Bureaucratic Structure and Compliance with International Agreements

The forthcoming article “Bureaucratic Structure and Compliance with International Agreementsby Shannon P. Carcelli is summarized by the author below.

The international relations literature has long debated the effectiveness of international institutions, especially in the form of soft law. Why do countries comply with international agreements that have no teeth to them? And why do countries fail to comply with agreements that they joined voluntarily? 

In this paper, I introduce a previously unrecognized explanation for compliance: a state’s bureaucratic institutions. Specifically, I argue that the structure of a state’s bureaucracy—such as the number of discrete agencies and the division of power between them—is a determinant of that state’s compliance with an international agreement. When a state has many, horizontally organized agencies, compliance will be lower than a state with a single, streamlined bureaucracy. This is because the existence of many discrete agencies can silo pro-compliance bureaucrats into a single agency. The more that bureaucrats are siloed, the less capable a pro-compliance bureaucrat will be to impact the state as a whole. 

To illustrate the theory, I introduce a simple formal model of bureaucratic structure. Holding constant the preferences and resolve of individual bureaucrats, I find that the configuration of those bureaucrats into different structures can create material differences in a state’s response to an international agreement. When pro-compliance bureaucrats are put into agencies with other pro-compliance bureaucrats, there is a floor effect: they are unable to change overall policy because they are not represented in much of the bureaucracy. 

The theory provides two main hypotheses. First, I hypothesize that agencies controlled by pro-compliance interests will be more likely to comply with an international agreement than those controlled by anti-compliance interests. Second, I hypothesize that states containing a higher number of discrete bureaucracies will be less compliant overall than states with only a few bureaucracies. Once again, this is because increasing the number of bureaucracies tends to silo pro-compliance interests together, where they have little control over other agencies’ compliance. 

I test these hypotheses using newly coded data from a 2001 international agreement to untie foreign aid. Foreign aid “tying,” a practice in which donors require that aid funds be spent on the donor’s domestic products and services, is controversial. On one hand, the aid community points out that it tends to decrease aid’s effectiveness. On the other hand, domestic suppliers in donor countries benefit from the practice. Using a panel difference-in-difference design, I find that a state’s compliance with the 2001 agreement depended on the structure of its domestic bureaucracy. First, agencies controlled by pro-development bureaucrats were more likely than other types of agencies to comply with the agreement. Second, states that streamlined their aid into one or two agencies were more likely to comply than states that fragmented their aid into many discrete agencies. 

The findings suggest that structure matters: how domestic bureaucrats are configured into the overall government can impact state behavior. Regardless of the preferences of leaders and bureaucrats, the organization of bureaucrats can help determine policy, and is worth future study. 

About the Author: Shannon P. Carcelli is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park in the Department of Government and Politics. Their research “Bureaucratic Structure and Compliance with International Agreements”  is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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