Dissertation Project

Agenda Setting in the United Nations: A Theory of Legislative Politics in International Organizations

Previous research on policymaking in international organizations (IOs) has focused on the policy outputs of such institutions, highlighting variation in hard power to explain which states’ preferences are reflected in policy outcomes. I argue that in order to explain outputs of IOs, we must attend to the legislative politics that condition the set of policy outputs, and concurrently develop a more nuanced understanding of power in legislative politics of IOs. I develop a theory of legislative politics in IOs to answer who decides what the United Nations (UN) works on, and how? I argue that small and medium states shape the set of policy outcomes through legislative politics, choosing from a menu of legislative strategies based on the expected costs and benefits associated with each strategy. Specifically, I compare agenda setting, electioneering, and information provision. I propose that variation in the success of legislative strategies depends not on the distribution of hard power, but the expenditure of interstate social capital, a dynamic form of soft power that is cultivated through state level and diplomat level features. I shed light on the puzzle of why some traditionally less powerful states are more active and effective in advancing policy goals through legislative strategies in IOs. To test this theory, I employ a multimethod approach, bringing to bear evidence from a variety of data sources and statistical techniques, case studies, and interviews to develop a holistic understanding of legislative politics in the UN and its implications, as well as other IO contexts in which the theory should hold.

Other Research in Progress

“Who Securitizes? Climate Change Discourse in the United Nations”

When and why do states reframe issues as security problems? Which states advocate for these shifts? While securitization theory predicts that states that are existentially
threatened by a problem are most likely to attempt to securitize it, I argue that accounting for the dynamics of institutional agendas can better explain this phenomenon. States
that stand to gain agenda control as a result of securitization are likely to use the language of existential threat in their speech, while those that are materially interested in the issue are less likely to do so. I test this theory in the case of the climate change in the UN, leveraging data on speeches in the General Assembly. I provide the first quantitative test of the securitization of climate politics, finding that P5 states securitize to expand their agenda control, while Small Island Developing States do not securitize, contra previous expectations. I further find that the overall climate discourse cannot be characterized as securitized. These findings imply that the Security Council is unlikely to be significantly involved in climate change policy, and also demonstrate the importance of rhetoric for political outcomes and for the distribution of state power within international organizations.

“Legal Precision and Legislative Networks in the UNGA and UNSC” (with Robert Shaffer)

How and why do bodies of law develop in international organizations (IOs)? Do the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) address issues on an ad hoc basis or “legalize” issues by establishing a precise, stable, and durable body of law? Does this process vary over time and by issue? To address these questions, we begin by developing a theory of legal precision in IOs. We identify two subcomponents of precision — consistency and precedent — and argue that states employ legal precision at least partly to provide political cover for controversial decisions. We then describe a machine learning-based approach designed to measure consistency and precedent, which we apply to a novel dataset of all UN resolutions passed from 1946-2018. We find that the UNGA and UNSC have developed distinct bodies of law over time, and that resolutions on more controversial topics–particularly security matters–are more precise.

Voting Against Cooperation: Congressional Opposition to the League of Nations (with Julia Gray)

What determines Congressional support for international cooperation, and how do partisan positions evolve? The Senate record on WWI-era proposals for international organizations provides a particularly interesting case. Public support for the League of Nations was extremely high, and the proposal initially bore the fingerprint of both parties as well as considerable US influence in its design. Despite initial bipartisan support, over a series of votes, the Senate voted these proposals down, and position-switching from both parties was common. We use original data capturing state-level interests — including civil society activities from the League to Enforce Peace, a central advocacy group — to test hypotheses on whether senators’ changing positions reflected constituent pressure, compared with hypotheses about party unity or increasing Congressional power. Better understanding the historical relationship between ideology, constituency preferences, and support for international cooperation could shed light on contemporary challenges to the international order.  

National Security and Climate Change Attitudes (with Michael Weisberg)

Previous studies have tested different means of communicating information on climate change to shift attitudes, including framing the issue in moral or economic terms, as well as credibility effects of scientific sources. These strategies have generally been ineffective at moving attitudes on climate change, and in some instances have even resulted in decreasing support.

Noting the key demographic groups to target with climate communication, this project proposes a novel test of framing and source effects. We hypothesize (1) that discussing climate change as a national security issue is likely to increase public support for climate change policies through framing effects; (2) that information on climate change delivered by national security establishment leaders is likely to increase public support for climate change policies through source effects; and (3) that these effects are likely to be most pronounced among conservative and Republican demographics.