Cooperation and International Regimes

Summary of: Cooperation and International Regimes

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Using “international [cooperation] regimes” as an example, Keohane examines how cooperation is possible in the absence of a “hegemon” to enforce compliance.


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Princeton University Press


  • A 'harmony of interests' exists when two parties can both get where they want by pursuing their own goals without communicating. Their pursuit of their own interests automatically achieves the Other's interests as well. Where harmony exists, cooperation is unnecessary. Coordination can happen, but it isn't cooperation, it's just communicating and coordinating already harmonious endeavors.
  • Cooperation isn't necessary unless there is a conflict in the pursuit of interests. Cooperation requires behavioral adjustment to other's interests.
  • Discord is possible in two ways: 1) refusal to adjust, or 2) failure to adjust. In contrast to outright refusal to adjust, failure to adjust means an attempt was made but the process of cooperation failed to overcome collective action problems.
  • Getting to cooperation may involve redefining what is in a given actor's "self-interest."

Using “international [cooperation] regimes” as an example, Keohane examines how cooperation is possible in the absence of a “hegemon” to enforce compliance.

Keohane distinguishes cooperation from harmony and discord as follows:

  • Harmony refers to a situation in which actors’ policies (pursued in their own self-interest without regard for others) automatically facilitate attainment of the other’s goals. An example is the classical economic market, in which Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulates supply and demand.
  • Cooperation requires that the actions of separate individuals or organizations – which are not in pre-existent harmony – be brought into conformity with one another through mutual adjustment.
  • Discord, the opposite of harmony, stimulates the need for cooperation

Cooperation takes places only in situations where actors perceive that their policies are actually or potentially in conflict, not where there is harmony. Without the specter of conflict, there is no need to cooperate.

Any act of cooperation or apparent cooperation needs to be interpreted within the context of related actions, and of prevailing expectations and shared beliefs, before its meaning can be properly understood.

Quoting John Ruggie, Keohane defines regimes as a “set of mutual expectations, rules and regulations, plans, organizational energies and financial commitments, which have been accepted by a group of states.” Both formal rules and informal norms (standards of behavior) are used to sustain international cooperation. A major function of regimes is to facilitate the making of specific cooperative agreements among states.

Because regimes set expectations and reinforce norms, they shape actors’ behavior in the long-term, and thus promote sustained cooperation.