International Organization Research Paper

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1. Definition

The term International Organization (IO) refers to norms of conduct and processes of interaction among more than 6,000 (1999) concrete organizations and their members, bureaucracies wishing to attain objectives that are seen by them as unrealizable without cooperating across political and organizational boundaries. Of these 6,000 IOs, 254 (170 in 1962) were entities whose membership was composed of states (IGOs), such as the United Nations (UN) and the Caribbean Community; another 5,766 (1,542 in 1962) represent private associations with international objectives (NGOs), such as Doctors Without Borders and the European Confederation of Free Trade Unions; 72 percent of the IGOs and of the NGOs represent a regional, as opposed to a universal, constituency. (Yearbook of International Organizations, 1998–9, Vol. 3, App. 3, Table l; 1962–3, Vol. 2, pp. 15 and 19, as amended by author’s computations from tables of content of Parts I, II, III, IV; count based on the Yearbook’s categories A, B, C, D only; Murphy 1994.)

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1.1 Cooperation In International Relations Theory

The terms cooperation, collaboration, and coordination are widely used but do not have identical connotations in international relations theories. Realists and neorealists doubt the possibility of institutionalizing cooperation across borders but agree with other practitioners of utilitarian rational choice approaches, notably neoliberal institutionalists, in attaching the specific technical meanings to each term used by game theory. For constructivists, peace theorists, and world systems theorists, to collaborate (or cooperate, or coordinate) means that the actors in question have achieved a consensus, often temporary, that their objectives (or interests or values) coincide sufficiently so as to make joint action more effective than individual action. Although these schools agree that in many cases consensus varies with the nature of the issues, the schools disagree in assigning reasons for the differential patterns of cooperation. But without belief in the efficacy of and the need for cooperation there can be no IOs, either in theory or in the practice of actors.

1.2 Organization, Institution, Or Regime?

The term ‘international institution’ is often used interchangeably with IO. IOs are instances of the attempted institutionalization of overarching norms to govern state and private behavior. But the notion of institution is much broader since it refers to any routinized and sanctioned practice in social life. Institutions may make use of organizations, but need not do so. Similarly, ‘international regimes’ are often confused with IOs. Regimes are highly institutionalized forms of collective behavior in specific issueareas (e.g., trade, telecommunications, security from aggression) that may, but need not, make use of IGOs. Often several regimes are embodied in single comprehensive IOs, notably in the UN, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the European Union (EU).

2. Historical Evolution Of Organizations

2.1 Main Events

After 1860 there developed a number of IGOs dedicated to coordinating national measures for dealing with communicable diseases and standardizing postal and telecommunications services. In 1919 the League of Nations was founded by the victor nations of World War I to prevent a repetition of the war they had just won. In the event of an interstate dispute, the IGO was to provide dispassionate inquiry, offer peaceful methods of settling disputes, and—failing these efforts—restrain the aggressor state by the use of collective force (sanctions). The outbreak of World War II in 1939 confirmed the failure of the League.

The victors of World War II, in 1945, founded the United Nations (UN) on the same principles of collective security that had guided the League. One reason for the League’s failure had been a requirement for unanimity in its main decision-making organ; the UN sought to remedy this by stipulating only the consent of the five largest powers to make binding a decision to use force. But like the League, the UN was powerless to stop aggression by one of these five. With less faith in law and good will than the founders of the League, the creators of the UN preferred a dozen ‘specialized agencies’—independent IGOs loosely linked to the UN—whose services where thought to improve the lot of humankind and thus reduce the reasons why states would wish to resort to force. Such agencies arose in the fields of food and agriculture (FAO), public health (WHO), labor standards (ILO), education (UNESCO), intellectual property (WIPO), and meteorology (WMO). In addition, hundreds of other universal membership IGOs with special missions, often not linked to the UN system, continue to be created. The tidal wave of NGOs developed in response to the growth of IGOs, to be able to press the interests of their members in IGO forums, to shape IGO decisions and to aid in their implementation (Claude 1956).

Other than the UN’s measures for dealing with aggression, these IGOs have no power to coerce their members; few of them have the right to make decisions firmly committing members to specific policies. The exception is a group of universal membership IGOs set up after 1944 to free international trade and investments, stabilize currencies, and avoid large-scale international economic crises. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) do have the power to make binding decisions and to enforce them with monetary and trade sanctions.

2.2 The New Descriptive Terms For A Postidealistic IO

Many advocates of the UN had seen IOs as stepping stones gradually leading toward world government, because IGOs were expected to attain greater autonomy from their members and NGOs were thought to grow in numbers and influence, a sentiment that had never inspired many political leaders. IOs were relaunched after World War II under three different ideological banners: conservatism was used to justify the new collective security, functionalism the creation of the specialized agencies, and liberalism legitimated the new emphasis on human rights and the abolition of colonial empires.

Conflicts among these rival ideologies were never resolved and they continue to characterize the arguments employed by advocates and politicians. The creation of regional IOs—regionalism as the alternative to the UN’s Universalism—was urged by many governments and some scholars as a better way to assure peace and plenty than the UN’s; in the 1950s and 1960s many new regional IOs were created, especially in Europe and Latin America, competing in some instances with the UN system and representing institutionalized conflicts between blocs of states.

Current writing dealing with IOs distinguishes between three core types of organization seen as expressions of their charters or constitutions. Inter-governmentalize refers to a system in which all major decisions are made by member states acting in conformity with the IGOs’ decision-making rules; these IGOs mostly rely on their member states for the implementation of decisions. Supranationality describes IOs which possess some powerful organs not dominated by governments; such IOs also are able to make binding decisions relying on their own bureaucracies, such as the EU and the WTO. World (or regional) government exists when a group of states chooses full-fledged federal institutions for itself, such as the Caribbean and East African federations which failed in the 1960s, and abortive efforts to write a world constitution (Clark and Sohn 1958).

IGOs animated by close ties among the specialized bureaucracies of their members, such as defense, agriculture, money, or public health, feature trans-governmental relations, to highlight the dominating role of specialized bureaucracies rather than the states’ central organs. IGOs in which NGOs play a crucial role (such as the ILO) as well as ties among NGOs themselves, are called transnational to stress their autonomy from the nation-states who normally dominate world politics. Advocates of the growth of a global civil society stress the growing importance of transnational ties. Epistemic communities are networks of experts committed to knowledge-based views on the causes of phenomena they are called upon to abate; they actively shape the decisions of many IOs with science-related programs (Keohane and Nye 1977, P. Haas 1990).

3. IO And Social Science

3.1 From Advocacy To Analysis

By and large, social scientists ignored IO until the 1960s, considering the field dominated by idealist advocacy and resistant to systematic analysis by scholars other than lawyers. Idealism held out the hope that reasonable politicians, accepting as binding the international law of the day, would always avail themselves of the means of peaceful accommodation. Political scientists, sociologists, and economists in advanced industrial countries, once idealism was seen as incapable of answering complex questions, became interested in applying theories of organization, along with quantitative methods, to the systematic study of IO (E. Haas 1964, Alker and Russett 1965, Kriesberg 1968). Others sought to embed the study of IO in theories about modernization and pluralism (E. Haas 1958, Cox and Jacobson 1973), to be followed in the 1980s and 1990s with the application of rational choice and modeling constructs (Cedarman 1997). Writing on IO in formerly communist countries was almost entirely dominated by the defense of national policies, a situation which changed to some extent after 1990. Research and writing in developing countries is still dominated by advocacy of preferred positions.

3.2 Normative Evolution: From Organization To Institution

Lawyers and sociologists proposed to study change in world politics by tracing the evolution of norms of state behavior.

The term ‘norm’ may refer to prevalent state practices considered right and self-evident as well as to desirable standards of behavior, whether generally observed or not. In either and both senses, change can be mapped by investigating whether a more constraining set of norms is gaining adherence (Hoffmann 1981, Kratochwil 1989). The explanation of such changes became a chief interest of social scientists.

One way of conceptualizing these changes is to stipulate an evolution from organizations to institutions. Organizations are thought in all current theories to be animated, at first, by the instrumental interests of their members; a change in interest can trigger either organizational growth or decay. Institutions, however, are dominated by norms actors take for granted as being desirable. An organization whose members move away from the purely instrumental (and usually short-run) view of their interests becomes an institution when the same members come to value the IO for its own sake and then come to think in longer-run terms when defining their interests.

3.3 Aspects Of Global Change

Constructivist and neoliberal scholars believe that there is no longer an agreed hierarchy among the objectives of states (Keohane 1984, Ruggie 1998). Nor is there a hierarchy among IGOs, no organizational core at the global level. Alongside ties and conflicts among central decision makers, transgovernmental and transnational ties proliferate and increasingly influence core decisions by heads of government and foreign ministries. The world of IOs is one of many overlapping and competing networks involving many types of actors. The main activity of these networks is the continuous negotiation of agreements, following agendas no longer set exclusively by a few powerful nation-states. Scholars who study forms of organizational decision making that sidestep the core executive power of member states draw increasingly on sociological network theory (Powell 1990).

In selected issue-areas, e.g., environmental rules, human rights protection, trade disputes, and loan negotiations, something approximating supranational competencies are evolving in some regions and also in the UN system, owing to commitments that member states made earlier, usually for instrumental reasons, and later find inconvenient or embarrassing to disown. In fact, although not in formal law, the vessel of national sovereignty is springing bigger and bigger leaks as the formerly sharp distinction between international and purely domestic policy issues becomes blurred: such ‘local’ events as famine and civil war involving genocide become matters of global concern.

Different schools of thought advance different reasons for this trend. Neoliberals stress that states allow new, sovereignty-restricting, norms to evolve because the transaction costs of engaging in all kinds of international activity would rise too high if IOs did not provide important information and if trust and reciprocity were allowed to decay. Game theorists stress the parties’ need for maintaining their reputation for honesty. Peace theorists explain the trend by suggesting that leaders are learning to accept peaceful norms. Constructivists argue that leaders, under certain conditions, learn to change their ‘identities’ and redefine their interests so as to stress cooperation when they experience the costs of aloofness or the limits of acting alone (P. Haas and E. Haas 1995). Because theorists disagree about the significance and roles of IO, indicators for judging change were devised.

3.4 Indicator Of Organizational Change: Autonomy

The degree of autonomy of an IGO is an indicator of the distance the world (or a region) has traveled away from the initial condition under which single sovereign states, or groups of sovereign states opposing one another in alliances, were the only players in the game. Such was the global order in 1945. The IGOs founded then were entirely the creatures of the states that were their creators and paymasters. An increase in autonomy is a step toward world government, a decrease a reaffirmation of state sovereignty and hegemony.

The attainment of supranational powers by an international bureaucracy is one measure of autonomy, and so is the ability of an IGO to make binding decisions by majority vote. Autonomy is advanced when epistemic communities of experts shape decisions, or when NGOs act in this fashion, alongside instructed representatives of states. Autonomy also increases when the making of binding decisions is left to panels of bureaucrats, judges and other experts. Autonomy grows to the extent that an IO, or the network of which it is a part, is an open system whose members are able to obtain and assimilate new knowledge about the issues on its agenda, when decision making is no longer monopolized by the relatively fixed interests of a few member governments (Adler and Crawford 1991, Reinalda and Verbeek 1998). Increasing autonomy implies that international relations are mediated by forces that represent a higher degree of institutionalization than was true in 1945. Increasing IO autonomy is associated with more powerful IGOs and with growing success in solving the problems of peace and well-being IOs are expected to master. Deinstitutionalization is gauged by observing reversals in such trends.

3.5 Indicator Of Organizational Change: Multilateralism

Another way to gauge the growing (or waning) influence of IOs on global affairs is to observe changes in multilateral dealings among states and NGOs. (Ruggie 1993) An increase in items on the agenda of global issues, a waxing of international negotiations and of networks of actors conducting them betoken a growth in the density of contacts, needs, and responses. Increases in multilateralism are measured by the frequency of meetings, the number of international agreements concluded, and the widening scope of these agreements, driven by the expectations of actors that unilateral action is both ineffective and improper. Like growing autonomy, increases in multilateralism imply more restraint on state behavior. Unlike autonomy, a growth in multilateralism need not imply more efficient and more effective IOs—just denser relations among IGOs, NGOS and in joint efforts by both types. Autonomy refers to institutionalized power of IGOs, intergovernmental and supranational, universal and regional; multilateralism is concerned with the density of communication networks, not with power.

4. How Much Organizational Change Has There Been?

4.1 Regional Ios And Regional Integration

Only the EU has demonstrated marked increases in both multilateralism and autonomy and has thus contributed to the rapid integration of the continent. Many IGOs in the Caribbean and Central and South America—dedicated in principle to regional integration—have lost autonomy. IOs associated with the former Soviet Union have mostly disappeared and their successors remain weak. Nor do groupings in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim demonstrate expanding autonomy. Only the Cono Sur in South America and the organization of West African states show some growth in autonomy and are making visible contributions to the closer integration of their regions.

The situation with respect to multilateralism is slightly different. Western hemisphere IOs are associated with a sharp rise in multilateral ties despite the poor showing regarding autonomy. The same is true of Southeast Asian and Pacific Rim IOs. On the other hand, disintegration and fewer ties are evident in most of the African and the Middle East Islamic organizational worlds.

In the Caribbean and Central America an earlier trend toward greater autonomy and multilateralism was reversed as both regions seek greater integration with a North American region in which multilateralism is growing apace.

4.2 Universal Organizations

Since 1945, the family of UN-affiliated IGOs has clearly contributed to, and remains the core actor in, a rapidly increasing network of multilateral ties. Multilateral practices are concentrated in these issue areas: environmental protection, use and allocation of scarce resources, articulation and protection of human rights, economic development, public health, and the stabilization of the global economic system. The phenomenal growth in the numbers and influence of NGOs active in shaping UN policy is evidence of this trend.

The same cannot be claimed of the autonomy of the UN system. The pattern is mixed. Probably, the autonomous powers of the Secretary-General and of the High Commissioners for Refugees and for Human Rights have increased slightly over the years, but not dramatically. The influence of the Economic and Social Council has waned. Such autonomous powers as had been enjoyed earlier by the ILO, FAO, and UNESCO are no longer discernible. On the other hand, the autonomy of the World Bank, IMF, and WTO has sharply increased since 1980 (Culpeper 1997), and so has the autonomy of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as it responded to major crises and emergencies.

5. Toward A Synthesis Of Theories About IO?

Much of the literature is still driven by contributions that advocate increases in autonomy and multilateralism. ‘Global governance’ is the current label under which international integration of all kinds, including world government, is being discussed. The term is also used to describe any desired reforms of IGOs to enable them better to address new issues on the global agenda (Ramphal and Carlsson 1995). Advocacy stresses the need for more popular participation in the work of IOs, for more equality in the representation of state interests, for greater transparency in decision making, and for more accountability to people as well as to governments. If acted on, these suggestions would move IO much closer to world government. As advocacy, then, idealism remains very much alive, but only peace theorists embrace this approach on analytic grounds.

Most social science theories about IO, however, are not concerned with this goal. They remain committed to including the discussion of global institutional trends in overall explanations of collective behavior, social statics, and social change. Neorealists continue to marginalize IO altogether whereas neoliberals remain wedded to utilitarian–microeconomic principles in their search for the explanations of interests animating actors in IOs. World systems theorists, like neoliberals, are unable to account for growing autonomy and multilateralism in the protection of human rights and of the environment, issue areas outside the materialist foundations of these schools.

The ontological commitments of these theories are so different as to make a synthesis very difficult. If one is possible it may be the result of constructivists’ efforts to explain all actor behavior in terms of material and non-material ‘identities,’ qualities that are ontologically prior to expressed interests. Thus a commitment to norms for their own sake can be considered as genuine an interest as the devotion of wealth and security. Autonomy and multilateralism are thus given a theoretically endogenous status.


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