MSFS 565: The Political Economy of International Organizations (Intructor: James Raymond Vreeland)  


Class day & time: Tuesday, 3:30pm-6pm

Classroom location: Mortara Center upstairs conference room

This web-syllabus is designed to be used throughout the semester. Below you will find links to the readings for each of the 13 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.

  • Course Description
  • Requirements
  • Books
  • January 17: Introduction
  • January 24: What is the role of international organizations and do they really matter?
  • January 31: The diffusion of policy and domestic political institutions: the role of international organizations
  • February 7: SPECIAL CLASS: President Zedillo
  • February 14: The World Bank and the Millenium Challenge Corporation
  • February 21: The United Nations I: Human Rights Conventions
  • February 28: International Organization for Migration
  • *March 6: Spring break, no class
  • March 13: Security Organizations: NATO
  • March 20: The European Union
  • March 27: Connections across IOs: The Security Council, the IMF, & the World Bank
  • April 3: Regional Organizations
  • April 10: Trade Organizations I: the GATT and WTO
  • April 17: Whither global governance?
  • April 24: The Political Economy of the IMF
  • April 30: Classes end

  • Course Description:

    What are International Organizations (IOs) and what role do they play in world politics? In this course we will take a political-economy approach to understanding various IOs, considering their historical origins, ostensible functions, the international and domestic political forces that impact their operations, and their effectiveness.

    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 paradigms, 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). We then turn to the United Nations (Security Council, Human Rights, Peacekeeping Operations). We subsequently analyze IOs dealing with Europe (NATO, EU). Next we consider international trade organizations (the GATT/WTO and regional trade organizations). We end the semester by considering some broad themes regarding IOs, specifically the effects that they may have on the promotion of democracy and on how democratically (or not) they are governed themselves. If the class expresses interest in specific IOs not currently on the syllabus, there may be some flexibility to introduce them.

    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 ideas and norms in international politics influenced the creation of the various IOs and what impact have the IOs in turn had on international ideas and norms?
  • In short, 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 International Political Economy, we consider the ways in which the various centralized and decentralized mechanisms of allocation within specific countries 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 the world would 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 the equip students with the analytical tools required to address such questions.


    The course grade will be determined by three factors:

  • Participation - 30 points
  • To prepare for class, students are required to write a 2-page critical review of the readings each week. Each review should include (1) a brief summary of the readings (1 point), (2) some critical comments relating to the broader theoretical and methodological perspectives of the course (1 point), and (3) some questions for further research (1 point). Each review is thus worth 3 points. Note that there are 12 class sessions with required readings, for a possible 36 out of 30 points available. So, students are really required to do only 10 to get full credit in this section. The assignment is designed to give students an incentive to do the reading and be prepared for class discussions. The specific form and style of the papers is up to the students - the assignments should be written according to what suits the each individual student to prepare for class discussions. INDEED, I WILL ONLY GRADE ACTUAL CLASS PARTICIPATION - THE ASSIGNMENT IS REQUIRED ONLY AS A COMMITMENT DEVICE AND ITSELF WILL NOT BE GRADED. Students should use the 2-page papers as notes during the class to help them participate. They must also, however, email a copy BEFORE class sessions to receive credit for participation. If your email is not received before the beginning of class, you will get 0 credit for participation that day.

  • Seminar leader - 35 points
  • Each student will be designated to lead (or co-lead) a class discussion. Seminar leaders are required to circulate by email to all of the class participants five discussion questions for the class meeting. These discussion questions should be distributed BY THE SUNDAY EVENING BEFORE CLASS. The seminar leaders will also be charged with introducing the week’s topic by starting out class with a five-minute overview.

  • Policy paper - 35 points - DUE ELECTRONICALLY MAY 5 by 11:59am - I must receive your email by noon - no exceptions!!!

    Students are required to write a policy paper about a specific country and a specific IO. Paper specifications: *maximum* of 5 pages, double-spaced, 1 inch margins, 12-point font. The paper should be about whether the country in question should be involved in some action with the IO.

    For example, students can discuss whether the country should enter into an IMF program, or pursue a development project with the World Bank or a regional development organization, or file a grievance with the WTO, or pursue membership in NATO or the EU, or have UN peacekeeping operations introduced into their country, or pursue election to the UN Security Council.

    Note that this is essentially a counterfactual exercise, where two hypothetical states of the world (one with the IO action and one without it) are compared. The counterfactuals should be constructed using various theoretical perspectives and through comparison with other cases. The comparisons can be with the country's own history, another country, or many countries -- note that relying on good statistical analyses of IO effectiveness can be particularly useful in generating counterfactuals.

    The assignment is designed to bridge what we learn from academia to the policy world. Students are given the opportunity to explore in depth a particular IO, apply it to a particular country they have an interest in, and, importantly, to put the analytical tools of the class to use in a practical situation.


  • Vreeland, James Raymond. 2007. The International Monetary Fund: Politics of Conditional Lending. New York: Routledge.
  • Hurd, Ian. 2007. After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the UN Security Council. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Chapman, Terrence. 2011. Securing Approval: Domestic Politics and Multilateral Authorization for War. Chicago IL: Chicago University Press.
  • Pevehouse, John C. 2005. Democracy from Above: Regional Organizations and Democratization. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Course Outline

    January 17: Introduction to International Organizations
    In this class we will go over the syllabus, the goals of the course, and the requirements of the course. At the end of this class, students should have a thorough understanding of how participation will be graded for the remainder of the semester. Students should also begin to think about the final paper assignment: What is your country of interest? What is your international Organization of interest? Get a head start on the assignment by answering these questions today.

    January 24: What is the role of international organizations and do they really matter?
    Class leader: Leszek Nowak

    January 31: The diffusion of policy and domestic political institutions: the role of international organizations
    Class leader: Patrick Sims

    February 7: Special Class: President Zedillo

    February 14: The World Bank and the Millenium Challenge Corporation
    Class leader: Jayden Sparenborg

    February 21: The United Nations I: Human Rights Conventions
    Class leader: Timothy Dee

    February 28: The International Organization for Migration
    Class leaders: Leszek Nowak, Dylan Groves, & Amanda Kennard

    March 13: Security Organizations: NATO
    Class leader: Teodora Mihaylova

    March 20: The European Union
    Class leader: Claudia Alcaraz

    March 27: Connections across IOs: The Security Council, the IMF, & the World Bank
    Class leader: Eva Tang

    April 3: Regional Organizations
    Class leader: Dylan Groves

    Apr 10: Trade Organizations I: the GATT and WTO
    Class leader: Amanda Kennard

    April 17: Whither global governance?
    Class leader: Liana Korkotyan

    April 24: The Political Economy of the IMF
    Class leader: James Vreeland