Rules for the World
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Rules for the World

International Organizations in Global Politics

Michael Barnett, Martha Finnemore

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eBook - ePub

Rules for the World

International Organizations in Global Politics

Michael Barnett, Martha Finnemore

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About This Book

Rules for the World provides an innovative perspective on the behavior of international organizations and their effects on global politics. Arguing against the conventional wisdom that these bodies are little more than instruments of states, Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore begin with the fundamental insight that international organizations are bureaucracies that have authority to make rules and so exercise power. At the same time, Barnett and Finnemore maintain, such bureaucracies can become obsessed with their own rules, producing unresponsive, inefficient, and self-defeating outcomes. Authority thus gives international organizations autonomy and allows them to evolve and expand in ways unintended by their creators.

Barnett and Finnemore reinterpret three areas of activity that have prompted extensive policy debate: the use of expertise by the IMF to expand its intrusion into national economies; the redefinition of the category "refugees" and decision to repatriate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and the UN Secretariat's failure to recommend an intervention during the first weeks of the Rwandan genocide. By providing theoretical foundations for treating these organizations as autonomous actors in their own right, Rules for the World contributes greatly to our understanding of global politics and global governance.

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International organizations have never been more central to world politics than they are today. At least 238 international organizations (IOs) are currently at work on every imaginable global issue.1 Investigate almost any violent conflict, environmental concern, financial meltdown, or humanitarian crisis and you will find international organizations involved, probably in a leading role. These organizations do much more than simply execute international agreements between states. They make authoritative decisions that reach every corner of the globe and affect areas as public as governmental spending and as private as reproductive rights. They now work extensively in domestic governance issues, overseeing matters that once used to be the prerogatives of states. One IO, the European Central Bank, is now overseeing monetary policy for some of the most powerful states of the world. Different branches of the UN and NATO have become deeply involved in national military organizations of member states. A whole variety of IOs are busily defining human rights, refugee rights, children’s rights, and women’s rights, shaping how these rights are understood at both the international and the domestic level. The World Health Organization issues travel advisories and investigates and sanctions those countries that, in its judgment, have failed to take proper action in reporting and combating disease. When the international community engages in nation-building and postconflict transition assistance it is IOs that do much, even most, of the work. Organizations such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are entrusted with drafting new constitutions and judicial arrangements, re-creating financial institutions, and creating civilian police—in essence remaking entire states.2
Our goal in writing this book is to understand better why IOs behave as they do. Most international relations theory provides surprisingly little help in this regard. For all the ubiquitousness and importance of IOs, international relations (IR) scholars have not given systematic consideration to how IOs actually behave. Most of our theories are theories of states and state behavior. International organizations are treated as structures of rules, principles, norms, and decision-making procedures through which others, usually states, act.3 IOs have no agency and cannot act in any meaningful way under most theoretical constructs in the field. To the extent that they allow IOs to “behave” at all, most theories simply assume that IOs do what states want. They offer functional accounts in which IOs are created and continue to exist because of the (usually desirable) functions they perform. States create IOs to solve problems of incomplete information, transaction costs, and other barriers to welfare improvement for their members. This functionalism is only an assumption of these theories, though, and tends to focus scholars’ attention on why states create IOs to fulfill certain functions rather than on whether, in fact, subsequent IO behavior is as functional as assumed. The assumptions of these theories—their statism and functionalism—deserve scrutiny, and the preoccupation with creation at the expense of behavior needs correction. The notion that IOs simply do what states want quickly runs afoul of the many instances in which IOs develop their own ideas and pursue their own agendas. Similarly, the functionalist assumption runs into a sea of empirical anomalies. IOs often produce inefficient, self-defeating outcomes and turn their backs on those whom they are supposed to serve. We want to know why.
Scholarship on organizations generally (not just IOs) has made it abundantly clear that organizations routinely behave in ways unanticipated by their creators and not formally sanctioned by their members. Organizations that start with one mission routinely acquire others. Organizations adapt to changing circumstances in unanticipated ways and adopt new routines and functions without getting approval from their “stakeholders.” Organizations are notoriously resistant to reform or redirection because change threatens entrenched organizational culture and interests. International organizations evidence all these familiar traits. They exhibit mission creep. They wander far from their original mandate and into new terrains and territories. They develop new rules and routines in response to new problems that they identify. They formulate rules that are politically safe and comfortably routine rather than efficient or effective. We want to understand these behaviors in IOs.
In this book we develop a constructivist approach to understanding IO behavior that provides a theoretical basis for treating IOs as autonomous actors and helps explain the power they exercise in world politics, their propensity toward dysfunctional, even pathological, behavior, and the way they change over time. We ground our analysis on the fact that IOs are bureaucracies. Bureaucracy is a distinctive social form of authority with its own internal logic and behavioral proclivities. It is because of their authority that bureaucracies have autonomy and the ability to change the world around them. Bureaucracies exercise power in the world through their ability to make impersonal rules. They then use these rules not only to regulate but also to constitute and construct the social world. IOs, through their rules, create new categories of actors, form new interests for actors, define new shared international tasks, and disseminate new models of social organization around the globe. However, the same impersonal rules that define bureaucracies and make them effective in modern life can also cause problems. Bureaucracies can become obsessed with their own rules at the expense of their primary missions in ways that produce inefficient and self-defeating outcomes. Thus, while bureaucracies can be forces of progress and good, they can also fail, sometimes in spectacular ways. Whether they meet success or failure, international organizations change and evolve over time. Bureaucracies adapt to new circumstances and challenges, drawing from experience that has become encoded in rules and embedded in the organizational culture. They also expand, taking on new missions, mandates, and responsibilities in ways not imagined by their founders.
We examine these themes both theoretically and empirically. After presenting a theoretical framework in chapter 2, we provide detailed empirical examinations of three IOs working in three different areas of world politics. We examine the IMF and the way its economic expertise made ever-increasing intervention in domestic economies seem logical and even necessary to states that had explicitly barred such action in the organization’s Articles of Agreement. We then examine how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) used its authority to expand the concept of refugee and later developed a repatriation culture that led to violations of refugee rights. Finally, we look at the UN Secretariat, the bureaucratization of peacekeeping, and the development of a peacekeeping culture that led to an institutional ideology of impartiality that made it legitimate to ignore crimes against humanity in Rwanda. In all three cases, IOs were not simply following the demands issued by states but instead acting like the bureaucracies that they are.


Treating IOs as bureaucracies allows us to provide insights into four aspects of IO behavior that have sparked debate among scholars of international relations: autonomy, power, dysfunction, and change.
First, we can address from a different angle the question, Can IOs act autonomously from states and if so, how? This connection of autonomy to authority requires some discussion. State-centric theoretical approaches provide no reason to expect, much less understand, autonomous IO behavior. Despite all their attention to international institutions, most international relations scholars treat IOs the way pluralists treat the state. For them, IOs are mechanisms or structures through which others (usually states) act; they are not purposive actors. There are, in fact, good reasons why scholars have been skeptical about IO autonomy. Large public IOs are almost always the creations of states and are almost always designed to give states, particularly powerful ones, a great deal of control. States often provide the money for these organizations, usually dominate their top decision-making bodies, and determine who becomes the chief executive. Thus, it has been difficult for many analysts to imagine IOs as anything more than tools in the controlling hands of states.
More recently, scholars have used principal-agent analysis to explore the question of IO autonomy. Treating IOs as agents of states (principals), these scholars recognized that states purposefully design IOs with some autonomy since otherwise IOs would not be able to carry out their assigned tasks. In these analyses, IOs may act autonomously within a “zone of discretion” to advance state interests or to make policy where state interests are unclear or weak, and at times may even advance policies contrary to the interests of some states.4 Missing from these analyses, however, is a clear a priori specification of what IOs want in these interactions with states. Why would IOs ever want anything other than what their state principals want? These agents, after all, are created by their state principals. States write their mission statements and design their structure precisely to ensure they will be responsive tools. We need to understand how and why IO preferences diverge from state preferences, not just empirically but also theoretically.
Principal-agent dynamics are fueled by the disjuncture between what agents want and what principals want. To produce any insights, those two sets of interests cannot be identical. IR theory provides us with interests only for states, and since IOs are created by states and their mission statements are written by states, it is not at all clear how an independent set of IO preferences might be derived. Analysts could proceed on the assumption that IOs want an expanded budget or mandate, but this hardly begins to exhaust the range of interests that motivate IO behavior. Just as IR theorists now recognize that there is variation in state interests and that to understand that variation requires unpacking the state, so, too, scholars of IOs need to recognize that there is variation in IO interests and that to understand that variation requires unpacking the international organization.5 If scholars want to understand when IOs exhibit autonomy, then they will have to be attentive not only to state interests but also to IO interests. Our approach, as we argue below, provides help.
Understanding IOs as bureaucracies opens up an alternative view regarding the sources of their autonomy and what they do with that autonomy. Bureaucracies are not just servants to whom states delegate. Bureaucracies are also authorities in their own right, and that authority gives them autonomy vis-à-vis states, individuals, and other international actors. By “authority” we mean the ability of one actor to use institutional and discursive resources to induce deference from others. Our claim that IOs possess authority puts us at odds with much of IR theory, which presumes that only states can possess authority because sovereignty is the only basis of authority.6 We suggest otherwise. When societies confer authority on the state, they do not do so exclusively. Domestic societies contain an array of authorities, differing in degree and kind. The state is an authority, but academics, professionals and experts, heads of nongovernmental organizations, and religious and business leaders can also be conferred authority. So, too, in international life authority is conferred in differing degrees and kinds on actors other than states. Prominent among these are IOs.
What makes IOs authorities? As we discuss in chapter 2, IOs can have authority both because of the missions they pursue and because of the ways they pursue them. IOs act to promote socially valued goals such as protecting human rights, providing development assistance, and brokering peace agreements. IOs use their credibility as promoters of “progress” toward these valued goals to command deference, that is, exercise authority, in these arenas of action. In addition, because they are bureaucracies, IOs carry out their missions by means that are mostly rational, technocratic, impartial, and nonviolent. This often makes IOs appear more legitimate to more actors than self-serving states that employ coercive tactics in pursuit of their particularistic goals. Their means, like their missions, give IOs authority to act where individual states may not.7
What do IOs do with that authority? Often they do much more than the states that are their creators intend. IOs do not simply pursue the mandates handed to them. Indeed, they probably could not do so, even if they wanted to. The mission statements of most large public IOs are ambiguous and require interpretation. IO staff must transform these broad mandates into workable doctrines, procedures, and ways of acting in the world. Understanding how they do this is a major concern of our case studies. States may actually want autonomous action from IO staff. Indeed, they often create an IO and invest it with considerable autonomy precisely because they are neither able nor willing to perform the IO’s mission themselves. Once in place, the staff of IOs take their missions seriously and often develop their own views and organizational cultures to promote what they see as “good policy” or to protect it from states that have competing interests. And, of course, neither states nor IO staff can predict new challenges, crises, and exigencies that force IO staff to change their missions and their existing policies.
Understanding the nature of bureaucracy as a social form allows us to reconsider a second important topic, namely, the power of IOs and the kinds of effects they create in the world. This question—whether IOs “matter,” or have independent effects—has been at the core of the neorealist-neoliberal debate in international relations theory for almost two decades now.8 Our approach provides strong reasons to expect IOs to have resources at their disposal overlooked by both these approaches—resources that make them far more powerful and consequential than even neoliberals would propose.
In their debate, neorealists and neoliberals have focused on only two tools of power—material coercion (or inducements) and information. Further, they have focused only on the ability of IOs to shape state behavior, which does not begin to capture the full range of ways IOs shape the world around them. Sometimes IOs do have material resources. They often have money, even guns, and can use these to influence the behavior of others. Refugees and poor farmers often do what UNHCR and World Bank officials want because of the material resources of those organizations. States, even sizable ones, may be coerced by the IMF into adopting policies they would not otherwise adopt because of the Fund’s financial resources. But in this kind of power sweepstakes, IOs are usually dwarfed by large states. The IMF may be able to tell Zambia, Bolivia, or even Argentina what to do, but the most economically powerful states have a fair bit to say about what the IMF proposes. Because IOs can rarely coerce large states to do their bidding, IR scholars have tended to think they are not powerful.
Similarly, IOs do influence outcomes by manipulating information—creating transparency, monitoring compliance, and enforcing rules in ways that change incentives for state action. Having UN peacekeepers verify a cease-fire can cause parties to the agreement to abide by the agreement for fear of being caught if they do not. WHO reports about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and SARS can help states understand the transnational dynamics of the diseases and better devise policies to slow their spread. Clearer rules about what is (or is not) “fair” trade, coupled with an IO like the World Trade Organization (WTO) to arbitrate disputes, can provide incentives for greater liberalization worldwide. The Organization for Security and Cooperation’s Office of High Commissioner for Minorities has encouraged respect for human rights by articulating what the standards are and broadcasting how countries might be falling short of them. IOs can collect, publicize, and strategically deploy information in order to try to shape behavior. But in this kind of informational sweepstakes, IOs rarely have an advantage over states. IOs seldom have private information, unavailable to interested powerful states. States, not IOs, tend to enjoy superior access to information.9
IOs are powerful not so much because they possess material and informational resources but, more fundamentally, because they use their authority to orient action and create social reality.10 IOs do more than just manipulate information; they analyze and interpret it, investing information with meaning that orients and prompts action, thereby transforming information into knowledge. The World Bank does not only collect data and produce descriptive statistics on national economies. It also takes those raw data and couples them to particular policy problems, often of the Bank’s own creation. The Bank defines development, telling us what data measure it. It tells us what constitutes poverty and what data are necessary to act on that policy problem. As discussed in chapter 2, transforming information into knowledge by giving it meaning, value, and purpose is one of the major activities of authorities in social life.
As authorities, IOs can use their knowledge to exercise power in two ways. First, they can regulate the social world, altering the behavior of states and nonstate actors by changing incentives for their decisions. Frequently they do this in order to get actors to conform with existing rules and norms of behavior. The UN Human Rights Commission publishes information about states’ torture practices, thus creating incentives for states to comply with human rights norms. IOs have a range of tools to regulate state and nonstate behavior.
Second, we can better understand the power IOs wield by viewing them as bureaucracies. IOs exercise power as they use their knowledge and authority not only to regulate what currently exists but also to constitute the world, creating new interests, actors, and social activities. This can be understood as “social construction power” because IOs use their knowledge to help create social reality.11 IOs are often the actors to whom we defer when it comes to defining meanings, norms of good behavior, the nature of social actors, and categories of legitimate social action in the world. IOs are often the actors empowered to decide if there is a problem at all, what kind of problem it is, and whose responsibility it is to solve it. IOs thus help determine the kind of world that is to be governed and set the agenda for global governance. UNHCR helps to determine not only who is a refugee but also ...

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