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Why are some international agreements informal?


  • Lipson, Charles


Informal agreements are the most common form of international cooperation and the least studied. Ranging from simple oral deals to detailed executive agreements, they permit states to conclude profitable bargains without the formality of treaties. They differ from treaties in more than just a procedural sense. Treaties are designed, by long-standing convention, to raise the credibility of promises by staking national reputation on their adherence. Informal agreements have a more ambiguous status and are useful for precisely that reason. They are chosen to avoid formal and visible national pledges, to avoid the political obstacles of ratification, to reach agreements quickly and quietly, and to provide flexibility for subsequent modification or even renunciation. They differ from formal agreements not because their substance is less important (the Cuban missile crisis was solved by informal agreement) but because the underlying promises are less visible and more equivocal. The prevalence of such informal devices thus reveals not only the possibilities of international cooperation but also the practical obstacles and the institutional limits to endogenous enforcement.

Suggested Citation

  • Lipson, Charles, 1991. "Why are some international agreements informal?," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 45(04), pages 495-538, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:45:y:1991:i:04:p:495-538_03

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. repec:spr:revint:v:12:y:2017:i:4:d:10.1007_s11558-017-9274-3 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. D.G. Victor & O. Greene & J. Lanchberry & J.C. di Primio & A. Korula, 1994. "Review Mechanisms in the Effective Implementation of International Environmental Agreements," Working Papers wp94114, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
    3. Bernauer, Thomas & Kalbhenn, Anna & Koubi, Vally & Ruoff, Gabi, 2010. "On commitment levels and compliance mechanisms: Determinants of participation in global environmental agreements," Center for European, Governance and Economic Development Research Discussion Papers 94, University of Goettingen, Department of Economics.
    4. Barbara Koremenos, 2013. "What’s left out and why? Informal provisions in formal international law," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 8(2), pages 137-162, June.
    5. repec:got:cegedp:94 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Thomas Christiansen & Christine Neuhold, 2013. "Informal Politics in the EU," Journal of Common Market Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 51(6), pages 1196-1206, November.
    7. Thomas Bernauer & Anna Kalbhenn & Vally Koubi & Gabriele Spilker, 2013. "Is there a “Depth versus Participation” dilemma in international cooperation?," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 8(4), pages 477-497, December.
    8. Christopher Marcoux & Johannes Urpelainen, 2013. "Non-compliance by design: Moribund hard law in international institutions," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 8(2), pages 163-191, June.
    9. Gabriele Spilker & Vally Koubi, 2016. "The effects of treaty legality and domestic institutional hurdles on environmental treaty ratification," International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, Springer, vol. 16(2), pages 223-238, April.
    10. Felicity Vabulas & Duncan Snidal, 2013. "Organization without delegation: Informal intergovernmental organizations (IIGOs) and the spectrum of intergovernmental arrangements," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 8(2), pages 193-220, June.
    11. Mareike Kleine, 2013. "Knowing your limits: Informal governance and judgment in the EU," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 8(2), pages 245-264, June.
    12. Oliver Westerwinter, 2015. "Joost Pauwelyn, Ramses A. Wessel and Jan Wouters (Eds.). 2012. Informal international lawmaking. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)," The Review of International Organizations, Springer, vol. 10(1), pages 97-101, March.

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