Informal Governance in World Politics

In collaboration with: Kenneth Abbott and Thomas Biersteker

Throughout the 20th century, states were at the center of global governance. International regimes and formal intergovernmental organizations (FIGOs) were the dominant modes of cooperation among nations (Krasner 1983, Keohane 1984, Abbott and Snidal 1998). Centralization, hierarchy, and formalization were the hallmarks of international institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Abbott et al. 2000, Koremenos et al. 2001). Yet, beginning in the 1980s, states have increasingly turned to governance through informal intergovernmental organizations (IIGOs) (Vabulas and Snidal 2013, 2014) and transnational public-private governance initiatives (TGIs) (Abbott and Snidal 2009, Avant and Westerwinter 2016) to structure their interactions and to govern global problems. IIGOs are intergovernmental organizations in which states meet regularly to make policies and coordinate behavior without a formal institutional structure (Vabulas and Snidal 2013: 197). Examples of IIGOs include the various G groups (e.g. G8) (Gstohl 2007) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2009). By contrast, in TGIs, states work together with varying mixtures of business actors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to govern problems that no actor alone has the knowledge and resources to address effectively (Abbott and Snidal 2009). Examples include the World Commission on Dams in the environment domain (Dingwerth 2007) and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers in the security area (Avant 2016). Despite the recent surge in informal forms of cooperation in world politics, research has largely focused on formal institutions, such as FIGOs and international treaties (Abbott and Snidal 1998, Goldstein et al. 2000, Koremenos et al. 2001, Barnett and Finnemore 2004, Hawkins et al. 2006, Thomson et al. 2006, Thompson 2009, Copelovich and Putnam 2014, Koremenos 2016). FIGOs and treaties are, however, only part of the increasingly complex patchwork of contemporary global governance (Lake 2010, Barnett et al. 2016). They are often inadequate, if not entirely misleading, descriptions of the games that actors play in world politics (Achen 2006, Stone 2013, Kleine 2014). For example, the rules of the game played in the WTO depart substantially from the formal treaty provisions (Steinberg 2002). Likewise, in the European Union (EU), the legislative co-decision procedure between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers consists of an ensemble of formal and informal procedures that interact with one another in multiple ways to shape the interactions of member states and EU institutions (Kleine 2013a). As these examples indicate, while formal rules are important features of contemporary global governance, in many situations informal practices may override, substitute, or complement the formal provisions. Recent work in political science, economics, and international law has started to examine informal governance as a mode of international cooperation (Stone 2011, 2013, Christiansen and Neuhold 2012, Kilby 2013, Pauwelyn et al. 2012). Accordingly, there has been a rapidly growing number of studies in the social sciences (see figure 1, appendix) on the informal dimensions of politics. In a general sense, informal governance refers to rules, norms, and institutional structures and procedures that are not enshrined in formally constituted organizations. Examples include: informal intergovernmental organizations, such as the G8 (Vabulas and Snidal 2013); transnational public-private governance initiatives of states, business actors, and NGOs, such as the Kimberley Process (Haufler 2010); informal norms (Hardt 2013); and international customary law (Verdier and Voeten 2014). Existing work largely focuses on informal governance within formal intergovernmental organizations (Steinberg 2002, Prantl 2005, McKeown 2009, Stone 2011, 2013, Kilby 2013, Kleine 2013a, Colgan and Graaf 2013, Morrison 2013, Hardt 2014). But the phenomenon is broader than this. Informal governance outside FIGOs is an alternative to governance within a formal, treaty-based structure, and the two influence each other in various ways (Kahler and Lake 2009, Abbott et al. 2015). In particular, informal governance outside formal organizations, e.g., through IIGOs and TGIs, is a deliberate strategy of strong as well as weak players that seek to bypass unfavorable formal structures and enhance their bargaining positions (Vabulas and Snidal 2013, 2014, Westerwinter 2014b, Avant and Westerwinter 2016). In short, while scholarship that focuses on the formal structures and processes of intergovernmental organizations often neglects informal forms of cooperation altogether, work on informal governance within FIGOs tends to overlook informal governance outside formal arrangements. Both research programs can benefit from incorporating the increasing importance of IIGOs, TGIs, and other forms of informality into their theoretical and empirical models. Moreover, neglecting the co-existence of formal and informal types of international cooperation makes it impossible to examine the interactions and trade-offs that occur when states and transnational actors select which institutional form to use to facilitate cooperation and to govern global problems. This edited volume starts to fill this research gap. Specifically, we focus on four sets of research questions:

  • First, what forms of informality inside and outside formal intergovernmental organizations can we identify? What do these different forms of informality in world politics look like? How do they function? What are the commonalities and differences across different forms of informality?
  • Second, is the shift toward informal modes of global governance actually happening on a large scale? If so, what form does the shift take, and what trajectory over time can we observe? Are there some issue areas in which change happens more than in others? Who participates in what type of informal global governance institution?
  • Third, what are the major drivers of the growing importance of informal global governance? Functional demands for governance of particular global problems that are insufficiently or not at all addressed by international treaties and FIGOs? A need for flexibility in times of uncertainty? The distribution of power and the interests of powerful players? Domestic political processes? The rise of non-state actors in world politics? Are different types of informality facilitated and shaped by similar or different driving factors? How do causal factors interact in shaping the emergence and functioning of informal institutional forms?
  • Fourth, what are the implications of the growing importance of informal institutions for the effectiveness and legitimacy of global governance? Are the new informal modes of international and transnational cooperation able to deliver, effectively dealing with the problems they were created to address? Or are they empty shells with little if any impact? What is the impact of informal modes of governing on the inclusiveness of global governance? Do they empower weaker actors, such as NGOs, small states, and rising powers? Or do they merely manifest the existing distribution of power, further strengthening the positions of the already powerful players? Do they improve the problematic transparency and accountability of contemporary global governance institutions, or do they further weaken these features? This volume begins to explore these questions. This chapter provides theoretical and empirical background and guidance for this exploration. It is structured as follows: First, we develop a typology of forms of informality that highlights informality of, in, and around global governance institutions. Second, we provide an empirical overview of the recent development of informal institutions in the international system, focusing on TGIs and IIGOs. We also compare this development to the trajectory of formal intergovernmental organizations. Third, we outline a set of factors that are potential drivers of the growing importance of informal modes of global governance. In the fourth section we shift the focus to the consequences of informality, exploring its implications for the effectiveness and legitimacy of contemporary global governance. The final section discusses the contributions of the volume and summarizes the chapters that follow.