Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in economics, and her husband Vincent are not household names among foreign policy practitioners. But they should be. The cross-disciplinary research program that they built together at Indiana University, Bloomington (hence the term “Bloomington School”) offers important insights about the international order that can reinvigorate demoralized internationalists on the center-Right both in Europe and in the United States, providing them with a fresh agenda for the 21st century.
The Bloomington School, developed initially to shed light on natural resource economies and local public goods provision, takes a modest, down-to-Earth approach. Institutional arrangements “that work in practice can work in theory” goes the informal “Ostrom’s Law.” Instead of providing complex accounts of how the world ought to work in theory, the Ostroms engaged primarily in field work and documented how communities solved various challenges—from policing in the town of Speedway, Indiana, through farmer-organized irrigation systems in Nepal, to the management of inshore fisheries in Nova Scotia. What the Ostroms saw were bottom-up, rules-based structures with multiple nodes of decision-making: “polycentric orders,” or “open systems that manifest enough spontaneity to be self-organizing and self-governing.”
Of course, Elinor Ostrom’s applied work is well known among experts on natural resource management and local governance. However, she and her husband saw polycentric orders as manifestations of a much more general phenomenon—self-governance—and applicable to a wide range of situations, including international affairs.
Citing Madison 51 and Tocqueville’s characterization of America as a place “where society governs itself for itself,” Vincent Ostrom argues that “aspects of polycentricity are likely to arise in all systems of social order because human beings are capable of thinking for themselves.” As a result, the goal of public policy is not to put in place ready-made solutions to social problems but simply to facilitate the emergence of diverse forms of associations—between individuals, firms, public organizations, and governments—that could respond to such problems adaptively. Such social units are “formally independent” but will choose “to take each other into account, functioning in mutually accommodating ways to achieve many different patterns of order.”
When applied to international relations, this view stands in contrast both to the atomistic view presented by neorealism and to the naive liberal internationalism that seeks to address humankind’s every ill by tools of top-down “global governance.” Western history is replete with examples of polycentric arrangements between states and state-like entities that curbed the power of local Leviathans and enabled their more or less peaceful coexistence.
“The constitution of the Holy Roman Empire,” Vincent notes, “evolved over a period of nearly a thousand years through processes of oath taking mediated through the Church amid struggles for papal and imperial supremacy. The rituals of investiture in both ecclesiastical and secular offices involved the acknowledgment of obligations to others.”
One can find many other illustrations of the same phenomena involving states and state-like entities, featuring multiple centers of powers, rules, and the possibility of exit. The Hanseatic League, an outgrowth of informal commercial arrangements between traders in the Baltic Sea, became a highly effective trading bloc and a redoubtable European naval power, successfully challenging England—all without any central government or any organizational structures other than the “Kontore,” small clearinghouses providing legal services in Hanseatic cities.
Some critics (and defenders) of the euro see it as an unprecedented experiment in creating a common currency without a common government. But whether it is a good idea or not, a shared currency standard across states is not a historically novel idea. The gold standard of the 19th century acted as a polycentric, self-regulating system based on the existence of free capital flows and the convertibility of major world currencies into gold upheld by multiple governments.
The lesson for today is not that we must slavishly re-create these examples in the 21st century. The Holy Roman Empire, the Hanseatic League, and the gold standard disappeared from the surface of the Earth for good reasons. However, the ubiquity of such arrangements throughout history suggests that polycentricity is a powerful tool for rethinking and rebuilding the international order at a time when the existing platforms for international cooperation—whether they involve trade (the WTO, free-trade agreements), environmental policy (Paris Climate Accord), or security (NATO, JCPOA)—have come under attack from populist leaders.
Both internationally and locally, polycentricity encourages “contestation, innovation, and convergence toward mutually productive arrangements,” says Vincent Ostrom. In practice, successful polycentric governance requires a combination of several factors: a clear understanding of the issue it purports to tackle (in contrast with the meandering and evasively defined missions of current international organizations), rules adapted to the issue at hand and subject to change by the participants themselves, mechanisms for resolving disputes, and the possibility of exit from such arrangements.
More importantly, however, participants have to be autonomous in their own decision-making, instead of becoming building blocks in a hierarchical structure. That point matters because the interference of “global governance” in domestic politics has become a major point of contention and a source of justified criticisms by conservative scholars such as Jeremy Rabkin. In the U.S. context, new legislation requires a text agreed upon by the House, Senate, and the President. An international treaty, in contrast, only faces the scrutiny of the Senate and the President. In principle, the executive branch can sign on to various international commitments—including those with domestic ramifications—while leaving their ratification to a time when a Senate majority is sympathetic to the cause.
Complications arise in international affairs not only due to aspirational conventions, say regarding human rights (which more often than not reflect the pet liberal cause du jour), but also the more practical matters of non-tariff barriers, which blur the distinction between domestic policy and trade. Differences in regulatory rules and practices are a source of friction for businesses operating across national borders, and are therefore of interest to policymakers seeking to liberalize trade and integrate markets. At the same time, differences in domestic regulation derive from democratic processes and reflect genuine differences in voters’ preferences. In some countries, electorates are more risk-averse than in others, or place higher value on certain forms of environmental or social protection. To seek to eliminate such differences, through harmonization or mutual recognition, often creates an impression (not necessarily incorrect) that external forces are eroding democratically agreed-upon norms.
The trade-off between market integration and autonomous domestic policymaking in democracies has heavily favored the former in recent years. But the existing international order departs from the prescriptions of the “Bloomington School” in another way. The Ostroms’ view of polycentricity is a holistic one, encompassing human societies from the level of the individual up. Self-governing societies, understood as “richly nested assemblages of associations that include the diverse forms of association developed within and among units of government,” stand in sharp contrast with autocratic societies in which such forms of association, insofar as they exist, are subordinate to one dominant node of power.
Inevitably, “[s]ocieties that place substantial reliance upon polycentric patterns of order present contestable options that must necessarily challenge systems organized on autocratic principles,” writes Vincent Ostrom. Of course, “the American way […] is not the only way to achieve polycentric systems of order.” Yet, true international order is possible only among self-governing, free societies: “[t]he world cannot remain half free and half in servitude. Each is a threat to the other.”
The idea ubiquitous among defenders of multilateralism—namely that free societies and the world’s tyrannies can jointly build a lasting peaceful order—is an illusion. Instead, we must place a much greater premium on cooperation and common governance mechanisms among recognizably free and self-governing societies. That might well include building alternative fora (think a UN, but only for liberal democracies) and enforcing the rules of the game within structures such as the WTO, NATO, or the European Union, which ought to discriminate between their members on the basis of their fidelity to these organizations’ basic values.
Most critically, rebuilding the international order along polycentric lines requires conservatives and classical liberals to become comfortable with the idea of self-governing nations being nested in a larger cooperative order, as opposed to seeing them as solipsistic atoms floating in an anarchic international system. But taking that step would not be an aberration, but a natural extension of those two intellectual traditions. As Vincent Ostrom puts it, “when we contemplate how the principles of polycentricity might apply to the whole system of human affairs, we are exploring the fuller implications of the American experiment.”