UCLA Undergraduates help Professor Barbara Koremenos Explore the "Continent of International Institutions"
This spring, the Burkle Center is sponsoring Professor Barbara Koremenos' undergraduate political science course on international law. Koremenos is an assistant professor in the political science department and specializes in international relations.
Published: Tuesday, March 29, 2005
One student stated: "I feel involved in the scholarly process in a way I haven't before; this class, more than any other Poli Sci class had made me see the value of pursuing a Ph.D. in Poli Sci."
When you ask Professor Barbara Koremenos what is distinct about international relations (IR), at least compared to the fields of American Politics, Comparative Politics, and Law, she will first share the traditional answer: anarchy – the absence of a world government. From her point of view, the significance of anarchy has been trumpeted to such a degree that IR is (to a great extent voluntarily) isolated from these other fields. But for Koremenos, this view of IR ignores an entire continent of institutions—including the over 50,000 international agreements that prescribe, proscribe, and/or authorize specific behavior. Moreover, Koremenos finds the institutional variation on the international continent to be tremendous, with differences ranging across multiple dimensions including the rules governing membership, voting, monitoring, punishments, and disputes.
While other fields find institutions worthy of study and have developed a set of tools, mostly rooted in economics, to explain them, IR has been slow to acknowledge the importance of international institutions in regulating state behavior. According to Koremenos, for many IR scholars, international institutions were thought to be of negligible value – a view becoming increasingly difficult to support with major institutions like the EU and WTO in the news weekly. And for Koremenos, who finds it hard to ignore the hundreds of agreements signed each year, they provide a challenging and fun research agenda. She says we cannot possibly understand IR if we have no idea how the actual institutions of cooperation work and through what means they have their impact on state behavior.
Koremenos' theoretical work focuses specifically on how to design international agreements. Like scholars in international law, she takes seriously the actual provisions and details of international agreements and organizations. Importantly, however, she goes beyond the descriptive work that characterizes much of international law and draws on economic contracting models (and related work in law and economics) to show how the right design can make international cooperation both more widespread and robust. The theoretical work excites her because, while there is an impressive body of theory in other disciplines, she has to be creative in how she adapts these models given "anarchy."
Her empirical work started off with historical case studies on agreements like the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the Antarctic Treaty. While still firmly believing in the importance of such work, she is now focusing most of her efforts on developing a data set of international agreements so that she can put her theoretical models to the large-n test. To help her pursue this research agenda, Koremenos was awarded a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award. In fact, she is one of only three political scientists to have earned this honor over the last ten years.
She states: "I never predicted I would be involved in such a huge project. But I was astonished that after over fifty years of intense debate in international relations theory, much of which turns on the question of the value and function of international agreements, no one had systematically collected data on any of their important dimensions. I found this especially puzzling given that such agreements have increased substantially since World War II. A few scholars have collected data on particular kinds of agreements, like multilateral environmental agreements or security alliances, but no one has looked systematically across the four major issue areas of security, economics, human rights, and environment; nor has anyone studied a random sample of agreements."
Importantly, the CAREER Award is an integrated research and teaching award, which suits Koremenos perfectly. As she puts it, "My teaching philosophy centers on using research to motivate learning. After all, research is learning. Thus, involving students in the excitement of original research, and of the research debates at the frontiers of the literature, really motivates them."
Since she started at UCLA, Koremenos' courses have tended to feature the latest publications and working papers and have been very well received by her students, as many of them had not previously been exposed to the intellectual stimulation and turmoil of an active research agenda – one not yet conveniently summarized in a textbook. In her undergraduate seminars, the students write a paper in which they apply newly developed theoretical models of international cooperation to new case studies. She states: "I have been extremely pleased by the quality of these papers. In fact, the findings of two undergraduate student papers are presented in the text of the concluding article of my International Organization special issue!" Indeed, one student stated: "I feel involved in the scholarly process in a way I haven't before; this class, more than any other Poli Sci class had made me see the value of pursuing a Ph.D. in Poli Sci."
Starting in 2001-2002, she began to integrate directly her NSF CAREER Award project with her undergraduate teaching. She states: "I can hardly express how impressed I was with the feedback the students gave me as we brainstormed about the survey instrument I was designing to code international agreements. At times almost all of the students drew on other courses in American and Comparative Politics in thinking about international agreements. For professors, what could be more heartening than seeing students take what they learn in our various classes, assimilate it, and thereby develop a more sophisticated understanding of political science?" One student commented that finally he feels that he is benefiting from being at a major research university. He has a renewed respect for the process of research. Getting a glimpse of the very beginning stages of a research agenda, he realizes that Koremenos will be working full time on this for many years.
After 30+ weeks of course-based training (including multiple codings of such dense agreements as the International Coffee Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the completion of an extensive term paper devoted to a particular agreement), approximately ten students began to code agreements. International agreements are written in a technical language that takes some time with which to become comfortable. Also, the actual coding of the agreements is a challenging, arduous task, with potentially hundreds of questions. It was not until some months after they began coding that they felt comfortable and confident with their work. Koremenos states, "It took quite a few meetings and communications with me and other coders before they began to gain a proper understanding of the 'spirit' of the project. But we were all patient and kept in mind that the work would result in the first comprehensive data set on international cooperation and law. I am delighted to report that the data set is now growing, and the intercoder reliability statistics are a testament to the training, intelligence, and effort of these students."
These students learned much from the project. Recently graduated Amin Ramzan called it the "best experience of his entire time at UCLA" and senior Abraham Tabaie, 2005 winner of the very prestigious UCLA Undergraduate of the Year Award, will pursue international law specifically because of this research. Emily Camastra is now about to go to Georgetown Law School to study international law. She had not even considered international law before taking courses with Koremenos. She states: "When Professor Koremenos allowed me to work on her research, I was immediately drawn to the project –'coding' treaties to analyze their structures in the context of international cooperation sounded completely fascinating. At first, I was skeptical that a professor would allow undergraduates to do any meaningful work, but I was quickly immersed in a world of withdrawal clauses, dispute resolutions, and compliance provisions. The more treaties I coded, the more I unearthed my passion for international law. In today's world, the forces of globalization are going to intensify the need for international cooperation, and I want to be a part of it. Working on Professor Koremenos' project inspired to spend a year abroad, to strengthen my language skills, and to decide to attend Georgetown University Law Centre in the fall. I am grateful to Barbara for many things; not only for inspiring my career goals, but also for trusting undergraduates enough to give us the opportunity to do what is almost unheard of at a large public university –namely, real hands-on research."
These students have been able to come out of their undergraduate years with an experience that few undergraduates ever have, first hand familiarity with political science research of a scholarly nature and a basic understanding of the most recent international law.
Koremenos is now ready to take the project to a large undergraduate lecture class, and thanks to the support of Geoff Garrett and the Burkle Center for International Relations, she will be able to do it. She states, "I'm teaching a course, 'International Law,' that has been on the books for a long time, but I am not going to teach it in the standard way. I want to introduce the students to the newest theoretical work on international law, most of which is written by political scientists. I want to highlight the relationship between international law and international politics. This will not be a model-UN type of experience. Rather, I will emphasize that trying to design international law without taking into account the usually selfish interests of states and the many constraints of the international environment is fruitless. I also will emphasize that the enforceability of agreements cannot be taken for granted to the degree it is in the domestic sphere and international agreement design must reflect that. To make these ideas come to life, I will make a special effort to relate the course material to current international topics, including peace agreements. And, of course, consistent with the NSF mandate of integrating teaching and research, I will teach them to design international agreements.
Taking the project to a group of 80+ students is a very labor-intensive project, and I could not have even considered it without the support of Geoff and the Burkle Center. Burkle is funding a full-time graduate TA to allow me not only to bring the NSF to the larger class; thanks to Geoff, I have added an extra honors section so that smaller groups of students can be given current cases and learn how to negotiate and write agreements. They will then present their 'treaties' to the larger class."
The top students in this class will move on to more intensive training over the summer to become Koremenos' second generation of international agreement coders. This is an exciting opportunity for UCLA students, an opportunity not given by most schools and by most political science departments. Koremenos states: "I am so very grateful to Geoff Garrett and the Burkle Center for believing in this project and having so much faith both in me and in the UCLA undergraduates."