Theses Doctoral

Understanding Institutional Power Politics: Theory, Method and a case of U.S.-China Competition

Cho, Hyun Seung

Despite the common understanding that states compete over international institutions and jockey to define international order, our understanding of institutional power politics is underdeveloped. The dissertation sets out to answer three sets of questions relating to the specific areas that need developing – theory, methods and empirics. First, how do we think about the concepts of “power” and “international institutions”? And, how do states interact with each other in the competition over or with international institutions? Second, if institutional competition is a strategic interaction for which our current empirical knowledge is limited, how do we select cases to examine competitive processes between states? From the selected cases, what is the best way to test our theories of competitive processes while ensuring that our analysis contributes to the relatively thin empirical case knowledge? Finally, while we think the competition between U.S. and China is one of the key contemporary cases of states competing over international institutions, is the evolution of international institutions really a function of U.S.-China competition? If not, how does institutional competition work? Paper 1 deals exclusively with the exercise of building a comprehensive theory of institutional power politics. From the basic concepts to the specific strategic interactions of interstate competition over international institutions, the theory of institutional power politics challenges the long-held view in IR that international institutions are solutions to power politics and signifiers of an international politics that is more cooperative. The key idea in this paper comes from applying insights from defensive realism to the context of institutional competition with the institutional power dilemma. The theory highlights how even with the most benign and cooperative intentions, states may slide into power political dynamics over international institutions. Paper 2 develops two case study methods for examining competitive processes, or more broadly, “intensive processes” – streams of processual phenomena for which the conditions and eventual outputs are ontologically distinct or of lesser analytical interest. The prototypical case selection strategy provides guidelines for selecting cases for intensive processes where the universe of cases is often difficult to know in advance. The dual process tracing (DPT) method then provides a way by which a researcher can test theories of intensive processes as well as provide substantive knowledge about the selected prototypical case. The two methods developed in this paper provide an alternative way to think about political phenomena beyond the dominant covariational and mechanismic approaches in political science research. Paper 3 is the first theoretically driven empirical examination of the prototypical case of institutional competition – “U.S.-TPP vs. China-RCEP.” The paper tests the common understanding that TPP and RCEP is a product of the intentional competition between U.S. and China. The paper finds, however, that the competition is generated from mechanisms of misperception, uncertainty and poor signaling of intentions from both countries. The paper thus offers a powerful revision to the current understanding of the TPP-RCEP case and also theoretically arrives at a defensive realist model of unintended institutional competition. The paper concludes by identifying a number of overlooked policy implications for contemporary U.S.-China relations and institution building in East Asia.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Jervis, Robert
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 24, 2017