Perspectives on Politics


The Politics of International Regime Complexity

Karen J. Altera1 and Sophie Meuniera2

a1 Northwestern University. E-mail:

a2 Princeton University. E-mail:


The increasing density of international regimes has contributed to the proliferation of overlap across agreements, conflicts among international obligations, and confusion regarding what international and bilateral obligations cover an issue. This symposium examines the consequences of this “international regime complexity” for subsequent politics. What analytical insights can be gained by thinking about any single agreement as being embedded in a larger web of international rules and regimes? Karen Alter and Sophie Meunier's introductory essay defines international regime complexity and identifies the mechanisms through which it may influence the politics of international cooperation. Short contributions analyze how international regime complexity affects politics in specific issue areas: trade (Christina Davis), linkages between human rights and trade (Emilie Hafner-Burton), intellectual property (Laurence Helfer), security politics (Stephanie Hofmann), refugee politics (Alexander Betts), and election monitoring (Judith Kelley). Daniel Drezner concludes by arguing that international regime complexity may well benefit the powerful more than others.

Karen J. Alter is Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University (

Sophie Meunier is Research Scholar in Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (


The authors thank the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University and the Northwestern University Institute on Complex Systems for funding their project meetings. Thanks to David Dana, Gary Goertz, Jim Mahoney, Jacqueline McAllister, Uri Wilensky, and the participants of meetings at Princeton, Northwestern, and American Political Science Association conventions for their challenges and feedback. Thanks to David Steinberg for his research support, and Nancy Barthelemy, David Steinberg, and the Roberta Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies for administrative support. Thanks also go to three anonymous reviewers for their useful comments.