NATO and How IOs Assist Democracies

Exploring the political economy of alliances naturally led me to dive deeper into the politics of military alliance treaties.  In particular, I wanted to better understand the most prominent alliance formed since 1945 (and the target for much of the political economy of alliances literature): the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Much like my research on the political economy of alliances, studying alliance politics is an excellent window through which to explore broader issues in international politics. One such topic the role of international organizations (IOs) in international politics. Indeed, this was exactly the point made by Olson and Zeckhauser (1966, 266) in their classic work on alliances: they explicitly state at the beginning of their piece that they are using NATO to explore concepts applicable to international organizations in general.  


Of particular note is my book Organizing Democracy, published by University of Chicago Press in the Chicago Series on International and Domestic Institutions. The book explores the well established relationship between fledgling democracies and international organizations. Using the Baltic states' accession to NATO as a motivating example (and as a core case), Johannes Urpelainen and I unpack the mechanisms that explain why states experiencing democratic transition also appear to seek international organization (IO) membership. Exploring this issue through the lens of NATO's post-Cold War expansion is especially salient since some scholars questioned the ability of NATO to adequately support new democracies or even the continued existence and utility of NATO following the Cold War. 


We claim that leaders of transitional democracies often seek the support of new IOs to provide the public goods and technical expertise needed to consolidate democratic institutions. Our argument is based on leaders in new democracies facing two conundrums.


First, though leaders of newly democratic states need to provide public goods in order to appease an expanded electorate, they lack the domestic institutions, bureaucracy, technical expertise, and resources necessary to provide those public goods. Stated simply, they need help organizing their democracy.  Leaders seek IO membership in order to acquire the "goodies" necessary to organize their democracy, namely the material resources and technical expertise offered by the IO.


Second, though leaders of new democracies desire membership in IOs in order to acquire “goodies”, the existing slate of available IOs might be of little help.  Membership into the most lucrative existing IOs, such as NATO, is initially closed. Additionally, many existing IOs might not be well suited to the particular governance problems facing a new democracy. Hence, membership in existing IOs may not be "feasible" or a good "fit."


How can leaders of new democracies address these two conundrums?  We argue that the leaders of new democracies can craft their own IOs to provide the services most suitable to their specific governance problems. Moreover, while established democracies may prevent the new democracies from joining a lucrative existing IO, established democracies find that supporting the new IO is an efficient means of supporting the new democracies.  With time, the new IOs can also serve as a stepping stone for the democratizing state to gain membership in lucrative existing IOs.


Our work doesn’t claim that IOs are a panacea: democratic backsliding can still take place. Additionally, there is a possibility that the newly created IOs could eventually become "zombies" that continue to exist on paper but no-longer serve a valuable function to the member states.  But during the critical early years of democratization, our work shows that news democracies improve their chances of long term survival if they pursue the strategy of IO creation.


Overall, this book renews interest in the efficiency gains argument for IO creation. Rather than exploring whether IOs "tie hands" of leaders to reforms, IOs are simply reflections of the balance of power, or are a glue for affecting peaceful relations among states, our research attempts to change the conversation by focusing on the (sometimes mundane) benefits leaders actually hope to acquire from IOs.


Some of the research used in this book first appeared in a series of papers, including in World Politics. When writing this book, I also found it useful to draw on some of my coauthored work in comparative political economy.  This work looked at the political survival of democratic leaders (see here), the role of oil in sustaining autocratic regimes (see here), and the steps autocratic rulers take to stay in office (see here). We discuss some of the policy implications of the book here.

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