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Unequal power and the institutional design of global governance: the case of arms control



IR scholars have recently paid increasing attention to unequal institutional orders in world politics, arguing that global governance institutions are deeply shaped by power inequalities among states. Yet, the literature still suffers from conceptual limitations and from a shortage of empirical work. The article addresses these shortcomings through a study of the historical evolution of global arms control institutions since 1945. It shows that in this important policy area, the global institutional order has not been marked by a recent trend toward deeper inequality, as many writings on unequal institutions suggest. Instead, the analysis reveals a pattern of institutional mutation whereby specific forms of institutional inequality are recurrently replaced and supplemented by new forms. This process, the article argues, is driven by states' efforts to adapt the regime to a changing material and normative environment within the constraints of past institutional legacies.



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1 In the following, I understand the term ‘international institution’ as denoting a set of explicit (formal or informal) rules governing actors' international behaviour. The term ‘norm’ is used to refer to broader and more implicit moral ideas (for example, notions of ‘justice’) that may influence the choice of specific institutional rules.

2 Barnett, Michael and Duvall, Raymond, ‘Power in Global Governance’, in Barnett, Michael and Duvall, Raymond (eds), Power in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 132; Andrew Hurrell, ‘Power, Institutions, and the Production of Inequality’, in Barnett and Duvall (eds), Power, pp. 33–58.

3 Donnelly, Jack, ‘Sovereign Inequalities and Hierarchy in Anarchy: American Power and International Society’, European Journal of International Relations, 12:2 (2006), pp. 139–70; Dunne, Tim, ‘Society and Hierarchy in International Relations’, International Relations, 17:3 (2003), pp. 303–20; Hinnebusch, Raymond, ‘The Middle East in the World Hierarchy: Imperialism and Resistance’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 14:2 (2011), pp. 213–46; Hobson, John M. and Sharman, J. C., ‘The Enduring Place of Hierarchy in World Politics: Tracing the Social Logics of Hierarchy and Political Change’, European Journal of International Relations, 11:1 (2005), pp. 6398; Jordheim, Helge and Neumann, Iver B., ‘Empire, Imperialism and Conceptual History’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 14:2 (2011), pp. 153–85; Lake, David, ‘The New Sovereignty in International Relations’, International Studies Review, 5:3 (2003), pp. 303–23; ‘Escape from the State of Nature: Authority and Hierarchy in World Politics’, International Security, 32:1 (2007), pp. 47–79; Hierarchy in International Relations (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009); Reus-Smit, Christian, ‘Liberal Hierarchy and the License to Use Force’, Review of International Studies, 25:5 (2005), pp. 7192; Weber, Katja, Hierarchy Amidst Anarchy: Transaction Costs and Institutional Choice (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000); Wendt, Alexander and Friedheim, Daniel, ‘Hierarchy under Anarchy: Informal Empire and the East German State’, International Organization, 49:4 (1995), pp. 689721.

4 Byers, Michael, ‘Custom, Power, and the Power of Rules. Customary International Law From an Interdisciplinary Perspective’, Michigan Journal of International Law, 17 (1995–6), pp. 109–80, at p. 113.

5 Alvarez, José E., ‘Hegemonic International Law Revisited’, American Journal of International Law, 97:4 (2003), pp. 873–88; Byers, , ‘Custom’; Byers, Michael and Nolte, Georg (eds), United States Hegemony and the Foundations of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Grovogui, Siba, Sovereigns, Quasi Sovereigns, and Africans: Race and Self-Determination in International Law (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); Krisch, Nico, ‘International Law in Times of Hegemony: Unequal Power and the Shaping of the International Legal Order’, European Journal of International Law, 16:3 (2005), pp. 369408; Simpson, Gerry, Great Powers and Outlaw States: Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Vagts, Detlev F., ‘Hegemonic International Law’, American Journal of International Law, 95 (2001), pp. 843–8.

6 The new literature on unequal order builds on older theoretical approaches that were long overshadowed by the debate between realists and their critics: imperialism, dependency, and world systems theory, as well as realist and neo-Gramscian theories of hegemony; see Cox, Robert W., ‘Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 12:2 (1982), pp. 162–75; Doyle, Michael W., Empires (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986); Galtung, Johan, ‘A Structural Theory of Imperialism’, Journal of Peace Research, 8 (1971), pp. 81117; Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Hobsbawm, Eric J., The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1987); Kindleberger, Charles P., ‘Systems of International Economic Organization’, in Calleo, D. (ed.), Money and the Coming World Order (New York: New York University Press, 1976); Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Capitalist World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

7 Dunne, ‘Society’, pp. 3–4.

8 Lake, ‘New Sovereignty’, p. 319.

9 Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 392; see also Alvarez, ‘Hegemonic International Law’; Vagts, ‘Hegemonic International Law’.

10 Donnelly, ‘Sovereign Inequalities’; Simpson, ‘Great Powers’; Lake, Hierarchy.

11 Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 396.

12 Donnelly, ‘Sovereign Inequalities’, p. 151; Lake, ‘Escape’, p. 50. However, my understanding of hierarchy is broader than Lake's, which focuses on authority relationships between ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’ in which the ruler is entitled to issue commands to the ruled (see Lake, Hierarchy, p. 51). The more inclusive definition I employ captures any recognised differentiation of rights among the members of a group, including a privileged right of some group members to ‘command’ others.

13 Hurrell, ‘Power’, pp. 39–40; Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 402.

14 Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 399.

15 Despite its non-exclusive character, I treat informality as a distinct category of institutional inequality because it produces distinct effects that are irreducible to the effects of hierarchy or exclusivity, even where it occurs in conjunction with one of these features.

16 Daase, Christopher, ‘Die Informalisierung internationaler Politik – Beobachtungen zum Stand der internationalen Organisation’, in Dingwerth, Klaus, Kerwer, Dieter, and Nölke, Andreas (eds), Die Organisierte Welt: Internationale Beziehungen und Organisationsforschung (Baden-Baden: Nomos 2009), pp. 289307, esp. p. 297; see also Abbott, Kenneth W. and Snidal, Duncan, ‘Hard and Soft Law in International Governance’, International Organization, 54:3 (2000), pp. 421–56; Williamson, Richard L. Jr, ‘Hard Law, Soft Law, and Non-Law in Multilateral Arms Control: Some Compliance Hypotheses’, Chicago Journal of International Law, 4:1 (2003), pp. 5981.

17 Abbott and Snidal, ‘Hard and Soft Law’, pp. 447–50; Kartchner, Kerry M. and Pitman, George R., ‘Alternative Approaches to Arms Control in a Changing World’, Disarmament Diplomacy, 62 (2002).

18 Daase, ‘Informalisierung’.

19 Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 399; see also Alvarez, ‘Hegemonic International Law’; Vagts, ‘Hegemonic International Law’, p. 846.

20 Byers, ‘Custom’, p. 110; see also Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 379; Vagts, ‘Hegemonic International Law’, p. 847.

21 Daase, ‘Informalisierung’; see also Kartchner and Pitman, ‘Alternative Approaches’; Perez, Antonio F., ‘Delegalization of Arms Control – a Democracy Deficit in De Facto Treaties of Peace?’, Chicago Journal of International Law, 4:1 (2003), pp. 1938; Williamson, ‘Hard Law’.

22 Meier, Oliver, ‘Non-Integrative Arms Control. Assessing the Effectiveness of New Approaches to Preventing the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction’, S+F Sicherheit und Frieden/Security and Peace, 26 (2008), pp. 53118, at p. 53.

23 Becker, Una, Müller, Harald, and Rosert, Elvira, ‘Einleitung: Rüstungskontrolle im 21. Jahrhundert’, in Becker, Una and Müller, Harald (eds), Rüstungskontrolle im 21. Jahrhundert, Die Friedenswarte, Special Issue, 83:2–3 (2008), pp. 1333, at p. 22.

24 Ungerer, Carl, ‘Influence without power: Middle powers and arms control diplomacy during the Cold War’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 18:2 (2007), pp. 393414.

25 Verona, Sergiu, ‘Structural negotiating blockades to disarmament’, Security Dialogue, 9:3 (1978), pp. 200–9.

26 Mathews, Robert J., ‘The 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons: A Useful Framework Despite Earlier Disappointments’, International Review of the Red Cross, 83 (2001), pp. 9911012.

27 The 1997 Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention was also celebrated by some as a victory against Great Power dominance in arms control negotiations because it was concluded over objections of the United States and other major powers. See Cooper, Andrew F., English, John, and Thakur, Ramesh (eds), Enhancing Global Governance: Towards a New Diplomacy? (Tokyo et al.: United Nations University Press, 2002). In terms of the rule-making mode, however, this end result was achieved by excluding potential ‘spoilers’ from the process – in other words, through a procedural innovation that made negotiations less egalitarian, compared to the CCW.

28 Alvarez, ‘Hegemonic International Law’, pp. 874–8; Elberling, Björn, ‘The Ultra Vires Character of Legislative Action by the Security Council’, International Organizations Law Review, 2 (2005), pp. 336–7; Vik Kanwar, The Legislator of Last Resort: Security Council's Emerging Role in WMD Proliferation Crises (Opinio Juris Online Symposium, 2006) ‘Challenges to Public International Law’, available at: {} accessed 28 August 2010; Marschik, Axel, The Security Council as a World Legislator? Theory, Practice & Consequences of an Expanding World Power, International Law and Justice Working Paper No. 2005/18 (New York: New York University School of Law, Institute for International Law and Justice, 2005); Talmon, Stefan, ‘The Security Council as World Legislature’, American Journal of International Law, 99:1 (2005), pp. 175–93.

29 Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 298.

30 Marschik, Security Council, p. 24.

31 Ibid., pp. 17–19; see also Kanwar, Legislator, p. 29.

32 Bellany, Ian, ‘Nuclear Non-Proliferation and the Inequality of States’, Political Studies, 25:4 (1977), pp. 594–8; Hunt, Geoffrey, ‘China's Case Against the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty: Rationality and Morality’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 3:2 (1986), pp. 183–99; Nye, Joseph S. Jr, ‘The Logic of Inequality’, Foreign Policy, 59 (1985), pp. 123–31; William Walker, ‘The Quest for International Nuclear Order’, in Becker and Müller (eds), Rüstungskontrolle, pp. 35–55.

33 Nye, ‘Logic of Inequality’, p. 126.

34 Frieman, Wendy, ‘New Members of the Club: Chinese Participation in Arms Control Regimes, 1980–1995’, The Nonproliferation Review, 3:3 (1996), pp. 1530; Hunt, ‘China's Case’.

35 Daase, Christopher, ‘Der Anfang vom Ende des nuklearen Tabus. Zur Legitimitätskrise der Weltnuklearordnung’, Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen, 10:1 (2003), pp. 741.

36 Joyner, Daniel H., ‘The Proliferation Security Initiative: Nonproliferation, Counterproliferation, and International Law’, Yale Journal of International Law, 39 (2005), pp. 507–48; Meier, ‘Non-Integrative Arms Control’.

37 The Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom), founded in 1949 to prevent the sale of Western conventional weapons and dual use technologies to the Eastern bloc, was an early precursor of the 1970s’ and 1980s’ supplier cartels that stretched the East-West divide.

38 Anthony, Ian, Ahlström, Christer, and Fedchenko, Vitaly, Reforming Nuclear Export Controls: The Future of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, SIPRI Research Report No. 22 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 1417. Since then, the membership of the group has grown to 46 states (including China).

39 Frieman, ‘New Members’, p. 20.

40 Subrahmanyam, K., ‘Export Controls and the North-South Controversy’, The Washington Quarterly, 16:2 (1993), pp. 135–44, esp. p. 140.

41 Chellaney, Brahma, ‘An Indian Critique of U.S. Export Controls’, Orbis, 38:3 (1993), pp. 439–56, esp. p. 443–4.

42 See, for example, Byers, Michael, ‘Policing the High Seas: The Proliferation Security Initiative’, American Journal of International Law, 98:3 (2004), pp. 526–45; Garvey, Jack I., ‘The International Institutional Imperative for Countering the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the Proliferation Security Initiative’, Journal of Conflict & Security Law, 10:2 (2005), pp. 125–47; Joyner, ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’.

43 Chellaney, ‘Indian Critique’, p. 446.

44 Williamson, ‘Hard Law’, p. 68.

45 Laurance, Edward and Stohl, Rachel, Making Global Public Policy: The Case of Small Arms and Light Weapons, Occasional Paper No. 7 (Geneva: The Small Arms Survey 2002).

46 Chellaney, ‘Indian Critique’, p. 447.

47 Cited in Meier, ‘Non-Integrative Arms Control’, p. 55.

48 Stewart Patrick, Global Governance Reform: An American View of US Leadership, Policy Analysis Brief, February (Muscatine: The Stanley Foundation), p. 14.

49 Barack Obama, Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague (5 April 2009), available at: {} accessed 2 October 2012.

50 Emma L. Belcher, The Proliferation Security Initiative: Lessons for Using Nonbinding Agreements, Working Paper, International Institutions and Global Governance Programme, July (Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations), p. 11.

51 Byers, ‘Policing’, pp. 529, 540–5; Garvey, ‘International Institutional Imperative’, p. 134; Holmes, James R., ‘Sea Power With Asian Characteristics: China, India, and the Proliferation Security Initiative’, Southeast Review of Asian Studies, 29 (2007), pp. 104–18, at pp. 106–10; Joyner, ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’, pp. 534–7.

52 Krasner, Stephen D., ‘Rethinking the Sovereign State Model’, Review of International Studies, 27:5 (2001), pp. 1742; Gilpin, War and Change, pp. 29–34; Gruber, Lloyd, Ruling the World: Power Politics and the Rise of Supranational Institutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Young, Oran, ‘Regime Dynamics: The Rise and Fall of International Regimes’, in Krasner, Stephen D. (ed.), International Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 93114, at pp. 100–1. The coercion argument is less central to variants of hegemonic stability theory that explain hegemonic order in terms of the altruistic provision of public goods by the hegemon.

53 Ikenberry, G. John, After Victory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Lake, Hierarchy.

54 Lake, Hierarchy, p. 29.

55 Ibid., pp. 181–4.

56 See, for example, Hobson and Sharman, ‘Enduring Place’; Simpson, Great Powers; Wendt and Friedheim, ‘Hierarchy’.

57 Hobson and Sharman, ‘Enduring Place’.

58 Note that the explanandum of this study is a structural one, the rise and decline of unequal arms control institutions. While the explanation advanced here makes certain assumptions about the motivations underlying states’ choice of unequal institutional rules, it is beyond the scope of this article to detail and explain variation in the attitudes of individual states vis-à-vis unequal global institutions.

59 For overviews of key historical institutionalist concepts and for reviews of historical institutionalist work in Comparative Politics and International Relations, see Pierson, Paul, Politics in Time. History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004); Thelen, Kathleen, ‘Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Politics’, Annual Review of Political Science, 2:1 (1999), pp. 369404; and Fioretos, Orfeo, ‘Historical Institutionalism in International Relations’, International Organization, 65:2 (2011), pp. 367–99.

60 Pierson, Politics, p. 133.

61 Fioretos, ‘Historical Institutionalism’, pp. 373–5; Pierson, Politics, pp. 142–6.

62 Fioretos, ‘Historical Institutionalism’, p. 373.

63 Ibid., pp. 377–8, 389; Pierson, Politics, p. 137.

64 Conversely, this implies that exclusive institutions require a higher degree of enforcement power on the part of club members (for example, control of technological resources) than hierarchy to function effectively.

65 Walker, ‘Quest’, p. 38.

66 Lake, Hierarchy, p. 182.

67 Epstein, William, The Last Chance. Nuclear Proliferation and Arms Control (New York and London: Macmillan, 1976), pp. 6186, 98–125; Müller, Harald, ‘Between Power and Justice: Current Problems and Perspectives of the NPT Regime’, Strategic Analysis, 34:2 (2010), pp. 189201.

68 Carnahan, Burrus M.Treaty review conferences’, The American Journal of International Law, 81:1 (1987), pp. 226–30.

69 Krause, Joachim, ‘Enlightenment and Nuclear Order’, International Affairs, 83:3 (2007), pp. 483–99, esp. p. 490; Müller, Harald, ‘Germany and WMD Proliferation’, The Nonproliferation Review, 10:2 (2003), pp. 120.

70 United Nations, Resolutions and decisions adopted by the General Assembly during its Tenth Special Session, 23 May–30 June 1978, A/S-10/4 (New York: United Nations, 1978), pp. 6, 12.

71 Anthony et al., Reforming, p. 22.

72 Nayan, Rajiv, Australia Group, CBW Magazine, 1:4 (2008).

73 Chellaney, ‘Indian Critique’, p. 440; Frieman, ‘New Members’, p. 20.

74 Quester, George, The politics of nuclear proliferation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), p. 110.

75 Müller, Harald, Becker-Jakob, Una, and Seidler-Diekmann, Tabea, ‘Regime Conflicts and Norm Dynamics: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons’, in Müller, Harald and Wunderlich, Carmen (eds), Norm Dynamics in Multilateral Arms Control: Interests, Conflicts, and Justice (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), pp. 5181.

76 Meier, Oliver, ‘The US-India Nuclear Deal: The End of Universal Non-Proliferation Efforts?’, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, 4 (2006), pp. 2843.

77 The term ‘rogue state’ is a political label for ‘hostile (or seemingly hostile) Third World states with large military forces and nascent WMD capabilities’; see Klare, Michael, Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America's Search for a New Foreign Policy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), p. 26. On the implicit link between illiberal features and threat in the rogue state discourse, see Saunders, Elizabeth N., ‘Setting Boundaries: Can International Society Exclude “Rogue States”?’, International Studies Review, 8:1 (2006), pp. 2353; Simpson, Great Powers, pp. 278–316.

78 Hayes, Jarrod, ‘Identity and Securitization in the Democratic Peace: The United States and the Divergence of Responses to India and Iran's Nuclear Programs’, International Studies Quarterly, 53:4 (2009), pp. 977–99.

79 Subrahmanyam, ‘Export Controls’, p. 143.

80 Daase, ‘Informalisierung’ p. 299.

81 Müller et al., ‘Regime Conflicts’.

82 Handl, Günther, ‘The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime: Legitimacy as a Function of Process’, Tulane Journal of International and Comparative Law, 19:1 (2010), pp. 139, esp. p. 15.

83 Paul Kerr, ‘Code of Conduct Aims to Stop Ballistic Missile Proliferation’, Arms Control Today (January/February 2003); Sidhu, W. Pal S. and Carle, Christophe, ‘Managing Missiles: Blind Spot or Blind Alley?’, Disarmament Diplomacy, 72 (2003).

84 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth report: Global security – nonproliferation, Session 2008–2009 (London: House of Commons 2009), esp. section 7.349.

85 Hayes, ‘Identity’.

86 Byers, ‘Policing’, pp. 530–1; Logan, Samuel E., ‘The Proliferation Security Initiative: Navigating the Legal Challenges’, Journal of Transnational Law and Policy, 14:2 (2005), pp. 253–74, esp. p. 272.

87 Daase, ‘Informalisierung’, p. 301; Joyner, ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’, p. 540.

88 Asada, Masahiko, ‘Security Council Resolution 1540 to Combat WMD Terrorism: Effectiveness and Legitimacy in International Legislation’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 13:3 (2008), pp. 303–32.

89 Logan, ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’, p. 270.

90 Byers, ‘Policing’, p. 532; Elberling, ‘Ultra Vires’, p. 350.

91 Rosand, Eric, ‘The Security Council as “Global Legislator”: Ultra Vires or Ultra Innovative?’, Fordham International Law Journal, 28 (2005), pp. 542–90.

92 Krisch, ‘International Law’, p. 399.

* I would like to thank Katja Freistein, Benjamin Herborth, and Bernhard Zangl, as well as the participants of the Joint Research Colloquium on International Organization of Goethe University Frankfurt and of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, for their most helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I also thank the anonymous reviewers for helping me to improve the text in many respects.

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