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The degree of a state’s compliance with international institutions is not a perfect indicator of institutional effects. Compliance may not bring about the expected outcomes of institutional designers. Even if states fully obey the regulations written in international agreements, they may not agree with the normative requirements embedded within institutions, and in this way effective governance cannot be guaranteed in the long term.214 In essence, compliance cannot be perfect and complete, even if institutions are designed as perfectly as possible. This ontological dilemma is due to the lack of non-institutional factors’ necessary support of institutional effects. Institutions cannot function well only by themselves as social structures and need to work in collaboration with other forces like power and ideas.215 In addition, the incompleteness of international compliance provides spaces for institutional growth and transformations. If an institution is fixed, it then cannot adapt to the ever-changing environment flexibly. In the long run, any institution’s governing functions and legitimacy cannot be ensured fully because an environment with endless uncertainties is always in a process of change. Moreover, non-compliance with international rules may be positive because the violation of existing institutional arrangements can be regarded as a catalyst for institutional reform with the aim of substituting or upgrading the exiting institutional system that may actually be unjust or ineffective.
Generally, international institutions are treated as independent variables in the study of international compliance. States and other non-state actors adjust their behaviours to match up with the regulations or spirit of international rules out of rational, normative or cognitive considerations.216 Institutions are normally assumed to be constant, while agents’ interest, power and identity changes are taken as the potential variables that influence their institutional choices. This chapter reverses the existing order of agent and structure in state compliance by placing states in institutional interactive contexts at the international level.
Whether to start an analysis from the agent’s or the structure’s side is a chicken-and-egg problem.217 Essentially, institutions are built by agents and human interactions are the driving force for institutional change. Thus actors’ interaction and exchange may be a more reasonable starting point for institutional analysis. And the rational choice approach of institutional theories that base their institutional explanations on a micro-foundation would proceed in this manner. But like Pandora’s Box, once institutions come into being, unexpected outcomes may appear due to their functioning, and the institutions themselves gradually gain various degrees of autonomy. This autonomy of institutions can also be explained from the agent’s standpoint. Through diversified socialization mechanisms, institutions instill collective ideas into agents’ cognitive systems. These ideas and ideologies then become the cognitive framework, action program, and code of ethics that guide agents’ decision making and social action. Institutions are then taken for granted as a sort of religion embedded in agents’ minds. Obviously, people can abandon an institution as they can convert to other religious beliefs. But living under the pressures of the social system, it is hard materially and socially to act as a betrayer of an institutions. For social groups and organizations that are made up of large numbers of agents, the difficulties of mobilizing collective action imply that it would be even harder for an organization to abandon completely an existing institutional arrangement. Revolutions and wars do not happen every day, or else society, domestic and international, would simply be too unstable to exist. The heavy weight of institutional history can strengthen an institution’s foundation and rules of governance as time passes through a path-dependence mechanism.218 Thus institutions are usually stable and their changes are normally subtle and gradual. 219 A tipping point or threshold has to be reached before transformations on a larger scale can occur, just like it is relatively rare for a person to change their religion.
With institutions’ autonomy acknowledged, to the next step is to abstract some variables from the institutional environment to study state compliance with international institutions. Explanations that use institutions’ power to analyse agents’ institutional choice are called “institutional explanations.” Since institutions need the support of non-institutional factors to work, the explanations that take in other factors to understand institutions’ role are only “explanations of institutions.” “Institutional explanations” admit institutions’ ontological sustaining functions in the social order, and international society is just one platform or hardware where institutional softwares are operating. But only considering institutions’ role is not enough to explain agents’ institutional preference. Institutions are working in a system where forces of various kinds at different levels are jointly moving and operating. Therefore, the explanation of state international compliance in this chapter brings in the elementary explanations of social behaviours, and the concrete interactive process mechanisms of between institutions are also introduced. The explanation of state compliance put forward in this chapter starts from the premise that institutions matter fundamentally in international society. It then blends in meta-social action theories that comprehend state strategic interactions from rational, power and normative perspectives, and the interactive mechanisms between institutions are also brought into the analysis. The aim is to give a preliminary display of the influences of international institutional divergence on states’ institutional choice. After discussing why states obey or violate international rules, the divergent institutional environment is utilized to study the international compliance of states in this chapter. Finally, it discusses the implications of this chapter’s approach for existing explanations of states’ international compliance from an international institutional divergence perspective.

Why do states comply with international institutions?

The reasons for states’ international compliance can be divided into two categories. One type of compliance sees international institutions only as external instruments and divides the boundary between states and institutions clearly, while the other type see states as enmeshed into the web of international institutions and treats them as mutually constitutive to various degrees.220 Some scholars argue that there is a certain sequencing to a state’s compliance level: at first states may choose to comply with international rules out of pure rational choice motivations for material interests, but through some deeper socialization and acculturation processes, states will gradually identify with the international rules and surrender to the legitimacy of them out of normative and cognitive considerations. Other scholars do not agree with the logic and possibility of preference change during institutions’ socialization process. They regard states as rational, now and always, and accordingly a state will comply solely in pursuit of its national interests.221 States may comply through voluntary negotiations or under the coercive force of military or economic pressures, but institutions are just instruments and a means of advancing their interests.222 These two logical possibilities are named “logic of consequences” and “logic of appropriateness”, respectively.223 The first is an application of the efficiency logic in economic reasoning and the second an application of the legitimacy logic in sociology.
The efficiency logic or rationalist theories in international relations can be divided into two categories: the first is the realist power mechanism that treats state compliance as big powers’ national interest and small powers’ last resort; and the second is the liberal institutionalist mechanism that explains state compliance in terms of reciprocity and reputation.224 The first mechanism to some extent points to the existence of multiple equilibria in international institutional arrangements. Stephen Krasner, for instance, argues that there are multiple possible equilibria for international cooperation and that along the Pareto frontier stronger states can decide the rules for cooperation, satisfying their preferences at the expense of the weaker ones.225 In fact, this type of explanation is not an institutional argumentation, but an explanation of institutions’ limited yet necessary functions. It is the power activated by national interest that dominates that choice of a particular institutional equilibrium. As Krasner illustrates in his later works, the sovereignty institution as a constitutional rule in the international system has long been violated in different ways. The stronger powers even can break the seemingly fundamental rule in international society.226 The logic of consequences dominates the logic of appropriateness in an international system where power is the currency for action. This explanation regards international institutions as subordinate to big powers’ control.
Liberal institutionalists believe in international institutions’ positive role in international cooperation and criticize the realist view of institutions. They ask why do states spend vast material resources on institutional maintenance if the object of international political life is solely power projection? This thesis further challenges the realist position by pointing out power’s limits: What if the strong powers cannot remove all other institutional equilibria to leave its one preferred power arrangement? The realist logic supposes that big powers can monopolize the institutional market and filter out institutions that are detrimental to them. But the Pareto frontier cannot be occupied by only one rule; other institutions and norms coexist there with various influences. Even if hegemony can build an international institutional system that orbits around it, this system of institutions may not be able to safeguard its effectiveness and authority with changes in the international political ecology. And institutions at the margins may gradually squeeze the space of governance of the central institutions or even substitute them under certain circumstances. Even when the existing institutional system is in its heyday, it usually still has to tolerate the existence of challenging institutions. This is the situation we discussed in Chapter 2: an institutional logic’s dominance at all times and in all places is not possible. When a small village can have several parallel norms for the governing of a local issue, what about the global society which is the largest human society in geographic scale? The great unification was a dominant norm in ancient China, yet the Chinese civilization never fully conquered the surrounding diverse political organizations. At the margins of an institution, other rules are waiting to bloom if more suitable conditions arise. America and its alliances in the Western world try to change the world using institutional values like democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law, and the “Washington Consensus”, but on some occasions these efforts meet counter-blows that can result in Anti-Americanism and local state disorder. Naturally, with the preeminent hard and soft power in its hands, America has the capability and desire to promote universal institutional ideas all over the world. Yet strong as America is, these promotional movements have their limits. Though the less developed world has no military and economic statecraft to compare with the United States’, they nevertheless have the weapons of the weak: counter-institutional arrangements. With the emergence of multiple international institutions coexisting on the global stage at the same time, states’ international compliance becomes subtle and complicated. And for the good of global governance, this institutional environment with plural international institutions holds opportunities for the upgrading of the current international institutional system, though the risk of institutional balance and competition is also possible in state’s complicated interactions.227
Another branch of compliance studies based on efficiency logic originated from neo-institutional economics. In this research programme, national interests are exogenous and international institutions are again secondary, acting as tools for international cooperation. Several specific mechanisms are applied to explore why states comply with international rules. Among the mechanisms, reciprocity is one of the most important for international cooperation via the medium of international institutions’ information provisions. Common interests among states can only be realized by the reduction of transaction costs through the formation of some kind of common knowledge. Institutions as instrumental “Leviathans,” though most of the time lacking teeth, can act as agents who are trustworthy among the relevant parties and make bargains. Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation argues that reciprocal tit-for-tat is the optimal strategy that evolves through agents’ interactions of social cooperation. 228 To further common interests through reciprocity, social norms or institutions have to serve as the agents or guarantors among state exchanges. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the explanation tool of game theory to illustrate this cooperation situation and its solutions,229 while George Akerlof’s The Market for “Lemons”: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism or Coase’s The Nature of the Firm all propose the more or less similar idea that institutions matter for the reduction of information and other transaction costs.230 As Coase argues, if the property rights institutions are defined clearly with no controversy, agents can reach agreements for their welfare. The task of property rights allocation is assigned to contract law, the court, and the state, while the authority for international property rights definition is given to the international institutional system that is built by hegemonic states in the international system, as Keohane illustrates.231 But as argued in Chapter 2, if we stretch the space and time dimensions that an institution applies in, how can we make every state accept the allocation of international property rights set by one international institution? Therefore, we need to discover the limits and boundaries of an international institution’s autonomy and capability. It is in these cracks among institutions where we can find the secrets of states’ international compliance. The intention here is not to refute the workings of the reciprocity mechanism in state compliance with international rules, but to argue that various logics of reciprocity might have effects within one institution and among institutions in different zones of governance, and that the same state may have different logics of reciprocity in different time periods, just as a state’s national interest is also relational and fluid in international social life.
Based on the above arguments, efficiency logic mechanisms for international compliance have the same limitations when facing international institutional divergence. For instance, the reputation mechanism supposes that states are willing to be tied within international institutions because within these constraints they can claim more national interests in the long term. But with multiple international institutions to choose from and different institutional arrangements that bring about various reputation rewards, how should a state decide which institution to comply with? What are the consequences if a state jumps from one rule to another, and how will its institutional choice change in relation to domestic and international audiences? How is reputation capital distributed among different international institutions? With the changing of international environment, what if like-minded states cannot maintain their bonds and common identities, and some have the chance to build another institutional arrangement that can also provide them with international reputation to some extent?
Credible commitment is another mechanism for international compliance following the efficiency logic. It argues that states participate and comply with international rules to signify to various international and domestic audiences that they are credible partners in some issue  areas by aligning with the third-party international institutions. 232 But in the context of international institutional divergence, if several international institutions all have the capability to signify effective signals within the institutional complexes, how should a state choose among these supporting media in international society?
From the structural side, constructivism, which applies sociological legitimacy as an explanatory logic in international society, has similar problems when placing its compliance mechanisms in the context of international institutional divergence. In constructivism, international institutions are the agents who teach a state how to behave in international society. 233 The fundamental instructional objective is to transform state preferences and convert their national interests so that their foreign and domestic policies will be identical with international norms. International compliance happens because states are nurtured and tamed in the atmosphere of an international normative environment that exerts subtle ideological and ideational pressures.234 After the socialization process, a state will gradually be transformed from an outsider and alien into an insider and peer. At first, a state may conduct international behaviour according to the international rules purely out of material interests. But step by step it may change it mindset to accept some discourses or actions because other peers are only saying and doing those things. In the end, a state will internalize some institutional requirements and accept these collective ideas as chips embedded within the deepest part of their brains. 235 And it may even have the desire to transmit these institutional values to other people in other places to make them think as “we” do in a universal way. The constructivist explanation of states’ international compliance points out the importance of non-material motivations and international institutions’ socialization pressures in state compliance. But again this institutional context is too simple in its assumption of there being only one international institutional “teacher” that is unassailable and that teaches states as students how to think and how to behave in international society.236
This teaching metaphor is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, if there is more than one teacher instructing in international society, whose guidance shall we follow? How can states as students distinguish between the several lecturers available and decide who will be their mentors? If they follow one teacher’s lead, what should they make of other teachers’ ideas that might be different from what their mentor has told them? Secondly, what are the teacher’s teaching methods? If the teacher only regards her own thoughts to be worth learning, she will not be a good mentor. A good teacher should have the vision to be self-taught while teaching her students. Can a student today become a teacher herself someday, somewhere? If the students cannot make that breakthrough and are always fixed in a position of being in need of enlightenment, if they cannot grow up and are always acting in a childish way, how can society be maintained and improved when the teachers retire? In two important articles on international norms, Amitav Acharya illustrates how Southeast Asian states filter international norms from the Western world with their own international institutions at the regional level, or actually create regional international norms and project these normative ideas to the global level in history and today. These two mechanisms used by Southeast Asian states are named “norm localization” and “norm subsidiarity” respectively. 237 From a normative point of view, the single institution assumption in institutional and norm research in international relations theories may not be accidental. Methodological considerations such as this make institutional research more scientific and easier to operationalize. For another, existing studies of norms pay most of their attention to “good” and liberal international norms based on domestic liberal ideas. This is a sort of normative bias in essence and carries with it binary opposition and civilizational discipline that are unjust according to some scholars from the Third World.238


International institutional divergence: A new research agenda?
Organization of the thesis
Some methodological justifications
Existing institutional explanations on China and international institutions
Beyond anarchy and international treaties: Informal institutions for international cooperation
Formal and informal institutions in international governance
China, sovereignty and humanitarian intervention
Why do international institutions matter?
Whose international institutions matter?
Divergence of international institutions
Why do states comply with international institutions?
International compliance when institutions are divergent
Who is complying with whose international rules?
Why exit matters
Prior studies
Why states exit
Exits from the International Whaling Commission (IWC)
International institutional change: The essence of change in the international system
International institutional change beyond punctuated equilibrium
Gradual international institutional change led by informal institutions
International institutional divergence: Origins, forms and consequences
Policy implications
Institutional Divergence in International Society

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