Cooperating, but to serve self-interest

Intense competition rather than cooperation marked the Kyoto Protocol as well as the Copenhagen talks


In the backdrop of intense bargaining by states at the Copenhagen Climate Change talks, two critical questions stand out: Do international institutions, that supposedly engender cooperation among states, matter in world politics? Or does realism, the most compelling theory of international relations which assumes that in an anarchic world states as rational actors are driven by self-interest, predominate interpretations of how individual governments behave in critical issue-areas?
Whether it was the Kyoto Protocol or the Copenhagen talks, both guided by institutionalised structures of rules, regulations and norms, there was intense competition rather than cooperation among states, suggesting that even international institutions are used by powerful states to further their self-interests. I argue that this element of neo-realism was evident in Copenhagen where states, acting individually or as blocs, tried to achieve relative gains (i.e. doing better than other states) and sought to protect their power and status and resisted even mutually beneficial cooperation in a scenario where their partners or competitors were likely to benefit more than them.

International institutions and regimes, as Robert Keohane says, create the capability for states to cooperate in mutually beneficial ways by reducing the costs of making and enforcing agreements -- what economists refer to as “transaction costs”. They rarely engage in centralised enforcement of agreements, but they do reinforce practices of reciprocity, which provide incentives for governments to keep their own commitments to ensure that others do so as well. Even powerful states have an interest, most of the time, in following the rules of well-established international institutions, since general conformity to rules makes the behaviour of other states more predictable. This is believed to be more so in a globalised, integrated world.

Fault lines

But that was not so in Copenhagen where the domination of one state or some of them was sought to be prevented by the reaction of others acting as counter-weights. They responded to uncertainty, created by the lack of private information, and by being less willing to enter into agreements, since they were unsure how their partners will later interpret the terms of such agreements. International institutions, like COP-15 summit at Copenhagen, are designed to reduce this uncertainty by promoting negotiations in which transparency is encouraged.

But spurred by self-interest and domestic considerations -- political and economic -- individual states of the developed and developing worlds staked out tough bargaining positions, hindering efforts at “credible compromise”. States sought to enhance their individual welfare and, in the process, cooperative solutions were not reached. Indeed strategic bargaining problems produced obstacles to achieving joint gains. This was true with the earliest institutions like the Bretton Woods, which was a precursor to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT), which preceded the more institutionalised World Trade Organisation (WTO). As an international trade regime, the WTO, for instance, is in part a device to facilitate the making of substantive agreements in world politics, particularly among states. It made it easier for actors to realise their interests collectively. The WTO, as with other international institutions and regimes, has been used to pursue particularistic interests as well as widely shared objectives.
And, as realists would point out, they do not necessarily increase overall levels of welfare of states or cooperation among them. Cooperation is a goal -- self-interest -- of states, where states utilise international organisations within a multilateral framework as useful devises to gain certain advantages that they may not otherwise have through unilateral measures or bilateral agreements. It may take years before states commit to international institutions and develop rules that would bind states to constrain themselves or put in place a system that would monitor the compliance of governments.

Institutional role

It is not to say that international institutions have no role to play in world politics. According to institutionalists, institutions are hard to create and set in motion, but once created, they take on a life of their own. They do bring states together and make possible multilateral negotiations. By being part of these international institutions, powerful states often times rationally constrain themselves, which paradoxically, also serves their interests. As Kenneth Waltz writes so compellingly, international institutions are created and maintained by powerful states to serve their “perceived or misperceived interests”. In a globalised and integrated world, the state may have retreated to some extent, but international institutions are tools of national governments for the pursuit of national interests by other means.

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