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The promise and perils of theorizing international regime complexity in an evolving world

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As the world becomes more complicated, so too does global governance. The political consequences of the rising density of institutions, policies, rules and strategies to address global phenomena has been a central focus of the scholarship on international regime complexity. This conclusion to a special issue grapples with the promise and perils of theorizing about international regime complexity in a constantly evolving world. It discusses the special issue contributions while uniting the different conversations about the increasingly complex global governance space we refer to as international regime complexity. The goal is to bridge existing debates about global governance, to expand the scholarly conversation by drawing from and better connecting to IR debates, and to ensure that we can address practical and pressing global governance challenges.

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  1. Note that using the existing definition, (Keohane and Victor, 2011)) asked about how regime complexes might vary in their degree of fragmentation, in the uncertainty they generate. In other words, that there could be variation in regime complexes was implicit and not counter-to the existing definition.

  2. Take two recent examples: 1) the Paris Climate Agreement is formally an international agreement signed by states. Yet by design the agreement is something that cities, firms, NGOs, and private individuals can and indeed must also adhere to 2) the global COVID pandemic requires coordination across functionally linked international governance bodies (e.g. World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization), other international institutions focused on affected issues (e.g. children, food, refugees and poverty) and NGO and pharmaceutical companies that have critical resources. These examples demonstrate why a claim that international regime complexes include only IGOs or states makes no practical sense.

  3. IR scholars are diversifying the ways they think about how hierarchical relationships form and work, and as a result the definition of hierarchy is becoming increasingly less formal and more aligned with societal notion that societies create status relations that put some actors over others in terms of their power, legitimacy, respect and influence (Lake, 2009; Zürn, 2018). Other ways that institutions self-order include: the construction of focal points, norms, principles and rules; the convergence of interests; epistemic agreement; and incentives for mimesis.

  4. There have been four recent special issues focused on international regime complexity in the last few years. One special issue involved scholars studying how global institutions deal with norm collisions and conflicts among elemental institutions. The finding was that the process of resolving these collisions generated resolutions that were enduring, so that conflict contributed to order (Global Constitutionalism vol 9, no 2, July 2020). A different special issue focused on how institutional proliferation is impacting the functioning of the multilateral Bretton Woods institutions. The organizers were interested in the policy-implications of rising international regime complexity. The conclusion was that materially large powers seek to realize first mover advantages, whereas regional actors prefer decentralized, regional and bi-lateral solutions. There are ways to resolve these tensions, but the larger point is that policy-makers need to be aware of these different interests and preferences for top-down versus more diffuse organizational solutions (Global Policy vol 12, Supplement 4, May 2021). Another special issue, at the peer review stage, probes variations in two features of international regime complexes: the extent of hierarchy and the degree of differentiation among elemental institutions (Henning & Pratt, 2021).

  5. Scholars who apply chaos theory to organizational dynamics reach this conclusion (Thiétart and Forgues, 1995); scholars of evolutionary dynamics reach this conclusion (McDermott and Davenport, 2017); and the research on cooperation under anarchy and international society has also reached this conclusion (Bull, 1977; Oye, 1986; Reus-Smit, 1997).

  6. Working memory is the amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks at any one time.

  7. Decision-making dynamics are also what complexity and evolutionary theory focus on, but the unit of analysis tends to be individuals, group, firms, sometimes aggregating up to the organizational level of a single elemental institution.

  8. This focus was already present in the literature insofar as Alter and Meunier asked how small-group dynamics may shape policy-making within an international regime complex (Alter and Meunier, 2009, 18–19), but the broader insights of sociological institutionalism remain mostly absent in current scholarship about international regime complexity.

  9. For example, there was a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) was the preeminent global health organization, and the WHO championed a “health for all” policy framework. But national governments started to pursue global health outside of the WHO (e.g. the US PEPFAR program to address the AIDS crisis in Africa); the World Trade Organization entered into the WHO domain when it started to regulate global IP rules, rendering transshipment of generic copies of Western medication illegal; the Gates foundation, which remains committed to protecting patents, now dwarfs the WHO in resources; direct service global health providers (e.g. Doctors without Borders and Partners in Health) sometimes partner with global governance institutions.


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Family obligations precluded my participation in the workshops that generated this special issue. Thanks to Kal Raustiala, whose conversations about this special issue and this conclusion greatly shaped this contribution. Thanks to Robert Keohane, Tyler Pratt, and Randall Henning, Oliver Westwinter and Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni for their quick feedback.

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Correspondence to Karen J. Alter.

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Alter, K.J. The promise and perils of theorizing international regime complexity in an evolving world. Rev Int Organ 17, 375–396 (2022).

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