Power or Domestic Politics? Explaining State Participation in Informal International Institutions

Funded by the University of St. Gallen

Why have states recently started to use informal institutions instead of formal organizations to govern global policy issues? What factors drive states’ decisions to join informal international institutions? Extant research on the forms of institutionalization in global governance focuses on formal modes of cooperation, such as intergovernmental organizations and treaties. Formal rules, however, do not exhaust the institutional variety of international cooperation. They are often inadequate, if not entirely misleading, descriptions of the game that actors play in world politics.

Recent work in political science, economics, and international law has started to examine informal governance as a mode of international cooperation. Informal governance refers to unwritten (and often vaguely specified) rules, shared expectations, and norms that are not enshrined in formally constituted organizations and which modify or substitute legally binding rules. It includes informal practices within formal intergovernmental organizations, informal institutions, and a broad array of networks constituted by state and non-state actors. Examples include: informal intergovernmental organizations, such as the G8; and transnational governance initiatives of states, companies, and non-governmental organizations, such as the Kimberley Process.

Whether focused on formal or informal institutions, existing scholarship reflects only small portions of the institutional architecture of contemporary global governance in isolation. Yet, as long as we do not take into account the wider spectrum of institutional variation, our analyses of the determinants of states’ institutional choices at the global level remain partial.

The proposed project examines the factors that lead states to choose between formal intergovernmental organizations (FIGOs), informal intergovernmental organizations (IIGOs), and transnational governance initiatives (TGIs) to structure their interactions and to govern global problems. We also investigate the role that the design of informal international institutions plays in states decisions to join them.

We argue that power and domestic politics are critical for explaining the striking variation in states’ participation in informal global governance. Governments use informal international institutions as a means to project power and bias outcomes toward their particularistic interests. They also use informal modes of cooperation to bypass domestic institutional constrains that make achieving outcomes in-line with their preferences costly or impossible. We test hypotheses derived from our theoretical argument using statistical analysis and our extension of a new dataset on formal and informal international institutions.

Our expected results are relevant for scholars and practitioners alike. On the one hand, our systematic account of the institutional choices of states goes beyond existing work on informal governance within FIGOs as well as the established research on international institutional design. On the other hand, obtaining accurate knowledge about the factors that shape states’ participation in informal international cooperation helps policy-makers to effectively provide public goods and enhance the legitimacy, equity, and efficiency of global governance institutions.