Regime theory, as well as functionalist integration theory before it, conceived of international institutions primarily as tools. In this conception, international organizations that were not part of a "regime" were irrelevant. UNEP, which was not in itself a regime or part of one, was therefore unimportant. In broadening the conception of institutions to entertain the possibility that institutions can be independent variables, we see the important differences between formal organizations and less formal institutions.
Krasner has argued that international regimes can "feed back" on the structural factors that created them, thus having an autonomous effect. Formal organizations, however, can go a step further: they can deliberately seek to change the system, design strategies to do so, and attempt to implement the strategies. They can attain the status of "actors." And even if they remain weak in traditional power factors, they can make a difference in negotiations and in outcomes.
The broad theoretical conclusion of this chapter is that, in assessing the roles of IOs in general, and especially with respect to environmental issues, the lens of regime theory focuses on only one of two broad roles that IOs can play. This narrow focus may lead to misunderstanding not only the actual and potential role of IOs, but also the reasons cooperation occurs (or does not) and who the relevant actors are. Regime theory is better at explaining the reasons for creating IOs than the effects they might have once created.
To assess the potential importance of IOs in environmental cooperation, then, two potential roles of IOs must be examined: the I0 as tool and the I0 as independent advocate. There is dissent concerning the necessity of IOs as tools to implement state interests. On issues defined as problems of coordination, IOs may be needed only to help states overcome the complexity of issues to arrive at coordination equilibria. On issues that remain traditional prisoner's dilemmas or commons problems, states will remain concerned that others will exploit them, and IOs will be needed to increase confidence in compliance.
As independent actors, international organizations may be expected to play a significant role in the debate on environmental cooperation. Increased autonomy of IOs on some environmental issues and the increased needs of states to rely on them for information and coordination will allow those organizations with unified leadership and significant resources to have independent effects.
The power of IOs will vary greatly by organization and by issue, and IOs will not be able to overcome the wishes of determined states on highly politicized issues. But these constraints may leave more room for IO action on the environment than on trade and security issues. This potential role for IOs merits further study by advocates and students of international environmental cooperation.