Why states cooperate: international environmental issues

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Virginia Tech


Within the international relations literature, there is a large body of work dedicated to cooperation and conflict. More specifically, there are numerous theories of regime formation that attempt to explain how and why cooperation among several nation-states is possible. This paper addresses three of the dominant perspectives: conventional structural realism, modified structural realism, and the Grotian perspective (also often referred to as the Global Commons perspective). The goal of this paper is to analyze the rise of regimes to manage international environmental issues in light of these theories.

Specifically, I analyze the case of the United States/Canadian water management regime for the Great Lakes first established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. I apply both a conventional structural realist framework and a modified structural realist framework (depicted in game theoretic terms) to the case study. Because neither of these frameworks is able to adequately explain the rise of the United States/Canadian regime, I employ a framework based on the Grotian perspective. Concentrating on Oran Young's hypotheses of institutional bargaining, I analyze the case study and point out similarities and discrepancies between the theory and the actual event. Finally, I discuss the role of epistemic communities in regime formation and maintenance.

Based on the results of the application of each analytical framework, I conclude that the Grotian perspective (expressed in terms of the institutional bargaining approach) is best able to identify the causes of the formation of the water management regime between the United States and Canada. Because this is one of the most successful examples of an international environmental regime in terms of longevity, compliance, and progress, the factors involved in its creation should make a contribution to our understanding of the problems and possibilities associated with the construction of international environmental management regimes.

I draw heavily from the work of notable regime theorists, such as Susan Strange, Stephen Krasner, Robert Keohane, and Ernst Haas, as well as theorists who have specifically addressed international environmental issues, such as Oran Young, Peter Haas, and Jessica Tuchman Mathews