Interview: Inken von Borzyskowski on suspension and withdrawal from international organizations

                                                                                                                                                                                  [Photo: WZB]

In this new episode of our interview series, our host Lynda Iroulo talks to Inken von Borzyskowski, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Florida State University.

Listen in, as Professor von Borzyskowski gives insight into her research on states leaving international organizations, political backsliding, and potential lessons to be drawn from Brexit and US policy under Trump.

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

Lynda: Today we have Inken with us. It is a pleasure talking to you today, Inken, you are an old face at the WZB.

Inken: (laughs) I am not sure that is a compliment.

Lynda: (laughs) It is a compliment! So tell us, when did you first get here and what are you working on at the moment?

Inken: A long time back I was at the WZB as a research assistant for a different group for three years. I came back two years ago and was working on a book manuscript, which is finally getting published next year – so that’s quite exciting. It’s on international organizations (IOs) and how democracy assistance from IOs can influence election violence. This summer I came back to join the Global Governance unit because it nicely aligns with my research interests on IOs. Now I am working on IO exit, that is, when states leave IOs.

Lynda: Okay, interesting. So you are working on IO exit and you talk a lot about suspension and withdrawal. Can you give us a crash course on what these terms mean?

Inken: Both of them refer to states leaving IOs, but they can leave IOs in different ways. Suspension is essentially when an IO ends membership of the government or the state in question, and the state does not necessarily agree to that. Oftentimes this is tied to certain changes in behavior or policies of the state, and once the state changes its policies and behavior there is a prospect of getting back into the IO. Withdrawal is a unilateral move by the state itself to leave an IO.

Lynda: We have studied why states join international organizations, but there is nothing out there on withdrawal and suspension. Why do you think it is important to have such research and debates at this time?

Inken: It’s not that there is nothing out there. There are definitely some case studies, particularly in the EU politics literature on disintegration or on when Mercosur suspended Venezuela, but many accounts don’t really look at broader patterns across space and time. I think this is really important because especially on the withdrawal side there have been some big cases recently. We see Brexit almost every day in the news media, similarly there is the new US administration’s withdrawal from UNESCO and talks about leaving NAFTA and NATO. Current observers have often tied this to nationalism and respect for sovereignty. I think nationalism can explain some of these recent cases, but the question is if this can also help us understand the older set of cases. In the dataset of my co-author, Felicity Vabulas at Pepperdine, there are actually more than 220 cases of withdrawal since 1945 – and this is where the limited explanatory power of some current explanations over time and space becomes visible.

Lynda: Why do you think states withdraw? What are your findings so far?

Inken: We are still in the process of pushing this research forward, but the common insight we have is that recent cases seem to be quite different from the cases in the past. For the period of 1945–2014 one thing that seems to emerge is that states withdraw when they don’t have as many common or shared interests anymore with the other states in the organization. We see this in a number of different ways. One way is that states are more likely to withdraw when states’ preferences start to diverge from other member states. For example, several states have withdrawn from the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, including Myanmar and Argentina. Another way in which this surfaces is that we tend to see more withdrawals from IOs that are not a focused group of highly advanced democracies. So when state preferences in terms of political regime types diverge and interests do not align, states are also more likely to withdraw from those types of organizations. And then maybe a last way in terms of common interests is what we term “contagion” – when an important lead state or founding member leaves the organization, there can be a kind of domino effect of other states leaving as well.

Lynda: Bringing it down to our reality – Brexit and Trump – how does this help us to understand what is going on and its effects?

Inken: That’s a good question. One thing I want to stress is that we really need to understand the conditions under which states withdraw in order to assess the effects. That said, I think some effects of withdrawal include implications for a state’s reputation and that of the IO. So, states might suffer some reputational consequences and potentially economic consequences when they withdraw. Investors may view a state’s withdrawal as a signal that the state might not honor its international commitments with other international agreements or other IOs, which casts doubt on the state’s reputation for international collaboration. Of course, when you look at the US administration under Trump or at Brexit, the question is also whether withdrawal potentially can help state leaders and play to their benefit. Again, here it is important to really look across time and cases and not just make this argument based on a few things that we currently see. Another consequence we have talked about is costs in terms of international cooperation. Presumably states join the organization in the first place to achieve some sort of coordination or collaboration goals, but given that they leave, they might be potentially worse off with respect to coordination or collaboration.

Lynda: We have spoken a lot about withdrawal. How far has your research gone in the case of suspension?

Inken: The main point we make is that suspension is rare compared to the frequency of political backsliding, which is essentially any regression in terms of political standards (coups, human rights violations, egregious elections, democratic reversals). Much research assumes that IOs are devices to make credible commitments and states join these IOs in order to tie their hands and commit to domestic political reforms. There are costs to entering the organization, and, potentially, if states then backtrack on their commitments, there will be costs for this as well – which may be punishment in the form of suspension.

Lynda: And according to your research, who is suspended?

Inken: The puzzle is that there are so many countries that politically backslide every year, but only few get suspended. Why is that the case? Essentially, we argue that there are two sets of factors that influence this. The first is country leverage. If you are a poorer, weaker country, you have a higher probability of being suspended than a powerful country. A powerful country can either leverage a powerful ally in the region, has strong economic weight, or has natural resources that other member states are interested in. The other factor that we find is institutional rules, in two ways. One is IO size, and one is voting rules. This is fairly intuitive. In any group, it is going to be much easier to make a decision if there is a majority vote than if there is a unanimous vote. Thus, in IOs that have lower voting thresholds, suspension is much more likely than with high voting thresholds. In terms of IO size, we find that moderate-sized organizations are most likely to suspend. We think this is because in really large organizations like UN agencies, it is difficult to mobilize everybody since there are a lot of different actors to talk to. In small organizations with just three or four member states, kicking out one of the members will essentially leave the IO with two member states, which will then be just a bilateral relationship but not an IO anymore.

Lynda: Thank you, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Inken: Thank you, Lynda.

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