The usefulness of Neoliberal Institutionalism. Establishment of international organizations

Essay, 2017

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Maximilian Hohenstedt (Author)




Neoliberal Institutionalism and the question of institutionalization

Problems of the theory & solution with recourse to constructivism

The establishment of the ICC through the lense of neoliberal institutionalism




Since the 1970s, institutions are in a renaissance within the social sciences and neoliberal institutionalism, founded and championed by political scientists as Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, Robert Axelrod, Ronald Coase, Volker Rittberger and others.

The relevance of international institutions for social behavior matters in the sense of international relations theories. Within the schools of thought in political sciences, neoliberal institutionalism is in a conflict with especially neorealist theory.

While neorealists ignore (or neglect) the relevance of international institutions for world politics (emphazising the power of states and their “hard” interests), neoliberal institutionalists argue, that - though the states still are the relevant actors - there are also variations in the institutionalization, which have a great influence on state action (Keohane 1989: 1-2).

For neoliberal institutionalists, though the system of international relations is without any doubt anarchic, international institutions may have a minimizing effect on this anarchy. States are not completely autonomous actors, but interdependent in relation to each other or some others. In the older tradition of neoliberal institutionalism, the importance of institutions is also called “grotianic” (Rittberger/Zürn 1991: 400 and Müller 1993: 9), referring to Hugo Grotius. Mutual interests of interdependent states and variations in the degree of institutionalization lead to cooperation of states among themselves (Keohane 1989: 2-3).

As in the neorealism, neoliberal institutionalists are assuming, that the actors are rational and goal-oriented egoists. But while neorealists only think in terms of relative profit (zero-sum-game), neoliberal institutionalists think also in terms of absolute profits, which means, that win-win-situations are possible, cooperation may be useful for all (Keohane 1989: 7-9).

So, considering this, cooperation is rational, not idealistic and begins, when cooperation is useful.

Hegemons facilitate cooperation, but are no necessary condition, no conditio sine qua non, for cooperation (Keohane 1984: 12). This cooperation between states can be reached and is easier reached by using institutions.

In this work, the concept of neoliberal institutionalism will get discussed in the sense of the establishment of international organizations. The work shall show, that neoliberal institutionalism may explain this establishment in the way of the actors motives (why are international organizations establishing?), but has some problems to explain, how (in which way concrete it comes to international organizations?). The rational preferences of the actors explain the motivation to establish international organizations, not the interaction to establish them.

So first, the concept of neoliberal institutionalism will get presented and applied to the establishment of international organizations to show the benefits and disadvantages of this theory, the explanatory capacity of it. After that, a logical gap within this theory will get closed by using of constructivist theory, Habermas’ kommunikatives Handeln (Habermas 1996), and based on the example of the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), this assumptions will get more precised.

Neoliberal Institutionalism and the question of institutionalization

As outlined in the introduction, neoliberal institutionalism is a concept with following premises:

- The world is anarchic, hedged in by interdependence of the states.
- All actors - states and transnational actors - are rational, profitoriented egoists.
- The distribution of power/goods is no zero-sum-game, absolute profits are possible.
- The preferences of the actors may change, the situationstructuralist motive is the overcoming of their antagonism.

As Kenneth Waltz argued, world politics are not formal organized, but on the other hand, also not completely without institutions and orderly procedures (Waltz 1979: 114).

Here, Keohane saw an attempt to express a certain institutionalization of international politics, but “it is not just that international politics is ‘flecked with particles of government’, but it is institutionalized”, as Keohane wrote, citing Waltz (Keohane 1989: 1; Waltz 1979: 114).

Keohane is defining institutions as “persistent and connected sets of rules (formal and informal), that prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity and shape expectations” in terms of international organizations, regimes and conventions (Keohane 1989: 3-4).

The Hypothesis is, that not anarchy itself, but fluctuations of the intensity of the degree of institutionalization of the international relations have the most important structural effects on governmental behavior (Keohane 1989: 2). Beside self interest, states are taking into account the anticipated positive effects of enduring international cooperation in terms of information gathering, the power of binding law, the reducing of existential uncertainty and overcoming of structural deficits, as one can see in the so-called prisoner-dilemma (March/Olsen 1989: 21-26).

Understood in this way, neoliberal institutionalism is able to explain, why actors in an anarchic system are constructing institutions, founding trustworthy structures (in an uncertain world) to reduce the costs of transactions of international interaction.

As the game-theoretic prisoner-dilemma is showing, in an anarchic environment, non-cooperative behavior is the best strategy (Axelrod 1967: 94-95).

But on the long run, the interdependent action situation will reward actors, which adapt their behavior into a Tit-for-Tat -strategy, which leads to cooperation between the actors, as Axelrod is designing in his “evolution of cooperation” (Axelrod 1984: 123).

So, if played again and again, the players in a prisoner-dilemma will begin to adapt their decisions, taking into account future payoffs and future retaliation and this “shadow of the future” will promote cooperation (Axelrod/ Keohane 1985: 232).

In international relations, possible problems of cooperation are rival or not congruently interests and mixed-motive-situations (Schilling 1980: 89). So common interests are good for cooperation, rival ones are bad. Farther, the number of actors is relevant: the more, the worse (Axelrod/ Keohane 1985: 234-235).

So, to quench their need for security and overcome the antagonism, the actors have to produce (or enlarge) the shadow of future, common interests and to reduce the number of actors (Axelrod 1984: 124-126; Keohane 1989: 2).

This may get accomplished through institutions like international organizations, as organizations alter the number of actors and payoff structures as enlarge the shadow of the future (Axelrod/ Keohane 1985: 238-239).

Also, international organizations are used to reduce transaction costs of international interaction or in other words: organizations matter, if transaction costs are significant (North 1992: 6).

So states are motivated to constitute international organizations in the sense of reducing the transaction costs of international interaction, to quench the need for security in an uncertain environment and ensure future payoffs.

On the basis of a successive dwindling distrust, therefore, long-term cooperative relationships are also functioning with asymmetrical profit distribution (Keohane 1990: 744-745 und 752).

Problems of the theory & solution with recourse to constructivism

Despite the fact, that the theory is working well in explaining, why the actors are motivated to constitute international organizations, many significant aspects in explaining, how they cooperate in fact to constitute the organizations are missing (Müller 1994: 15). There is s “logical gap” between motivation and cooperation under the uncertain conditions of anarchy (ibid.). On the one side there is a well founded situationstructural motive of the actors to cooperate, on the other side there is the problem of how to regulate the competitionbased interests in the sense of distributing the profits of cooperation (ibid.: 17).

Neoliberal institutionalism tries to explain it as follows: By the Coase-Theorem of microeconomy, in which Coase is showing, how economic actors in non-zero-sum-games without state-based regulation may find cooperative solutions through interest-based free negotiations (Coase 2013; Müller 1994: 17).

As Müller points out, the main problem here is that Coase has the premise of the guarantee and protection of completed agreements by state-jurisdiction, which is no direct actor, but guaranteeing power in the background and in this form, such a guaranteeing power is not existing in the international system (Müller 1994: 17).

Also Axelrods designed “supergame”, in which the Tit-for-Tat -strategy should have shown, that a spontaneously adaption of the actors to the interdependent action situation is possible, is in Müllers critic only part of a “hypergame”, played by the tournament-members, so it is not mirroring adequate the risky reality in international uncertainty: no risk - no evidence (Müller 1994: 17).

And Keohanes shadow of the future implies the existence of regimes, which have to get established before and this step in the argumentative chain is not explained: How is cooperation possible in an atmosphere of distrust (ibid.: 18)?

For this, one needs a constructivist supplement, the theory of Habermas about “Kommunikatives Handeln” (ibid.: 24 and 26, Habermas 1996).

In this way, ideas and discourse are the primary and as Müller conclude, that cooperation between states is developing, if there are dilemma-situations (only cooperation is ensuring reaching the goals for each one), in which the partners develop reciprocal trust in the discourses of their partners, if they come to an understanding about the definition of the situation and a normative frame and are able to negotiate a distributive compromise (Müller 1994: 29-30).


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The usefulness of Neoliberal Institutionalism. Establishment of international organizations
LMU Munich  (GSI)
Contemporary debates in Political Science
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ISBN (Book)
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Neoliberalism, neoliberal, Neoliberal Institutionalism, Discussion, international institutions, establishment, refimes
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Maximilian Hohenstedt (Author), 2017, The usefulness of Neoliberal Institutionalism. Establishment of international organizations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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