No. 12: September-December 2014

Martin Koch

International Organizations

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present status of international organizations?

International (governmental) organizations (IOs) are supposed to be the major rulers of our times. If we read daily newspapers, headlines like the following are omnipresent: “UN considering sanctions over South Sudan massacre“ (Washington Post, April 24, 2014), “World Bank lift lending to Developing Countries“ (New York Times, April 2, 2014), or more recently “NATO must stand up to Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine (Washington Post, August 28, 2014). They are seen as actors in their own right, accredited with a certain degree of legitimacy to rule the world in particular policy areas. This is a rather new perception, as IOs have formerly merely been conceived as creations of states to facilitate interstate relations. These observations are reflected in a number of studies emphasizing the power, authority and influence of IOs in world politics. Consequently, recent IR approaches have begun to ask how IOs have to be seen in order to account for their ability to establish some kind of world order (Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Brechin and Ness 2013). Even though many studies convincingly show how and to what extent IOs act partially independently and sometimes even in a way not intended by their member states (Hawkins and Lake and Nielson et al. 2006), approaches taking IOs and their autonomy as a vantage point without referring to states are rather scarce. IR approaches usually concentrate on the relationship between states and IOs. They acknowledge the international but neglect the organizational character of IOs. The main reason for this neglect stems from the disciplinary blinders within IR that concentrates too narrowly on states or state-IO-relations and fails to see IOs in their own right as embedded in and influenced by their wider environment, i.e. world society, that does not solely consist of states.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

It seems that IOs are increasingly seen to be responsible for dealing with a number of problems and tasks in world politics. Whenever a global problem arises there is at least one IO that takes over responsibility. IOs also are seen as norm entrepreneurs who facilitate and support norm diffusion, monitoring norm implementation (such as the World Bank and its program on fighting poverty) and sometimes even sanctioning states if they violate norms (such as the European Commission that can decide over sanctions). Furthermore, IOs are perceived as mediators between conflicting parties or even as law-makers who settle disputes (such as the WTO) and have a legitimizing function (such as the UN Security Council when it coms to interventions). Thus, IOs do not merely facilitate interstate cooperation, but seem to establish a certain level of world order for states and non-state actors alike.

Even though various studies emphasize that IOs have a significant effect on world politics today due to their tasks and functions, their ontological status is still controversial. Some regard IOs as supporting actors of member states, whereas others perceive IOs as protagonists alongside member states or even as harbingers of a world state. Furthermore, many studies already raise criticisms concerning the new role of IOs. I am focusing here on three prominent lines of critique that will probably establish severe challenges to IOs in the near future:

  1. 1.IOs are not doing enough or exacerbate global problems. Some studies (often inspired by critical theory) argue that although IOs are mostly seen as problem solvers or even saviors of our times they are in fact doing to little to solve global problems and sometimes even exacerbating the situation. This is a prominent debate for IOs such as the World Bank, which – according to its work program – aims at alleviating (extreme) poverty and help the poorest people in the world. However, many studies unveil that the programs and means of the World Bank exerts pressure on developing countries and worsen the situation for the poor.

  2. 2.IOs are lacking legitimacy, accountability and transparence. Many scholars complain that even though IOs take over many responsibilities in world politics they are not sufficiently legitimized to those tasks. They are neither democratically legitimized as global actors nor are all tasks they are carrying out delegated to IOs. In some cases IOs fulfill functions they have not been assigned to. Furthermore, IOs cannot be held accountable for what they do or not do, e.g. military and/or humanitarian interventions and their consequences. Finally, IOs lack transparency. In spite of organizational rules and structures, it is usually not clear how and why a decision, a program or a means has been derived within an IO. IOs remain black boxes that generate rules and programs. This critique is for example raised regarding the World Trade Organization and its negotiations that lead to results having detrimental effects on developing countries, the environment and social security.

  3. 3.IOs are ignoring non-state organizations in world society. Although IOs are key actors in world politics they solely concentrate on their member states and neglect civil society and non-state actors. The latter are sometimes granted an observer status that does not offer any participation in decision-making. Quite to the contrary, non-state organizations in world society are excluded if it comes to the creation of political programs and means. Recent studies show that IOs successively open up to non-state actors (Tallberg and Sommerer and Squatrito et al. 2013), however, participation in decision-making is scarce or ad-hoc but usually not institutionalized yet.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

IOs are facing crucial crossroads. They could refer, respond and focus on member states as they did at least since World War II or they open up to non-state organizations, institutionalize their relations and their participation in decision-making. If the former happens IOs will probably fall into a deep sleep as there is not much to expect from IOs as actors in world politics. In this case IOs remain the shells in which states co-ordinate their action and politics. IOs would just offer the frame in which the negotiations among states take place. If the latter would happen IOs have to change more fundamentally. They have to establish modes for permanent co-operation with non-state actors to make sure that their programs and means are accepted, but concurrently they have to be sensitive to criticisms uttered in world society. In this regard, IOs have to adjust their organizational structure and develop procedures for non-state organizations’ participation in IO decision-making processes. Furthermore, decision-making within IOs needs to be more transparent – in particular if crucial decisions are to be taken as in cases of military interventions.

However, one should not be naïve, such a development of IOs raises many problems on the one hand; on the other hand participation of non-state organization will probably not lead to better decisions or even a better world. Confident hope can rather be nourished that global problems dealt with in IOs are not decided behind closed doors but are instead subject to public debate. In this case, IOs could be seen as world organization responsible for states and world society alike.

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Barnett, Michael and Martha Finnemore (2004): Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics. Ithaca, London, Cornell University Press.

Brechin, Steven R. and Gary D. Ness (2013): "Looking Back at the Gap: International Organizations as Organizations Twenty-Five Years Later." Journal of International Organizations Studies - Special Issue: Sociological Perspectives on International Organizations and the Construction of Global Political Order 4(1): 14-39.

Hawkins, Darren G. and David A. Lake and Daniel L. Nielson and Michael J. Tierney (2006): Delegation Under Anarchy: States, International Organizations, and Principal-Agent Theory. In:  Darren G. Hawkins and David A. Lake and Daniel L. Nielson and Michael J. Tierney: Delegation and Agency in International Organizations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 3-38.

Tallberg, Jonas and Thomas Sommerer and Theresa Squatrito and Christer Jönsson (2013): The Opening Up of International Organizations Transnational Access in Global Governance. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Martin Koch is lecturer and currently Acting Full Professor of Political Science at Bielefeld University. He has been a Visiting Scholar at UNU-WIDER (Helsinki) in 2012. His research interests include international organizations and institutions, International Relations theory and world society studies. In his current research he is working on a sociological re-conceptualization of international organizations in world society.

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