a global hegemon, the United States. However, recent events have made it apparent that American power, and likewise its hegemonic status, is declining while the relative power of other states, especially China, is on the rise. It is in the interest of the US to allow other states’ relative power to increase while it continues to build and strengthen international institutions. By strengthening international institutions, the US could put its political weight behind a rules-based international order where less uncertainty should lead to more stability among states.

America’s status as the global hegemon was taken mostly without question in the decade immediately following the end of the Cold War; the United States emerged from the Cold War as the global hegemon in a unipolar world. Sterling-Folker defines a hegemon as “a very powerful state, which provides self-interested global or regional stability.”[2] American policy-makers were quick to recognize their new status in the world, and government agencies responsible for foreign policy adopting strategic positions that reflected this new reality.[3] The hegemonic status of the US largely rests on its massive economy and its ability to deploy military force to nearly any part of the world in a moments’ notice. During the 1990s, other great powers, which would be the most likely source of a “balancing” or restoration of a more even global distribution of power, began to scale back their military expenditures.[4]

The status of the United States as a power without rival has cracked as a result of a string of events. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the disastrous Iraq invasion of 2003 and the subsequent quagmire there, and the 2008 economic collapse all had profound negative effects on the US’s relative power. Christopher Layne believes that “US hegemony cannot endure forever,” and “if this ongoing shift in the distribution of relative (world) power continues, new poles of power in the international system are likely to emerge in the next decade…”[5] The most recent candidate to emerge as a challenger to the US is China, a state that has experienced massive economic and military growth over the last several decades.

Since it is clear that US relative power is in decline, the question that scholars of international relations must answer is: what plan of action will take the international system into a better future as the system becomes increasingly anarchic? The path that offers the most potential for preventing the negative effects of anarchy is the strengthening of international institutions. It is in the self-interest of states to cooperate via institutions because of the wide variety of benefits that institutions give to member states, including the reduction of transaction costs and the facilitation of reciprocity.[6] Institutions also assist in managing distributional conflicts. One of the biggest barriers to state cooperation is that states often have trouble agreeing on how cooperation is to be conducted so that the benefits of cooperation are distributed fairly. Institutions provide “constructed focal points” in cooperation issues[7], which help allay fears of unbalanced distribution. By providing a structure for cooperation between states to take place, the collective goals of states can be reached. In short, “international institutions help states achieve collective gains.”[8]

International institutions have clearly been successful in mitigating conflict, encouraging peace in the international system, and creating more interdependence between states that serves as positive reinforcement for the maintenance and strengthening of institutions. The most important thing that the US can do going forward is to bind itself more closely with international institutions. The George W. Bush administration “either steamrolled or ignored” international institutions[9] when making controversial policy choices like the invasion of Iraq. If the most powerful state in the international system is unwilling to abide by international institutions, then the institutions are perceived of as being weak. It doesn’t make sense for other states, especially rising powers, to follow what institutions say if the US does not respect them. Unfortunately, America has set the precedent that a state can get away with anything so long as it is powerful enough. This type of thinking only encourages instability and anarchy.

The purpose of international institutions is not to change the distribution of power or make the world a fairer place. For the most part, institutions still reflect the wills and goals of powerful states. The critical role that institutions play in international relations is that of providing clarity to relations. They make interactions and politics between states more transparent and open. This allows for a greater degree of trust, which in turn leads to more peace and stability in the international system. This is why the United States should focus on building and strengthening international institutions. Greater trust among states is crucial to combat anarchy, and this trust is best realized through international institutions.

Works Cited

Douthat, Ross. “A Very Liberal Intervention.” The New York Times. March 21, 2011, Page  A25 New York Edition.

Goldstein, Joshua S. and Jon C. Pevehouse. International Relations. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Keohane, Robert O. “International Institutions: Can Interdependence Work?” Foreign Policy 110 (Spring 1998): 82-96.

Keohane, Robert O. and Lisa L. Martin. “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory.” International Security 20, no. 1 (Summer 1995): 39-51.

Layne, Christopher. “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited.” International Security 31, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 7-41.

Sterling-Folker, Jennifer. “Neoliberalism.” In International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, edited by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, 116-134 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Wohlforth, William C. “The Stability of a Unipolar World.” International Security 24, no. 1 (Summer 1999): 5-41.

[1] Joshua S. Goldstein and Jon C. Pevehouse, International Relations (Boston: Pearson, 2012), 41.

[2] Jennifer Sterling-Folker, “Neoliberalism,” in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, ed. Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 120.

[3] William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security 24, no. 1 (Summer 1999): 5.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited,” International Security 31, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 37-38.

[6] Robert O. Keohane and Lisa L. Martin, “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory,” International Security 20, no. 1 (Summer, 1995): 42.

[7] Ibid., 45.

[8] Robert O. Keohane, “International Institutions: Can Interdependence Work?,” Foreign Policy 110, (Spring 1998): 87.

[9] Ross Douthat, “A Very Liberal Intervention,” The New York Times, March 21, 2011, Page A25, New York edition.


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