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“The Rational Design of International Institutions” (special issue of IO, Autumn 2001) makes a significant contribution to the theoretical literature on international institutions. It is important, however, to recognize the limits of both the Rational Design project in its current form and the conclusions that can be drawn from the special issue about the project's usefulness and validity. This article evaluates the project on its own terms, as a rationalist attempt to explain variation in international institutions. I identify three significant sets of limitations: those of the scope of the project, those of the analytical framework, and those of the efforts that are made to evaluate the framework through empirical analysis. Although the first set of limitations is largely a matter of choice, the last two raise questions about how much of an advance the special issue in fact represents. Nevertheless, these shortcomings are not absolute—they can be remedied through further theoretical and empirical research.


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Cambridge University Press in Duffield, John S. “The Limits of ‘Rational Design’,” International Organization 56, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 411-30.