May 11, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 16

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    Gruber questions transfer of power in ‘Ruling the World . . .’

    In a new book, Lloyd Gruber[], Assistant Professor in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, takes issue with the accepted wisdom that international cooperation, as typified by the recent frenzy of interstate deal making, treaty signing and institution building, is necessarily beneficial for all countries involved.

    In Ruling the World: Power Politics and the Rise of Supranational Institutions (Princeton University Press, 2000), Gruber questions why we recently have witnessed such an extraordinary transfer of power from individual nation-states to new, higher-level regional and multilateral institutions.

    “International organizations are taking on a life of their own,” Gruber noted, “and it may not turn out to be such a good thing.” He said it is important to question whether or not these newly empowered regimes benefit all of their member states. “The little guys are joining forces with the big guys, even scrambling to get on board,” Gruber said, “but that does not necessarily mean they see these institutions as being in their best interest.”

    Though many countries appear to be happy about their admissions into such bodies as the World Trade Organization and the European Monetary Union, Gruber argues in his book that the matter is more complicated. While some signatories do in fact benefit from these arrangements, other signatories may join them simply because they do not wish to be left behind while their neighbors “go it alone.” Some states may be participating, then, despite their strong preferences for the non-cooperative status quo.

    Gruber cited the example of the WTO, where Americans and Europeans are the go-it-alone powers, and China, at least potentially, is a “loser.” “It doesn’t matter much what China wants,” Gruber said. “If China refuses to join, the United States and Europe aren’t going to disband the WTO. For China, the WTO is a fait accompli, and the only choice is whether to take a seat on the bandwagon or get rolled over by it.”

    []Gruber’s book also explores the historical origins of the European Monetary System during the 1980s and early 1990s. France and Germany would have formed an exchange-rate regime between themselves whether or not less powerful, “loser” states like Britain and Italy signed on, said Gruber.

    “Britain and Italy decided to join only after it became clear that they had no real alternative. It was not in Britain’s self-interest to relinquish control of the pound, and Margaret Thatcher acceded to the EMS only after many years of trying to prevent it,” he added.

    Likewise, according to Gruber, the North American Free Trade Agreement demonstrates a case in which a signatory, Mexico, was presented with a fait accompli by the United States and Canada. “Mexico was not ‘coerced’ into joining,” Gruber said, “but its free trade overture was mostly a defensive maneuver.

    “It is generally held that NAFTA was good for Mexico, but this ignores the many political voices in the country who were deeply opposed to the idea of continuing, let alone speeding up, Mexico’s liberalization process. Much the same could be said for other Latin-American countries, though here, too, I suspect the fear of exclusion will eventually become overwhelming, and they’ll fall into line as well.”

    Gruber’s emphasis on “absolute losers” is a marked departure from the conventional wisdom among students of international cooperation.

    “Political scientists divide up into camps. Realists think that states can’t trust each other enough to cooperate, at least not for any sustained period of time,” Gruber said. “Liberals, on the other hand, think cooperation is perfectly rational, since it helps states mitigate collective action problems and realize mutual gains.”

    Gruber’s response is “a pox on both their camps.” He said the realists are “too skeptical,” and the liberals’ explanation is based on “a flawed understanding of power.”

    What both of these schools are missing, according to Gruber, is the possibility that cooperation can occur, and indeed flourish, even when some states––the ones lacking go-it-alone power––would be better off without it.