The Role of State Leadership in the Incidence of International Governance

Date01 September 2015
Published date01 September 2015
The Role of State Leadership in the
Incidence of International Governance
Barbara Koremenos
University of Michigan
To understand leadership in international governance, I begin at the structural level with state actors. A simple frame-
work that relies on state interests and material power can shed light on why powerful states take on leadership roles
in some negotiations (e.g. arms control) but not in others (e.g. human rights). States attempting to cooperate to realize
joint interests or solve problems often face a set of common and persistent obstacles. These obstacles, which I call
cooperation problems, can make otherwise benef‌icial cooperation diff‌icult to achieve. I argue that the particular com-
bination of underlying cooperation problems present in an issue affects a powerful states desire to take on a leader-
ship position with respect to the incidence of international cooperation that is, agenda setting by putting forth the
f‌irst draft of an international agreement addressing the issue and remaining in control of subsequent drafts. Because,
from a policy point of view, the most interesting cases are those that involve distribution problems, I focus on the fol-
lowing two combinations of problems: distribution with coordination and distribution without coordination. I use the
examples of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Dis-
crimination and the Convention Against Torture to illustrate the theoretical discussion.
In this article, I explore the role of leadership in the inci-
dence of international governance structures. I focus on
individual international agreements as one important
form of international governance. Leadership is concep-
tualized as state leadership. As highlighted in the intro-
ductory article, the exercise of leadership pertains to the
ability of a state or group of states to bring together
actors characterized by different interests to achieve a
common goal. In particular, I focus on agenda setting as
leadership that is, which state or group of states take
on a leadership position in initiating cooperative endeav-
ors by putting forth the f‌irst drafts of an international
agreement and, for the most part, remaining in control
of subsequent drafts.
I assume that negotiations are about designing treaties
that help states realize their interests rather than about
persuading states to change or def‌ine their interests.
Therefore, depending on the underlying strategic struc-
ture, taking a leadership position in the initial negotia-
tions may be important to states. Specif‌ically, I argue
that powerful states often want institutionalization
through international agreements (international law) and
want to control its terms through agenda setting in the
presence of certain combinations of problems but not
Therefore, I consider state power in the material sense.
As I will elaborate, material power can be very useful
(but is not always necessary) in exerting leadership,
enabling an actor to supply positive and/or negative
incentives to other actors to encourage them to buy into
the leaders agenda. Put bluntly, not only is the goal
often achieved; the goal is one that is aligned particularly
closely with the state leader(s)preferences i.e. the
agreement text ref‌lects closely the interests of the pow-
erful. Even in this case, governance outcomes are still
altered by the exercise of leadership because, in its
absence, the international agreement would not be
My basic theoretical premise is that the cooperation
problem(s) underlying the cooperative endeavor (or put
differently, the underlying strategic structure that ref‌lects
the joint and conf‌licting interests of state parties) are key
to understanding the necessity of leadership in the initia-
tion of international governance. Cooperation problems
also affect the nature of that leadership; do powerful
states take control of the agenda or do they allow others
to take on that leadership role?
What do I mean by cooperation problems? States
attempting to cooperate to realize joint interests or
solve problems often face a set of common and persis-
tent obstacles regardless of the substantive issue over
which they are cooperating. These obstacles, which I
call cooperation problems, can make otherwise benef‌i-
cial cooperation diff‌icult to achieve. For example some
issues, such as trying to ban chemical weapons or try-
ing to promote the rights of women, pose huge infor-
mation obstacles: how can one state know what other
states are doing? Such uncertainty about behavior is
Global Policy Volume 6 . Issue 3 . September 2015 237
Special Section Article
Global Policy (2015) 6:3 doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12246 ©2015 University of Durham and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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