Andrew P. Cortell, Susan Peterson, eds. Altered States: International Relations, Domestic Politics, and Institutional Change. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002. viii + 241 pp. $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0379-1.
Reviewed by Shogo Suzuki (Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2003)
Learning about Change and Continuity
Learning about Change and Continuity
This book is a collection of essays by scholars united in their interest in explaining domestic institutional change. Domestic institutions are defined in this book as "a wide range of formal and informal rules, norms, conventions, and standard operating procedures that frame interactions among political actors" (p. 3). The authors focus on two forms of domestic political institutions which they see as playing a crucial role in affecting the degree to which institutional change takes place: first, the "institutions affecting the organization of decision-making authority within the state" which "determine the number and relative strength of different arms of the government that can exercise jurisdiction over any given issue." Second, "'policy networks,' those institutions delineating the relationship between state officials and societal actors in the policy process" which "determine the nature of coalition building-processes within states by granting or denying societal representatives access to and participation in policy formulation" (p. 3).
The authors generally adopt a "historical institutionalist" approach to examine the sources and consequences of institutional change. The historical institutionalist approach has conventionally argued that institutional change tends to take place very rarely and only when dramatic changes in the domestic and international environment bring existing domestic institutional structures into question. The authors of this book maintain, however, that a change in focus is needed: institutional change does take place, albeit usually in small steps. Moreover, such small-scale change can often result in larger, unintended institutional changes. They are also dissatisfied with both functionalist/rational choice and sociological institutionalist models of institutional change. The former, Cortell and Peterson argue, views institutions and institutional change as resulting from a demand to solve collective action problems with maximum efficiency. It cannot explain, however, why actors (who are assumed to be rational and aiming to maximize their utility) sometimes choose less efficient institutional structures. It fails to explore "why the specific institutions are supplied, because it neglects the process by which goal-seeking agents identify and achieve their preferences" (p. 6). Sociological institutionalist models, on the other hand, view institutional structures as "the most appropriate or legitimate in light of prevailing national customs, conventions, or norms." The weakness of this approach is that this socially constructed institution tends to get viewed as a monolithic structure which constrains actors, allowing for very little agency (p. 6).
The framework of analysis is straightforward enough. It is argued that institutional change takes place through three stages: first, there is a need for "triggers" to exist. Triggers can be international or domestic events which have the potential to question the validity of the existing institutional structures. This, in turn, opens a "window of opportunity." Second, such windows of opportunity must be seized by actors who advocate change with their own particular set of policy preferences. Lastly, the extent of institutional change is dependent on "institutional capacity," the existing institutional structures which can shape and determine the degree to which change can take place. If there is a high degree of institutional capacity for change, (for instance, a highly centralized political system with a reformist leader) the agents of change have a greater chance of utilizing the window of opportunity and advocating institutional change.
The chapters examine a wide range of case studies (the European Union, Cuba, the United States, Britain, the former Soviet Union and its republics, Russia, and East Europe). There is a slight difference in the emphasis of the chapters. Chapters 2 and 3 are interested in the relationship between the windows of opportunity and the overall state structure which determined whether or not this opportunity can be utilized to facilitate institutional change, while chapters 4 to 6 examine institutional change within specific policy areas. Finally, chapters 7 and 8 explore this within specific organizational contexts.
Despite the breadth of these case studies, the three-stage framework of analysis is utilized throughout the book, giving consistency. It was also helpful in assisting this reader to appreciate its utility. Yet some of the chapters' explanatory powers are somewhat patchy, even given the holistic approach that the editors seem to advocate. Despite the editors' acknowledgement of the weaknesses of rational choice models, several chapters (particularly 2 and 4) remain heavily influenced by rational choice models of explanation, and as a consequence give somewhat lopsided explanations, leaving their analyses open to constructivist criticisms. A more detailed examination of the role normative influences play in opening windows of opportunity and shaping the interests of agents for change would have substantially strengthened the explanatory power of some of these chapters.
For instance, Susan Peterson and Christopher Wenk's chapter "Altering the U.S. State" explains that episodic events (the Vietnam War, Watergate, and domestic economic factors) helped "restrain presidential power and transform the organization of decision-making authority in the foreign policy arena" (p. 89). Although this is highly plausible, the agents of change appear to be portrayed as utility-maximizing actors, while the role of the ideational remains inadequately explained, or is fleeting and ill defined. For instance, Congress's attempts to rein in spending on the Vietnam war is seen as a result of "partisan and electoral incentives to restrain a Republican president who was cutting domestic programs championed by Democrats" (p. 92). This may no doubt be true, nonetheless Peterson and Wenk's arguments could have been strengthened by paying more attention to the normative triggers that formed the interests of the agents of change. For example, what caused the loss of support for the Cold War consensus among the agents of change? Also, what role did the growing anti-war sentiments in the United States play? To give another example, Lisa Conant's chapter on the impact of the European Judicial Review locates the capacity for institutional change in each EU member state's political structures, which, in turn, are determined by each state's "political culture." Germany is said to possess "a political culture that accepts judicial censure and authority, and a well-established tradition of public law that stresses individual protection from arbitrary administration" (p. 34). This ideational explanation is weak, however, in that it ascribes a somewhat ahistorical quality to political cultures. It would be hard to argue that this political culture in Germany saved the Jews from persecution under Nazi rule.
These minor quibbles aside, there is much to like in this book. The prose is clear and accessible (apart from a grammatically incorrect sentence on page 100), and the research that has gone into each case study is impressive; for example, several chapters make use of primary sources in non-English languages, a skill that is much needed particularly in the discipline of international relations. The individual chapters themselves are best described as hypotheses-generating. It seems their aim is to highlight weaknesses in the existing literature on institutional change through their case studies to generate further research on providing better keys to understanding institutional change, and in this endeavor they are largely successful. The book would be of use to graduate students and scholars of both comparative politics and international relations. It should be of interest to those who wish to deepen their knowledge of institutional change (like this reader, who specialises in the international relations of East Asia). But more importantly, it would be of particular use to those who are interested in institutional change. It will open many avenues to conduct new research into a field of international relations and comparative politics, and further sharpen our understanding of the politics of this world in which institutions clearly "matter."
. Jeffrey T. Checkel, for instance, critiques the "bottom-up" approach in previous works examining the dissemination of norms provided by prominent scholars such as Audie Klotz, Norms in International Relations: The Struggle against Apartheid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); and Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). See Checkel's "Institutional Dynamics in Collapsing Empires", p. 158.
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Shogo Suzuki. Review of Cortell, Andrew P.; Peterson, Susan, eds., Altered States: International Relations, Domestic Politics, and Institutional Change.
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