Monthly Archives: October 2013

International Investment Treaties and IR

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at the Freie Universität –
International Investment Agreements – Balancing Sustainable Development and Investment Protection. The conference brought together an array of lawyers, arbitrators and law professors, as well as government, NGO and IO employees. Central to the conference was a discussion of UNCTAD’s recently launched Investment Policy Framework for Sustainable Development (IPFSD).

IIAs have been receiving a fair amount of media attention lately (at least in Canada). In case you haven’t caught any of this, or aren’t forced to hear me talk about it in a colloquium session, a brief refresher: Investment agreements (IIAs) are generally bilateral investment treaties (BITs) or embedded in FTAs, and commit countries to maintaining stringent investor protection standards. Controversially, they allow investors from one of the states party to the treaty to initiate arbitration proceedings against the government of the other. Arbitrators are then charged with deciding on the legality of domestic measures affecting an investor, which may range from fairly clear cut cases of corruption to honest attempts to regulate in the public interest.

While it’s still a bit of a niche topic, the discussion at the conference touched on a number of issues that are likely of interest to a wider audience of IR and development scholars and practitioners.
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The Virtues of Theories

Return to Virtue Printable

Last week I attended a lecture by Stephen Walt on Why simplistic hypothesis testing is bad for International Relations.1 The lecture took place at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg (VA) were I am currently residing as a visiting scholar. Walt’s talk was based on an article that he co-authored with John Mearsheimer for the EJIR special issue on The End of IR Theory, 2013. While Walt made some convincing arguments about the steady increase of non-theory driven big data analysis and how they change IR as a discipline, I was rather nauseated by his unreflected conception of theorizing as virtue.

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Links: Big Topics in IR; International Currencies; The Middle Class Is Not What It Used to Be


Phil Arena recommends Bear Braumoeller’s new book Great Powers and the International System. Not just because it’s good, but as a role model for grad students in IR:

[This book] offers a great example of a dissertation (or a project that began its life as one, at any rate) that speaks to questions lying at the center of the field. Yes, you can write Bad Pun: The Thing That’s Happening Now and How None of The Big Names Have Anything to Say About It, 1990–2008. But you could also think a little bigger.


Dan Drezner wonders if the recent almost-shutdown of the U.S. government will trigger financial counter-balancing, as IPE realists have been predicting for quite some time:

The question is whether it’s worth being dependent on a growing economy that’s so politically unreliable.  So now we’re gonna see whether incipient U.S. rivals will start making the necessary down payments to act on their increasingly justified complaints.

As Benjamin J. Cohen suggested in a talk here at Freie Universität a couple of months ago, what keeps the dollar strong might be the lack of alternatives (rather than the inherent qualities of the global key currency #1). Drezner says we’ll see soon enough which side is right, but I have the feeling that in the absence of clear predictions or thresholds (how do we know “the end of the dollar” when we see it?), this dicussion will drag on for decades.


Speaking of money, and considering that this is a blog written by relatively young people, allow me to point to a non-IR topic: “We’ll never have it so good again.”

Well, in August 2011, [my parents’] former home was placed on the market. The asking price was £2,475,000. So a house that had once been affordable by a young, middle-class couple was now being aimed at buyers who were, by any normal standards, very rich indeed. (…) A similar process of exclusion has taken place in education. (…) So my father went to Eton. I went to Eton. And my son goes to Bishop Luffa Church of England comprehensive.

Of cource, these are still nice problems to have compared to most people, and many aspects of social life are certainly better than a couple of decades ago. Yet the overall trends regarding income and wealth in the rich parts of the world, which I’ve covered here earlier, look worrisome basically for everyone below of the very top of the pyramid.

Keohane’s Counter-Multilateralism


Yesterday, Bob Keohane gave a lecture at the Berlin Social Science Research Center (WZB). He presented a new paper co-authored with Julia Morse, who is a PhD candidate at Princeton. (Keohane, in case you somehow don’t know, is famous for his work on neoliberal institutionalism / the cooperation paradigm.)

Instead of summarizing the talk step-by-step, I’ll be a bit lazy and point you to the WZB’s announcement of the event:

“Counter-multilateralism” is an apt phrase to describe a pervasive contemporary phenomenon: the strategic use of multilateral institutions to challenge the rules, practices, or missions of multilateral institutions. States and non-state actors, intergovernmental organizations or non-governmental organizations form coalitions that respond to dissatisfaction by combining threats of exit, voice, and the creation of alternative institutions.

Keohane and Morse essentially claim two things:

  1. International politics is mainly about “cooperation in a crowded institutional space” (instead of, say, anarchy). That means that for any given problem, there will probably be a high degree of existing institutionalization, i.e. international regimes and/or organizations in place.
  2. When actors are dissatisfied with the status quo (and can’t change it from within), they will try to form a coalition in order to establish another institution that better suits their interests (instead of trying to act unilaterally).

In reference to the late Albert Hirschman, Keohane argued that actors will try to amplify their potential voice by “using multilateralism against itself”. This act of “counter-multilateralism” (“C-M”) can take one of two forms: Regime shifting (the coalition pushes issue X from institution A to institution B) or competitive regime creation (the coalition creates institution C to take over from A).

Keohane then gave a number of examples of successful and failed attempts for both types. Together with the remarks by the WZB’s Sonia Alonso (who was the first discussant), these cases did a good job of illustrating the many faces of counter-multilateralism and that Keohane’s framework offers a useful typology.

Nonetheless, the talk fell a bit short compared to the claims in the abstract:

[These coalitions’] intention is not merely to choose different venues for collective action (“forum-shopping”) but to change the practices or restrict the authority of the status quo institutions. (…) What are the condition that tend to generate counter-multilateralism? What does counter-multilateralism mean for Global Governance?

First, it’s not entirely clear to me how counter-multilateralism differs from forum-shopping and just general bargaining strategies. What’s the value added by using the concept? Also, there are some analytical problems. If the coalition’s demands are met before they really pursue the exit option, how will we know C-M when we see it? And in case it really comes to either regime shifting or competitive creation, what happens next?

Second, the conditions under which Keohane predicts C-M aren’t exactly precise: Actors need to be dissatisfied with the status quo (but just how much?), perceive C-M as a viable option (based on what?), and in order to succeed they should be powerful (how powerful?). Overall, C-M will become more common (to what effect?), as global politics are highly institutionalized while power is very dispersed (really?) and acting unilaterally is just not what states do anymore (really?)…

Don’t get me wrong: I think this is a great framework to think about the dynamics of international institutions. It’s just that – from what we’ve heard yesterday – Keohane seems to offer “just” a typology, but neither testable hypotheses nor precise indicators. I’m looking forward to the paper(s) on this idea.