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A. International Institutions
B. International Regimes
C. International Organizations
III. Theories of International Organizations and Regimes
A. Neoliberal Institutionalism
D. Bringing Theories Together
IV. Rational Design and Delegation
A. Rational Design Literature
B. Delegation and Agency
The study of international organizations and regimes has become increasingly popular over the past three decades. This recent resurgence of the study of international organizations is very distinct from earlier studies of international organizations in several regards. First, departing from the study of legal principles and formal organizational structures of international organizations in the earlier era, the study of international organizations has become more social scientific, with strong theoretical developments and accompanying empirical examinations of the theoretical advances. Many recent studies attempt to provide general explanations for creations, roles, effects, effectiveness, and other institutionalized features of international organizations and try to demonstrate how these general explanations hold through rigorous empirical testing. Second, along with continuing the earlier practice of investigating a single international organization in a study, recent studies start to tackle universal issues and ask questions about features present in and applicable to a group of international organizations. Examples are numerous, including voting rules, membership size, and degree of independence and legalization of international organizations. Third, the scope of the study of international organizations has been greatly broadened. In its earlier years, the study of international organizations was limited to a few prominent formal international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union (or its earlier version, the European Community). Yet there are numerous other formal and informal international arrangements that guide states’ behaviors, ranging from formal international arrangements to informal yet widely accepted international norms. Thus, while formal international organizations still remain important subjects and the studies investigating these international organizations ever increase as a number of new international organizations have been created in the past few decades, other international arrangements, referred to as either international regimes or international institutions, have also been brought into the field of international organizations and become subjects of inquiry in the study of international organizations.
This research paper reviews this recent development of the study of international organizations over the past three decades. The first section starts with the formal definitions of and distinctions among international organizations, international institutions, and international regimes. The next two sections focus on theoretical debates among the three major theoretical orientations in mainstream international relations. The second section introduces theories of international regimes and discusses important debates regarding the creation and functions of international organizations. It highlights the important agreements and disagreements among the three main theoretical paradigms in the discipline of international relations—realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and constructivism—and ends with a discussion about the ways in which one might bring the competing theories together for a more comprehensive understanding of the creation and functions of international organizations. The third section visits more recent scholarship, including rational institutional design and delegation literatures. The concluding section recaps the research paper and discusses a few potential future research agendas in the study of international relations.
Although the terms international organizations, international institutions, and international regimes are often used interchangeably, their precise definitions are slightly different from one another. Thus, before delving into the discussion of reviewing the extant studies of different aspects of international organizations and regimes, the formal definitions for each term are introduced, and differences among the three terms are briefly highlighted in this section.
A. International Institutions
Although scholars adopt slightly different definitions for international institutions, Keohane (1988) defines international institutions as persistent and connected sets of rules that prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations. These rules may be formal and explicit or informal and implicit.
Treaties between more than one sovereign state, including international agreements, covenants, conventions, and protocols, are all good examples of formal international institutions. They are signed and ratified by more than one state and generally guide and constrain participating states’ behaviors and shape their expectations about future behaviors of each other. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prescribes what to and what not to do in respecting citizens’ basic rights within states’ territories. Similarly, bilateral or multilateral defense treaties between allies prescribe obligatory actions in conflict scenarios and thus shape expectations of alliance behaviors in case of potential military conflicts. With growing international economic transactions, a growing number of multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements have been signed between states in recent decades so that states can regulate the trade practices of signed parties.
Along with formal international institutions signed and ratified by states, there are other informal international institutions. The most basic international institution is the principle of sovereignty. Sovereign states claim rights that other international entities cannot. Sovereign states have exclusive rights over their territories and people; thus, in principle, their domestic matters should not be interrupted by other states. In addition, sovereign states are treated equally, at least in a legal sense, regardless of their economic wealth, size of population, or military might. The principle of sovereignty also serves as the basis of other formal and informal institutions, and the evolution of the principle of sovereignty often leads to changes in other international institutions.
B. International Regimes
International regimes are defined as principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue area. Principles and norms provide the basic defining characteristics of a regime, and there may be many rules and decision-making procedures that are consistent with the same principles and norms (Krasner, 1983).
The term international regime has generally been used to refer to rules and norms within a particular issue area. For instance, an international nuclear nonproliferation regime has been formed to manage and limit both horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation in the world. Within the nuclear nonproliferation regime, there are many agencies and international treaties that perform detailed functions and assign specific rules. Under the defining principle of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the five countries that had tested nuclear weapons by the beginning of 1960s, there are many specific rules and procedures that constitute the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, such as safeguarded nuclear facility inspection procedures by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty.
Since international regimes are issue specific, it is important to point out that general-purpose international organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union are not considered as regimes (Martin & Simmons, 2001). Instead, organizations like the United Nations and the European Union participate in a number of issue-specific regimes. For instance, the United Nations encompasses multiple regimes, with agencies involved in one or more regimes, such as nuclear nonproliferation, peacekeeping, economic development, global health management, human rights, and environment protections.
C. International Organizations
Simply put, international organizations are the formal embodiment of the international institutions and regimes discussed previously (Martin & Simmons, 2001). They are housed in buildings, employ international civil servants and bureaucrats, and have nontrivial budgets for their operations. They are usually created by the international treaties that serve as the basis for their continuing operations.
According to the Yearbook of International Organizations, published by the Union of International Associations (2007), there were 242 international organizations as of 2007. The number of international organizations peaked in late 1980s, when the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc maintained their own international organizations. The number has decreased and stabilized since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The international organizations listed in the yearbook include not only well-known international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) but also lesser-known organizations such as the International Coffee Organization and the International Whaling Commission.
Only sovereign states can be members of international organizations, and this differentiates international organizations from other international entities whose members include individuals and groups of individuals from more than one country. These international entities are usually referred to as international nongovernmental organizations. These organizations have memberships and activities in more than one country, and most of them are not for profit.
There are a very large number of nongovernmental international organizations across diverse issue areas. The Yearbook of International Organizations also keeps track of these nongovernmental international organizations. As of 2007, there are more than 7,500 nongovernmental international organizations, and the number is still growing. A few well-known nongovernmental international organizations include Greenpeace, Oxfam, International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders. These organizations often play critical, often complementary, roles to the activities of formal international organizations in a number of important international issues such as humanitarian assistance, environmental protection and pollution monitoring, human rights monitoring, developmental assistance, and conflict resolution. Nongovernmental international organizations can often work more expediently when needed, because they are relatively freer from internal conflicts and disagreements among their members compared with international organizations where disagreements among their member states often hinder effective and expedite action taking. One reason for this is because states’ interests often vary widely, while participants in nongovernmental international organizations share a common goal. Thus, nongovernmental international organizations have become increasingly active in international relations. However, little scholarly attention has been paid to study them thus far; hence, the following sections focus only on international organizations and international regimes established by sovereign states.
III. Theories of International Organizations and Regimes
For the past few decades, the debates between two prominent international relations theoretical orientations—neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism—have centered on the prospect of cooperation and the roles of international organizations in facilitating and promoting cooperation. In particular, a series of research studies in the tradition of neoliberal institutionalism have made major advances in our understanding of why states create international organizations and what roles international organizations play in facilitating international cooperation. On the other hand, realism, the research tradition emphasizing states’ power in explaining international political phenomena, provides reasons why international organizations are biased toward more powerful countries’ interests and play only limited roles in facilitating cooperation among states, if at all.
Since the early 1990s, the new approach in international relations emphasizing norms, knowledge, culture, and ideas, generally referred to as constructivism, emerged and rapidly established itself as a main theoretical orientation in international relations. Constructivism encompasses a very broad spectrum of scholarship that commonly focuses on the role of ideas. The spectrum ranges from studies in the scientific positivist tradition emphasizing nonmaterial factors to studies in postmodernist tradition. Studies of international organizations in the constructivist tradition have provided powerful critiques to and pointed out limitations of studies in realist and neoliberal institutionalist traditions since then.
A. Neoliberal Institutionalism
Studies in the neoliberal institutionalist tradition start with the premise that states act rationally and pursue the best possible strategy given a situation. Neoliberal institutionalists also assume that the anarchic nature of international system constrains the ways in which states interact and makes it difficult for states to cooperate. But neoliberal institutionalists argue that states can often overcome the constraints of anarchy, achieve cooperation, and reach mutually beneficial outcomes by creating international organizations.
The international system lacks an authority that sets, monitors, and enforces rules. This is a very distinct characteristic of international politics as compared with its domestic counterpart where laws are established, implemented, and enforced by legislative, executive, and judicial branches of a government. This anarchic nature of the international system and the reason it is difficult to achieve cooperation under anarchy is often illustrated with the prisoner’s dilemma.
A generic version of the prisoner’s dilemma features two actors who need to decide, without communicating with each other, whether they want to cooperate or not cooperate. The four preferences over the possible outcomes are the same for both actors and are given in order, from most preferred to least preferred: (1) not cooperating when the other actor cooperates, (2) cooperating when the other actor cooperates, (3) not cooperating when the other actor does not cooperate, and (4) cooperating when the other actor does not cooperate.
If both actors act rationally, in this unique equilibrium, both actors decide not to cooperate, regardless of one’s expectation of the other actor’s behavior; thus, they end up with the third-preferred outcome: Both do not cooperate. This is because when an actor expects the other to cooperate, it is in the actor’s best interest not to cooperate since the actor prefers Outcome 1 to Outcome 2. Similarly, when an actor expects the other not to cooperate, it is in the actor’s best interest not to cooperate since the actor prefers Outcome 3 to Outcome 4. Thus, if both actors play rationally, then they end up with the respective third-best alternative. This is less than what both could have achieved if they had both managed to cooperate. This dilemma of reaching the collectively suboptimal outcome when individually acting rationally poses the central puzzle in achieving international cooperation for neoliberal institutionalists.
Consider the dilemma in a provision of international public goods context. There are a few international public goods such as fish stock in a blue ocean, clean air, and the ozone layer. Suppose that states in the world need to decide whether to cooperate or not to cooperate to contribute to the supply of the international public good, say clean air, by reducing their current levels of carbon dioxide emissions without knowing if other states will reciprocate. If all states cooperate and reduce emission levels, all can enjoy the international public goods, with each bearing due costs; thus, they can reach the mutually beneficial outcome. Yet if one defects while the others cooperate, one can enjoy what the others contribute, without paying the due cost and perhaps fuel more rapid economic growth. In contrast, when one cooperates while the others defect, one pays its own cost while the others free ride or worse, the international public good is not provided. Finally, when all states defect, no public good is provided and everyone is worse off than when all states cooperate and enjoy the public good. Following the same reasoning, what is the best strategy for an individual state? When a state believes that the others would provide public goods, it is in the state’s best interest to defect, since the state can free ride and enjoy the public good as compared to paying the cost and enjoy the public good. Similarly, if the state believes that the others will defect, the best strategy for the state is to defect as well, since the state would not want to be the only one to contribute to the public good provision while others do not reciprocate. Thus, regardless of one’s belief regarding the others’ behavior, it is in the state’s best interest not to contribute to the public good provision. And if every state in the international system reasons this way, then no international public good is provided and every state is worse off and suffers consequences of global warming, as opposed to the hypothetical situation where all states contribute and enjoy clean air.
The problem of the noncooperation is not that states are malevolent. Rather, the suboptimal outcome of noncooperation stems from states acting individually rationally, and states choose not to cooperate because they fear that they may end up being cheated by the other states. Specifically, there are three reasons that states decide to not to cooperate. First, states decide not to cooperate because there is no behavioral standard in the first place. Second, even if there exist certain rules that states agree to abide by, there is no monitoring mechanism to monitor each other’s compliance. Third, there is no international police or judiciary body to punish those who do not comply with the rules.
Then what is the solution? For neoliberal institutionalists, international organizations exist to solve these kinds of problems inherent in the logic of anarchy. The early neoliberal institutionalist argument is articulated in Robert Keohane’s (1984) seminal book, After Hegemony, and a series of scholarly articles published in the leading scholarly journal, International Organization, since then have elaborated on how international institutions can facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation. Neoliberal institutionalists argue that institutions can facilitate mutual cooperation by reducing uncertainty for engaged parties and reducing transaction costs. Specifically, international institutions provide the basic rules in a given area on which states can judge legitimacy of each other’s behavior. Moreover, some international institutions have built-in monitoring mechanisms. Reduced uncertainty about the behavioral standards and each other’s potential violations lets states be more willing to cooperate. This institution-as-uncertainty-reducer argument is further supported by the studies that suggest that even without a central, enforcing authority regulating transactions, mere provision of information can significantly enhance the prospect of cooperation (e.g., Milgrom, North, & Weingast, 1990).
Institutions also create a more amenable environment for cooperation among participating parties by allowing them continued interaction (Axelrod, 1984). International organizations let states interact more regularly and repeatedly in multiple issue areas, and the enhanced prospect for iterated interactions accommodates cooperation among countries. When states expect to frequently interact with each other in the future, states can reciprocate each other’s behavior in the future interactions. This expectation of future interactions reduces the temptation to cheat in the current interaction and reduces the fear of being cheated since one can retaliate in the future. Thus, international organizations, by prolonging what is termed the shadow of future, also can promote cooperation (Axelrod, 1984; Oye, 1986).
Stein (1982) categorizes problems in international cooperation into those of coordination and those of collaboration. Coordination problems are the problems that do not require active monitoring and enforcement operations of international organizations because they are self-enforcing— there is no incentive for parties to defect once they make an agreement. In this case, international organizations need only to provide a focal point that each party’s expectation can converge around. For instance, international aviation requires a common medium to communicate. Without the common communication medium, one cannot guarantee smooth communication between American pilots flying over China and Chinese air traffic controllers or vice versa. And if there are communication problems, then the safety of interstate aviation cannot be ensured. Neoliberal institutionalists would argue that states established the International Civil Aviation Organization and set the official language for international aviation as English, in order to solve the coordination problem of international aviation. Once the international organization sets the rules and presents the rules to the states, then the rules are self-enforcing. That is, there is little incentive for participating states to cheat and instead speak French or Chinese for international aviation communication since the set rules are mutually desirable. Most of the functional international organizations, such as the Universal Postal Union, whose main purpose is to set a series of rules for smoother international operations, would fit this category.
For collaboration problems, institutions need to perform other roles to promote mutually beneficial cooperation in addition to provide rules. A typical collaboration situation resembles the prisoner’s dilemma. In international relations, trade agreements among states and public goods regimes such as the environmental regime fit into this category. These situations are characterized by lingering incentives to cheat even after reaching mutually desired outcomes, since cheating would allow free riding and provide short-term benefits. Thus, international organizations created for solving collaboration problems need to provide additional monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the WTO have indeed monitoring and enforcement procedures that states can rely on. In the WTO case, when states suspect that there are certain countries that do not comply with the trade rules, states can ask to establish a dispute settlement panel and initiate a legal case against those countries.
Building on the earlier work of Keohane (1984) and responding to the realists’ claim that institutions exert little independent influence in world politics, Keohane and Martin (2003) further elaborate on the neoliberal institutionalist position. In doing so, they provide three additional reasons that why international institutions do matter. First, when there are many possible agreeable cooperation points, existing institutions often play as a focal point by providing guidance around which states’ behaviors can converge. Second, Keohane and Martin argue that institutions, once created, often have their own lives and become “sticky.” The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a good example of a sticky organization. When the IMF was initially created, the IMF’s main purpose was to manage the international monetary system referred to as the Bretton Woods system after World War II. Yet the Bretton Woods system lasted for only 25 years and collapsed in 1971 when the IMF lost its initial purpose to exist. However, instead of ceasing its operation, the IMF managed to successfully transform itself into a loan agency with growing emphasis on developmental assistance and new kinds of lending facilities. Third, applying the principal–agent theory, Keohane and Martin argue that there is room to maneuver for international institutions, independent from the sovereign states that once created them. The argument is fully expanded in the delegation and agency literature introduced in the third section.
Studies in the realist tradition start with the same premises that states act rationally and the international system is anarchic and characterized by the prisoner’s dilemma, but realist studies arrive at a very different conclusion. At its extreme, neorealism does not acknowledge the roles that international institutions play in international relations as realism emphasizes the quintessential role of state power in world politics. Thus, for some neorealists, international institutions exert little independent influence; they just represent the most powerful state’s interest and are only effective when the most powerful state allows them to be so. For others, institutions have some effects over international affairs, but the primary determinant of the outcome is still the power of states.
Realists, often associated with hegemonic stability theory, argue that international organizations are created by the most powerful states in international system to function as instruments for furthering powerful states’ own interests. For instance, they would claim that the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system, including the IMF and the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade, were created by the United States to provide stability in security, trade, and financial affairs. With these organizations, the United States could reap disproportional benefits and consolidate its superpower status. Moreover, these international organizations may have been used as the American foreign policy instruments.
Gilpin (1981) argues that a hegemon creates international institutions to maintain the global order by providing public goods, most prominently free trade and stability. But providing public goods is not costless, and this cost is generally associated with the slow decline of the hegemon. As the hegemon starts to decline, simultaneously, another secondary power or powers start to rise and threaten the status of the hegemon. According to him, this is the temporal dynamic of the rise and fall of the hegemon.
Gruber (2000, 2001) also emphasizes how power is the driving force in creating an international organization. He argues that more powerful states can create an international institution without consents from other states and then can force other states to join the international institution by making them worse off when they resist participating. This can be done because powerful states have go-it-alone power, moving the status quo point to a new point where other states, maintaining the status quo ante, obtain a worse payoff. Gruber (2001) explains the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in this way. In between relatively weaker countries—Canada and Mexico—the United States managed to manipulate and limit choices within the choice sets for Canada and Mexico. That is, while Canada and Mexico wanted to maintain the status quo ante (that is, no free trade agreement), the United States managed to make it so that there were only two available options for each state: being left out by the bilateral free trade agreement between the United States and the other state or participating in the three-way free trade agreement. For instance, when the United States made the bilateral free trade agreement with Canada, Mexico was left with the option of joining the three-way free trade agreement or being left out of its trade share in the U.S. market. Between these two choices, each state decided to choose the less harmful option, which is participating in the three-way free trade agreement and creating NAFTA.
Other realists argue that although international organizations may influence international affairs to a certain extent, the form of an international organization is heavily determined by state power. Targeting the efficiency argument proclaimed by Keohane and other neoliberal institutionalists, Krasner (1991) points out that capturing the international bargaining process with the prisoner’s dilemma is misleading and that the inherent problem in international cooperation is seldom to reach an international agreement but more often to decide what kind of an agreement is reached. Then he argues that powerful states often dictate the rules of interactions, such as who relevant players are and who proposes an agenda first when bargaining an international agreement. In this way, powerful states dominate and reap the most gains when cooperation occurs. He illustrates the point with the case of the distribution of global communication resources. He demonstrates how powerful states often monopolized the use of radio waves, space for satellites, and magnetic waves when weaker states had no technology to demand more equal distributions of those limited resources. Only after weaker states developed technologies to intervene the monopolistic use of these limited international goods by powerful states did the powerful states concede.
With regard to the effectiveness of international organizations, Mearsheimer (1994–1995) argues that international institutions are epiphenomenal at best. Mearsheimer (1990) proclaims that international institutions are just reflections of the most powerful state’s interest, and once its interest is evaporated, there is no use for the international institutions anymore. For instance, he predicts the instability of Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the grounds that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not function properly any longer because the most powerful state, the United States, had lost its interest to maintain stability in Europe when the Soviet Union had collapsed.
Constructivists take a very different approach to provide powerful critiques of both neoliberal institutionalism and realism. First of all, constructivists contend that the preferences of states are not fixed, as neoliberal institutionalists and realists often assume, but are socially constructed through repeated interactions among states. Similarly, the rules of the interactions among states are shaped and transformed through states’ interactions. For instance, Wendt (1999) argues that the logic of anarchy is not fixed but varies and is constituted by interactions among actors within the international system, and the preferences of states and the prospect of cooperation vary accordingly. Specifically, under the Hobbesian culture of anarchy, states perceive each other as an enemy; thus, international cooperation among states would not be likely. In comparison, states perceive each other as rivals under the Lockean culture of anarchy; thus, cooperation can be achieved with additional institutional settings such as international organizations. Finally, under the Kantian culture of anarchy, states see each other as friends, and states’ interests are in harmony with each other, making it unnecessary to collaborate. In general, studies of international organizations in constructivist tradition emphasize the roles that nonmaterial factors, such as identity, norms, cultures, and ideas, shape and transform states’ interests, how the transformed states’ interests affect international organizations, and how international organizations transform the states’ interests in turn.
Haas (1989) illustrates how the spread of scientific knowledge by the epistemic community has altered states’ interests over time and how it allowed states to create the Mediterranean Action Plan, the international arrangement among southern European and North African countries to regulate international marine pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. He shows that power- and interest-based theories cannot fully account for the adaptation and implementation of the Med Plan. Then, he proposes the alternative argument that the United Nations Environmental Programme assisted creation and empowerment of the ecological epistemic community and shows how the empowered epistemic community was able to spread scientific knowledge across the Mediterranean countries and persuade these governments. This allowed the change of preferences of those countries that initially had opposed the Med Plan, such as Algeria and Egypt, and led them to ultimately participate in and comply with the Med Plan. A similar argument is made by Finnemore (1993). She argues that international organizations often have their own goals and set and spread norms accordingly. In the empirical study, she shows that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was able to spread the norm that modern states needed to take science seriously. As more and more states accepted the norm, UNESCO was able to persuade many developing countries to establish an independent scientific bureaucracy.
Johnston (2001) highlights a role of an international organization play that is not emphasized by neoliberal institutionalists or realists. He asks how involvement in international institutions changes states’ behavior in the absence of material rewards and punishment in his study and answers the question with what he calls socialization process. Johnston applies Siegal’s definition of socialization, “the process by which people learn to adopt the norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors accepted and practiced by the ongoing system” (as cited on p. 495), to international relations and argues that through socialization, states can change their preferences, which may lead to more cooperative behaviors. Through providing the forum for socialization and facilitating persuasion and social influence, such as social opprobrium and back patting, international institutions play the important role in helping to promote cooperation in a way that is often neglected by neoliberal institutionalists.
D. Bringing Theories Together
This section lists theories of international organizations that propose interest-, power-, and knowledge-based explanations—neoliberal institutionalism, realism, and constructivism, respectively—of creation and functions of international organizations. On one hand, power-politics arguments discount the roles that international institutions may play in world politics. In comparison, interest-based arguments emphasize how international institutions provide information so that participating states can achieve mutually beneficial cooperation. More recently, constructivists provide alternative arguments that are often complementary to the existing rationalist arguments.
Although these diverse arguments have advanced our understanding of many aspects of international organizations, they are often presented as competing theories of international organizations. Is it, then, impossible to bring these diverse arguments together in order to achieve more comprehensive understanding of international institutions? Hasenclever, Mayer, and Rittberger (2000) propose one possible way to bring the theories together that they term as contextualized rationalist theory. They see the core difference between realist and neoliberal institutionalist arguments in terms of how much states care about how much they gain from cooperation in absolute terms as opposed to how much states gain relative to other states. Since states are likely to behave as neoliberal institutionalists argue when they are motivated by gains in absolute terms and, conversely, states are less likely to cooperate when they are motivated by relative gains, adding a theory of states’ motivations prior to considering the two rationalist explanations may allow scholars to apply an appropriate theory to understand a given research question. Furthermore, studies in the constructivist tradition may be able to provide useful theories of states’ motivation that realists and neoliberal institutionalists make assumptions about and treat as given. This may be one way to bring constructivism and the rationalist theories together in a constructive manner.
IV. Rational Design and Delegation
A. Rational Design Literature
Building on the earlier work on the roles of international institutions in facilitating cooperation among states and moving forward from the once-heated debates regarding whether international institutions matter, the more recent scholarship in the study of international organizations shifts its focus to variations in features of diverse international organizations.
In the 2001 International Organization special issue, Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal (2001a) laid out the platform of rational design of international institutions. For these scholars, not only the very existence of international institutions is intended by sovereign states, but also their specific characteristics, whether membership, issue scope, (de)centralization, decision-making procedures, or flexibility, are also rationally designed by participating states. This argument is based on the observation that institutions are outcomes of many rounds of deliberate negotiations among engaged states.
There are indeed enormous variations in characteristics of international organizations. For instance, some international organizations such as the European Union or NAFTA are regional, while other international organizations such as the WTO or the United Nations are global. Some international organizations grant each state an equal vote, while others have some form of a weighted voting system: Some require simple majority, some require supermajority, and the others require unanimity. Some institutions have relatively strong centralized authority and some enforcement mechanisms, while other institutions provide only nonbinding consultations.
For example, Rosendorff and Milner (2001) argue that the escape clause of the WTO procedure is deliberately chosen by member states to cope with domestic uncertainty on preference changes. Without the escape clause, a potential domestic preference shift among different social groups may force their governments to withdraw from the WTO even if the overall cost–benefit calculation of continuing participation in the regime is still bigger than that of quitting the WTO. Individual states are uncertain about future domestic preference dynamics when they sign the agreement. With the risk of abrupt quitting of trading partners from the trade regime, states would be hesitant to sign the agreement in the first place. Facing this dilemma, those who negotiated and designed the WTO created the escape clause to facilitate temporary needs of member states to violate the agreed-on rules. But this escaping from the established rules should not be costless, since if it were, then states could resort to the escape clause more often than necessary, and consequently, this will reduce overall benefits for all participating states. Thus, the existence of the costly escape clause in the trade agreement is the optimal solution for the uncertain future of the domestic preference dynamics. The escape clause is created in such a way to accommodate states’ needs to accommodate temporary domestic pressure while maintaining the overall agreement structure.
In a similar vein, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion study by Kydd (2001) highlights how the restrictive NATO membership criteria of democratization work as the filter that enable potential members to signal their strong commitment to security cooperation and keep out problematic members who would be less cooperative in NATO’s operations. The membership criteria of NATO serve as the screening mechanism that allows only those countries genuinely committed to join the membership. One can argue that a similar mechanism exists for the European Union. To join the European Union, candidate states need to demonstrate that they are committed to noninflationary economic policies, respect for human rights, and democracy, among others.
B. Delegation and Agency
Another line of emerging literature in the studies of international organizations looks at the tension between states that create and finance international organizations and the international organizations within the principal agent framework. States are the principals, and they decide to delegate some of their authority to the agents (international organizations) because it is often more efficient to have agents with better expertise in a particular issue area handle everyday operations.
The issue of delegation holds significant practical implications. On one hand, pundits and academics blame international organizations for not being very effective or for being too biased. And the major reason of the ineffectiveness and bias is states’ tight control over organizations. Often, international organizations are under tight control of sovereign states, and unless states agree to allow international organizations to act, there is little difference that international organizations can make. For instance, peacekeeping missions of the United Nations are often proven ineffective, with too-small and often too-late engagements in humanitarian crisis situations. And this ineffectiveness comes from the fact that peacekeeping missions are possible only when states agree to make them and are willing to send their own civil and military personnel to conflict-ridden regions. In a different context, the IMF is often accused of being biased toward its major shareholders, such as the United States and other G-7 countries since the IMF’s decision making is largely controlled by these states.
On the other hand, others accuse international organizations of being too independent and too irresponsible once they are created. International organizations are depicted as pursuing their own interests, whether the interests are ideological or bureaucratic. International organizations are funded by citizens’ taxes through member states’ contributions, yet international organizations are too autonomous and pursue their own goals rather than serving those who finance them. Furthermore, international bureaucrats are not electorally responsible yet often make public policy decisions that exert enormous influence over the welfare of ordinary citizens. For instance, the IMF often consults borrowing countries’ governments to formulate IMF programs that include policy reform measures such as privatization, civil service and public sector reforms, trade liberalization, pension reforms, and labor market reforms. Thus, the IMF staff often exerts enormous influence over policy decisions yet is not accountable to those who are affected. In sum, international organizations are criticized on two contradictory grounds—one, international organizations are under too-tight control of strong states and thus are not very effective, and two, international organizations are too autonomous from the states and have little accountability.
To better understand the relationship between states and international organizations as principals and agents, scholars ask questions like the following: Why do states delegate certain tasks and responsibilities to international organizations rather than acting unilaterally or cooperating directly without international organizations, and how do states control international organizations once authority has been delegated to the organizations? Studies in the edited volume Delegation and Agency in International Organizations (Hawkins, Lake, Nielson, & Tierney, 2006) are a culmination of such recent scholarly efforts. Through careful examinations of diverse international organizations such as the IMF, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the WTO, the collective efforts in the volume conclude that successful delegation to international organizations is possible, given that states have and maintain sufficient information and that little conflicting interests between international organizations and states exists.
This research paper introduces the definitions of essential terms in studies of international organizations and then briefly discusses existing theories of international organizations. There is an increasing number of studies that have informed us about why states create international organizations, what influences the features of international organizations, what functions international organizations perform once they are created, and how states oversee or how independent international organizations are from states’ control.
Although we know a lot more about international organizations, there are also limitations of the current scholarship and hence many fruitful areas that future scholarship can address. First of all, a more comprehensive understanding of politics of international organizations may be possible when we study the interaction between the formation of state preferences and the creation and functions of international organizations. Proper attention to domestic politics can prove useful to understanding formation of state preferences. Alternatively, international norm dynamics and evolution of identity of interacting states can be fruitful to explain state preference formation and transformation. Second, the current scholarship of international organizations is state-centric and pays little attention to nonstate actors. There are a very limited number of studies that investigate nongovernmental international organizations, even with the growing importance of nongovernmental international organizations in world politics. Thus, more attention to the partnerships between formal international organizations and nongovernmental organizations is needed. And studies that investigate the conditions under which those partnerships may be proven fruitful will have huge policy implications for the future cooperation between nongovernmental international organizations and formal international organizations.
Studies of international organizations have made major advances for the past three decades, but there are still many exciting yet unresolved questions to be explored. Moreover, as the roles that international organizations play in international relations keep growing and issue areas that the international organizations participate in increase, there will be even more need for proper understanding of these organizations. Thus, the subfield of international organization will be a very exciting place to develop research programs for current and future political scientists.
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