Ideology and International Institutions

  • Published

Ideology and International Institutions by Erik Voeten. Princeton University Press, 2021, 242 pp.

Long a subject of interest to scholars of international relations, scholarly and policy interest in international order has become increasingly acute in recent years. In the context of strategic rivalry between the United States and China, the functioning of multilateral institutions and the order they undergird is under particular scrutiny. In Ideology and International Institutions, Erik Voeten identifies a key gap in our understanding of international institutions by asking why multilateral agreements on prosaic issues like trade often result in significant international conflict. Voeten finds that institutions are created and function in an environment of both distributional and ideological conflict. In such an environment, “much contestation over international institutions can be conceptualized as conflict over moving a status quo toward one’s ideal point in a low-dimensional ideological space” (p. 5). Voeten’s key argument is that ideologies shape international politics because they enable actors both to persuade and inform one another.

The broader implications of Voeten’s research are clear: because the current, US-led international order is grounded not just in shared particularistic, material interests but in general (ideological) principles, domestic and international challenges to those principles carry strategic repercussions. These challenges affect the stability of the current order, conflict between the current order and states either outside that order or dissatisfied with it, and the relative positioning of states and regions in ideologically driven conflict with material implications.

Voeten also claims that ideological conflict plays a much greater role in institutional politics than is currently appreciated. He operationalizes ideological conflict by arguing that contestation about international institutions is about states seeking to shift the status quo toward their ideal point along an ideological continuum. This insight is critically important as conflict between rival great powers (with rival ideologies) returns to a central role in international politics. He is careful to point out that ideology is not divorced from material interests or power, and his modeling approach carries that point into his empirical analyses.

After laying out his conceptualization of ideology and then operationalizing it as quantified ideal points derived from votes in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in chapter 2, Voeten grounds his propositions in existing neofunctionalist, rational institutionalist, liberal internationalist, and constructivist theoretical approaches in chapter 3. From chapter 2, readers derive definitions of ideology, “a set of widely understood . . . and stable ideas about how a set of issues should be resolved and who should resolve them” (p. 17), and international institutions, “widely acknowledged formal and informal rules that prescribe the way actors should cooperate and compete in the international system” (p. 18). This understanding places ideology and international institutions at the heart of international order. We also learn about Voeten’s measure of ideal point similarity (p. 34), which is central to the book’s empirical analysis. This conception enables researchers to “order states along an ideological dimension that captures conflict over many policy issues reasonably well” (p. 39). Voeten does not clearly define dimensionality, which could leave an uninitiated reader flailing. He uses ideal points to collapse multiple dimensions of state preferences (like economic and security preferences) into a single dimension that retains many of the meaningful properties of those many dimensions, facilitating analysis. Students of strategy, for example, may find ideal point similarity useful to capture difficult concepts for quantitative analysis.

In chapter 4, Voeten details his spatial modeling framework, providing two key insights: first, the more significant interdependencies are, the less significant institutional and organizational architecture is required to achieve institutional gains. Second, the construction of institutions generally implies the exclusion of some states, and that exclusion has important distributional consequences for those states. This insight can help us understand a critical strategic and security question regarding orders and violence: while orders appear to keep the peace among their members, they also seem to drive conflict externally.

Chapters 5–9 test Voeten’s theoretical arguments empirically. Chapter 5 lays out the role of expertise in international politics through the lens of ideological conflict and cooperation. Specifically, he finds that transnational experts serving in intergovernmental organizations (IGO) do not often have information advantages over governments, but instead encourage information sharing, interpretation, and coordination. This observation has important strategic and defense implications. For example, NATO’s Defence Planning Process enables members to coordinate defense planning by sharing information.

Chapter 6 empirically tests the proposition that states are more likely to join institutions when they are ideologically similar to other members and that membership in international institutions “should reflect the ideological structure of world politics” (p. 90). Extensive regression analysis supports both propositions. However, the evidence is correlational, and Voeten is careful to point this out along with the fact that ideology is not the only thing that matters in the construction and maintenance of institutions.

Chapter 7 explicitly addresses the strategic implications of the role of ideology in international institutions by testing the proposition that international organizations “make the world a safer place” (p. 108). He finds that “IGOs affect the distribution of militarized conflict” (p. 110), consistent with orders reducing conflict among members but increasing conflict with nonmembers.

Chapter 8 conducts similar empirical tests regarding the international investment regime. Voeten finds that globally espoused ideology follows domestic political shifts: “There are predictable foreign policy consequences if governments come to power that have very different ideas about the appropriate role of the state vis-à-vis business and individuals” (p. 146).  Domestic political economies can and do influence internationally espoused ideology and behavior.

Chapter 9 applies this insight to populist politics and “backlashes” against international courts. Voeten makes two primary arguments here. First, populism provides an ideological basis for backlash against international courts and, possibly, other “expert-based liberal international institutions” (p. 149). Second, populism’s “thin-centered”[1] nature prevents populists from forming effective reform coalitions, leading them to selectively exit institutions. But what about when exit from an institution is difficult, as is the case for institutions built around alliances?

Voeten concludes with the implications of his findings for the liberal international order. He points to the burgeoning literature on the possible end of the current order. He again highlights the centrality of ideology in understanding “global institutionalized conflict and cooperation” (p. 176) and suggests that his distributive ideological framework can help understand the future of liberal order. He focuses on four ways that ideological challenges from both rising illiberal powers and illiberal domestic movements in heretofore liberal states may threaten the current order. First, these two ideological challenges tend to resist international institutions’ interfering in domestic politics. Second, they challenge status quo approaches on the role of the state in domestic political economies—with ideological challengers like China contending that economic institutions should support principles allowing more economic intervention by states. In Western democracies, social and economic policy differences between parties have declined, and ideological competition over values and identity has increased salience. Third, both challenges are affecting the “privileged role of the West in international institutions” (p. 180), with right-wing authoritarian parties in the West focusing on Western identity and civilizational discourse, while non-Western states have moved toward new IGOs that they lead. Finally, both Western populism and non-Western opposition threaten multilateralism as a vehicle of international cooperation, favoring instead more transactional forms of cooperation.

This latter point aligns closely with recent works like Exit from Hegemony—Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon might call the threat from Western populism “exit from within” and that from non-Western rivals “exit from above.” It also points to what a forward-looking strategic studies research program influenced by Ideology and International Organizations and related works might look like. Scholars can build on Voeten’s approach and data to evaluate the extent to which the current international order is or is not deteriorating, something that Voeten and Alexander Kentikelenis have already begun work on.[2] Similarly, scholars of international security and strategic studies could also consider the connections between ideal point similarity and key strategic questions like alliance burden-sharing, populist politics, threat perception, and economic interdependence.

In short, its theoretical depth, conceptual novelty, and excellent data development should make Ideology and International Institutions an influential work across multiple subfields of international relations for many years to come. A clearer discussion of dimensionality in the introductory chapters would have been welcome, and future clarification might help researchers interested in applying Voeten’s concepts to strategic studies research.

LTC Jordan Becker, USA

[1] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 541–63, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.

[2] Alexander Kentikelenis and Erik Voeten, “Legitimacy Challenges to the Liberal World Order: Evidence from United Nations Speeches, 1970–2018,” Review of International Organizations 16 (October 2020): 721–54, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-020-09404-y.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."