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Drifting Apart: International Institutions in Crisis and the Management of Dissociation Processes

Brexit, US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement under President Trump and the demise of security cooperation between Russia and the West are reminders that international cooperation is fragile. States dissociate themselves from international institutions – either by formally withdrawing their membership, by ignoring their commitments or by creating alternative institutions. The DRIFTS project, coordinated by HSFK, explores the tensions between states that result from these dissociation processes.
Leibniz Association, 2019-2021


Matthias Dembinski
Dirk Peters
Mikhail Polianskii
Elke Seefried
Agnes von Bressendorf
Susanne Maslanka
Frank Bösch
Daniel Walter
German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)
Leibniz Research Alliance "Crises in a Globalised World"
Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam
Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research

Research Questions

The project seeks to establish how processes of dissociation from international institutions contribute to the rise or mitigation of tensions between states. It focuses, in particular, on the role that the management of these dissociation processes plays and compares its significance for tension levels during past and present dissociation processes.

Contribution to International Research

The project makes a contribution to existing research on international institutions by focusing on a so-far understudied aspect: the drifting apart of states from such institutions, which can take a range of different forms. The project takes an interdisciplinary approach by including political scientists and historians. All participating institutes are internationally recognized and well-connected centers of excellence in their respective fields.

Research Design and Methods

Given the nascent state of the field, this project has an explorative character. It seeks to establish, through the comparison of in-depth case studies, the effect that the management of dissociation processes has on the level of tensions between states. It does so by tracing the interaction processes during periods of dissociation to reconstruct how states contributed to the rise or the mitigation of tensions. The five in-depth case studies are:

- Iran's dissociation from cooperation with the West since the late 1970s (ZZF)
- Russia's dissociation from European security cooperation since the 2000s (PRIF)
- The Soviet Union and the Dissociation of East Central European states from the Warsaw Pact (IFZ)
- China's dissociation from global financial institutions since the 2000s (GIGA)
- The UK's dissociation from the European Union since 2015 (PRIF)

The project examines these five cases in what Alexander George (1979) termed the method of "structured, focused comparison". The dissociation processes are studied in detail but according to a common structure so as to make it possible to compare the results of the case studies and identify cross-case patterns. The individual case studies will employ process tracing – a method that is amenable both to case-oriented political scientists and historians.

Preliminary Findings

China’s dissociation from the global financial architecture represents a case of alternative institution building. The GIGA's ongoing case study explores how this process of dissociation influences the US-Chinese relationship and contributes to the tensions between the two rivals.


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