International Regimes | Better Understand People Across the Globe


What is the concept of international regimes? Let’s dive right in!

With the rise of technology and the movement toward globally connected societies, there has been a need for some kind of international organization between countries on infrastructure and resource distribution.  This is where the concept of international regimes finds itself.  The study of international regimes is the study of how and why different countries can work together and form organizations or agreements that help distribute resources and create infrastructure within international society.  International regimes are not governments in the traditional sense, yet they have the power to make decisions and impact the people that play a role in their creation.  Through these organizations, researchers and theorists can study the impacts of cooperation and help encourage further communication and international relations.  This article will explore the concept of international regimes, including the importance of the study, a working definition of an international regime, and explain why this study is not an international relations theory, but a concept to better understand them.  The goal of this article is to spread awareness of the concept and help others understand how nations relate to each other.

The concept of international regimes was created as a way for the interaction and organization between different counties to be studied.  This study was identified as a necessity because there was an emergence of organizations and treaties that rallied around specific needs between counties and it transcended the typical governmental systems that were in place.  By studying these organizations and concepts, researchers can understand how and when countries will cooperate, which is a large part of the study of international politics.  By identifying and understanding the conditions under which this cooperation is formed and how countries can work together, those who study international regimes can help replicate and understand these conditions when trying to create further agreements.

The study of regimes rose to popularity in the 1970s and 80s.  It began as a way to discuss the flaws in the regimes and how they benefited some players over others; however, it has morphed into a further study of the way that these regimes are formed, how they govern their field, and how they may shift throughout their life cycle.  This shift in the study has indicated the importance of understanding international collaboration and how finding ways to communicate and work together across international political and physical boundaries can influence the ways that we bargain, both internationally and on our own time.

What is an International Regime?

Steven D. Krasner defined international regimes as a “set of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge.”  This means that international regimes are ways in which countries can establish and uphold the rules and decisions surrounding a common interest between the countries.  Regimes are formed because there is a need for a centralized set of norms between countries to govern a common interest.  Without international regime formation, the norms would be decided by each country and the competition could create chaos.  For example, if two counties have access to a mine for a precious resource on their border, a regime can be established that governs the way the countries mine, how much is mined, and who holds the responsibility for keeping these norms.  This can be done through either formal organizations or without formal organizations.

  • Organizations: Many international regimes will be governed by a formal international organization that includes members from the member states and has the authority to make decisions about the issues that the international organization was founded on.  An example of this would be the International Atomic Energy Agency, which governs the use and production of nuclear energy and discourages the use of nuclear energy for harm.
  • Agreements, Conventions, and Treaties: Another type of regime is the less formal regime which is governed by a convention, treaty, or agreement between the parties.  Under this type of regime, the norms laid out in the creating document will govern the decisions and behavior of the members as it relates to the resource or other issues that they have agreed on.  An example of this would be the Biological Weapons Convention, which is a disarmament treaty that bans and restricts the use of biological warfare between nations.
  • Understandings: The least formal type of international regime is the unwritten understanding between two or more nations that govern a shared interest.  The parties may have discussed the rules between themselves, or they may just have an implicit understanding of how international relations will work.  These are not as easily identifiable because they are not codified in a treaty or an organization’s authority, but they are often spotted when conflict arises after the breach of a norm.

The exact definition of an international regime is up for debate, and some scholars would exclude or limit the number of organizations included within this concept.  It is important not to conflate the two, because not all international organizations are international regimes.  The focus of international regimes is the establishment of norms and procedures around international affairs and common interests, and not all organizations are set up to monitor a specific interest.

Regime Theory vs Theory of International Regimes:

A common issue with international regimes is that people conflate the concept of international regimes with a theory for international relations.  When people begin to view the idea of international regimes as a theory for how the world should be governed, they are missing the point of the concept and how the tool can be used to understand human and international relationships.   Focusing on creating regimes to control all or most aspects of the governing systems in the world undermines the very core of what drives nations to contribute to and participate in international regimes—the benefit to themselves that they gain from the agreement.  To push people toward agreement means that it robs them of their ability to enter into a relationship willingly and for their own benefit.  This is not what the concept of international regimes was created to do.

As a concept, international regimes and their study add a host of benefits to the theory of international relations.  Studying regimes allows scholars to identify the conditions that may exist for the parties to agree, find out how nations can cooperate to form these regimes, and develop theories for management and consequence within other forms of relationships.  The concept allows researchers to ask questions and identify the complexities and nuances that these unique international organizations hold.  When we can study regimes, we can further understand negotiation and agreement.  Regimes, by encouraging the nations to agree on their self-interests, allow nations to maintain their sovereignty within the system, something that creates a theory around international regimes that would end up removed.


The concept of international regimes is incredibly important to the understanding of the international relationships that exist within the world.  Most countries are a part of an international regime in one way or another, and the presence of regimes allows us to witness international cooperation and creativity.  Regimes may come in various types and may look different depending on the goal of the regime; however, the overarching thread is the presence of a set of norms and rules that govern the players in the agreement.  Importantly, the concept of the international regime was not created to force nations and countries into a regime, but it was created to study the complexity of the ways that nations around the country can come together around a common interest, and it is an invaluable tool for understanding international relations.

Emily Holland
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