The 3 I's

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The 3 I's stand for Ideas, Interests, and Institutions. An important group of concepts in International Political Economy, the 3 I's represent the main countervailing explanations in opposition to systemic theories of states' foreign economic policies. Whereas systemic theories affirm that the structure of the international system determines states' foreign economic policies such that international environment matters more than a state's individual characteristics, the 3 I's contend that domestic factors have a greater causal force in determining a state's actions. The concept of ideas was strongly supported by Keynes, interests by Rogowski, and institutions by North.

There are three primary ways of explaining the relationship between the 3 I's: competing explanations, multi-causal explanations, and mutually-determining variables explanations. The first view of the relationship, which is the traditional perspective, holds that ideas, interests, and institutions are mutually exclusive and that, ultimately, only one factor can explain a state's foreign economic policies. John Maynard Keynes believed ideas to have the greatest force of effect, as demonstrated by his famous quote about economists: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”[1] Even Adam Smith also espouses this view, when he writes: "Laws and government may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor".[2] The second view of the relationship holds that all 3 variables work independently, but are all necessary to affect the foreign policy decisions made by states. Thus, multiple causes (e.g. the lobbying of special interests, the ideas held by policy makers or intellectuals advising those policy makers, and the domestic institutions that guide and limit the ways by which the state can act) all work equally to determine final decisions. The third view of the relationship suggests that each of the three variables may work to determine the value of the other two. The power of an influential interest group could, for instance, enhance prospects for their ideas to be better received by others and also create institutions that may aid in future lobbying efforts.

Authors and Associated Ideas/Themes

Explaining trade
Ideas: Douglas Irwin
Interests: Ronald Rogowski
Institutions: Douglass North

Explaining the monetary system
Ideas: John Ikenberry, James A Morrison
Interests: Jeffry Frieden
Institutions: Karl Polanyi

See also

Corn Laws


  1. Keynes, John Maynard. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Chap.24 New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936.
  2. Smith, Adam. Lectures on Jurisprudence. Pg.208 Ed. R.R. Meek, D.D. Raphael, and P.G. Stein. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.