Cave! hic dragones: a critique of regime analysis

TitleCave! hic dragones: a critique of regime analysis
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsStrange, S


Is the concept of regime really useful to  students of international political economy or world politics? May it not even be actually negative in its influence, obfuscating and 
confusing instead of clarifying and illuminating, and distorting by concealing bias instead of revealing and removing it?
This article challenges the validity and usefulness of the regime concept on five separate counts:
  1. Study of a regimes is a fad:
    - in response to US 'decline' but this decline is greatly overestimated.
    - US scholars ignore that IO can serve 3 different purposes: (1) strategic, (2) adaptive, (3) symbolic
  2. Regimes as a concept is imprecise and woolly
  3. Study of regimes is value-based: In short, government, rulership, and authority are the essence of the word, not consensus, nor justice, nor efficiency in administration. Not  only does  using this word regime distort reality by implying an exaggerated measure of predictability and order in the system as it is, it is also value-loaded in that it takes for granted that what everyone wants is more and better regimes, that greater order and managed interdependence should be the collective goal. Is it not just another unthinking response to fear of the consequences of change? Yet is not political activity as often directed by the desire to achieve change, to get more justice and more freedom from a system, as it is by the desire to get more wealth or to assure security for the haves by reinforcing order?
  4. Distorts by overemphasizing the static and underestimating the dynamicelement of change in world politics. In sum, it produces stills, not movies. And the reality,surely, is highly dynamic, as can fairly easily be demonstrated by reference to each of the three main areas for regimes considered in this collection: security, trade, and money
  5. It is narrowminded, rooted in a state-centric paradigm that limits vision of a wider reality. Thus regime analysis risks overvaluing the positive and undervaluing the negative aspects of international cooperation. It  consequently gives the false impression (always argued by the neofunctionalists) that international regimes are indeed slowly advancing against the forces of disorder and anarchy. The reality is that there are more areas and issues of nonagreement and controversy than there are areas of agreement

Indirect Criticisms:

  1. It leads to a study of world politics that deals predominantly with the status quo, and tends to exclude hidden agendas and to leave unheard or unheeded complaints, whether they come from the underprivileged, the disfranchised or the unborn, about the way the system works. In short, it ignores the vast area of nonregimes that lies beyond the ken of international bureaucracies and diplomatic bargaining
  2. The other is  that it  persists in looking for an all-pervasive pattern of political behavior in world politics, a "general theory" that will provide a nice, neat, and above all simple explanation of the past and an easy means to predict the future.
Outlines of a Better Alternative
My  alternative way  of  analyzing any issue  of  international political economy, which is likely to avoid some of these dragons, involves extending Charles Lindblom's useful clarifying work on Politics and Markets to the world system.
What is  the net result and for whom, in terms of order and stability, wealth and efficiency, justice and freedom; and in terms of all the opposite qualities-insecurity  and risk, poverty and waste, inequity and constraint? These, it seems to me, are much more fundamental political questions, and imply an altogether broader and less culture-bound view of world politics, than the ones addressed in this volume.
Also good empirical examples for IPE.