Interview: Kenneth Abbott on Researching IR and Living in Berlin

In the second episode of our new interview series, host Lynda Iroulo is interviewing Kenneth W. Abbott, visiting researcher at the WZB and Professor of Law at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Topics include the research projects he is involved with at the WZB, his interests and experiences in researching IR, and living and working in Berlin. 

Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Iroulo: What will you be working on during your time at the WZB? 

Abbott: Well, I already have three or four ongoing projects of my own, but I would also really like to spend more time with the researchers at the WZB and work on the projects taking place here. So far, I have been involved with a couple of the ongoing projects in the Global Governance unit. One project I have engaged with is the ‘norm interface research project’, which overlaps some of my work. In relation to that, one of the issues we are concerned with is the different ways in which governors – that is, whoever is doing governance, internationally or domestically – govern indirectly.

It is usually the case that the governor lacks certain abilities, resources, contacts, or even authority or jurisdiction to do the things that it wants to achieve. Sometimes it thus has to bring in other actors to work on its behalf and carry out certain tasks. This is known as ‘indirect governance’, and there are many different ways in which it can be arranged. People often know most about so called ‘principal-agent relationships’, also referred to as ‘delegation relationships’, which we have done a lot of work on. There are, however, other arrangements, too, and within this project, we are trying to develop a typology for them.

I am also working with a project on experimentalist governance. Experimental governance refers to a form of governance where the governor experiments with different ways of governing in order to develop the best approach. There are many actors conducting social and development policy experiments. These could be actual local governments, but they could also be member states of the European Union, NGOs, companies, or other actors. The idea is that the central actor sets a goal and then leaves it up to the other actors in the system to come up with experimental solutions. After the experimental measures have been adopted, different actors would come together to discuss the results and what they have learned, and try to make a decision about the best type of governance. In general, we are quite optimistic about this approach, but recognize that further work could be done. While the current literature tends to characterize this form of governance as being loose and decentralized, we hope to refine it into a more proper form of governance.

Iroulo: I was looking into the pivotal paper you wrote with Duncan Snidal on hard and soft law in international governance, and saw that it was cited more than 2,000 times. I would like to ask if there are any changes that you would make to the argument in this paper.

Abbott: Not really. Basically, I think that the argument holds up pretty well. There is a rather rationalist approach in that paper, and I think that, in that sense, I would probably add more about social norms and common understandings. These things, however, would be complementary, and come in addition to the original argument. Overall, I think that the analysis is pretty good and is holding quite well.

Iroulo: Talking about approaches, which debates have most influenced your thinking in the field?

Abbott: Well, you know, I started my academic career in IR as an international lawyer during the time that IR people call the ‘war of the ‘isms’’, – namely realism, constructivism, liberalism, etc. These debates were very influential on me. I was also very much impacted, however, by debates surrounding the role of private actors in IR. Starting about eight or nine years ago, I began thinking more about private authority and private governance. Anne Marie Slaughter started what she calls the ‘liberal theory of international relations’ or an ‘international theory of governance’, which emphasizes the role of private actors. At first, I resisted this approach because it seemed to sideline the role of States and international organizations. Over time, however, I started to work this into my own research and began to focus more on private actors.

Iroulo: And what is your favorite book in the field?

Abbott:  I don’t know what my favorite book in the field is, but I can tell you what the most influential book was for me: It was a book called ‘The Emergence of Norms’, written by the Israeli scholar Edna Ullmann-Margalit. I was doing international law at that time, and it was the moment when the field known as law and economics was sweeping the legal academy. There was a lot of ongoing debate surrounding the prospects of applying economic reasoning to law. This debate seemed to be influencing every field of law – contracts, taxation, competition law, etc. – except in international law. In fact, in international law, this type of debate did not come for another 20 years. I was getting very frustrated with international law because it didn’t seem to be moving in this direction of more theoretical research, as all these other fields were. One day I was looking in the library – I honestly don’t remember what I was looking for – but I saw this title and I pulled the book off the shelf to look at it. It really wasn’t anything like what I was looking for, but it was so interesting that I just sat down right there and started to read it. The author had found all these social situations where norms could help people solve collective action problems, and used a game theory framework for analyzing different social situations. I was really so intrigued by it that after that moment I became an IR person.

Iroulo: To round off our interview, I’d like to ask you one more question: how do you like Berlin?

Abbott: I absolutely love Berlin. It turns out that Berlin was the first place I spent any serious length of time. I was here for the summer of 1964 working as a construction worker on a road building project. At the time, I desperately wanted to come to Europe and I needed a job to pay for this. So I found this job and I lived with all these ‘Gastarbeiter’ in a dormitory building near Nollendorfplatz. We went out every day and worked on building these roads. I didn’t come back to Berlin until about 30 years later. It has really changed an awful lot from what it was. I mean, back then I was not able to go into the east, and at times it was even quite scary. But overall, it was a great experience.


This interview was conducted by Lynda Iroulo and CĂ©dric Koch, Scholarship Holders of the Global Governance Research Unit and Members of the Orders Beyond Borders-Team.

If you want to listen to the full interview, please click here.

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