Looking at the Dark Side: The Need for Broadening the Concept and Empirical Scope of Global Cooperation Research

Frank Gadinger and Philip Liste

Global cooperation has traditionally been addressed as a practice to escape the brute consequences of international anarchy as well as a means to avoid harmful and, more often than not, violent international conflict. As a concept, cooperation has a rather positive connotation, particularly for most political scientists and International Relations (IR) scholars. While historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and cultural studies scholars have arguably been aware of the ‘dark side’ of cooperation, for example in empirical fields such as slavery (e.g. Drescher 2009), the Holocaust (e.g. Kühl 2014), colonialism (e.g. Pahuja 2011), and racism (Lake and Reynolds 2008), political scientists and IR scholars have focused on the ‘bright side’ of cooperation instead, for example in issues of climate change and human rights. Similar to the overly optimistic belief in the positive effects of norms for social ordering (e.g. Risse et al. 1999), which rather downplays the role of power relations, contestation, and practices of exclusion and stratification (see recently, however, Fehl and Freistein 2020; Pouliot 2016; Wiener 2020), research on cooperation – particularly in terms of rationalist institutionalism – has mainly worked with the hidden normative assumption that cooperation is per se desirable and in any case better than no cooperation.

‘To inquire about the moral value of cooperation’, as Robert Keohane (1984: 10) holds, ‘is partly to ask about the ends for which it is pursued’. Indeed, where the ends of cooperation are to be achieved to the detriment of third actors, the moral value of the cooperative endeavour is put into question. Cooperation is not necessarily an end in itself; it is not per se ‘good.’ The aim of this Quarterly Magazine issue is to start a reflection on the dark sides of cooperation and provide some research examples – ranging from tax avoidance through techniques of law, global supply chains, disinformation through internet platforms, racist practices by the ‘Old Right’ to Petrocapitalism in the Niger delta – to demonstrate the need for broadening the empirical scope in global cooperation research. Starting with the question of who cooperates for what purposes and to whose benefit, we seek to elaborate, what we preliminarily refer to as, the normative infrastructure of dark cooperation.

Normative infrastructure, as we understand and definite it, is a regulatory framework that enables (only) certain forms of interactions. For example, an enabling condition for a partial (or partially beneficial) form of cooperation may be an opportunity to make the potentially harmful or immoral net effects of interactions invisible. It is darkness that favours secret dealings. While scholars in IR have traditionally debated how international regimes enable cooperation, i.e. by reducing transaction costs (Keohane 1984: 90; see also Grieco 1988), we suggest turning to earlier approaches in legal theory and other critical traditions stressing that law structures usually power-laden relations among actors (Hale 1923).

The aim is thus to stress that, more often than not, the ‘legal code’ (Pistor 2019) tends to provide an infrastructure that benefits some while disadvantaging others. We assume that this critical insight into the dark sides of cooperation productively informs our understanding of global cooperation, which is characterized by an ongoing proliferation of global governance mechanisms, the fragmentation of inter- and transnational law, and the emergence of polycentric structures of governing (Gadinger and Scholte forthcoming a). A blurry situation such as this raises fundamental questions, for instance, ‘Who and/or what makes and applies the rules that (dis)order contemporary society?’ (Gadinger and Scholte forthcoming b: 3). It also points to the conceptual and methodological challenge that contemporary governance arrangements are characterized by a ‘transscalar, transsectoral, dispersed, variable, messy, elusive [and] headless mode of governing’ (Gadinger and Scholte forthcoming b: 10). The increasing complexity of global regulatory frameworks arguably affects the distribution of cooperative gains (Mattli 2019). In the transnational constellation, in other words, a ‘new obscurity’ (Habermas 1986) provides new opportunities for the ‘creation of darkness’.

While we would generally agree that ‘a world without any cooperation would be dismal indeed’ (Keohane 1984: 11), work in international studies has recently moved towards a more critical stance on global governance institutions, e.g. by asking for whose benefit regulatory frameworks operate (Mattli and Woods 2009), or by establishing analytical distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad governance’ (Mattli 2019). In doing so, this new body of work not only allows for asking ‘dismal to whom?’ but also for scrutinizing the governance mechanisms by which advantages and disadvantages are distributed across various groups in world society.

In this regard, Ian Hurd (2022: 2) points to at least three problems of what he calls the ‘cooperation assumption,’ which follows the underlying notion of a liberal model of the separation of ‘law’ from ‘politics’:

as a research method, it avoids questions about who gains and who loses from international institutions; as a normative theory, it offers a moral justification for international institutions that precedes empirical evidence on their actual effects; as a policy advise, its deference to international institutions helps enact the interests of those who write and interpret the rules.

For Hurd (2022: 2), global governance scholars who adopt the unreflective cooperation premise should be alert to its biases and costs as they assume that global governance follows from mutual interests pursued through cooperation and naturally interpret international institutions as devices aimed at the common good.

For scholars working, say, in a Marxist, Feminist or Postcolonial tradition, this is not the latest news. Neo-Gramscians, for instance, stress how a ‘new constitutionalism’ enables and furthers the workings of neoliberal capitalism and corresponding structures of global inequality (Gill and Cutler 2014). For B.S. Chimni (2004), international institutions such as the United Nations or the Bretton Woods institutions favour the dealings of a ‘transnational capitalist class’. For Henk Overbeek (2023: 284), we are currently ‘witnessing a shift in the global political economy away from this market-oriented, highly privatized mode of governance towards a power-based international order with an emphasis on inter-state rivalry and bargaining’ and the need for critical scholars to explore ‘the invisible power structures that determine the exercise and legitimation of political rule’.

Scholars in the tradition of postcolonial theory believe these power structures and hierarchies to be reproduced in current modes and practices of governing, for example through Eurocentric conceptions of world politics (Hobson 2012) which have marginalized accounts of decolonization that develop new notions of world making beyond empire (Getachew 2019). Similarly, feminist scholars have traditionally turned to the workings of male networks and how the corresponding forms of exclusive cooperation result in an ongoing reproduction of gender inequalities (e.g. Marchand 2023). In the critical strands of legal studies, turning to the nexus of law and power and the ongoing reproduction of inequalities through law is well-established (Hale 1923; Koskenniemi 1990). In a widely acclaimed book, Katharina Pistor (2019) recently ties in with this thread of discussion by turning to law as the ‘code of capital.’

The central similarity of these critical studies is their emphasis on what we suggest calling a normative infrastructure of dark cooperation. The term normative infrastructure is inspired by different concepts such as ‘legal infrastructures’ (Hadfield 2016), ‘epistemic infrastructures’ (Knorr Cetina 1999), and multiple ‘orders of worth’ (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). It underlines the close linkage between orders and practices in governing arrangements and puts emphasis on the role of materiality and objects, practical knowledge as well as fluid notions of power, authority and legitimacy. Such a practice-oriented perspective implies to consider the various material activities and routines by political actors in the often-overlooked everyday life, such as filling out a bureaucratic form or using a distinct computer technology, which shape and reproduce governing mechanisms in issues of global cooperation.

The authors of this volume share the common goal of exploring the (dark) entanglement between cooperative practices and techniques (e.g. specialized knowledge and expertise) in different empirical fields and the (re-)production of regulatory frameworks that enable these practices as dynamic normative infrastructures. As the editors and contributors of this issue come from different disciplinary traditions in humanities and social sciences, they work with a variety of concepts and methodologies and describe and interpret the dark side of cooperation in different vocabularies, which is one of the explicit aims of this interdisciplinary research endeavour.

Furthermore, we assume that in the transnational constellation normative infrastructures have become hyper-complex. Authoritative decisions on all kinds of political, economic or social matters are no longer taken in clearly demarcated centres, but at times operate simultaneously in different places. Against this backdrop of polycentric governing, the orchestration of regulatory practice becomes a challenge (Abbott and Snidal 2009). In this regard, Andreas Fischer-Lescano and Gunther Teubner (2004) have observed ‘regime collisions,’ that is, situations in which different regimes come to diverging regulatory decisions while attempting to govern one and the same social phenomenon. Yet, we assume that the related modes of polycentric governing also create opportunities for dark cooperation, since socially harmful or immoral practices can be made invisible – i.e., moved ‘into the dark’ – through creative uses of a fragmented and polycentric normative infrastructure.

Examples are certain forms of tax arbitrage (Liste 2022), cybercrime in the darknet (Lusthaus 2018), distinct forms of surveillance and counterterrorism measures (de Goede and Sullivan 2016), networks of the global far-right (Abrahamsen et al. 2020), or uses of exploitative labour in supply chain capitalism (Scheper 2017). Such examples show, on the one hand, that cooperation in the dark often works in a social sense with similar mechanisms than in plain sight, including trust, reciprocity and communication (Lusthaus 2018). On the other hand, it demonstrates, for instance in the case of the war on terror, that material objects such as security lists in terms of terrorist sanctions, No-Fly, or risky banking clients (de Goede and Sullivan 2016) as well as seemingly apolitical objects and artefacts like flight-dates at airports or expense reports in hotels, which evidence the hidden practice of ‘extraordinary renditions’ (Gadinger 2020), provide analytical entry-points for revealing cooperative practices on the dark side.

It is against this background that we seek to stimulate new theoretical and empirical studies on cooperation by starting with the question of who cooperates for what purposes and to whose benefit. In this respect, the contributions of this issue deal with the following questions:

  • How is cooperative practice enabled and structured through the normative infrastructures in the transnational constellation and to what extent do these infrastructures benefit from the polycentric nature of governing today?
  • Which specific practices and techniques of dark cooperation can be observed in different empirical fields (e.g. finance, security, global value chains) and how do these change and reproduce polycentric normative infrastructures in their global and regional contexts?
  • Which policy fields in global cooperation are particularly prone to the ‘dark side’ and how do the various political actors delegitimize (think of whistleblowers and protest movements) and legitimize (e.g. global corporations, governments) existing practices and their underlying normative infrastructures?


The major aim of this is to continue the emerging conceptual discussions on the notion of cooperation (e.g. Hurd 2022) and to consider its rather unexplored ‘dark side’ in different empirical fields by studying concrete practices in their normative infrastructures. A further aim for the continuation of this (hopefully) emerging research agenda is to bring scholars from different disciplines and research fields together – e.g. socio-legal scholars, practice theorists, cultural anthropologists, historians, and governance researchers – who work mostly independent from each other, and to encourage them to start an overdue conversation on promising conceptual vocabularies and research methodologies for studying governing today.


Abbott, Kenneth W. and Duncan Snidal (2009). ‘Strengthening International Regulation Through Transnational New Governance: Overcoming the Orchestration Deficit’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, 42(2): 501–578.

Abrahamsen, Rita, Drolet, Jean-Francois, Gheciu, Alexandra, Narita, Karin, Vucetic, Srdjan and Williams, Michael (2020). ‘Confronting the International Political Sociology of the New Right’, International Political Sociology 14(1): 94–107.

Boltanski, Luc and Thévenot, Laurent (2006). On Justification: Economies of Worth, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chimni, Bhupinder S. (2004). ‘International Institutions Today: An Imperial State in the Making’, European Journal of International Law 15(1): 1–37.

De Goede, Marieke and Sullivan, Gavin (2016). ‘The Politics of Security Lists: Environment and Planning, Society and Shape 34(1):67–88.

Drescher, Seymour (2009). Abolotion: A History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer-Lescano, Andreas and Teubner, Gunther (2004). Regime-Collisions: The Vain Search for Legal Unity in the Fragmentation of Global Law, Michigan Journal of International Law 25(4): 999–1046.

Freistein, Katja and Fehl, Caroline (2020). ‘Organising Global Stratification: How International Organisations (Re)Produce Inequalities in International Society’, Global Society 34(3): 285–303.

Gadinger, Frank. (2020) ‘Sehen als Praxis: Visuelle Strategien der Kritik und die Ausstellung "Terror Incognitus"’, in Gabi Schlag and Axel Heck (eds), Visualität und Weltpolitik,  Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 277–310.

Gadinger, Frank and Scholte, Jan Aart (forthcoming a) (eds). Polycentrism: How Governing Works Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadinger, Frank and Scholte, Jan Aart (forthcoming b). ‘An Introduction to Polycentric Governing’, in Frank Gadinger and Jan Aart Scholte (eds), Polycentrism: How Governing Works Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3–28.

Gill, Stephen, and Cutler, A. Claire (2014) (eds). New Constitutionalism and World Order, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grieco, Joseph M. (1988). ‘Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism’, International Organization 42(3): 485–507.

Habermas, Jürgen (1986). ‘The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies’, translated by Phillip Jacobs, Philosophy & Social Criticism 11(2): 1–18.

Hadfield, Gillian Kereldena (2016). Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hale, Robert L. (1923). ‘Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State’, Political Science Quarterly 38(3): 470–494.

Hurd, Ian (2022). ‘The Case Against International Cooperation, International Theory, 14(2): 263–284.

Keohane, Robert (1984). After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kühl, Stefan (2014). Ganz normale Organisationen, Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Knorr Cetina, Karin (1999). Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Koskenniemi, Martti (1990). The Politics of International Law: European Journal of International Law, 1: 4–32.

Liste, Philip. (2022). Tax Robbery Incorporated: The Transnational Legal Infrastructures of Tax Arbitrage, Global Cooperation Research Paper, No. 30, Duisburg: Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research (KHK/GCR21).

Lusthaus, Jonathan (2018). Industry of Anonymity: Inside the Business of Cybercrime, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marchand, Marianne H. (forthcoming). ‘Polycentric Governing From an Intersectional and Transnational Feminst Perspective: New Openings and Opportunities for Women’s Voices From the Global South?’, in Frank Gadinger and Jan Aart Scholte (eds), Polycentrism: How Governing Works Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 325–346.

Mattli, Walter (2019). Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mattli, Walter and Woods, Ngaire (2009). The Politics of Global Regulation, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Overbeek, Henk (forthcoming). ‘Polycentric Governing: A Marxist Interpretation’, in Frank Gadinger and Jan Aart Scholte (eds), Polycentrism: How Governing Works Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 283–304.

Pahuja, Sundhya (2011). Decolonising International Law. Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pistor, Katharina (2019). The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pouliot, Vincent (2016). International Pecking Orders, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scheper, Christian (2017). ‘Labour Networks Under Supply Chain Capitalism: The Politics of the Bangladesh Accord’, Development and Change 48(5): 1069–1088.

Wiener, Antje (2020). Contestation and Constitution of Norms in Global International Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About the Authors

Frank GadingerFrank Gadinger is a Senior Researcher and research group leader at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen. His main research interests lie in the practice turn in IR, political narratives, visual global politics, critical security studies and the rise of populism. His publications have appeared in journals such as European Journal of International Security, International Political Sociology, International Studies Quarterly, Leviathan, Narrative Culture, and Review of International Studies.

Contact:  gadinger@gcr21.uni-due.de


Philip Liste is a Professor of Political Science with a focus on the politics of human rights at the University of Applied Sciences Fulda. He was a research fellow and research group leader at the KHK/GCR21 (2018/2019). His research focuses on human rights critiques, global tax governance, international relations, law and society studies, and transnational legal theory.

Contact:  philip.liste@sk.hs-fulda.de