Overview (CROP)

The research project “Are regional organizations contagious? – Diffusion and the institutional design of regional organizations” explains how institutional design decisions are made in regional organizations.

Two key observations provide the starting points of our research endeavour: The surprising institutional similarities among many regional organizations and their wave-like emergence.

Why do regional organizations reveal similarities when it comes to their institutional design? Why, for example, does the Common Market of East and Southern Africa (COMESA) or the Andean Community look like a copy of the European Union – i.e. why do they have similar institutions and pursues similar policies?

Or, why have ten regional organizations outside of Europe created a regional court based on the template of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and why have they partly implemented its rulings – even if there is little evidence of similar integration challenges being faced by them (Alter 2011)?

Conventional approaches to regional organizations provide three answers to this question: functional necessity, random co-evolution and more or less coercive external pressures.
The first approach – functional necessity – regards the set of relevant regional institutions as being determined functionally, i.e. by the type of cooperation problem that needs to be solved. For example, some regional organizations establish a regional court because the interdependence among member states is simply greater, thus requiring a stronger dispute settlement body.

The second approach - random co-evolution – views similar institutional designs as an outcome of a co-incidental development along similar pathways because of the marked similarities between the various members of regional organizations.

The third approach emphasizes external pressures, either in the form of powerful actors coercing members of regional organizations into adopting specific policies and institutions or of the pressures of globalization – which impose on regional organizations the need to adapt to system-wide challenges. This perspective is broadly compatible with realist and international political economy (IPE) approaches to regional organizations.

While these theoretical approaches provide important insights into both why states establish regional organizations and how these institutions subsequently develop, several facets of regional organizations pose a challenge to bottom-up approaches. Dominant in this regard is the already mentioned enigma of why similarities of regional institutional design exist between groups of states that vary radically in their preferences and interests. Why, then, would groups of states as different as African and European ones choose similar institutional designs, as we see in the cases of the European Union and the African Union? Why would we find EU Commission-type institutions in regions in which the necessary preconditions for integration are absent (Chen 1992), an observation strangely at odds with the assumption that states choose an optimal design? Why do we find regional parliaments where there is no functional need for them, i.e. within regional organizations to whom members have not delegated sovereignty or in regions where governments are autocratic?

This research project draws on insights from the growing number of studies that are exploring diffusion processes between states and, in part, regional organizations, in order to develop and test different sets of hypotheses about how to account for cross-regional similarities in formal organizational structures among regional organizations. The project will make the novel argument – as part of the literature on comparative regionalism – that diffusion matters for regional organization. It seeks to investigate empirically whether regional organizations and their member states are influenced by other such institutions and will explore how – i.e. through which causal mechanisms – diffusion might influence the design of regional organizations. To achieve these goals, the project develops two datasets, one surveying regional organizations and the second focusing on diffusion variables.