Summary and Keywords
In a comparison of today’s global political economy with that of the last great era of globalization, the late nineteenth century, the most prominent distinction is be the high degree of institutionalization in today’s system. While the nineteenth-century system did have some important international institutions—in particular the gold standard and an emerging network of trade agreements—it had nothing like the scope and depth of today’s powerful international economic institutions. We cannot understand the functioning of today’s global political economy without understanding the sources and consequences of these institutions. Why were international organizations (IOs) such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or International Monetary Fund (IMF) created? How have they gained so much influence? What difference do they make for the functioning of the global economy and the well-being of individuals around the world?
In large part, understanding IOs requires a focus on the tension between the use of power, and rules that are intended to constrain the use of power. IOs are rules-based creatures. They create and embody rules for gaining membership, for how members should behave, for monitoring, for punishment if members renege on their commitments, etc. However, these rules-based bodies exist in the anarchical international system, in which there is no authority above states, and states continue to exercise power when it is in their self-interest to do so. While states create and join IOs in order to make behavior more rule-bound and predictable, the rules themselves reflect the global distribution of power at the time of their creation; and they only constrain to the extent that states find that the benefits of constraint exceed the costs of the loss of autonomy.
The tension between rules and power shapes the ways in which international institutions function, and therefore the impact that they have on the global economy. For all their faults, international economic institutions have proven themselves to be an indispensable part of the modern global political economy, and their study represents an especially vibrant research agenda.
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