Principles of Regime Theory: Strengths & Weaknesses

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  • 0:01 Regime Theory Defined
  • 1:56 Power-Based Approach
  • 3:22 Interest-Based Approach
  • 4:02 Knowledge-Based Approach
  • 5:50 Strengths & Weaknesses
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

International relations theorists attempt to explain how actors on the world stage gain security in an environment of anarchy. In this lesson, you'll learn about regime theory and its explanation of how actors try to create order out of chaos.

Regime Theory Defined

The international environment is generally one of anarchy dominated by states where there is no authority that makes states play nice with each other. Nevertheless, states are not the only actors on the world stage today, and there is oftentimes cooperation between the actors. Regime theory attempts to explain these realities.

Regime theory argues that power in the international system is distributed across different states and non-state actors, such as nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and multinational companies, that cooperate on specific issues based upon a set of international regimes. Regimes are the manifestation of cooperation among actors in the international system.

International relations scholar Stephen Krasner defines an international regime as 'principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given issue area.' You can kind of think of a regime as a rulebook that covers a specific area of international relations upon which most of the players agree to abide with general areas of cooperation. Let's look at a quick example of a regime.

Our current system of international trade can be viewed as a regime. The principles, rules, and norms of our international system of trade revolve around free trade, globalization, diplomacy to resolve trade issues, and the creation of international trade organizations, such as the World Trade Organization. Most states participate and cooperate within this trade regime.

Keep in mind that a regime is not an all-encompassing set of principles that govern the entire international system, like the concept of state sovereignty. Instead, under the theory, regimes focus on specific areas of international life, like our trade example, nuclear proliferation, international finance, and security.

Power-Based Approach

Just like ice cream, there are different flavors of regime theory. You can basically divide the study of regime theory into a power-based approach, an interest-based approach, and a knowledge-based approach. Let's take a quick look at each approach.

The power-based approach, sometimes referred to as neorealism, of regime theory attempts to explain international regimes in terms of the distribution of power among the most relevant actors of particular international policy. It assumes that states and other actors act rationally. Hegemonic-stability theory (HST) is one of the most well-known power-based approaches in international regime theory.

In a nutshell, HST suggests that a hegemon, a country that dominates all others, will encourage the development of regimes that are consonant with its interests to develop support for its policies without the expense of forcing its will on other states using more costly means, such as economic sanctions or force. For example, the United States has played a large role in fashioning a global financial and economic system that aligns with its interests and values. Of course, the hegemon will not permit the formation of any regime contrary to its interests. In our example, the U.S. will not permit an economic regime that discourages free trade.

Interest-Based Approach

Like the power-based approach, the interest-based approach also assumes that actors are rational. However, according to the interest-based approach, rational states will engage in long-term cooperation to achieve absolute gains. Importantly, this means that a state may give up a short-term advantage to cooperate with another state or group of states to maintain cooperation with each other for a larger, long-term gain. For example, a country that has a lucrative trade relationship with another country may agree to participate in sanctions against its trade partner, thus foregoing short-term gain, in order to maintain cooperation with other states for long-term security and long-term trade growth cultivated by cooperation.

Knowledge-Based Approach

The knowledge-based, or cognitivist, approach looks at the formation of preferences among states. Unlike the power-based or interest-based approach, the knowledge-based approach does not assume that state's preferences are fixed and choices are rational. Instead, the knowledge-based approach takes into account things such as values, perception, and the current state of an actor's knowledge.

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