Understanding international organizations (IOs) and their multifaceted role in world politics is complicated because IOs are part of a complex cast of actors on the world stage. On a national level, politics usually involves a competition among individuals and groups (political parties, special interests, corporations) to either gain control of the government (so they can enact their values and preferences into laws and regulations that then become binding on everyone) or to influence government officials (who will then work to embed those values and preferences into national policy). At the global level where no world government exists, world politics involves different kinds of actors competing to shape the values and determine the distribution of resources for the international community, usually through the application of power and influence and, relatedly, building consensus. IOs can be thought of as both the sites where world politics takes place, as well as independent actors competing to establish values, rules and norms for the international community.
The election of Donald Trump in the US and the decision by UK voters to leave the European Union (EU) have disrupted the existing world order. This order was established after World War II and was based, in large part, on liberal values and norms. World War II was a global struggle to determine world order, in which three ideologies or value systems (liberalism, fascism, and communism) were pitted against each other. The Allied victory over the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan meant the Allies’ values and preferences would form the foundation of the new world order. The apparent decisions by the UK and the US to abandon many of those key values (such as the free markets, integration, multilateralism, and free flow of capital, goods, services, and people) mean that certain tenants of liberalism no longer have their major champions in international politics. The liberal world order has always been challenged by China and Russia and others,
who trumpet the benefits of nationalism and are unwilling to embrace certain values such as universal human rights, rule of law, and free markets. Is this the end of the liberal world order as we know it? Or could this be the latest effort on the part of nationalists to assert their interests and values in the face of globalization and pressing global problems such as gross inequalities, slow economic growth, grinding poverty, pandemic disease, and climate change? The evolving answers to these very difficult questions will affect the lives of billions of people.
This introductory chapter describes the different kinds of international organizations at play in world politics. It also briefly summarizes five theoretical frameworks—realism, liberalism, Marxism, feminism, and constructivism—that are applied systematically throughout the text to explain and analyze the behavior and policies of IOs in real world cases. Finally, it explains the organization and structure of the book, highlighting key case studies that will help students understand the important and often controversial roles of IOs in the governance of the international and domestic affairs of many societies.
Traditionally, international organizations were conceived as formal institutions whose principal members are states. States are political and geographical entities that represent a population within a defined territory. They are exceptionally important actors in world politics and often create IOs to help address collective problems. Such IOs are referred to as intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) because governments (which represent states) voluntarily join, contribute financing, and make decisions within the organization. Their purpose, structures, and decision-making procedures are clearly spelled out in a charter or treaty. Examples of IGOs include the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU, and the League of Arab States (the Arab League).
IGOs can be further categorized by rules of membership. IGOs may have universal membership whereby all states may join, such as the UN. Although some membership decisions can be quite political, the UN has, for the most part, practiced an open-door policy. IGOs may also have limited membership in that participation is restricted by some objective criteria. The Arab League, for example, is a voluntary association of states whose people mainly speak Arabic. This association seeks to strengthen Arab ties and promote common political and economic goals. NATO, a security alliance, limits its membership by restricting it to a combination of specific political, geographic, and military considerations.
IGOs are also categorized by their purpose. IGOs can be multi- or general-purpose organizations, meaning they can take up any international issue. General-purpose IGOs, such as the UN, consider a variety of issues that affect their members. IGOs can also have narrow mandates and thus
may focus on specific economic or social issues. The International Labor Organization (ILO), for example, is charged with setting work and labor standards, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) is responsible for liberalizing trade and resolving trade disputes. These kinds of specialized IGOs provide focused and expert analysis to very specific issues.
IGOs often have a special status under international law called international legal personality
. This means IGOs have the capacity to act under international law. To attain legal personality, the organization must be a permanent association of states that possesses some power that is distinct from that of its member states, with that power being exercised at the international level (Slomanson 1990, 65). The legal personality of IGOs enables them to act in a manner that is similar to how states act. IGOs can reach international agreements with other international organizations and states. IGOs have many of the same legal privileges of states, such as legal immunity or the right to sue in national courts. The international legal personality of an IGO is usually established through a constitutive treaty
, which is the charter of the IGO. For example, Chapter II
, Article 3, of the Charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) confers legal personality upon ASEAN.
When a charter or treaty does not explicitly confer international legal personality, it can be conferred by case law. The legal personality of the UN was established in the famous Reparation for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations (1949) case, through an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The legal issue was whether the UN had the legal personality to sue for harm done to UN employees. The ICJ, citing several treaties and UN Charter provisions, opined that the legal personality of the UN can be inferred from the Charter even though it is not explicitly stated. The UN’s legal personality was subsequently recognized by national courts in the US and in Europe.
Another type of international organization is the nongovernmental organization (NGO). NGOs are essentially nonprofit, private organizations that engage in a variety of international activities. They can be oriented toward a single issue or can have a multipurpose agenda. NGOs participate in international politics by defining goals, creating norms, providing information, and giving expert advice. They also directly and indirectly pressure states and IGOs. NGOs such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the International Committee for the Red Cross are instrumental in creating international norms and executing international policy. Although most NGOs receive some funding from governments, their activities are often autonomous and may be coordinated independently with IGOs.
Another important kind of international organization is the multinational corporation (MNC)
. MNCs are for-profit economic firms that have subsidiaries in two or more countries and engage in transnational production activities involving the movement of goods and services across national boundaries. These kinds of international organizations command extensive resources
whose assets can rival that of states. For example, Apple has cash assets that exceed the gross domestic product of two-thirds of the world’s states (Khanna 2016). After the governments of the nine largest national economies, Walmart ranks tenth in the world in terms of revenue generated (Rhodionova, 2016). MNCs have specific interests and preferences that they pursue in local, provincial, national, regional, and global politics. These interests, values, and preferences are often distinct from those of states, IGOs, and NGOs.
The term “international organization” thus refers to different kinds of actors: IGOs (e.g., the UN), NGOs (e.g., Greenpeace), and MNCs (e.g., General Electric). International organization also refers to the institutions, processes, norms, laws, and regulations that are part and parcel of global governance. Global governance focuses on how state and nonstate actors (such as the international organizations just discussed) define and address global problems in the absence of a world government. Global governance also involves making and sustaining the rules and the norms of world order (Held 1999, 50). The substance of world politics is about whose interests, values, and preferences become formalized and why.
Here is where the interrelationship between international law and IOs comes into play. When we speak of making and sustaining international rules or codifying international norms or values, we are talking about creating international law. International law refers to the formal rules and principles that govern the relations of states and international organizations. As there is no world government or global legislature, international law must be created by states formally through treaties or informally through custom. International law must also be enforced by states and IOs, and although enforcement in some issue areas is difficult (like the laws during war), international law works reasonably well most of the time.
The nexus of international law and international organizations has several dimensions. The legal personality of IGOs comes from a constitutive treaty agreed upon by states. IGOs also play a central role in helping states implement international agreements and following through on states’ international obligations (Joachim, Reinalda, and Verbeek 2008). NGOs and MNCs are objects of international law in that their activities are affected by international legal regulation. At the same time, IGOs, NGOs, and MNCs shape international law by promoting values and norms and pressuring the governments of states. International law ranging from war to climate change, to human rights, and to landmines has been influenced directly or indirectly by nonstate actors. Oil MNCs lobbied strenuously against the Kyoto Protocol (a treaty to combat climate change) and an NGO, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, was central to the development of a treaty designed to eliminate antipersonnel landmines (Scott 2010, 63–71). Global governance involves this interplay of international law and organizations, but the “nature” of global governance remains contested. Who makes the rules and whose values should be privileged in the world order? How are the rules made and the norms institutionalized? Who wins and who loses in the process of global governance? How does change occur? Theory helps us answer these questions.
International relations theory is a way of systematizing and comprehending world politics. Theoretical frameworks are based on organizing assumptions or propositions that simplify the world and guide analysis. In many respects, theoretical frameworks are similar to worldviews (sets of widely held beliefs): both serve as mental maps, providing guides as to how the world works. However, worldviews are more informal. They are shaped by values, norms, and culture. Theoretical frameworks build upon worldviews, yet are more rigorous in that they become mechanisms for methodically generating hypotheses, explanations, and predictions about world politics. Another way to think about theoretical frameworks is to envision them as a pair of glasses whose different lenses allow us to view the distinct political, economic, and social characteristics and processes that shape world politics. These lenses act as filters, directing attention toward (and away from) certain kinds of actors and focusing discussion on certain kinds of questions. Through these theoretical lenses, we see different reflections, that is, different explanations regarding which units of analysis—states, individuals, class, or gender—should figure most prominently in our understanding of international relations and organizations. In addition, these lenses guide our analysis, allowing us to examine particular kinds of international dynamics—anarchy, interdependence, capitalism, and patriarchy. Our theoretical lenses reveal different patterns and provide divergent interpretations regarding the nature and roles of international organizations in international politics. They also prescribe different strategies for addressing global problems.
The central purpose of this text is to explore the nature, role, and behavior of international organizations in world politics, while paying considerable attention to the nexus between international organizations and international law. To achieve this purpose, international organizations are analyzed using five theoretical perspectives: realism, liberalism, Marxism, feminism, and constructivism. No attempt is made to rank these theories in terms of importance. Students must determine for themselves the utility of a particular explanation, while recognizing that one theoretical approach may be useful for anal...