International regime complexity and regional governance: evidence from the Americas.

Author:Gomez-Mera, Laura

In recent years, the Americas have witnessed an unprecedented surge in the number and scope of regional integration agreements, resulting in a complex "spaghetti bowl" of trade and economic relations. What are the consequences of this proliferation of overlapping and parallel institutional commitments among countries in the region? How has this increasing regime complexity affected the dynamics of cooperation among Latin American countries? And what does the case of overlapping regional agreements in the Americas tell us about the effects of regime complexity on regional governance? Drawing on the literature on international regime complexity, I identify three mechanisms through which the proliferation of regional agreements have undermined the effectiveness of cooperation in the Americas: by introducing legal fragmentation and rule ambiguity; by facilitating cross-institutional political strategies that allow countries to behave in opportunistic ways; and through competition and other feedback effects that work to erode regional unity. The article has implications for two broader literatures in international relations: work on international regime complexity and scholarship on regionalism and regional trade agreements. Keywords: regionalism, regime complexity, global governance, institutions.


AN UNPRECEDENTED EXPANSION IN COOPERATIVE AGREEMENTS GOVERNING a wide range of issue areas in international relations--including trade, money and finance, environment, energy, and security--has taken place in recent times. The proliferation of overlapping agreements and organizations, and the resulting density in international regimes, has generated significant interest among scholars of international relations (IR) and international law (IL). This literature has paid increasing attention to the consequences of growing regime complexity on the politics and the effectiveness of global governance. How does the overlap and interaction among various institutions in a single-issue area affect international politics? To what extent and in what ways does international regime complexity influence the strategies and choices of states and nonstate actors? And does regime complexity facilitate or impair the goals of international cooperation?

In this article, I address these theoretical questions by focusing on the case of trade and economic cooperation agreements in the Americas. Since the 1990s, Latin American and Caribbean countries have pursued a multi-tier strategy of trade liberalization, which has resulted in a "spaghetti bowl" of multilateral, regional, and bilateral commercial agreements. More recently, governments in the region have embarked in broader political and economic initiatives that go beyond commercial integration to include cooperation in money, finance, energy, and infrastructure. As a result, a complex network of nested, overlapping, and parallel regimes characterizes the Western Hemisphere. How has the recent proliferation and increasing diversity of regional arrangements affected the dynamics of cooperation among Latin American countries? More importantly, has the increasing density of economic regimes in the region worked to strengthen or to undermine the effectiveness of collaboration efforts? And what does the case of overlapping regional agreements in the Americas tell us about the effects of regime complexity on regional governance?

In answering these questions, I draw on the burgeoning literature on international regime complexity in IR and IL. This work sheds light on a number of mechanisms through which institutional proliferation and interinstitutional interactions influence the dynamics and sustainability of interstate cooperation. On the one hand, international regime complexity may have positive feedback effects that enhance cooperation and the effectiveness of existing institutions. On the other, institutional overlap could encourage self-interested behavior and competition among actors and regimes, ultimately undermining the success of cooperative initiatives. (1) Building on these insights, I discuss empirical evidence suggesting the presence and relevance of some of these mechanisms in the Americas. I focus on three pathways through which the proliferation of regional trade and economic agreements has undermined the success of cooperation among Latin American countries. First, by introducing legal fragmentation and rule ambiguity, regime complexity has exacerbated implementation and compliance problems in Latin American regional cooperation initiatives. Second, while broadening the strategic options available to states in the region, the proliferation of agreements has facilitated self-seeking cross-institutional strategies, which are typically more effectively exploited by powerful states. Finally, competitive dynamics among states and regimes with divergent visions and objectives undermines regional cohesion and solidarity.

Regime complexity therefore widens the scope for states to behave in opportunistic ways, exacerbating a problem that for decades has hindered regional cooperation efforts in Latin America. To a great extent, in fact, the proliferation of overlapping agreements has in itself been a consequence of the lack of commitment and growing divergences in interests and ideologies among countries in the region. The argument here is that the proliferation of overlapping agreements reinforces these dynamics, leading to further fragmentation. In this sense, growing regime complexity in the Americas can be seen as another factor contributing to the erosion of the overall usefulness of regional cooperation initiatives--what some have referred to as the "demise" or the "peaking" of regionalism. (2)

The article is structured as follows. First, I introduce the theoretical framework guiding the empirical analysis in the article. Next, I describe the evolution of regional economic cooperation attempts in the Americas since the early 1990s. I show that the current landscape of regional economic cooperation in the Western Hemisphere is characterized by increasing complexity and overlap of different types of trade and economic agreements. Then, I discuss the consequences of the overlap of competing and complementary trade and economic commitments in the Americas. A brief conclusion follows.

Theoretical Framework: Institutional Interactions and Regime Complexity

In the past two decades, IR scholars began paying attention to the growing density and overlap among institutional arrangements in the international system. This literature sought to move beyond earlier work that treated international regimes as "self-contained or standalone arrangements," stressing the important linkages among issue-specific institutional arrangements in the international system. (3) Importantly, scholars started to acknowledge that the effectiveness of international institutions is crucially conditioned by the ways in which they interact with other institutions and arrangements. (4)

The earlier work on institutional interaction provided alternative ways of classifying the different types of institutional linkages. Vinod Aggarwal's work, for example, sheds important light on the dynamics of international regime complexity by pointing to the different ways in which new institutions can be reconciled with existing ones. (5) He distinguishes between nested and horizontal or parallel arrangements. Whereas "nesting" involves some type of hierarchical ordering, "horizontal" regimes deal with related activities but do not follow a hierarchical ordering. (6) Oran Young, in turn, differentiates among four types of institutional linkages: embedded, nested, clustered, and overlapping institutions. Most issue-specific institutional arrangements tend to be "embedded" within broader, more encompassing sets of principles and norms that also influence their more specific rules and decisionmaking procedures. (7) Some regimes, by contrast, tend to be "nested" within broader institutional frameworks that deal with the same issue-area or geographical domain but in more general, less detailed terms. A different type of linkage results from the "clustering" or grouping of several different arrangements into institutional packages, with no specific functional or thematic logic. Finally, "overlapping" regimes are those in which there is an intersection between the functional scope of separate institutional arrangements. (8)

Building on this work, others have examined the consequences of institutional interactions, looking specifically at whether these result in conflict or synergistic dynamics. Contrary to initial expectations that the proliferation of institutions would result in conflict among them, empirical research has shown that interactions could result in mutually beneficial adjustments and synergies. (9) Scholars also began to look more closely at the causal mechanisms and specific pathways through which institutions influence one another. Kal Raustiala and David Victor make an important contribution in this regard. (10) First, they introduce the concept of "regime complex," which they define as "an array of partially overlapping and nonhierarchical institutions governing a particular issue-area." A central characteristic of this "conglomerate type of regime" is the fact that, while there is overlap among the principles and rules of different institutional arrangements, there is no hierarchy for resolving the inconsistencies and conflicts that may emerge between them. Second, they explore the consequences of this lack of a clear hierarchical order, arguing that it allows states and nonstate actors to engage in negotiations across different venues, selecting the one where their interests would be best served. Focusing on the control of plant genetic resources, they also demonstrate that regime complexity tends to result in path dependence and legal inconsistencies. (11)

In an effort to strengthen the...

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