Damaged Relations: How Treaty Withdrawal Impacts International Cooperation

The forthcoming article “Damaged Relations: How Treaty Withdrawal Impacts International Cooperation” by Averell Schmidt is summarized by the author below. 

Over the past few years, there have been several high-profile cases of states withdrawing unilaterally from multilateral treaties and international organizations. These developments have sparked widespread fears about the unraveling of interstate cooperation, the collapse of international institutions, and the demise of the liberal international order.  

Despite these fears, opinion remains divided about whether and how treaty withdrawal affects interstate cooperation. Some theories suggest that withdrawal should not have an independent effect on cooperation because it merely reflects shifts in factors that made cooperation possible in the first place, such as changes in domestic politics or the distribution of power. Other theories suggest that withdrawal could earn the exiting state a reputation for unreliability, undercutting other states’ willingness to enter into agreements with it in the future.   

This article reports that unilateral treaty withdrawal has a significant and negative effect on future cooperation between the withdrawing state and remaining treaty members but does not affect the withdrawing state’s relations with other states. Existing scholarship is hard-pressed to explain this variation. I develop an experiential theory of international cooperation that accounts for states’ differing reactions to exit.  

I argue that states learn through their direct experiences cooperating with one another. Treaty members experience withdrawal differently than non-members in two key respects. First, treaty members experience the breaking of commitments directly, damaging the withdrawing state’s relations with treaty members. Second, treaty members bear the material consequences following the breakdown of cooperation. These relational and material factors interact to shape states’ reactions to withdrawal. Damaged relations undermine treaty members’ willingness to cooperate with the withdrawing state. When the costs of exit are high, the consequences of withdrawal can spill across issue areas. 

I test my argument by applying a difference-in-differences design to an original dataset of all multilateral treaty ratifications and withdrawals recorded in the United Nations Treaty Series. My analysis compares the rate at which treaty members and non-members ratify agreements with the withdrawing state in the years before and after exit occurs. Several important findings emerge from my analysis: 

  • Treaty members ratify 7-8% fewer treaties with the withdrawing state in the years after exit occurs. 
  • This effect is not due to changes in the withdrawing state’s behavior, and withdrawal has no significant effect on the ratification behavior of treaty non-members.  
  • This effect increases with the salience of withdrawal, the amount of public attention it garners.  
  • This effect persists within diverse issue areas, including security, economic, human rights, and environmental cooperation; however, the spillover effect across issue areas increases with the material consequences of withdrawal. 

This article is part of a larger project in which I am examining the consequences of treaty withdrawal on the content and evolution of international laws and institutions. This research aims to explain how patterns of interstate cooperation change over time and why cooperation succeeds in some places yet fails in others. 

About the Author: Averell Schmidt is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His research “Damaged Relations: How Treaty Withdrawal Impacts International Cooperation” 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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