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Organizing Democracy


My book with Johannes Urpelainen, Organizing Democracy: How International Organizations Assist New Democracies, was published in 2018 by University of Chicago Press as part of the Chicago Series on International and Domestic Institutions. Read this Washington Post Monkey Cage post based on the book or listen to this Freakonomics podcast episode where I discuss the book's core findings. I also spoke about the book's findings and policy relevance at venues such as the Stimpson Institute and the FDR Foundation.




Book Description

Using the Baltic states' accession to NATO as a motivating example (and as a core case), Johannes Urpelainen and I explore the general relationship between democratic transitions and international organization (IO) membership. Exploring this issue through the lens of NATO's post-Cold War expansion is especially salient since some scholars questioned the ability of NATO to adequately support new democracies or even the continued existence of NATO itself.


We claim that leaders of transitional democracies often must draw on the support of new international organizations to provide the public goods and technical expertise needed to consolidate democratic institutions. Our argument is based on leaders in new democracies facing two conundrums.


First, though leaders of newly democratic states need to provide public goods in order to appease an expanded electorate, they lack the domestic institutions, bureaucracy, technical expertise, and resources necessary to provide those public goods. Stated simply, they need help organizing their democracy.  Leaders join International organizations to acquire the "goodies" necessary to organize their democracy.  These "goodies" include resources and technical expertise.


Second, though leaders of new democracies desire membership in international organizations, the existing slate of available IOs might be of little help.  Membership to the most lucrative existing IOs, such as NATO, is initially closed. Additionally, many existing IOs might not be well suited to the particular governance problems facing a new democracy. Hence, membership may not be "feasible" or a good "fit."


How can leaders of new democracies address these two conundrums?  We argue that they can craft their own organizations to provide the services most suitable to their specific governance problems. Moreover, while established democracies may prevent the new democracies from joining a lucrative existing IO, established democracies find the creation of new IOs to be a efficient means of supporting the new democracies.  With time, the new IOs can also serve as a stepping stone for the democratizing state to gain membership in the existing lucrative IOs.


Our work doesn’t claim that IOs are a panacea: democratic backsliding can still take place. Additionally, there is a possibility that the newly created IOs could eventually become "zombies" that continue to exist on paper but no-longer serve a valuable function to the member states.  But during the critical early years of democratization, our work shows that news democracies improve their chances of long term survival if they pursue the strategy of IO creation.


Overall, this book seeks to renew interest in the efficiency gains argument for IO creation. Rather than exploring whether IOs "tie hands" of leaders to reforms, are simply reflections of the balance of power, or are a glue for affecting peaceful relations among states, our research attempts to change the conversation by focusing on the (sometimes mundane) benefits leaders actually hope to acquire from IOs.

Blurbs and Reviews

"Organizing Democracy provides new insights into the relationship between international organizations and democratization, arguing both that IOs support democratization and that IOs can be created because of the demands of transitional states.  Transitional states are often willing but unable to increase public good provision, and therefore benefit from the support of IOs, even when they must create them.  Their novel argument deepens our understanding of the IO-democracy relationship."


-- Susan D. Hyde, University of California, Berkeley

"A provocative read that provides interesting perspectives for the OAS and other regional organizations"


-- Steven Giner, Director of Department of Sustainable Democracy and Special Missions, Organization of American States


"Poast and Urpelainen combine insights from comparative politics and international relations with their own cutting-edge research to show that international organizations are instrumental in cementing democracy by providing technical assistance and public goods, as well as a stepping stone to joining more ‘lucrative’ IOs. With clearly written explanations of complex arguments, their book will be a valuable addition to both fields and to practitioners engaged in democracy promotion, especially those who work for or with international organizations."


-- Yoram Haftel, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


"We often separate out politics and administration – one we view as strategic, the other we view as technocratic. But in Organizing Democracy, Poast and Urpelainen remind us that the two are often intimately interconnected in the decisions that democratizing states make as they form and join IOs. They advance work on democratization, international democracy assistance, IO membership politics, and multilateralism, all of which are quite topical given current debates in international relations. Readers will come away with a deepened appreciation for these issues and stimulating ideas for future research."


- Inken Von Borzyskowski, Florida State University, Review in Review of International Organizations


"Organizing Democracy is an ambitious book....Poast and Urpelainen's exceptional quality of research produces a theoretically insightful and empirically sophisticated volume that will leave an indelible mark on enduring debates about democratization, institutional design, and the link between domestic politics and international systemic factors such as IOs."


-- Bumba Mukherjee, Penn State University, Review in Perspectives on Politics


"Poast and Urpelainen provide convincing theoretical insights and robust empirical evidence that shed new light on the challenges faced by democratising states and on how IOs can help address these problems. The proposed argument is nuanced: the authors distinguish between forming and joining an IO, treat democratic consolidation and authoritarian reversal separately, account for the possible mediating effect of military rule legacy in the IO-consolidation relationship, and consider various ways in which a new IO might be created,reformed or remodeled. The empirical analysis is designed in a similarly accurate way. The econometric tests generally support the hypotheses. The in-depth investigation of the case studies is very informative."

-- Andrea Cassani, Universita degli Studi di Milano, Review in Journal of Development Studies

"Organizing Democracy is a careful and diplomatic assessment of how the Baltic States sought to join NATO to provide a security blanket after the trauma of Soviet occupation, and, also, how, albeit from a different perspective, former British colonies in the Caribbean, especially Barbados, gained a seat at the table of liberal democratic regimes....Having presented a theory of democratization that promotes the formation andmembership in international organization, backed by quantitative and qualitative evidence, the authors successfully demonstrate the benefits that new democratic states gain from forming or participating in international organizations."

-- P. Sean Morris, University of Helsinki, Review in Democratization

"Democratization and international organizations appear to have risen in tandem over the course of the 20th century – and may be receding in tandem in the early 21st century. Why is that the case? Does democratization – “the process by which government institutions transition from authoritarian or foreign rule to self-governing democracy (Poast and Urpelainen 2018, 2)” – lead to the creation of IOs? Or does the creation of IOs support emerging democracies? These questions are at once fundamental to the study of political science and international relations, and central to understanding a present in which both IOs (from the EU to the WHO) and democracies (from Hong Kong to Hungary) are under pressure."

-- Jordan Becker. Institute for European Studies. Review in International Studies Review.

Replication Materials

Below are the files (mostly for Stata) for replicating the core results in chapters 4 and 5. The replication materials also contain the commands and data to perform the various robustness checks described in the book. These files can also be used to replicate the key findings in our 2013 paper in International Studies Quarterly and our 2015 paper in World Politics.


- Zip Folder with Stata Do File and Data File to reproduce Chapter 4's main results.

- Zip Folder with Stata Do Files and Data Files to reproduce Chapter 5's main results.

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