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Defined in the strictest sense, international organizations count countries and states, not individuals, as their members, and play some official role in the international system, most notably as providers of collective security.
An international organization derives its membership from (or operates in) a number of different countries and plays some official role in the working of the international system. A definitional example of an international organization is the United Nations (U.N.). The U.N. has its own staff, rules, and headquarters; its members are countries rather than people, and almost all countries in the world are members. In the international system, the U.N. was intended to function in several official roles, especially as a provider of collective security.
There is no clear line between what can be considered an international organization and what cannot. Organizations such as the U.N. that are created by treaties among countries and that count countries as their members clearly fit the definition. Multinational corporations and other for-profit enterprises, even though there are ways in which they fit the definition, are generally not considered international organizations as such. Not-for-profit organizations that have individuals rather than countries as their members, often referred to as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are in the gray area of the definition. For the purposes of this article, not-for-profit organizations that are clearly international in nature and that play a semiofficial role in the international system, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, are included in the definition.
War, Peace, and International Organizations
International organizations affect issues of war and peace in a number of different ways. Some organizations are designed to enhance collective security. Others work to prevent conflict by ameliorating some of the conditions that lead to war, such as poverty or ethnic conflict. Still others attempt to alleviate the suffering caused by war once a conflict has already begun. And finally, some international organizations, called alliances, are designed primarily to help their members win wars. The first two categories of activity, collective security and ameliorating the conditions that lead to war, tend to be undertaken by the U.N. and affiliated organizations. The third category, alleviating suffering, is undertaken both by U.N.-affiliated organizations, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and NGOs, such as the Red Cross. The fourth category, alliances, comprises organizations that are intergovernmental but are not part of the U.N. system.
At this point we should distinguish between collective security organizations and alliances. Alliances consist of two or more countries that agree to aid each other in time of war. This can be a purely defensive arrangement, whereby parties agree to come to each other’s aid if attacked by third parties, or offensive, an agreement to attack a third party. Either way, a key feature of an alliance is that it is exclusive, meaning that it is designed specifically to work against the interests of nonmembers. International alliances have been around for millennia; they are, for example, featured prominently in Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BCE. But they have traditionally not been organizations as such. They have made agreements, but those agreements have generally not created new special-purpose bureaucracies. The alliance as an international organization is a phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century, beginning with the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact.
Collective security organizations differ from alliances in that they are inclusive. Such organizations create rules for maintaining the international peace and hold their members to those rules. If a member country breaks the rules in a way that is a threat to international peace, then all of the other members are supposed to take action to counteract the threat. In other words, while alliances aim to defend their members from threats from outside of their membership, collective security agreements aim to defend their members from threats that originate within the membership. As such, collective security organizations work best the broader their membership. The U.N. was formed primarily as a collective security organization, and the U.N.’s Security Council was designed as its primary enforcement mechanism.
A History of Collective Security
The first attempt at a collective security agreement in the modern state system was the Concert of Europe, an agreement reached in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars by the great powers of the time to manage European affairs through annual meetings rather than through alliances and wars. This agreement did not really create an international organization, however, because it did not create a new bureaucratic structure to oversee the collective security system. In any case, the Concert was not terribly successful. By the mid-1820s it had ceased having a major impact on European politics, and by the middle of the nineteenth century had ceased to exist altogether.
The next major international attempt at collective security was the League of Nations, created in the aftermath of World War I. The League was clearly an international organization; it had its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, with a permanent Secretariat—its own bureaucracy. The creation of the League was driven primarily by the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, who felt that a primary cause of World War I had been the politics of secret alliances that dominated European international relations for half a century before the war. He wanted to create an organization that brought countries together to discuss their problems in a public forum, thereby getting rid of closed-door international negotiations. He also wanted to create an organization that guaranteed the peace, thus getting rid of the need for alliances.
The League, like the Concert, was not very successful. It was hamstrung from the outset by the fact that the United States never joined. Despite the fact that President Wilson was the driving force behind its creation, the U.S. Senate did not ratify U.S. membership in the organization. It was also undermined by its own decision-making structure. The League worked on a one-country, one-vote basis, so a group of small, militarily weak countries that constituted a majority could pass a resolution calling for military action even if the countries voting for the resolution were not strong enough collectively to enforce it. Since the League itself had no military capabilities, it counted on member countries to enforce its resolutions, and those members tended to resort to pass-the-buck arguments—they might want something done, but they wanted some other country to actually do it.
The League did not survive World War II. It was replaced by the U.N., which was created in 1945. The U.N. undertakes a wide range of activities that cover most areas of human endeavor, but its core design function is as a collective security organization. It began with two advantages over the League of Nations. First, all of the major powers were members. And second, it was designed to try to get around the buck-passing problem. The U.N. has a General Assembly that, much like that of the League, passes resolutions by majority vote. But the General Assembly is not tasked to enforce the rules of collective security. In the U.N.’s design, a new body called the Security Council was created for that task. The Security Council has only a few members at any given point in time (originally eleven, now fifteen) and is always in session, so that it can deal with threats to international security quickly and efficiently. The membership includes those nations that were the five greatest military powers at the end of World War II, and it can only authorize the use of force if all five agree.
The U.N. and International Peace and Security
The system never really worked as planned. The U.N. authorized the U.S.-led intervention in the Korean War in 1950, but after that was not able to successfully intervene in Cold War disputes because both the United States and the Soviet Union had a veto in the Security Council. In 1956, in response to the Suez Crisis, the Security Council invented a new role for collective security, called peacekeeping. This refers to the use of troops authorized by the Security Council to oversee the implementation of cease-fires after conflicts, a more modest role than the enforcement of international security but one that the U.N. has engaged in successfully for decades.
The U.N.’s role in issues of war and peace underwent a renaissance in response to the end of the Cold War around 1990. Freed from the constraints of U.S.-Soviet confrontation, the Security Council was able to authorize more ambitious missions than it had been able to for three decades. These missions, in places like Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, went beyond peacekeeping, and were much like traditional collective security missions. The U.N. also got involved in what came to be called peace building— missions designed to create working political and legal systems in places where the absence of such systems was causing, or was caused by, conflict. Examples of this sort of activity in the 1990s could be found in the former Yugoslavia, in Cambodia, and in East Timor. The renaissance in collective security activity lasted little over a decade. It came to be threatened both by the invasion of Iraq, by increased unilateralism on the part of the United States, and increased foreign policy assertiveness by two other permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China. The current direction of evolution of the role of the U.N. in matters of international peace and security is unclear.
Beyond Collective Security
The Security Council is aided in enforcing collective security by a variety of additional organizations. Some prevent conflicts by settling disputes by arbitration, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Others are designed to do on a regional basis some of the same things that the U.N. does globally. These include the African Union (AU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These organizations range in age; the OAS was created in 1948, whereas the AU came into being in 2002, although it incorporates organizations that had been created several decades earlier.
The role of international organizations in ameliorating the suffering caused by war goes back as far as their role in collective security. The first such organization was the Red Cross, created in 1863 to help wounded soldiers and oversee the treatment of prisoners of war. Although the Red Cross is a nongovernmental organization, it has a semiofficial capacity in the international system. For example, its role as the monitor of the treatment of prisoners of war is written into the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war. Other ameliorative organizations are intergovernmental, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which traces its roots back to the appointment by the League of Nations of the first High Commissioner for Refugees in 1921. The UNHCR currently oversees relief efforts to more than 20 million refugees worldwide.
Other international organizations, most of which can trace their roots back to the 1950s, help countries to recover more generally from the effects of war by helping them to develop their economies and basic services; these include the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The efforts of these organizations are augmented by a wide range of nongovernmental organizations dedicated to improving conditions for the most needy internationally.
Outlook on the Twenty-First Century
International organizations have been active for more than a century in promoting international peace and security. The effectiveness of organizations focusing on collective security has varied over time. It increased in general in the decade following the 1991 end of the Cold War, but has waned somewhat since then. The direction of change in effectiveness in the coming decades will help to determine patterns of war and peace in the twenty-first century. The effectiveness of organizations focusing on ameliorating the negative effects of war has grown consistently, particularly since the end of World War II, and is likely to continue to grow.
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