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Archive: On Political Economy

International Interactions Policy Blog

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International Interactions is a peer-reviewed journal with direct relevance to a wide and interdisciplinary audience. Readers include political scientists, economists, historians, mathematicians, statisticians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social science researchers with an interest in international relations, as well as informed professionals in business and government.

Launched in 2019, the International Interactions blog synthesizes scholarly findings for a practitioner audience. Each blog post describes the policy takeaways of a recent II article, in the authors' own words, for use by engaged policymakers who can apply this research to current issues and challenges. 

Below, you'll find an archive of posts relating to Political Economy, plus links to the full journal articles. Access all categories alongside the latest post on the blog's main page.

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Conflict and cooperation with trade partners | February 2021

Timothy M. Peterson & Yuleng Zeng, Conflict and cooperation with trade partners, International Interactions (2021). Free Access until  April 30, 2021>>

Global trade continues to expand each year—at least before the COVID-19 pandemic decimated commerce within and between states. Given the growth of global trade, and in light of prominent theories linking trade to common interests, escalating political tensions between major trade partners such as the US and China (as well as between Japan and South Korea and between China and India) are puzzling. A glance at the current global political climate might even call into question the claim that trade promotes peace. While it is probably premature to expect costly armed conflict to result from escalating political conflict among trade partners in the contemporary era, recent events motivate a reconsideration of exactly how trade influences international politics.

To address this puzzle, we reconsider theories on bilateral trade, exposure to the global economy, and international politics. We argue and demonstrate that states generally initiate both more conflict and more cooperation with major trade partners; and while higher exposure to the global economy reduces conflict initiation against major trade partners, it also reduces cooperation. Simultaneously, higher exposure to the global economy is associated with more initiation of cooperation with non-major trade partners. Using events data spanning 1995-2012, we find empirical support for our expectations.

Our approach departs from previous work in three key ways. First, we examine a broader range of conflictual and cooperative interactions together. This expands the current focus on inter-state armed conflict, which has become rarer over time. Second, we assume leaders are responsive to interests opposed to trade as well as to those who benefit. While the latter aspect has been the key assumption of most studies, we argue it could be misleading to ignore the former possibility that leaders could, at times, advocate for interests harmed by trade. Third, we reconceptualize what it means to be a “major trade partner,” presenting a new definition that varies with the dispersion of a state’s trade across partners rather than merely dollar value or GDP composition of trade.

Our study advances the existing theories of trade and conflict, reinforcing concerns regarding the potential for backlashes against liberal trade policies. It also helps explain contemporary political disputes among major trade partners beyond the scope of armed conflict. For instance, our findings suggest that, in a counterfactual situation in which either or both countries were less exposed to the global economy, recent political conflict between some major trade partners would have been higher still. Additionally, some of the disputes (e.g., failure to maintain lower trade barriers) should instead be interpreted as declining cooperation.  Full article >>


Group identification, uncertainty, and the duration of genocide and politicide | January 2021

Gary Uzonyi, Group identification, uncertainty, and the duration of genocide and politicide, International Interactions (2020). Free Access until  March 31, 2021>>

Episodes of genocide and politicide show remarkable variation in duration. Some end within months; others endure for decades. Why do some persist while others end soon after they start? This study argues that uncertainty influences the duration of killing. When a government has difficulty identifying members of a target group, it is less certain whether it has accomplished its violent goals vis-à-vis the group. Therefore, the more uncertain the government is about the source of the threat it faces, the longer its killing will last. This occurs when regimes are highly risk-averse and because they hold exaggerated beliefs about the threat they face when they possess little reliable information about their opponent. Killing continues until the regime eliminates its enemy or the atrocities reveal enough information about the opposition’s strength that the parties can negotiate an end to the violence. Statistical analysis of all episodes of genocide and politicide since 1955 supports these claims.

This study subsequently traces the uncertainty mechanism in one case of genocide (Burundi 1972) and one case of politicide (El Salvador 1980-1989) as illustrative examples. The findings suggest that the duration of atrocity is indeed linked to the difficulty of identifying groups and threats. In this way, uncertainty influences the government’s costs for killing which aligns with the literature emphasizing opportunity as a determinant of violence. This work also reinforces the argument that uncertainty increases the likelihood of violence. While uncertainty about resolve, capabilities, and the probability of victory have each been studied in-depth, uncertainty about the composition of one’s enemy has been less frequently examined and provides opportunities for fruitful future research. In sum, this work makes clear the important role of identification in influencing the duration of violence. Full article >>


A Rational Design Approach to IO Structures | November/December 2020

Doron Ella, Categorization in international organizations, International Interactions (2020). Free access until January 31, 2021 >>

This paper seeks to explain why some international organizations (IOs) officially categorize their member-states while others do not. Specifically, it explores what drives actors to incorporate and employ categorization mechanisms and why they vary among IOs. Consequently, it also examines the specific problems categorization mechanisms are intended to solve. Categorization is defined as a mechanism that classifies member-states into different groups within the IO, assigning them differentiated rights and/or obligations, and it can be considered an aspect of IOs’ membership structure. Here, I focus on categorization mechanisms that classify members according to various aspects of their material capabilities; grant differentiated degrees of control over the IO to certain category-groups; offer certain provisions of special treatment; grant certain groups additional or special obligations toward the IO; and usually incorporate flexibility provisions.

Building on theories of rational design, I argue that categorization is intended to provide a solution to cooperation problems in IOs and assist in preventing possible defections of participating member-states. I suggest three hypotheses. First, I hypothesize that categorization is more likely to be incorporated and employed in IOs with heterogeneous membership in terms of capabilities and/or preferences, since categorization regulates members’ cooperation by allowing them to comply according to their capabilities, making IOs more sustainable and politically viable for longer periods of time. Second, I hypothesize that categorization is more likely to be employed in IOs that deal with issues characterized by high levels of uncertainty, since members know they can initially cooperate within their designated category, and later, as international and domestic realties change, shift to other categories that better accommodate their evolving capabilities. And third, I hypothesize that categorization is more likely to be incorporated in IOs that require deep cooperation (and therefore are highly institutionalized), since such mechanisms allow states with high compliance costs to initially join the organization and be subsequently classified according to the readjustments they are currently capable of making. This also assists in maintaining cooperation within the institutional framework by lowering the defection incentives for less capable or wiling states.

To test these hypotheses, I created a new dataset on categorization, encompassing information on 156 IOs established between 1868 and 2015, and ranging across 12 issue-areas: trade, finance, security, the environment, human rights, politics, standardization, economic development, culture, education and training, science and technology, and Multilateral Development Banks. A multivariate logistic regression with robust standard errors is used to estimate the empirical relationships between the variables.

The empirical evidence provides support for all three hypotheses suggested in this paper, albeit with some reservations regarding the effects of preference heterogeneity. Indicators for capabilities heterogeneity, uncertainty, and depth of cooperation, when tested through various statistical models, all reach statistical significance and are influential in terms of both their coefficients and predicted probabilities. Structural control variables that address scope of membership and issue-scope, as well as the temporal variable that addresses year of establishment, have not proved to be significant to the decision to incorporate categorization. This is while the United States, as a major power deeply involved in the IOs’ establishing process, proved highly influential in the decision to incorporate categorization within IOs. The statistical analysis indicates that members’ heterogeneity, in terms of capabilities, has a considerable positive effect on the likelihood of incorporating categorization mechanisms in IOs. This seems to indicate, the establishing actors may consider categorization as a legitimate alternative to less palatable solutions, such as exclusion, for problems stemming from divergent power distributions.

The empirical analysis also reveals that IOs take uncertainty about the state of the world into consideration in deciding whether to incorporate categorization. Therefore, by clarifying current and future distribution of possible costs and benefits, categorization assists in reducing states’ uncertainties about the consequences of cooperation, and thereby lowers the incentives to defect from current cooperative agreements. Categorization, in this sense, ameliorates problems that stem from ever-changing international realities and uncontrollable externalities, and functions as a balanced maintenance mechanism.

I also provide empirical evidence for the hypothesis that posits that IOs requiring deep cooperation are more likely to include categorization mechanisms. Categorization, as such, assists in minimizing the compliance costs of less powerful participant states, raises their incentives to join and delegate power to IOs that are considered highly institutionalized, and at the same time lowers members’ incentives to defect by increasing payoffs for cooperation. Full article >>


Promoting Democracy, Bottom-Up and Top-Down | August 2020

Paulina Pospieszna & Patrick M. Weber, Amplifying and nullifying the impact of democratic sanctions through aid to civil society, International Interactions (2020). Read now >>

Both aid and sanctions constitute foreign policy tools used to promote democracy. Yet, it is unclear how effectively incentives and coercion enhance democratization. Since sanctions and aid are often employed concurrently, the goal of this study is to determine their joint effect on democratization in target/recipient countries.

We argue that sending democracy aid through civil society organizations enhances the effectiveness of sanctions as a democracy promotion tool, as it empowers civil society to introduce democratic changes. Thus, in addition to the top-down pressures exerted on the target government by sanctions, civil society further applies bottom-up pressure.

Our empirical results show that democratic sanctions by the European Union and the United States are more likely to have a positive effect when aid flows bypass the government. Conversely, aid channeled through the public sector hampers the generally positive effects of sanctions on democracy. In order to estimate these joint effects, we employ a new comprehensive dataset on economic sanctions: the EUSANCT Dataset which integrates and updates existing databases on sanctions for the period between 1989 and 2015, merged with disaggregated OECD aid data and V-Dem democracy scores. Full article >>


Sanctions Threats and the Costs of Uncertainty | July 2020

Clayton Webb, Re-examining the costs of sanctions and sanctions threats using stock market data, International Interactions (2020). Read now >>

Talk isn’t always cheap.

Economic sanctions involve the application of economic pressure to achieve political goals. The annual reductions in the flows of goods and services caused by sanctions are relatively minor as a share of national income but it is generally understood that economic sanctions, like other barriers to trade, exact economic costs on the firms that are directly affected by sanctions. While many are willing to acknowledge these costs as the price of statecraft, most research assumes that sanctions threats are relatively costless for sender states.

This paper develops a general theoretical framework for understanding the potential economic consequences of sanctions threats. Sanctions and sanctions threats create uncertainty for firms with commercial interests in targeted states. This uncertainty makes it difficult to value future cash flows to these firms. This uncertainty is produces increased stock volatility.

Stock volatility is costly. Stock is used as a currency in mergers and acquisitions and executive recruitment. Volatility makes it difficult for firms to raise money on corporate bond markets and increases the risk of insolvency.

Comparisons across sanctions episodes within and between firms over time show that returns for firms with commercial interests in targeted states are more volatile than returns for comparable firms that do not have commercial interests in targeted states. This suggests a need to revise strategic theories that treat sanctions threats as costless and highlights avenues for future research. Full article >>


IMF Lending and FDI Outflows: A Sectoral Perspective | March/April 2019

Michael Breen & Patrick J. W. Egan, The Catalytic Effect of IMF Lending: Evidence from Sectoral FDI Data, International Interactions, 45:3 (2019). Read now >>

Country partnership with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is ideally rare and short in duration. States turn to the IMF in times of economic crisis, which usually involve some combination of increasing national debt, balance of payments problems, and dwindling foreign reserves. The conditional loans provided by the IMF serve as a temporary solution to balance of payments issues, providing a capital influx in exchange for various policy shifts designed to bring about macroeconomic stabilization. The IMF has always viewed its loans as a stopgap measure; normally only a portion of the capital flows necessary to correct a deficit are lent to countries in crisis. The rest is expected to come from private capital markets. Indeed, the entire rationale for IMF lending rests on a conundrum: private capital is unwilling to finance a current account deficit, yet the IMF’s involvement is supposed to be a signal for private capital flows to resume. This ‘catalytic’ mission of the IMF is expressly stated as one of its three main goals, alongside adjustment to shocks and avoiding future crises.

IMF programs are supposed to function as seals of approval for various forms of investment to resume, but there is precious little evidence to support the catalytic ideal. What explains this gap between expectations and reality? This paper proposes that the potential for IMF catalysis depends in part on the characteristics of incoming investment in crisis-hit countries. We argue that the IMF is indeed sending multiple and potentially contradictory signals to private capital with the announcement of a rescue package. We consider the varieties of audiences receiving IMF signals. That is, the sectoral distributions of direct investment in countries before and after IMF agreements. We argue that IMF programs can have varied effects on different forms of investment, depending on the attitudes toward risk and other intrinsic characteristics of firms, which vary systematically across sectors. While the overall evidence linking IMF partnership with a resumption of capital flows in crisis-hit countries is underwhelming, there are important variations in the catalytic effect by industry. Certain sectors are likely less receptive to the catalytic signal of IMF programs (if it exists) than others.

Like previous studies, we find a reliable anti-catalytic effect of IMF programs on the overall stock of inward FDI. However, our central empirical finding is that this exodus is primarily driven by a select few sectors, including the financial industry and construction. We argue that the anti-catalytic effect of IMF lending depends crucially on two sector characteristics: dependence on external finance and fixed assets, which become sunk costs in host countries. We argue that when sectors couple high dependence on external finance with low sunk costs, firms are more likely to use an IMF agreement and attendant funds as an opportunity to deleverage or reduce risk exposure in crisis-hit countries. This results from moral hazard, but not for future investments. Rather, IMF liquidity provision encourages firms that have already taken on risk to exit. In contrast, we find no evidence of an anti-catalytic effect in sectors with high sunk costs. We argue that these sectors are less vulnerable to moral hazard, and instead interpret an IMF agreement as a signal that their assets are less likely to be expropriated. However, our results do not demonstrate a catalytic effect in these sectors, only an absence of exodus. Therefore, our results suggest that an IMF agreement is on balance unlikely to generate substantial broad-based inflows of any long-term capital. Instead, FDI flight may be severe depending on the type of investments prominent in the country at the time of crisis.

IMF programs are associated with a substantively large and negative effect on investment in financial and construction-related FDI, two sectors that exhibit a high degree of external capital dependence and low sunk costs. The prospect of austerity measures, limited growth, and structural adjustment likely combine with these sectors’ relatively leveraged positions at the time of crisis to prompt exit. The funds provided by the IMF also likely allow these firms to recoup some losses before leaving. IMF support may allow risk-imbued actors to survive and either exit or prevent new entrants from entering the market. In either case, the IMF program does not prompt a new wave of investment but instead signals the fulfillment of moral hazard dynamics for firms already in country. In contrast, FDI in high sunk cost, low external dependence sectors do not experience similar exodus after IMF programs. Where investors are tied and perhaps risk-averse, the information provided by partnership with the IMF may serve as a critical signal regarding the returns on future investment, diminished likelihood of expropriation, and/or the possibility of future bailouts.

One implication of our findings is that the failure of IMF programs to generate sustained inflows of international capital may have less to do with the IMF itself and more to do with the changing nature of international investment. Since the 1990s, FDI has diversified greatly in developing countries. Natural resource FDI has declined as a proportion of overall FDI flows in these countries, and service sector investments have increased substantially. As investment patterns change, large outflows of investments after crises and IMF interventions perhaps become more understandable.

Our findings also have implications for host country governments and international organizations. Greater attention should be paid to the specific types of investments entering developing countries before and after economic crises. If mobile firms with high external dependence do indeed anticipate crises and subsequent bailouts, it would suggest that these types of investments do not represent sustainable vehicles for industrial upgrading in fragile economies. High acceptance of risk and financial hedging against crises may produce outflows of investment. At minimum, analysts and policymakers alike should consider the types of investment common in crisis-hit countries and how these investors are likely to respond to an IMF agreement. Full article >>