International Organizations in World Politics
As this book was going to press, 195 countries met in Paris under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) to discuss climate change. There, they reached an agreement to work together to slow the increase in the global average temperature, in order to minimize or avoid potentially catastrophic consequences for the planet: severe droughts, rising sea levels, destructive storms, and associated challenges to food and water security. UN SecretaryGeneral Ban Ki-moon hailed the agreement as “a monumental triumph for people and our planet.” Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister presiding over the conference, called the agreement a “historical turning point.” The deal commits every country to take action to address climate change. But the agreement is also voluntary and unenforceable, which means it remains up to the states, supported by other stakeholders, to keep their promises and implement measures that will make a difference. Skeptics immediately expressed concern that the agreement will not go far enough to stop temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists estimate as the point of no return.
The simultaneous expressions of euphoria and concern in the aftermath of the UNsponsored climate negotiations mirror the general consensus about international organizations (IOs). Some people view IOs as essential actors that make a difference by bringing states together to address problems that do not respect national borders. Others view IOs as lacking the necessary power, support, tools, or incentives to make a difference, perhaps even setting the world up for failure.
Are IOs saviors, irrelevant, or even harmful? There is no single answer to this question. There is great variation among IOs and even within a single IO over time or with respect to different issues. There are examples of successful actions and costly mistakes for each IO. The UN may be praised for getting states to negotiate on a number of topics, and it has produced new norms of behavior and even averted conflict. But there are many instances where it failed to act and the cost was human lives and enormous suffering. It is also case that IO failures tend to make global headlines, whereas the many successes, often small in scope, are likely to go unnoticed beyond the local population. There are also different ways of defining success and failure, as the Paris agreement underscores. Many would argue that the mere fact the UN brought so many countries together, and that they agreed on something in principle, is success in and of itself. Others would claim that success has only one measure: if the accord paves the way for the world to avoid the catastrophic changes that will result from excessive warming.
Approach and Organization of the Book
The book is premised on the belief that IOs play a critical role in global governance, even if their performance is mixed across institutions, issues, and time. IOs offer fora for cooperation, provide expertise, initiate ideas and agendas, disseminate knowledge, encourage collaboration, and implement policies, programs, and projects. They can be found working to avert or end a conflict; vaccinating children; helping farmers with their crops; stopping the contagion of a financial crisis or a virus; bringing clean water to a village or saving tigers. They are involved in all the pressing issues of our time: the global environment, trade, terrorism, health, security, development, education, human rights, conflict resolution, agriculture, migration, crime, and more. Indeed, it is difficult to find a transboundary issue that that some IO somewhere is not engaged in. Nonetheless IO involvement does not necessarily mean the problem is solved, or is even properly addressed.
How can we understand the role of IOs in global governance? The purpose of the book is to give the reader a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of major IOs and their evolving role in international politics and global governance. It does so by first, in chapters 1 and 2, looking at the big picture—how to conceptualize IOs and their roles in the world, and different ways scholars, mainly in international relations, have thought about and debated the importance of IOs. IOs operate in a broader and more complex institutional landscape of global governance, constantly interacting with states, other IOs, civil society, business groups, philanthropists, networks of national officials, and other actors to confront the problems facing the world. States remain the most powerful actors in international politics, although a number of scholars and others are questioning whether this is changing. While the most powerful states remain critically important to the success or failure of an IO, they do not always get what they want and they are not always the most influential players among the many stakeholders that may converge around a specific issue. IOs also have different degrees of flexibility as actors in their own right.
Chapters 3-10 focus on the most influential IOs: the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO). Each IO is covered in a pair of chapters. The first chapter contains the “nuts and bolts” of the IO, beginning with the circumstances surrounding its origin. What prompted states to create the IO? How is it structured and governed? What does it actually do, and has its work changed over time? How has the IO performed? What are some different perspectives on its actions and effectiveness? The chapters show how this diverse set of organizations share several common challenges, including how to adapt to a changing world and how to remain relevant and legitimate while doing so.
The second chapter in each pair presents a case study that explores an important but difficult issue that IO has faced. The case studies cover a wide range of topics and help the reader to understand how complicated the issues, politics, and IO responses are in situations where there are no easy answers. Chapter 4 is a case study of the UN’s failure to act in the Rwandan genocide of the mid-1990s, where tens of thousands of people were massacred in 100 days. Why did the UN, and the world, do so little? Chapter 6 examines the World Bank’s zigzag performance in addressing major environmental issues. The World Bank has been a leader in global environmental governance while simultaneously it has been accused of causing environmental destruction. Chapter 8 reviews the IMF’s role in the 2008 global financial crisis. Before the crisis erupted, the IMF was allegedly losing credibility and relevance. The crisis dramatically changed the IMF, infusing it with fresh life and importance as the centerpiece of global economic governance. How well did it perform? Chapter 10 examines the WTO’s actions in the area where intellectual property rights, trade, and access to medicine interact. Balancing intellectual property rights with human health can literally be a matter of life and death. Regional organizations are a category of IOs that deserve their own attention. Chapter 11 looks broadly at regional organizations, their roles in global governance, and the debates about them. The chapter focuses on the European Union (EU), the most innovative and powerful organization among the regionals. To illuminate a major challenge the EU is facing today, the chapter examines the euro crisis. Chapter 12 offers a case study of the peace operations of the African Union (AU). The AU moved away from its predecessor’s emphasis on the principle of non-interference in member states, adopting instead the principle of non-indifference. The chapter describes and evaluates how successful the AU’s peace operations have been in managing conflict in the region while pursuing a new commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
As long as we need global cooperation to work toward global solutions, IOs have a vital role to play. IOs will never exist in a vacuum, and their successes and failures are inextricably linked to the political will of their member states, and increasingly influenced by actions from other actors as well. Over a half century ago, the pioneer IO scholar Inis Claude, Jr. observed that IOs are a response “to the challenging problems and terrible dangers of international life in an era of increasing interdependence.” His words still hold true today.1
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