Why International Organizations Disagree


By Michael BreenDermot HodsonManuela Moschella

Scholars often look at international organizations, such as the European Union (EU), in splendid isolation. Over the last decade, however, researchers have paid more attention to how international organizations interact and what this means for international cooperation.

The regime complexity approach is a pioneering attempt to understand the multiple, overlapping institutions and rules that often govern different issue areas. Originally applied to the governance of plant genetic resources, this approach has been used to understand a wide range of policy areas, including human rights, migration and democratization.

Incoherence matters in regime complexes, this literature tells us, because it complicates and potentially weakens the credibility and effectiveness of cooperation. It becomes easier for a state to challenge one international organization when another asks something different of it. In spite of much theoretical and empirical work on this subject, there remains a basic lack of understanding of how to measure incoherence in regime complexes and what drives it.

We explore the drivers of incoherence in regime complexes by looking at the specific case of international economic surveillance. In particular, our analysis seeks to understand whether and why two key organizations in this regime complex  – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU – impose conflicting obligations on the same states.

The EU and IMF offer a laboratory for studying regime complexity not only because of their overlapping membership and central role in international economic surveillance but also because they have frequently clashed over the euro crisis.

Empirically, our article is the first study of regime complexity to use sentiment analysis to measure incoherence in a regime complex. One of several methods of quantitative text analysis but one with hitherto underexploited potential for students of international relations, sentiment analysis is used to analyse the coherence of over 400 IMF and EU surveillance documents between 1997 and 2014. Analyzing these documents as a whole rather than the recommendations within them, we treat differences in the tone of the language used within as a proxy for measuring policy coherence.

Figure 1. Median Pessimism in Surveillance Assessments

Our results show that EU member states were pulled in different directions by the EU and IMF before and after the global financial crisis. Before the crisis, a typical IMF assessment contained 34 per cent more pessimistic language than an EU assessment. Since the crisis, EU assessments have contained 53 per cent more pessimistic language. Although the EU has moderated its language since 2010, it remains more pessimistic than the IMF.

Using linear and panel regression analysis, we explain such incoherence not by differences in the distribution of power within the EU and IMF but by differences in the discretionary authority that the two organizations enjoy in performing surveillance.

When the rules underpinning EU and IMF fiscal surveillance bite and reduce these organizations’ room for discretion, each institution tends to be more pessimistic. But the two organizations are responding to different rules with differing degrees of intensity and from different starting points, leading to incoherent assessments of member states’ economic policies. EU surveillance is influenced, in particular, by compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact.

Our analysis is also relevant for wider debates in EU studies and international relations. The methodology and findings of our article respond to calls for a deeper study of regime complexity and institutional interaction, particularly as it relates to the role of non-European actors in European integration and governance. Within the wider international relations literature, our findings may help to refine explanations of why some regime complexes enhance the effectiveness of international cooperation while others do not.

This piece draws on the article Incoherence in Regime Complexes: A Sentiment Analysis of EU-IMF Surveillance in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

Please note that this article represents the views of the authors and not those of Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

Comments and Site Policy

Dr. Michael Breen @mbreen3

Associate Professor of International Political Economy

Dublin City University, Ireland.



Prof. Dermot Hodson @dermot_hodson

Professor of Political Economy

Birkbeck College, University of London, UK.





Dr. Manuela Moschella @ManuMoschella

Associate Professor of International Political Economy

Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy.