This paper analyzes how key features of international institutions that reflect the depth of cooperation affect participation. We derive a set of arguments from the enforcement, managerial and rational design literatures and test these arguments on a new dataset that covers more than 200 global environmental treaties since 1950. We find very little support for the enforcement school’s claim of a depth versus participation dilemma: the 2 specificity of obligations has only a minor and statistically insignificant negative effect on participation rates (measured by treaty ratifications). The existence of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms has no significant effect either, and results for variables capturing other forms of delegating authority (e.g. treaty-specific secretariat, decisionmaking rules) are mixed. In contrast, we find more support for the managerial and rational design schools’ arguments: assistance provisions in treaties have a significant and substantial positive effect on participation. Similarly, most dispute settlement mechanisms promote treaty participation. While countries do not appear to stay away from treaties that mandate deeper cooperation, the inclusion of positive incentives and dispute resolution mechanisms promotes the formation of international institutions.