International Organization

The Rational Design of International Institutions

The Optimal Design of International Trade Institutions: Uncertainty and Escape

B. Peter Rosendorff and Helen V. Milner


International institutions that include an escape clause generate more durable and stable cooperative international regimes and are easier to achieve ex ante. The escape clause is endogenous in a model of repeated trade-barrier setting in the presence of symmetric, two-sided, political uncertainty. They permit, along the equilibrium path, countries to temporarily deviate from their obligations in periods of excessive, unexpected political pressure at some prenegotiated cost. The architects of international agreements optimally choose a cost so that escape clauses are neither too cheap to use (encouraging frequent recourse, effectively reducing the benefits of cooperation) nor too expensive (making their use rare and increasing the chance of systemic breakdown). The international institution's crucial role is to provide information, verifying that the self-enforcing penalty has been paid (voluntarily), rather than to coerce payment. Escape clauses also make agreements easier to reach initially. Their flexibility reassures states that the division of the long-term gains from the agreement is not immutable.

B. Peter Rosendorff is Associate Professor of International Relations and Economics at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at

Helen V. Milner is James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations at Columbia University, New York, New York. She can be reached at