Yglesias, Justin Logan, and Tim Lee have been having a conversation about the utility of international institutions. More or less, Yglesias argues that John Bolton is a bad guy for wanting to kill the UN rather than reform it, Logan suggests that Yglesias is a blind liberal utopian for believing that international institutions can do anything, and Tim responds that international institutions actually have done lots of big, interesting things that directly affect outcomes in the international system. Yglesias then responds to Logan by pointing out the same thing.
Logan makes the argument that I would expect from any unreformed realist, that international institutions have very little effect. Unfortunately, there are very few unreformed realists left, and most everyone accepts that international institutions have some important effects, even if only as intervening variables between basic relationships of power and interest and outcomes. As Yglesias points out, institutions facilitate outcomes that could not be achieved through independent action. Logan also wants to deny the constitutive effects of international institutions, but he’s pretty clearly out in the cold on this one as well. To the enduring dismay of John Bolton, most states take international law seriously most of the time. This includes the United States; we complain about the UN, but we won’t be dropping out anytime soon. Good realists wouldn’t complain about the UN at all; they would use it when they found it useful, and ignore it when they didn’t. Similarly, good realists would be untroubled by the formation of the International Criminal Court, a weak institution whose demands could be brushed aside. That we’ll actively fight against these things demonstrates that we take them seriously.
Logan asks a somewhat more interesting question that Matt declines to answer:
Can Tim [or Matt] think of a historical example where an international institution successfully constrained the action of a state in contravention of its vital interests and outside the bounds of power considerations? That is, where it was some sort of moral opprobrium or institutional respect that deterred a state from acting, rather than concern it would be defeated?
Matt thinks Logan is establishing a strawman, and I would agree to a point. The biggest problem is that “vital national interest” can mean just about anything, and that a realist will ALWAYS be able to reply that a particular action was taken because of a state’s vital interest. It would be better to ask “Is there a historical example in which an international institution successfully limited the autonomy of a state or states in the national security sphere?” If that’s an acceptable formulation of the question, then my answer is an emphatic yes.
In 1922, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and several minor powers met in Washington in order to create an institution that would constrain their autonomy in naval construction. Immediately following the end of World War I Japan, the US, and the UK initiated vast programs of dreadnought construction. All three states laid down numerous battleships and battlecruisers intended to outmatch the other fleets. The actual construction of these fleets would have impoverished Japan and the UK, and wouldn’t have helped the US out very much. Accordingly, the three states agreed in 1922 to suspend their independent construction and create a set of rules that would regulate naval power. The UK was allowed to retain 20 dreadnoughts, the US 18, and Japan 12. Battleship construction was suspended for ten years, except for a special dispensation for the UK to build two 16″ gunned ships. The London Naval Conference of 1930 reduced the battleship allocations to 15:15:9.
The naval treaties have often been criticized for what they didn’t do, which is prevent World War II. Less time has been spent discussing what they did very well, which was to stop an impoverishing naval race in the early 1920s. The US, UK, and Japan scrapped battleships that were in an advanced state of construction. The US Navy used its newest and most advanced battleship, the Washington, for target practice. Although the three states devoted considerable resources to renovating existing battleships in the interwar period, no new dreadnoughts were built, and new ships conformed to treaty requirements. Although the treaty lacked provisions for monitoring and verification, none of the three states cheated egregiously (although the Japanese pushed the envelope).
This is a classic international security regime. Each state gave up a portion of its national security autonomy in the expectation that others would do the same. Each state abided by a set of treaty restrictions that were defended by little more than international opinion. The UK, at least, ended up paying significant costs for attending too closely to treaty restrictions, and for wishful thinking about future treaties. Perhaps most interesting, in 1934 the Japanese withdrew from the treaty rather than simply ignoring it, which indicates a due level of respect for international law.
All of this is a far cry from what the UN does today. But it goes to show that, even in the security sphere, states can accept ceding control over the most critical aspects of their sovereignty to an international accord.