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Institutionalism in international relations comprises a group of differing theories on international relations (IR). Functionalist and neofunctionalist approaches, regime theory, and state cartel theory have in common their focus on the structures of the international system, but they substantially differ in the way they precede.


Functionalist approaches

The functional theory of David Mitrany is the oldest institutional theory of IR. Mitrany suggested that slim ‘functional agencies’ should organize the needs of cooperation among even conflicting states. The neofunctionalism and the communitarian method of Jean Monnet advocated the principle of supranationality: international bodies superordinated to the nation states should administer the common interests. The functionalist approaches have been often criticized to be idealistic and normative in their positive view on international institutions.

Regime theory

Regime theory holds that the international system is not—in practice—anarchic, but that it has an implicit or explicit structure which determines how states will act within the system.

Institutions are rules that determine the decision-making process. In the international arena, institution has been used interchangeably with 'regime', which has been defined by Krasner as a set of explicit or implicit "principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors expectations converge in a given issue-area."

Institutionalist scholars hold a wide array of beliefs stemming from the central proposition that institutions "matter" in answering the question "what explains a particular outcome?". There are four reasons for this:

  • They structure choices
  • They provide incentives
  • They distribute power
  • They define identities and roles

Rational choice institutionalism

This school attempts to explain collective choices by rational actors. Outcomes are a product of the interaction between actor preferences and institutional rules.

Rational institutionalists also regard institutions as themselves being rationally chosen by actors who view the rules as facilitating the pursuit of their goals. For example, the institutional decision-making rules of the European Union are such that the largest states can structure political outcomes.

Historical institutionalism

The historical institutionalism school believes that institutional factors account for differences in cross-national political outcomes. There are two elements:

  1. Institutions could shape actor preferences by structuring incentives, redistributing power, and by influencing the cultural context.
  2. History is "path dependent." Choices or events early in the process can force a path from which it becomes increasingly difficult to deviate.

Theda Skocpol's work illustrates an example of historical institutionalism. Responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s differed greatly between Sweden and the United Kingdom, which had similar problems in terms of severity and duration. The two countries responded with vastly different policies due to differences in existing domestic institutional structures.

State cartel theory

State cartel theory imported its terminology from the classical cartel theory of economic enterprises and thus is much more concrete than regime theory. On the field of international relations nation states are searching advantages by cooperation or by fighting out conflicts. But from a certain degree both of the compaction of international (economic) relations and of the development of military technology war discards more and more as a method of conflict. Now the states have to get along with each other, and hence they cartelize more and more issues of their politics in international institutions. Like in enterprise cartels the members’ assembly is always the main institution of the combinations: the respective council of ministers or delegates, e.g. the Council of the European Union. All further institutions are the result of the will and the needs of the members and have serving functions (secretary, operative commissions, arbitration board), e.g. European Commission and European Court.

Related theories



Neorealism, or structural realism, is a theory of international relations, outlined by Kenneth Waltz in his 1979 book, Theory of International Politics. Waltz argues in favor of a systemic realist approach: the international structure acts as a constraint on state behavior, so that different states behave in a similar rational manner, and outcomes fall within an expected range.


Neoliberalism refers to a school of thought which believes that nation-states are, or at least should be, concerned first and foremost with absolute gains (economic, strategic, etc.), rather than relative gains to other nation-states. Since their approach tends to emphasize the possibility of mutual wins, they are interested in institutions which can arrange jointly profitable arrangements and compromises.


  • Haas, Ernst B. (1958). The Uniting of Europe; Political, Social, and Economic Forces, 1950-1957. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Haas, Ernst B. (1964). Beyond the Nation-State: Functionalism and International Organization. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Keohane, R. O. and S. Hoffmann 1991: The New European Community: Decision-making and Institutional Change. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Krasner, Stephen D. (1982) “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables." International Organization 36/2 (Spring). Reprinted in Stephen D. Krasner, ed., International Regimes, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983
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  • Mitrany, D.(1976) The Functional Theory of Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press
  • Rosamond, B. (2000) Theories of European integration, Macmillan ; New York : St. Martin's Press, Basingstoke

See also


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