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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Devilish straits: re-interpreting the source of Boundary Waters Treaty success Wright, Graham


The Devils Lake defection of 2005 demands a re-evaluation of the venerable Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) between Canada and the United States. Why was the long-successful water agreement unable to solve this relatively minor dispute? More importantly, given irregularities between theoretical assertions and institutional history, what theory of international relations best explains a cooperative agreement that spans a near-century? Due to the complexities of shared river systems, any theory that seeks to explain international cooperation must adequately encompass three separate sources of state motivation. First, it must explain the technical, basin-position-driven realities that affect state attitudes towards negotiations. Second, it must explain the longer-term strategic factors that can inspire states to accept immediate losses for subsequent gains. Finally, it must acknowledge domestic sources of influence and understand how these forces constrain the state vis-à-vis others. This paper argues that liberalism, as defined by Andrew Moravcsik, is the best theoretical candidate. This is proven by comparing interpretations of the BWT history through realist, neoliberal, constructivist, and liberal lenses. After identifying and examining each theory's strengths and weaknesses, liberalism emerges as the most holistic view and should be favoured as a primary explanatory theory. Liberalism's theoretical underpinnings – interest group politics – best handles the technical, strategic, and domestic influences that affect Canada-US water relations. Whether examining what prompted efforts to initiate a water-sharing agreement, explaining the agreement's final structure, determining the impetus for continued cooperation, or identifying the incentives to finally break from treaty obligations, liberalism provides the most satisfying solutions. Though derived from the Canada-US border relationship, liberalism's superiority is not limited to the North American watershed. Because the factors examined are common to all shared international river systems and the paper's results are scalable, this suggests that liberalism will continue to be the appropriate primary IR theory to employ when examining state decision-making regarding water-sharing agreements.

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