Saturday, September 02, 2006

Institutionalist Theories: A Dismal Science?

John Mearsheimer presents a rather dismal outlook on the hope many place in international institutions to promote stability in geopolitical affairs. In his article “The False Promise of International Institutions,” he systematically dismantles three institutionalist theories by noting flaws in their causal logic. Then he concludes that the institutions will not only fail to maintain peace, but reliance on them will result in more failures in the international arena in the future. Since many of us have plans to be parts of international institutions, should we accept Mearsheimer’s pessimistic outlook of a world where realism, anarchy and the security dilemma are inevitably going to result in international aggression?
It is true that there is ample room for a highly critical view of the role of international institutions and the theories behind them. It is easy to see that the theory of liberal institutionalism plainly ignores the question of relative gains, and is thus “largely obsolete.” The idea of critical theory and changing the way the international system works by changing the predominant thoughts pertaining to it seems highly idealistic and therefore difficult to achieve. However, the third theory (probably strategically located second in Mearsheimer’s article because his argument against this theory is the weakest of the three) of collective security provides a framework that could present some hope for the realistic idealists among us. In “Concerts, Collective Security, and the Future of Europe,” Charles Kupchan argues that, “erecting a collective security structure in Europe is both viable and desirable.” However, the different conclusions by the two authors are partially based on a definitional difference: Mearsheimer believes that concert and collective security are not reconcilable because concerts are based in realism while collective security is not. Kupchan promotes a collective security system with its basis in a concert of nations.
In light of Kupchan’s arguments as well as recent events in the Middle East, it appears that there is a role for international institutions. Although the U.N. was unable to prevent a violent war between Israel and Hezbollah, it was able to play the essential role in bringing an end to the conflict. In Mearsheimer’s world where the U.N. is simply a creation of idealistic Americans who rebel against the ideas of realism (and thus serves no real purpose), the conflict would likely continue today. While it is far from a perfect version of collective security, the U.N.’s ability to unite the international community against the aggressor and bring an end to the major violence opens a crack in Mearsheimer’s conclusion that these institutions “matter rather little.”


Gus Van Rant said...

I feel that the UN plays an invaluable role in many realms of international issues, but peacekeeping isn't one of them. The Blue Helmets standing aside as a massacre happens in Yugoslavia, sex crime complancency in the Congo, Somalia, etc.. It seems to be the nature of peacekeeping in a foreign country: if you have no immediate stake in the situation then you're less likely to care; to put it simply. That's at least the way that I see it.

Dr. Duke Nukem said...

I think it's a bit of jump to assume that Mearsheimer leaves institutions no place in the future of international relations. He simply says that in their current forms (liberal, collective, critical) they fail to provide a viable alternative to realism. They can, however, continue to function minimally within the realist framework. To play devil's advocate, there are a couple other concerns as yet unmentioned. For example, there's relevance. Collective security/concert seem to be limited in application to Europe and the United States. A concert of great European powers is fantastic if one is talking about defending against Napoleon or repelling the Mongols, but stability in Europe is no longer the center issue in international affairs. How does one apply this institutional framework usefully to the Middle East: to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc.? In the articles so far, the most we have is a passing glance at the 1st Gulf War.

Secondly, the institutional theorists carry the burden of proof in the attack on realism. Take for instance the argument that the UN played a significant role in the end of the recent Israel/Hizbollah conflict - adding weight to the institutional theory. Was the UN's performance as an institution more effective and important than a group of powerful nations - temporarily allied through their own diplomatic channels - seeking to end the conflict because it threatened their own stability and self-interest?

Paul Atreides said...

I agree with Gus Van Rant and dr, duke nukem. I am not willing to give the UN credit for the ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah. I think the UN played an important role in suggesting a ceasefire but ultimately if Israel and Hizbollah decided to ignore it - like Iran continues to ignore the UN's deadline - the war could still be going.

displayname said...

The UN offered a structured environment where Israel and Hezbollah could come to ceasefire terms. Without this forum, would the leaders have come together at such an early point in the fighting? Without any international institutions and sole reliance on the balance of power system, how many more soldiers and civilians would have lost their lives?

fantôme de la bibliothèque said...

Mearsheimer’s “central conclusion is that institutions have minimal influence on state behavior and thus hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world. He bases this conclusion on the fact that idealistic view of institutionalism is in direct contradiction to the foundations of realism (Mearsheimer 7). For realists, international institutions are used as tools of powerful states as they “create and shape institutions so that they can maintain their share of world power, or even increase it.” The United Nations is a perfect example of Mearsheimer’s view that institutions “mirror the distribution of power in the system (13).”

The public perception that the United Nations as an international democratic institution is a sham. While the U.N. General assembly includes representation from 191 states, Article 24 of the U.N. Charter invests greater authority in the U.N. Security Council. As the most influential organ of the United Nations, the Security Council’s veto-wielding permanent five members (the P5) are not representative of the world populations, economic power, or any democratic ideal, but are simply a clear manifestation of power politics. The P5 members are The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and P.R. China.

As if a souvenir of colonialism, four out of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are Caucasian and of European origin when the actual population of the world is everything but. Asia alone is more populated than the entire rest of the world combined, sustaining 62.6% of the earth's population in 2002 yet only represents one-fifth of the P5. (I won’t even begin to discuss the reluctance of the UN P5 to admit the People’s Republic of China replacing the United States’ puppet Republic of China (Taiwan) on the P5 in 1971). Africa, who is not at all represented in the P5, is larger and more populated than the entire continent of Europe. Two of the P5 members represent English speaking nations, and two of the members are also members of the European Union.

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, human civilization found itself buried underneath the ashes of the Second World War and the victors carried deep resentment toward both Germany and Japan. The five countries that were awarded permanent representation on the Security Council are representative of the post-war allied power structure that stood triumphant at the end of World War Two. Consequently world powers Japan and Germany are not included in the P5. In 2002, the GNI of Japan was more than triple that of P5 members France or the United Kingdom. Germany's national economy is far greater than France, and yet neither Japan nor Germany are apart of the P5.

Even though Mearsheimer states that due to Soviet-American competition, the UN “was never seriously tested as a collective security apparatus during the Cold War” (33), he rightly concludes that such an “optimistic assessment of institutions is not warranted.” I believe that the United Nations is a perfect example of an institution that was created, maintained, and dominated by world power politics.

In response to Dr. Duke Nukem’s post, for the UN to have a future as a completely legitimate and influential institutional actor in international relations, its very structure and charter would need to be reformed. However, it is highly unlikely that progress will be made because the UN Charter was not intended to be changed easily. With the exception of the addition of new member states, the Charter has never been changed. An amendment to the Charter would require two thirds support in the General Assembly in addition to the full support of the permanent members of the Security Council. Which veto-wielding state is going to allow itself to be removed from the P5 or allow its power to be diminished by the addition of other states? So to answer your question Displayname… I think the UN as a primary example of an international institution proves Mearsheimer’s conclusion that balance of power is the independent variable affecting war and peace, and that “institutions are merely an intervening variable in the process (13).”

Mearsheimer described institutions best in one sentence, and this was made apparent in the American unilateral 2003 invasion of Iraq, “What is most impressive about institutions, in fact, is how little independent effect they seem to have had on state behavior (47).”