Toward a Richer Institutionalism for International Law and Policy

Journal of International Law and International Relations, Vol. 1, p. 9, 2005

26 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2006 Last revised: 9 Feb 2010


International relations theory (IR) is widely recognized as a valuable tool for lawyers and legal scholars, especially in their social role as international policy-makers. The frameworks of IR help lawyers to analyze social problems in theoretically informed ways and develop ameliorative responses. Yet IR is famously divided among contending theoretical paradigms. Approaches such as Realism, Institutionalism, Liberalism and Constructivism direct attention to different actors (e.g., states, international organizations, domestic government agencies and officials, individual citizens and civil society groups) and to different causal factors and processes (e.g., power, interests and incentives, values, norms and identities, persuasion and socialization).

IR has tended to treat these approaches as mutually exclusive and in competition. But that theoretical stance is increasingly problematic, given the rise of multi-faceted norm complexes such as sustainable development and collective security as reconceived by the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel, and of complex multi-stakeholder institutions like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. In both respects, international public policy manifestly involves actors, causal factors and processes that cut across theoretical lines; the same can be said of international law generally. The problem is especially serious for Institutionalist theory: logically, Institutionalism should provide a natural framework for lawyers and other policy-makers seeking innovative responses to global problems, but its relevance has been reduced by its identification with a relatively narrow state-centric, rationalist approach.

What is needed is a richer Institutionalism, one that brings to bear significant insights from other IR approaches. For international law and policy, Institutionalist theory should incorporate Liberal insights into the role of non-state actors, government agencies and domestic politics; Constructivist insights into the role of values, norms, identities and processes such as shaming and persuasion; and Realist (and other) insights into the role of power. To be sure, there are significant ontological and epistemological differences among IR approaches that foreclose wholesale blending. Yet recent scholarship suggests that these problems are manageable in many instances. Without purporting to develop fully an enriched Institutionalism, this article identifies a number of insights that analysts could incorporate at three crucial stages of analysis: the social context in which problems arise and solutions are sought, the strategies followed by the actors interested in those problems, and the design and operations of international regimes.

Keywords: international law, international relations theory, international institutions

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Abbott, Kenneth Wayne, Toward a Richer Institutionalism for International Law and Policy. Journal of International Law and International Relations, Vol. 1, p. 9, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Kenneth Wayne Abbott (Contact Author)

Arizona State University ( email )

Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States
480-965-5917 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics