international treaties, if treaties were broken, states had to resort to self-help to assert their rights. States in a balance of power system are not “held accountable” in any meaningful sense, although they may be constrained by coercion or the threat thereof.
Similarly, the economic interdependence of states creates constraints, but states that are bargaining for advantage on economic issues are not necessarily held accountable to one another. States in the 19th century engaged in bilateral tariff negotiations, confronting limits on their ability to achieve their objectives. But since they had undertaken no prior obligations by joining multilateral institutions, there was no accountability process involved.
There is another important mode of constraining the powerful that must be distinguished from accountability. “Checks and balances” are mechanisms designed to prevent action that oversteps legitimate boundaries by requiring the cooperation of different actors to produce an authoritative decision. Accountability mechanisms, on the other hand, always operate after the fact; exposing actions to view, judging and sanctioning them. The executive veto power in the U.S. Constitution is part of a system of checks and balances. The impeachment power is an accountability mechanism. Of course, though they always operate ex post, accountability mechanisms can exert effects ex ante, since the anticipation of sanctions may deter the powerful from abusing their positions in the first place.
Our focus in this article is on the role of accountability mechanisms in world politics. What kinds of accountability mechanisms are likely to be effective in constraining international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund? Should we think about accountability in the same way when