Regime Complexes: Between Insignificant and Significant

Regime Complexes: Between Insignificant and Significant

By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20151217

Earlier works on international regimes (i.e. Grotian, Ruggie, Strange, Waltz, Keohane and Nye, Aggarwal, Hopkins and Puchala, Bull, and others) tended to view regimes in terms of their insignificance or significance. The conventional realist perspective has been accused of ignoring a plethora of variables and complexities. Accordingly, Orsini et al.’s work (examined below), builds on the need to clarify both. Successively, Orsini et al.’s work highlighted the complexities of institutional interplay, redefined the concept of regime complex and its influence on global governance, and explained why it mattered.

A conventional realist construct of the state as the most primarily-influential actor on the world stage subjected the existence and dissolution of regimes to the power and control of states. Under this construct, regimes were insignificant and could not continue to exist without the support or interest of the state.  However, from a more constructivist point of view, and congruent with modified structural realist assumptions, “…failure of individual action to secure Pareto-optimal outcomes…” could leave space for international regimes to autonomously prove their significance (Krasner 1982, 186). More clearly, states could not control the problem of conflicted relationships, and therefore, they could not consider regimes entirely insignificant.

Orsini et al. indirectly embraced the conventional notion that regimes were impacted by powerful actors. An important divergence, nevertheless, was identified when Orsini et al. refused to exclusively acknowledge those actors as states. Seemingly suggested is the fact the insignificance of international regimes was situated in preconceived or ill-researched perceptions that assumed institutions acted alone. Such analysis engendered unseeded correlations. That is, although states retained their relevance as powerful actors, arguably of equal significance was the influence of non-state actors on inevitably problematic relationships. Still further, the interconnectedness of issue areas demanded measuring the power of a single regime in terms of the conglomeration of power that stems from multilateral institutions. Significantly, in 1992, John Ruggie had argued multilateral norms and institutions were responsible for stabilizing the international consequences of the Soviet East European Empire collapse and was “playing a significant role in the management of a broad array of regional and global changes in the world system today” (561).

Clarification began in the mid-1990s when Oren Young introduced “institutional interplay” and paved the way for research examining the associated benefits versus consequences (Orsini et al. 2013, 28). The research further revealed how conflicts were evident in certain cases, however, interplay also led to “mutual adjustments” and generated collaboration “…beneficial to all…” (2013, 28). Again, the unflinching influence of regimes surfaced. Then, Orsini et al. redefined regime complex as “a network of three or more international regimes that relate to a common subject matter; exhibit over-lapping membership; and generate substantive, normative, or operative interactions recognized as potentially problematic whether or not they are managed effectively” (2013, 29). This definition was necessary for demonstrating various elements which allowed for a more precise determination of what constitutes regime complexes and provided a framework for managing them. Here, it is important to note the interplay among regimes derives from interest-based actors whose norms and belief systems produce power in and of themselves.

Finally, Orsini et al.’s work pointed out how certain types of regime complexes (i.e. fragmented) could be detrimental to global governance by producing a divergence in rules and norms as evidenced by the food regime complex. Still further, contrasted types (i.e. centralized) enhanced cooperation as evidenced by the refugee regime complex (2013). Conclusively, there are a plethora of variables to consider when measuring which forces are significant throughout the international community. Instead of relying on conventional perceptions to determine if international regimes are insignificant or significant, contradictory or complimentary, conflict-producing or conflict-resolving, harnessing an understanding of their complexities and multilateral capabilities can equip policy-makers to manage them toward effective global governance.

Refelections: Majority of my most enriching relationships began with individuals who I initially shared conflicting views or attitudes towards. In most cases, the incentives to cooperate for mutual gain or selfish ambitions created a platform whereby we were able to discuss and iron out our differences. Reality remains, still others were ignored and dismissed altogether as the perceived benefits of working through the conflict did not seem to matter. So it is throughout the international community as some states (especially superpowers) tend to demonstrate snobbish attitudes toward their neighbors when they are perceived as not offering much benefit in terms of military or economic power.  Nevertheless, the more difficult areas to deal with have provided positive outcomes in many instances.

When considering the nuclear arms race and the initial call for elimination of atomic weapons by the UN in 1946, the concurrentnuclear tests and weapons-developments that continued before and after the issuance of the Russel-Einstein manifesto, andleading up to the Cuban Missile Crises, it becomes apparent that ideas and attitudes toward nuclear non-proliferation were being influenced by a multitude of state and non-state actors.

This is a case where constructivists, for the most parts, would not disagree that state behavior was driven by rational pursuits ofpower and relative gains (realism), or a rational interest in maximizing absolute gains (liberalism); but their behavior was additionally influenced (through knowledge) by a network composed of celebrities, activists, NGOs, IGOs, research communities and more to perceive their role in terms of international security, the sociological losses they were capable of causing or preventing, and their need to institutionalize a cooperative solution (constructivism).

Such interactions between individuals and institutions (constructivism) led to the birth and evolution of many campaigns, rallies, networked organizations such as the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and several treatise (i.e. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Still further, in 1996 the World Court declared nuclear weapons illegal and threats or use thereof “contrary to international law” (ICAN 2015).



International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear weapons timeline . December 20, 2015. (accessed December 20, 2015).

Orsini, Amandine, Jean-Frédéric Morin, and Oran Young. 2013. “Regime Complexes: A Buzz, a Boom, or a Boost for Global Governance?” Global Governance 19, no. 1: 27-39. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed December 17, 2015).

Krasner, Stephen D. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.”International Organization, 1982:185-205.

Ruggie, John. “Multilateralism: The Anatomy of an Institution .” International Organization, 1992: 561-598.


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