In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interstate Cooperation Theory and International Institutions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Problems of Cooperation
  • Constructivist Interventions
  • Multilateralism and Regionalism
  • Power and Distribution
  • Mechanisms of Enforcement
  • Compliance
  • Domestic Politics
  • Legalization
  • Trust, Information, and the Security Dilemma
  • Global Governance

International Relations Interstate Cooperation Theory and International Institutions
Duncan Snidal, Michael Sampson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0093


International cooperation has been a central concern of international relations (IR) scholarship since the establishment of the field and lies at the heart of many of the most significant theoretical debates. However, the focus of these debates has shifted significantly over time from a demonstration of the possibility of decentralized cooperation and its limits to the detailed analysis of the role of institutions and governance arrangements in promoting cooperation. This entry provides a guide to these developments. Much earlier IR research was preoccupied with ways of understanding and avoiding interstate conflict, with this concern stemming from a Hobbesian interpretation of international affairs in which states interact in a perilous state of nature where meaningful cooperation is precluded by insecurity, mutual fear, and distrust. Over time this view has been challenged and qualified; and the possibility of more positive relations has become an increasingly important focus with the expansion of interdependence and globalization. At the heart of this development has been a debate over the fundamental implications of the anarchical structure of the international system: that is, the degree to which cooperation is possible in an environment lacking hierarchical authority. The discussion has gradually moved beyond this exploration of the possibilities for cooperation to the identification and resolution of specific cooperation problems and an examination of the mechanisms by which international cooperation operates. Here the discussion of regimes (Krasner 1983, cited under Anarchy and International Cooperation) and institutions (Keohane 1984, cited under Anarchy and International Cooperation) became more prominent as a means by which problems of cooperation may be attenuated through mechanisms such as monitoring, enforcement, and the provision of information. The key to these advances has been the recognition that institutions can be effective even without coercive or enforcement capacities and that cooperation can be achieved and maintained through softer governance arrangements. The entry begins with a guide to these broad and complex developments through a consideration of core rationalist theory, which initiated cooperation theory. Constructivist scholars have also contributed significantly to the development of thinking on cooperation by highlighting the role of ideas, norms, and socialization in shaping state identity, interests, and behavior (Wendt 1992, cited under Constructivist Interventions), and these interventions are included. This entry also addresses decentralized cooperation and multilateralism along with examples of the empirical work that has often accompanied the theoretical debates described. Finally, this guide ends with some of the most recent and fruitful extensions of cooperation theory, including recent work on global governance, the impact of domestic politics on the possibility of cooperation, and work that incorporates questions of trust to revisit the problem of the security dilemma.

General Overviews

The subsequent sections are organized mainly chronologically in order to show the internal logic of the developments mentioned in the Introduction focusing in particular on key theoretical work on cooperation, regimes, and institutions from the 1980s to the present. Underlying this guide to the literature is the belief that the complementarities of different approaches greatly outweigh any (alleged) incompatibilities. Viewed in this way, international cooperation is an incredibly broad subject that engages multiple theoretical approaches and sprawls into adjacent topics such as international law and economics. To partially offset the problem that all of the significant contributions cannot be included, the entry begins by suggesting a number of review essays and edited collections containing other key articles that are indicated with the authors’ name. Because the collections selected were compiled over a span of three decades, they not only provide a useful entry into the broader literature but also reflect the ongoing development of the field described in the Introduction to this entry. Haggard and Simmons 1987 focus on the broad and somewhat imprecise notion of regime, which was a prelude to the gradual turn to more formal institutions illustrated first by Kratochwil and Mansfield 1994 and then Goldstein and Steinberg 2010. The growing importance of normative considerations is also apparent in Hasenclever, et al. 1997.

  • Haggard, Stephen, and Beth A. Simmons. “Theories of International Regimes.” International Organization 41.3 (1987): 491–517.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300027569

    NNNSurveys competing conceptions of regimes, their key dimensions, and their use in different approaches: structural (including hegemonic stability), strategic game theoretic, functionalist, and cognitive. The authors argue for the need to incorporate domestic politics, call for more empirical work, and suggest future avenues for research.

  • Milner, Helen. “International Theories of Cooperation Among Nations: Strengths and Weaknesses.” World Politics 44.3 (1992): 466–496.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010546

    NNNMilner considers the state of the cooperation literature and discusses the implications of the dominance of systemic and game-theoretic approaches. The article provides a short introduction to some of the earlier theoretical debates in context.

  • Kratochwil, Friedrich, and Edward D. Mansfield. International Organizations: A Reader. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

    NNNA valuable collection of many significant contributions on formal and informal international institutions. The volume begins with a review of the field of international organization before moving to consider regimes (Krasner), institutions (Keohane), norms (Donnelly), integration (Nye) and transformation (Haas).

  • Hasenclever, Andreas, Peter Mayer, and Volker Rittberger. Theories of International Regimes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511521720

    NNNA broad overview of international regime theory and cooperation theory that contrasts rival realist (power-based), liberal (interest-based) and constructivist (idea-based) approaches and usefully argues for bringing different perspectives together.

  • Lake, David A., and Robert Powell, eds. Strategic Choice and International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

    NNNProvides an overview of the strategic-choice approach to international relations that underlies much of cooperation theory. Lake and Powell argue for taking the strategic interaction of actors as the unit of analysis and discuss methodological considerations about how to pursue this research agenda.

  • Goldstein, Judith, and Richard H. Steinberg, eds. International Institutions. London: SAGE, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446262139

    NNNA compilation of key articles on institutions. Contributions include Keohane and Krasner on regimes, Kindleberger on public goods, Ruggie on multilateralism, and Abbott and Snidal on formal international organizations. A useful entry point to the institutional literature for undergraduates.

  • Dunoff, Jeff, and Mark A. Pollack, eds. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    NNNThis volume provides up-to-date reflections on the large body of international relations and international law research and provides an overview of broader issues of international cooperation. The book contextualizes the historical division between IR and international law along with the more recent collaboration between the two disciplines. Contributors include an array of both leading IR and IL scholars.

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