International Organizations (Course number POL 396, Intructor: James Raymond Vreeland, Professor 2.0)


International Organizations (Course number POL 396)

Classroom location: McCosh 10
Class day & time: Tuesday & Thursday, 11:00-11:50am

Instructor: James Raymond Vreeland
WASE Office hours: Tues, 3-5pm
442 Robertson Hall

This web-syllabus is designed to be used throughout the semester. Below you will find links to the readings for each of the class sessions. Where possible, reading assignments have been linked to electronic versions available on the Internet. Otherwise, the assignment is available at the library and the bookstore. Students visiting this page for the first time should read through the entire syllabus: the course description, the course requirements, and the course outline. If you have any questions or comments about the web page or the course, please contact me.

Students should note that about 75% of the readings listed below are simply suggested not required. I put them here just in case some day in the future students decide to do further research on anything we cover – so students should not be scared by the length of this syllabus. As for the required reading, there is about one article or chapter per class, and some class sessions require only that you read some web pages. Students should plan just to study the readings marked "required" before and after class– the lecture will reinforce the main points of the readings.

Are the readings really available online? In most cases, yes. The exceptions are a few readings from books – which are available for purchase e-books. HOWEVER, many of the articles require a library subscription. So, the links below should work fine IF you are on campus. If not, you can still get the reading online for free, but you need to go through the library search page. So, if any of the links below do not work while you are off-campus, please try again when on-campus (and if it still doesn't work, please email me).

Be sure to click on the links throughout the syllabus – there are some Easter eggs...

Syllabus Menu
  • Course Description
  • Precept
  • Learning Goals
  • Requirements
  • Course Outline:

    Course Description:

    This course is about cooperation and sacrifice. Specifically, it is about "institutionalizing" cooperation at the international level. The focus is on intergovernmental organizations. We will examine their historical origins, ostensible functions, the international and domestic political forces that impact their operations, and their effectiveness.

    What role do International Organizations (IOs) play in global politics? Some think their role is trivial. Others argue that they fulfill their important stated purposes. Still others argue that governments use them to pursue their own private goals. In my research, I have argued that international organizations can be used to do the "dirty work" of governments – they can "launder" dirty politics – they can be scapegoats – in short, they can be the "dark knight" (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse).

    We will begin the course by addressing some overarching theoretical and methodological issues so that we have a core set of analytical tools we can apply to our study of specific IOs. From a theoretical perspective, we will consider various approaches, such as realist, liberal, bureaucratic, and constructivist. From a methodological point of view, we will be concerned with questions of endogeneity and non-random selection. That is, separating the circumstances under which IOs take action from the inherent effects of their actions.

    Delving into specific IOs, we begin with the international financial institutions (the IMF and the World Bank). Alongside these global organizations, we will discuss regional banks, including the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the recently founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (the AIIB). We then turn to the United Nations (Security Council, Peacekeeping Operations, Human Rights). We subsequently analyze IOs dealing with Europe (NATO, EU). Next we consider international trade organizations (the GATT/WTO and regional trade organizations). We consider some broad themes regarding IOs, such as the effects that they may have on the promotion of democracy and on how democratically (or not) they are governed themselves. As we close the semester, we will discuss COVID19 and an IO that has taken center stage during the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO). Turning away from this heavy subject that has gravely impacted all of our lives, we will also discuss something that should be a bit more fun, the games and events put on by the International Olympic Committee.

    As we examine each institution, we will keep several questions in mind:

  • Does this international organization represent anything more than the interests of its most powerful members?
  • How are the foreign policy goals of its most powerful members pursued – or not?
  • What role do domestic politics play when countries interact with the international organizations?
  • How does the pursuit of the private incentives of individuals working in IOs influence IO effectiveness?
  • What international ideas and norms influenced the creation of various IOs and what impact have the IOs, in turn, had on new ideas and norms?
  • What is the best way to build broad and deep international commitments? Should we start broad and shallow (global institutions) and then deepen gradually? Or should we start narrow and deep (regional institutions) and gradually broaden over time?

    Thus, we are concerned with the political economy of international organizations. As in other courses in political economy, we will grapple with centralized versus decentralized mechanisms of allocation, where the two mechanisms often interact. In the study of International Political Economy, we consider the ways in which the various centralized and decentralized mechanisms of allocation have effects across borders. The market forces and government policies in one country affect those in other countries – for example, there are economic, security, and environmental "externalities."

    From this point of view, IOs can be considered responses to failures of decentralized mechanisms of allocation at the international level, or, simply put, responses to international market failures. IOs are thus supranational centralized allocation mechanisms, which may or may not effectively achieve their ostensible goals. When evaluating whether these centralized mechanisms of allocation achieve their intended goals, it will be important to consider not just their inherent effects, but also an important counterfactual: What would the world be like in their absence? Note, the course makes no a priori judgments about the value of IOs, and students are encouraged to think critically about the constellation of IOs in the world. The course requires only that students consider both centralized and decentralized mechanisms of allocation as viable solutions to international problems – there is no assumed ideological preference for one approach over the other.

    The challenges of trying to understand the interests, institutions, and information of actors in an international context are great, and much remains to be learned. The course is designed not just to familiarize students with IOs, but also to stimulate their curiosity about questions that really have yet to be answered satisfactorily. An important goal of the course is also to equip students with the analytical tools required to address such questions.

    Learning Goals:

    Each class lecture will focus on one substantive question and apply one analytical tool. My goal is to be highly focused in each class on teaching about just a pair of ideas, one substantive and one analytical. In this pursuit, I am well aware that over the course of your lives, your interest in international affairs may wax and wane. But the analytical tools that we cover in class should travel with you throughout your life as your interests evolve. I will thus stress the wide applicability of the analytical tools we cover in each class, which extend well beyond the study of international cooperation.

    Note that the exams will be based on the substance and analytical tools. At the end of each lecture, I provide a summary of the main points we have learned. Along with the preceptors, I construct the exam questions based on these summary points. (We also construct some questions based on the main points of the readings.) The stress is on big ideas, not minutia. Moreover, the exam itself reinforces one of the analytical tools we learn about in class: Solving "time-inconsistent preference problems" using "credible commitments." Not sure what this means? You will be (or better be) by the mid-term...


    In precept, we will focus on memorable experiences to reinforce the key take-away lessons of the class.

    The primary exercise required for each session will be to submit two questions – along with answers – that elucidate the key substantive points and analytical tools covered in lecture that week. Through their participation in precept, the students will essentially build a version of an exam that they could give for this course. As such, their work in precept will serve as an ideal study guide to prepare for the real exams for the class.

    As an additional exercise, the students will be asked in precept to suggest creative mnemonic devices to recall key lessons from class. Students are encouraged to think of songs, movies, books, or other experiences from their daily lives that may recall class lessons creatively. The aspirational learning goal of the precept assignments will be to engage the students at a level that they will remember throughout their lives. Students are required to include at least three mnemonic devices in their assignments for precept, and are encouraged to post them all to share with other students in the class through Canvas.

    Learning Methodology:

    The lectures for this course are packed over a relatively short time period in your lives. During the semester, you're going to be busy with lots of other courses and activities, and when the semester is over, you're going to move on to many wonderful adventures and accomplishments. You won't remember everything from this class. But hopefully you'll remember some key lessons. My strategy is to teach the course with life-long learning in mind (so you might remember something you learned in this class in 20 years). We will, therefore, use multiple methods to reinforce the main take-away messages of the course.

  • Doing the readings prior to class will help the students follow and participate in the class sessions.
  • Class sessions will combine a mix of lecture and discussion with puzzles for the students to grapple with as a group. Class notes will be made available to students after each session. The reason to provide the notes only after class is to keep students engaged in an "active" learning mode. The notes include puzzles, questions, and answers. It is important for students not to be able to see the answers to puzzles until we have struggled through them as a group. Beware of my randomize-student-selector. I will use it to call on you to keep you on your toes!
  • Music will be employed to reinforce key lessons (played at the beginning and end of classes - mostly just for fun!). A key theme for the course will be Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." LeAnn Rimes' "Commitment" will also feature prominently. We will also reference "The Dark Knight Theme" by Hans Zimmer, "Stay Together" by 2NE1, "Let's Stay Together," by Al Green, "One Love" and "No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley, and, importantly, "Highway to Hell" by ACDC.
  • Movies illustrate in dramatic fashion some key lessons. If you're looking for a relaxing way to prepare for class, familiarity with The Godfather could prove useful. (Advanced students may wish to read The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable. Other films may include Wonder Woman, Invictus, The Dark Knight, The Whistleblower, It's a Wonderful Life, Hotel Rwanda, La Misma Luna, Biutiful, Shinjuku Incident, No Man's Land, The Yes Men, and many Star Wars references. ("Hey, I'm a movie guy. I can rattle off a bunch of movies.")
  • In class, we will watch short video clips illustrating historical events, including the beggar-thy-neighbor policies leading up to the Great Depression, a currency run, and the end of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system.
  • Pyramid photos to reinforce the trilemma. 'Nuff said.

  • Requirements:

    Precept assignments and participation will count for 25% of the final grade. Half of the precept grade will be based on short weekly assignments where students submit their own ideas for exam questions that reinforce the key take-away points from lecture. The other half of the precept grade will be based on participation in discussions.

    There will be two exams – a first-half exam (mid-term) and a second-half exam (final) –. In total, the two exams will be worth a combined 75% of the final grade. Students will be given choice of how much to count each exam, between 25% and 50%. To be clear, the first- and second-half exams combined count for 75%, but each student can allocate 25-50% for the first-half exam. The second-half exam will then count for the remaining 25-50%. Each exam will cover the substance and analytical tools presented in the lectures and required readings. The second-half exam is not cumulative. Most lectures focuses on one article-length reading of about 30 pages.

    Why allow each student to choose how much the exams count? Students remember the experience of assigning their personal weight to their mid-term. What do they remember? Hopefully, they remember the very point of the exam: imposing a credible commitment to study. Why are credible commitments important to remember for this class? A central question we pose about international organizations is whether they impose credible commitments on their members. So, deciding how to weigh the exams for your final grade is meant to convey a meta-lesson about international cooperation.

    Nota bene:
    Always recall Princeton's honor system.

    Course books:

    For students interested in using a textbook (not required for this course), I recommend this one:

    Course Outline

    Jan 25: Introduction to International Organizations

    Jan 27: The IMF Part 1 – History and Background

    Feb 1: The IMF Part 2 – Who controls the IMF?

    Feb 3: International institutions, cooperation, and sacrifice through the music of Bob Marley