The emergence and growing dominance of liberalism in the post Cold War World has profoundly changed the context and behavior of great powers in the international system.  Liberalism and its various analytic threads can easily confuse our understanding of international relations. By ‘liberalism’ I am examining a world built on interdependence and globalization.  It is built on state preferences and behavior.  Andrew Moravcsik from Princeton University recently described it in his chapter on the European Union as a superpower, in, Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance (Brookings Institution, forthcoming 2010):

By “liberal” I do not mean a theory that stresses the role of international law and institutions, nor left-of-center or utopian ideals, nor unbounded belief in laissez-faire economics.  What I mean instead is a theoretical approach to analyzing international relations that privileges the varied underlying national interests – “state preferences” – that states bring to world politics, and that are transmitted from society to decisionmakers via domestic politics, social interdependence, and globalization.  In the liberal view these varied social pressures are the fundamental cause of foreign policy behavior. From this perspective (zero-sum) security rivalry, military force, and power balancing are not ubiquitous conditions but only a few of a number of possible circumstances, though indeed rather rare: many international interactions in fact are positive sum, where the rise of more than one country or region can be complementary. (p.155)

But this liberal examination of the international system is in no way dominant.  Some experts, the structuralists, remain focused on the distribution of power.  Here, in an evident realist way, power and influence arise from that distribution.  Changes in this distribution of power will generate significant alterations in the capacity to influence and achieve the results sought.  In classic realist style the institutions of global governance have no independent character apart from the power distribution of states.   

For some time, however, institutionalists have focused on the multilateral organizations of global governance. One of the key advocates for such an analysis has been Princeton’s John Ikenberry.  He has chronicled the growing web of international institutions that have build stability and encouraged the pursuit of national economic growth and prosperity and have restrained conflict.  Here in a strong statement, written in 1998-1999 (John Ikenberry, “Strategic Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Order, International Security, 23:3 (Winter, 1998-1999), pp. 43-78) describes the importance of international institutions in curbing the great power competition:

Second, strategic restraint is possible because of the potential binding effects of international institutions. International institutions do not simply serve the functional purposes of states, reducing transaction costs and solving collective action problems, but they can also be "sticky" -locking states into ongoing and predictable courses of action. It is this lock-in effect of institutions that allows them to play a role in restraining the exercise of state power. Second, strategic restraint is possible because of the potential binding effects of international institutions. International institutions do not simply serve the functional purposes of states, reducing transaction costs and solving collective action problems, but they can also be "sticky" -locking states into ongoing and predictable courses of action. It is this lock-in effect of institutions that allows them to play a role in restraining the exercise of state power. (p.45)

While still focused on structure, institutionalists evaluate the ability of international organization members to achieve collaborative decisions and to overcome the collective action problem in international relations.  In this the institutions have the capacity to generate collaborative decisions.  Having said this, institutionalists tend to be focused on the formal treaty-made legally established international organizations.  There is great attention paid to the UN-Bretton Woods system and the many other formal organizations – multilateral and regional – that have been created since the end of World War II that have promoted economic prosperity and have contained conflict.

 Far less attention and a far more negative examination is placed on the informal organizations that appeared in the 1970, namely the G7, that became the G8 and for economic issues has grown to the G20.  Though time has passed (and I suspect Ikenberry has become less negative in his thinking on the now multifarious and multidimensional Gx process), yet in the years just after the Cold War, Ikenberry expressed highly negative views (G. John Ikenberry, “Salvaging the G-7,” 72:2 Foreign Affairs, (Spring, 1993) pp. 132-139) of the informal institutions and recommended the creation of formal institutional elements:

What currently passes for policy coordination is the so-called Group of Seven process of the largest industrial democracies. As a mechanism for synchronizing economic policy to exert leadership over the world economy, this process is largely a failure, … [T]he absence of meaningful policy coordination stands in stark contrast to the pomp of annual G-7 summits. … A huge intergovernmental operation churns out bland official communiqués that paper over dysfunctions in the global economic system, or vague joint commitments to growth and prosperity that substitute for actual accord. (p. 132)

These institutionalists focus on the capacity and actions initiated by the international organizations – but principally formal ones. It is yet a third group, ‘behavioralists’ that have come to focus on the Gx process.  For these experts it is the collaborative decision-making – built on joint commitment and national compliance - the negotiating process within the Gx process that catches the attention of these international relations types.  Thus, these experts address the structure less than the capacity to achieve collaborative outcomes.  And for this we turn to the impact of national interest and tight interdependence in the setting of leaders summits and the wider Gx process institutions.

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