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Many proponents of the “liberal peace” argue that shared membership in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) reduces military conflict. Numerous studies find that IGOs both prevent and resolve interstate disputes.1 Others find that joining IGOs helps solidify democracy in member states (Pevehouse 2005; Mansfield and Pevehouse 20062008) and confers reputational benefits by allowing states to signal their commitment to multilateralism and nonaggression (Alcaniz 2012). The sources of demand for IGO membership therefore seem clear: States with transitional or fragile domestic institutions, or those in need of greater international legitimacy, desire membership in order to ensure peace, enhance their credibility, and reap the benefits of multilateral cooperation. But this raises an important question about the supply sideof membership. Why should an IGO want to admit such states in the first place? Consider Georgia's determined but unsuccessful quest for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO's existing members consistently decline to grant Georgia a Membership Action Plan and thus set it on the road to membership, out of concern over its ongoing risk of conflict with Russia (Razoux 2009). Current research examining the effect of IGO membership on conflict fails to account for this logic of selection—namely that IGOs may favor the admission of more peaceful states.

We argue that international organizations have incentives to guard against the admission of risky new members. We focus on the security riskposed by prospective member states, which we operationalize using a recently developed composite measure of a state's ex ante level of external threat (Nordhaus, Oneal, and Russett 2012). Starting from the basic premise that IGOs exist to reduce conflict and facilitate interstate cooperation, we outline three mechanisms through which security risk undermines their effectiveness. First, risky new members threaten to divert institutional resources away from cooperation-enhancing activities. Second, they disrupt relations among member states, leading to institutional deadlock and paralysis. And third, they entangle other members in their disputes. These considerations supply incentives for IGOs to screen out conflict-prone new members. We argue, further, that institutionalized IGOs and security-oriented IGOs should be particularly sensitive to risk. These incentives to screen, as well as constrain (Von Stein 2005), in turn affect our ability to draw inferences about the causal effect of IGO membership on interstate conflict. In order to grasp fully whether—and how—IGOs promote peace, we must first understand what determines IGO membership.

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