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The Regime Environment of Environmental Regimes: Conceptualizing, Theorizing and and Examining Conflicts among International Regimes on Environmental Issues

  • Fariborz Zelli
Publishing year: 2010
Language: English
Document type: Dissertation
Publisher: University of Tübingen

Abstract english

The thesis scrutinizes an emerging phenomenon in international relations: the increase in functional overlaps among international regimes. I approach this young field of study in three consecutive parts.

The first part conceptualizes regime overlaps as ‘regime conflicts’. Following a broad sociological understanding of ‘conflict’, I define a regime conflict as an overlap among two or more international regimes, consisting of a significant contradiction of rules and / or rule-related behavior. This contradiction is based on a positional difference among actors over contested issues which fall into the jurisdictions of the involved regimes. I then develop an encompassing typology of regime conflicts. Two primary criteria target the behavioral nature of a conflict (latent or manifest) and the permissive or prohibitive character of the colliding rules (direct or indirect). Two sets of secondary criteria are: a) properties of the affected regimes: functions of the colliding rules (constitutive or operational); problem structures (single-domain or cross-domain); geographical scopes (global or regional); b) properties of the conflicts i.e. the positional difference: conflict arena (regime-internal or regime-external); conflict parties (governments, bureaucracies and / or non-state actors); intentionality (intended or non-intended). I illustrate the resulting types and sub-types with a series of brief case descriptions of conflicts among environmental and trade regimes. The first part concludes with definitions of two further terms, conflict transformation and conflict management.

The second part establishes a theoretical framework to study the consequences of regime conflicts for the involved regimes. I adopt two independent variables from major theories of international regimes: the power structure and the knowledge structure in which the competing regimes are embedded. The dependent variable, regime prevalence, is framed as the stronger development of output (i.e. norms and rules) on the matters that are contested among the regimes. This prevalence is not only signaled by the output that the colliding regimes themselves produce, but also by rules and norms developed in third international institutions (inasmuch as they concern the contested issues). Indicators for the quality of output are its degrees of stringency, delegation and inclusiveness, the latter carrying the most weight. I introduce four context variables. The ‘conflict structure’ comprises the problem and situation structures of the contested issues. A benign conflict structure can support the causal effects of both independent variables, while a malign one may obstruct these effects. Another context variable, the decision structures of the colliding regimes, may only modify the consequences of the power structure. In turn, two other factors can alter the effects of the knowledge structure: the demand from regime parties for scientific input on the contested issue(s) as well as the openness of the involved regimes to scientific advice.

Based on these various context factors, the independent and dependent variables, and the assumed causalities among them, I introduce two configurational hypothesis: 1. on the effect of the power structure, holding that, if context factors are favorable, the regime supported by the most powerful coalition of countries will prevail; 2. on the effect of the knowledge structure, holding that, if context factors are favorable, the regime supported by the stronger and more wide-spread basis of knowledge will prevail. I then establish conflict management as an intervening variable and discuss the causal mechanisms underlying the two hypotheses. Finally, two rival explanations are introduced: bureaucratic authority and leadership; and the influence of transnational civil society and business actors. Altogether, these elements constitute a three-layered research design to test the two hypotheses through 1. covariation analysis (of independent, dependent and context variables); 2. process analysis (of intervening variable and causal mechanisms); and 3. analysis of rival explanations.

For the application of this framework, I choose the conflict between the UN climate regime and the world trade regime. I identify two major sets of contested issues among both regimes: trade-related policies and measures; and trade in emission allowances. The key finding of the in-depth analysis in the third part of the thesis is: the most powerful coalition of countries, led by the US, predominantly shaped the consequences of the regime conflict under scrutiny – leading to the prevalence of the World Trade Organization. The power-based hypothesis is confirmed in every analytical step, whereas the knowledge-based hypothesis does not pass the first hurdle of the covariation test. In the conclusions, I review these results and translate them into policy propositions: two options for issue-linking which could revive currently stalled management efforts for the climate-trade conflict.


  • Frank Biermann (Prof.)


  • Political Science


  • Miljöpolitik-lup-obsolete
Fariborz Zelli
E-mail: fariborz.zelli [at]

Senior lecturer

Department of Political Science

+46 46 222 47 64




Fariborz is director of the NAVIGOV project. He received the outstanding Ph.D. thesis award of the University of Tübingen and the award for outstanding teaching performance of the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

Department of Political Science
Lund University
Visiting address: Paradisgatan 5H (House: Eden)
Postal address: Box 52, SE-221 00 LUND
Telephone: +46 46-222 89 52

Faculty of Social Sciences