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3 Regional Institutions as Emergent Entities of the International System: Relational Organization and Emergent Properties
EMERGENCE AND COMPLEXITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
a regional institution as a whole and its organization, I then introduce a
distinction between purposive and organizational emergent properties and
corresponding powers. Moreover, I show that interactions as social practices are a core feature of the mechanisms of emergence.
Identifying Regional Institutions as Emergent Entities
In general, the term “institutions” is either broadly used for specific customs
or patterns of behavior that are relevant to a society or it is used to refer to
particular formal types of organization within the realms of government or
public services. Both of these notions ally with an emergentist view, according to which institutions can be understood as an instance of emergence
insofar as they arise, develop, and are effective through a pattern of selforganization within social systems. The international system is a stratified
and open system constituted of various emergent entities. As one instance of
the latter, I argue that regional institutions matter in their own right. Based
on a critical realist ontology, this means that institutions are understood as
socially real (see Fleetwood 2004); however, like ideally real entities such as
meaning or ideas, they are not real in the material sense (we cannot touch
or hold them). In addition, they are dependent on some form of (human)
activity occurring for them to be reproduced and transformed.
A regional institution obviously consists either directly or indirectly
of individuals, most often in the form of the representatives of different
member states or nations, and they are contingently transformed or reproduced in terms of the interactions between these individual actors. As an
emergent entity of the international system, a regional institution is, however, not reducible to any of its constituent parts or practices—rather it has
its own emergent properties and powers. This means that it can do things
or act in certain ways that the institution’s members themselves cannot.
For example, a regional institution can facilitate cooperation, foster economic integration, provide information, or reduce transaction costs in a
way that each individual member state cannot (to the same extent). These
features are thus the emergent properties of a regional institution that its
member states individually do not possess. Neither would these properties
exist at all if the member states were to be “removed”; they are dependent
upon, but irreducible to, the member states. They arise when all members of the regional institution interact or work together to achieve common goals or objectives. Such emergent properties are what make regional
institutions analytically useful entities in themselves (see O’Mahoney and
A regional institution and each of its individual member states have
their own emergent properties and powers, so that they are ontologically
distinct but not independent. Emergent properties can be conceived of as
the “essences” or causal powers of an entity that characterize it and make
it what it is and not something else (O’Mahoney and Vincent 2014, 8).
While some authors accordingly argue that properties and powers can be
treated as more or less identical (e.g. Elder-Vass 2010), others insist on
separating these terms (e.g. Archer 2003; Delbridge and Edwards 2013).
I argue here that although possessing a property usually amounts to possessing a certain causal power, it is still useful to make a distinction between
the two. Accordingly, it is because of its having the property that the entity
has a corresponding power. Regional institutions facilitate cooperation
and have the power to enact cooperative agreements. They foster integration and have the power to affect or change values. They provide information and have the power to enforce compliance. They reduce transaction
costs and have the power to institutionalize policies.
Powers may be possessed, exercised, or actualized (O’Mahoney and
Vincent 2014). In the case of a regional institution, this means that it may
possess a particular power merely due to its properties—such as its power
to adopt agreements or conventions. If this power is triggered, it may be
exercised, as is usually the case when the institution attempts to adopt an
agreement regarding a specific issue of concern. This power may or may
not then be actualized depending on countervailing forces, such as is the
case when some member states are not willing to adopt the proposed
agreement. For the potential exercise of a power, properties thus necessitate at least one causal mechanism that, in turn, depends on the interactions between the parts. The power to enact an agreement, for instance,
implies a certain mechanism being needed for this to occur. It suggests
not only a particular collective action problem that should be addressed
and the respective negotiations that are required, but also the existence of
both rules and the compliance with them.
Potential mechanisms at work, then, are, among others, problem solving, negotiation, rule creation, enforcement, and compliance. In social
systems such as regional institutions, mechanisms are mainly relational in
that they connect entities (the individual members) to one another—in
the process, constituting the whole (the institution) with the emergent
property (see Elder-Vass 2010, 66–67; O’Mahoney and Vincent 2014, 8).
Mechanisms often create tendencies when there are no other, or only weak,
countervailing mechanisms in place. Recurring negotiations concerning
EMERGENCE AND COMPLEXITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
problem solving create the tendency for regional institutions to enact corresponding agreements. Existing power relations can, in turn, potentially
act as a countervailing mechanism by preventing certain propositions.
As argued above, a regional institution as an emergent entity is constituted by a particular structure—which is itself determined by the relationships between its parts and by their organization. The relationships
between a regional institution and its members are internal and necessary,
albeit asymmetrical in that the particular member states of a regional institution can exist without the institution whereas the latter needs a number
of member states in order to exist. Members themselves can, however,
change without the institution ceasing to exist, such as in the case of membership expansion or the switching of member states’ representatives. As
complex systems, regional institutions are thus relatively stable so that “a
change to one of the parts will not result in the collapse of the system but
will change the behavior of the remaining components” (Root 2013, 20).
For example, while a regional institution such as the EAS will not break
down when one of its member states’ foreign minister resigns and another
person assumes his or her position, this personnel change might nevertheless influence the behavior or actions of other member states. The same
applies for the case of membership expansion (e.g. Russia and the USA
recently joining the EAS), which increases the interactions and communications between the members. Consequently, the system itself will be
subject to self-organization, so as to generate new forms of organization.
Relations between a regional institution and other intra- and interregional
or international institutions, as well as with other multilateral frameworks
or individual states, are in most cases rather external and contingent.
This structure needs to be distinguished from the institution itself (see
Fleetwood 2008). While structures are understood as “latticeworks” of
internal relations between the entities (e.g. member states), institutions are
meanwhile systems of rules and conventions. As a form of self-organization
of the involved states, a regional institution has emergent causal powers as
a result of how its members are organized into this particular form. States
agree to organize themselves according to a certain system of rules and
conventions that in turn governs their actions (e.g. in terms of modifying
states’ underlying intentions). Although such top-down causation does
not work directly between social entities, it is important insofar as it influences the interactions of their parts (Elder-Vass 2012b, 83). In contrast to
structures, as Fleetwood (2008, 250–254) argues, institutions thus contribute to processes of downward causation in that they can transform or
change the chosen intentions and actions of agents. Structures do not
possess these transformative powers, but rather only the ability to enable
or constrain actions.
This argument is similar to Lawson’s (2012) proposition to distinguish
between the emergent whole as a totality and the organizing relational
structure. As I have argued, the downward causation argument needs to
be applied more attentively with respect to the relational organization
of emergent entities. The downward causal effect that a regional institution has on its individual members is a consequence of the members
being organized into this particular institutional form. This means that
emergence describes a shift in organization, as the parts (states) of a system organize in such a way that they are integrated as a new system (the
regional institution) that itself shows a different form of organization.
Regional institutions should, therefore, be analyzed on their own terms,
and not by studying only their constituent member states. The rules and
conventions that organize institutions are commonly studied in terms of
institutional design, which I address in the following. In this connection,
the process of self-organization (as already argued in Sect. 3.1) has to be
understood in a differentiated way—one that accounts for the intentional
and purposeful nature of human action.
Reformulating Institutional Design
Regional institutions have been identified as emergent entities of the international system that represents an instance of collective action on the part
of the system’s actors. To define a regional institution as an emergent entity
in this way, we need to consider the mode of organization of the actors—
hence, how the institution itself is organized. In IR, the specific organization of an institution is commonly studied in terms of its institutional design
(e.g. Acharya and Johnston 2007; Koremenos et al. 2003). Design, along
these lines, is the product of a conscious and intended deliberative process
among the actors of the international system to achieve common purposes
and ensure cooperation regarding present challenges, and refers to the rules
and organizational features that constitute a particular institution.
While design shows the ways in which institutions are structured and
they work, a question that obviously comes up is how this rather intentional process of designing can be associated with emergence—something
that is characterized by unintentionality and unpredictability. According
to an emergentist reading, I understand design features as the properties
EMERGENCE AND COMPLEXITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
that the institution in question possesses in virtue of its relational organization. In the following, I briefly illustrate research on institutional design
so as to subsequently reformulate design as an emergent property of the
institution. This is done by drawing on insights from organization studies.
126.96.36.199 Institutional Design as a Variable
Despite all the attention that IR has paid to international organizations
(IOs) and institutions to date, Barnett and Finnemore criticize the fact
that “we know very little about the internal workings of IOs or about the
effects they have in the world” (1999, 726). This statement marks a shift
in the study of institutions to the question of how they actually function.
In this context, one new research focus has been on institutional design
(see Acharya and Johnston 2007; Koremenos et al. 2001). Acharya and
Johnston refer to design as the “formal and informal rules and organizational features that constitute the institution and that function as either
the constraint on actor choice or the bare bones of the social environment
within which agents interact, or both” (2007, 15–16).
Within the rationalist tradition, Koremenos et al. (2001, 770–773)
outlined the five major features of institutional design: membership, scope
of issues, centralization of tasks, rules for controlling the institution, and
flexibility of arrangements. One of the first questions regarding a particular
institution is, accordingly, who actually belongs to it. Membership might be
inclusive or exclusive, it might be regional or universal, and it might include
just states’ representatives or nongovernmental actors as well. Another relevant feature of an institution is the scope of issues that it covers. Does it focus
only on specific questions of trade or on a particular environmental issue, or
does it cover a broad range of diverse economic and political affairs?
In terms of institutional proceedings—such as meetings, summits, or
other negotiation forums—institutions further vary regarding the degree
of centralization of certain tasks. Negotiation procedures, decision-making
processes, and the enforcement of individual arrangements can be more
or less centralized, just as rules can be informal rather than formal (or
vice versa). The same applies for the control of institutional rules, which
can cover the voting procedures of key officials or how the institution is
financed. Do all members possess equal votes, or do a few hold veto power?
Next to these four features of how institutions are made up and how they
work, another crucial aspect that needs to be considered concerns how institutions deal with new circumstances. How flexibly can they react to unanticipated situations such as shocks or crises, or to the development of new
coalitions that are intent on changing certain rules or procedures? There
are two general kinds of flexibility: the more limited variety provides specific
clauses that regulate possible problems in order to react in an adaptive manner
to unanticipated circumstances while preserving central institutional rules; the
deeper version of flexibility, in contrast, allows for potential renegotiations, so
that arrangements can be transformed according to the particular case.
According to the rationalist perspective, institutions are the result of
rational and purposive interactions among self-interested states (and other
actors), undertaken so as to solve collective action problems (Koremenos
et al. 2001, 762). The designing of an institution is thus regarded as an
intentional process, initiated by actors who choose those design features
that seem likely to make the institution most efficient or useful. The design
choices are a function of distribution or enforcement problems, the number of actors involved, and different kinds of uncertainty. Thus, in contrast
to (IR) realist approaches, institutions are assumed to matter; unlike constructivist approaches, however, they are not regarded as exogenous actors.
Acharya and Johnston (2007, 13) specify some of the limitations to
the rational design approach as expounded by Koremenos et al. (2001).
They argue that, in treating design only as a dependent variable and thus
explaining what form a particular institution has by looking at different
independent variables, the focus is set on the impact of institutions rather
than on variations in the latter. Furthermore, it neglects both the impact
of norms and ideas as well as the study of institutions located in nonwestern regions. In combining the rational design features with sociological approaches to institutions, Acharya and Johnston (2007, 15) thus
treat design also as an independent variable—one that explains variations
in outcomes and the specific nature of cooperation. In addition, they also
consider ideational factors and focus on regional institutions.
What both approaches have in common is that institutional design reflects
the nature of the cooperation problem that actors face. Policymakers react
to emergent collective action problems by interacting with each other and
consciously deciding what they want to build, form, or produce in response.
The outcome of this intentional and creative process is then commonly
referred to as the design of the new structure. By limiting their analysis
to institutions as the product of such conscious design (or redesign) processes, I criticize rational and functional approaches for tending to emphasize the outcome and neglect the process. Design is regarded as complete,
“with problem structure perfectly embedded in institutional form and no
room for any independent institutional influence” (Mitchell 2009, 74).
EMERGENCE AND COMPLEXITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
Consequently, it is treated as epiphenomenal, in that it is caused by the
creation of the institution (as a kind of by-product thereof).
Though a functionalist perspective is helpful for making a preliminary
assessment of the nature of the cooperation problem that led states to
form an institutional arrangement in the first place (Acharya and Johnston
2007), it understates the increasing complexity related to collective action
problems in the international system. As a complex system, the latter is
characterized by a growing number of actors, interdependencies, interactions, and related decisions, while at the same time it intersects with other
systems—such as the economic or environmental ones. If actors were able
to anticipate future situations under these circumstances and design institutions in such a way that furthers the achieving of their interests and favored
outcomes, institutions would be epiphenomenal. However, in a complex
international system, it is unlikely that its actors are able to fully anticipate
future situations and design institutions accordingly (Mitchell 2009).
In this context, Pierson (2000, 2004) discusses a number of limits to
institutional design, arguing that functionalist approaches to it seem to
fall short of addressing the complexity and uncertainty that characterize
world politics. Institutions may thus have multiple effects, ones that can
be rather unexpected or unintended by their designers. Moreover, designers might not only act instrumentally in terms of what would be most
effective or useful, but also in terms of what seems to be most appropriate. Time horizons also play a role in that “long-term institutional consequences may be the by-products of actions taken for short-term political
reason” (Pierson 2000, 479).
Institutional design, as I argue, thus needs to be reformulated in a way
that accounts for this complexity, and for the unpredictable or unintended
consequences of the design process. Considering complexity, emergent
institutions are a result of recurring attempts at problem solving by the
actors of the international system. The rather intended or designed forms
of social structure can be understood as the answer to unintended or
spontaneous instances of emergence in intersecting systems (see Mayntz
2009b). Design is thus nothing completed, but rather an ongoing and
continuous process. As Mitchell in turn argues, “when institutional design
cannot be made flexible enough to address the expected range of contingencies, then institutions have the potential to exert influence, that is, to
generate outcomes that would not occur otherwise” (2009, 73). To this
effect, I propose taking a perspective on institutional design that understands design features as emergent properties rather than as variables.
188.8.131.52 Institutional Design as Emergent Properties
As emergent properties, design features are the collective properties that
an institution possesses as a whole—appearing through the interactions
of the institution’s members. The design of a particular institution can
neither be deduced from how each individual member is organized nor
from the properties that the members have either in terms of their own
or another context, so that design features are irreducible. In this regard,
the formal and informal rules and organizational features that constitute
the institution have the potential to constrain or regulate the behavior or
actions of its members, which can be understood as a power that the institution possesses due to it having these properties in the first place.
Regional institutions are, in most cases, intentionally planned and created in order to achieve a particular purpose and to generate related powers. As Sayer argues, “social forms are sometimes created precisely in order
to achieve those emergent powers” (2012, 184). This idea of designing
for emergence is an issue more frequently dealt with in the field of organization studies. Although “design” as a top-down process and “emergence” as a bottom-up process appear to contradict each other, certain
scholars argue that organizations can indeed be understood as “emergent
by design” (Garud et al. 2006) or that “design must harness emergence”
(Van Alstyne and Logan 2007). According to this, designing for emergence requires combining mutually complementary design elements in
such way that, as soon as the elements interact with each other, “an overall
organizational platform of resources, capabilities, and options emerges”
(Garud et al. 2006, 277). Through reinforcing and balancing each other,
the design elements thereby enable new possibilities and transformations.
As such, the “platform” facilitates changes and adaptions in order to be
able to face the emerging new challenges and contexts.
Van Alstyne and Logan (2007) argue, similarly, that it is only through
an emergent process that new or improved products are successfully introduced into the marketplace. Innovative design, according to the authors,
“is the assemblage of a set of components that is able to achieve a function or
purpose that the components by themselves cannot achieve” (2007, 128).
This argument can be extended to the international system too, wherein
projects to found institutions intend to improve the coordination and
cooperation between actors and to then successfully introduce those collective bodies into the system.
While policymakers design an institution according to certain principles, the institution’s design can turn out in a different way from what
EMERGENCE AND COMPLEXITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
they originally envisioned—or can develop other or additional properties than first planned. This means that institutional design is to a certain
extent also unpredictable. In this connection, it is interesting to look at
historical institutionalists’ ideas on design, which, at a first glance, might
appear to be silent but that actually emphasize the formative choices of
policies and structures. These choices are not understood as products of
conscious design selections, but rather “they appear to reflect the particular confluence of political forces at play at the time of the formation of
the institution” (Peters 2005, 81). By conceptualizing policy choices and
decisions as the product of politics, the idea of rational design is avoided.
Policy choices are always embedded in a particular historical context that
might constrain the ability to make choices, so that institutional design
can turn out to be more difficult—and its concrete form, less certain. For
example, members’ behavior and processes within the institution might
not be in accordance with the founders’ initial design choice (see Peters
2005). This implies that there is a context or process dimension to design.
The idea that design is an ongoing process is also embraced by organization studies. Chiles, Meyer, and Hench (2004), for instance, define
the emergence of new organizational collectives as self-organizational by
drawing on insights from complexity theory to explain how organizations come about in the first place. Thereby, they emphasize an important
aspect of organizational or institutional emergence: that it comprises not
only the creation or origin, “but also the continuous re-creation over time
(i.e. transformation) of new organizational populations and forms” (2004,
500). Emergence and transformation are correspondingly understood as
interrelated processes. Such a complexity perspective takes the everlasting
nature of emergence into account and captures the idea that design itself
is a process, being the complex interplay and dynamics of generating solutions, which might generate new designs, which in turn generate other
solutions, and so forth.
Therefore, each intended instance of problem solving always brings
about unintended consequences that might in turn create new challenges—this is the very reason for social discontinuities or undesirable
structures (Mayntz 2009b, 131). Though different actors or groups of
actors have the power to design and redesign organizational structures,
institutional effects may very well be unanticipated—especially in social
processes that involve a large number of different actors. Such processes
occurring “in densely institutionalized societies will almost always generate elaborate feedback loops and significant interaction effects which
decision makers cannot hope to fully anticipate” (Pierson 2000, 483).
Wendt (2001) names three examples of such feedback effects: institutions
may expand their membership and thereby the number of actors making
choices in the future, institutions may further affect members’ identities
and interests, and, finally, institutions may also affect the members’ beliefs
about the surrounding environment. More often than not, those feedback
effects are not intended at the origin of institutional design, but they may
nevertheless still occur; “over time, designs cause designers as much as
designers cause designs” (Wendt 2001, 1034).
From this it follows that unanticipated consequences should, rather
than being ignored, in fact be considered in research as “a crucial organizing principle of institutional design [itself]” (Pierson 2000, 485). This
means that even if we understand regional institutions as mere products of
rational design, the way in which they are actually going to function over
time is not made manifest to initial observers or participants (Ackroyd
2004). If we want to analyze emergence in the international system, it is
thus neither about only looking at intentional design nor about merely
referring to unintended or spontaneous events. It is, rather, the concurrence of intended, designed, constructed and unintended, spontaneous,
natural processes that characterizes the complexity of the international
Emergent Properties, Powers, and Mechanisms
Regional institutions are characterized by their particular institutional
design, reformulated here as an emergent property. Connected to the
design features are new positions and practices that define the relationships
between the institution’s members (as well as its external ones). The rules
and organizational features that constitute an institution thus have a causal
effect on their members’ intentions and actions. It is due to this particular
mode of organization that design features (as emergent properties) possess the power to govern and regulate these intentions and actions.
Alongside design elements, the capacities that a regional institution
has to facilitate cooperation, foster economic integration, or reduce transaction costs are also emergent properties that its member states do not
possess. A question that arises then is how these properties relate to design
features as emergent properties. Here, it is useful to revert to Lawson’s
(2012) proposition that an institution as a whole has to be differentiated
from its relational organization as both are emergent properties. While
EMERGENCE AND COMPLEXITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
facilitating cooperation and the like are properties that relate to the functions of the institution as a whole with regard to particular desired goals
or aims, design features are properties that refer to the relational organization of the institution. In this context, I propose to differentiate between
emergent properties of institutions according to whether they are either
goal-oriented, and in this sense functional, or structural, specifically in
terms of the institution’s organization and operations. The former can
be called purposive emergent properties while the latter are described as
organizational emergent properties (see Table 3.1).
Purposive emergent properties arise when all the parts of a system (all
members of an institution) interact in order to achieve a common goal or
objective. Such purposive emergent properties comprise the capacity of an
institution to facilitate cooperation, foster integration, reduce transaction
costs, or provide information. Organizational emergent properties refer
to the relational organization of an institution with respect to its operations and to its behavior within its surrounding environment. They are
therefore closely connected to the performance of an institution and its
The institutional design of an institution can thus be reformulated as
being such organizational emergent properties, including membership,
scope, centralization, control, and flexibility. Purposive emergent properties relate to what goals and related functions the institution as a whole
should facilitate. Organizational emergent properties, the design features,
refer to the institution’s relational organization, which maintains these
Considering a regional institution as an emergent whole, this means
that all emergent properties as well as their corresponding powers
Table 3.1 Emergent properties of regional institutions
Purposive emergent properties
Organizational emergent properties
Arise when all members of a regional
institution interact to achieve a
• Facilitate cooperation
• Foster (economic) integration
• Provide information
• Reduce transaction costs
Formed by the relational organization of a regional
institution regarding its operations and behavior in