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  • Between Regimes and Realism -- Transnational Agenda Setting: Soviet Compliance With CSCE Human Rights Norms
  • Sandra L. Gubin (bio)


One of the central debates in international relations theory is between realists who characterize the world as anarchistic and regime theorists who argue that regimes, or “institutions with explicit rules, agreed upon by governments that pertain to particular sets of issues in international relations,” 1 order relations between countries. For regime theorists to show that their perspective is preferable to that of realists, they must prove that regimes do in fact provide constraints that structure relations between countries. 2 While there has been considerable research examining how regimes come into being and change in a broad range of international issue areas, 3 surprisingly little empirical research has been conducted to test the [End Page 278] impact of regimes. 4 This paper addresses this lacuna through analysis of the Conference on Security and Cooperation (CSCE) as an international human rights regime. The primary focus is Soviet compliance with the family reunification and emigration provisions of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and subsequent CSCE agreements.

Regime theorists recognize that establishing rules and norms does not guarantee compliance. They realize that sometimes regimes matter and sometimes do not, and they acknowledge the existence of strong and weak regimes. However, they posit that regimes contribute to cooperation when norms act as a constraint (or at least are considered) in the policy making process. Realism rejects the independent impact of institutions, rules, and norms on international behavior. Realists view the creation and influence of international institutions or regimes as a result of the power of states to use such institutions to achieve their goals.

This paper finds the concept of an international regime to be inadequate as an analytical tool for investigating how rules and norms influence policymaking and result in increases or decreases in compliance. However, it abstains from the realist rejection of the importance of rules and norms in international relations. Rather, it employs a more systematic examination of the interaction of international and domestic factors in order to determine the circumstances under which international norms may, or may not, have an impact on the behavior of states. It focuses not on the existence of institutions, principles or norms but on a process by which transnational actors (including interest groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations (IGOs)) seek to influence the agenda and the degree to which states are able to exert or resist pressure to comply with international norms.

Human rights present problems for both realists and regime analysts. Focusing on the importance of power and security, realism tends to downplay, if not deny, the impact of human rights on foreign policy. Realism, however, cannot readily account for the rise of human rights on the international agenda or explain why states would respond to pressure on these issues. For regime theorists the problem is explaining the frequent lack of compliance with established human rights norms and rules. Some would argue that compliance with human rights norms is a spurious test of regime analysis because the issues involve conflict about values and lack the reciprocity characteristic of trade and arms control. 5 Even in the area of [End Page 279] trade and economic policies there are serious questions as to how much regimes can actually explain behavior. 6 Nevertheless, there have been successes in human rights and most regime analysts advocate the utility of the concept in all issue areas. 7

One way of testing the explanatory power of international regimes and realism is to examine variance in state compliance with regime norms over time. To what degree does the establishment of norms, continuing negotiations regarding compliance, the strengthening of regime norms, etc., explain variance in compliance? Alternatively, to what degree do factors outside the regime, such as the interests of powerful states, influence compliance with regime norms?

The pattern of Soviet compliance with the family reunification and emigration provisions of CSCE documents provides an opportunity for empirical analysis of regime compliance. It has the advantage of being a quantitative measure of compliance which varies greatly over time. Freedom of movement received a good deal of attention in CSCE negotiations. 8 It is...

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pp. 278-302
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