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Managing the Evolution of Multilateralism

Authors: George W. Downs, David M. Rocke, and Peter N. Barsoom
Spring 1998
International Organization


One of the most prominent characteristics of multilateral organizations is that they do not "sprint forth full blown"; they grow. Although this is well known, relatively few attempts have been made to explain it at a general level or to explore its implications. In this paper we show why states that desire to create a multilateral organization or agreement might be attracted to a strategy that involves admitting potential members sequentially based on their preferences. Such a "sequential construction" strategy can generate an unusual kind of structure-induced equilibrium that dramatically mitigates the breadth-depth trade-off and increases the level of cooperation a multilateral is able to attain. We evaluate these claims with data drawn from the history of the European Union and twenty environmental multilaterals.