International Organization

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International Organization








International organization is the process by which states establish and develop formal, continuing institutional structures for the conduct of certain aspects of their relationships with each other. It represents a reaction to the extreme decentralization of the traditional system of international relations and an effort by statesmen to adapt the mechanics of that system to the requirements posed by the constantly increasing complexity of the interdependence of states. Particular international organizations may be regarded as manifestations of the organizing process on the international level.

The history of international organization

The process of international organization had its origins in the nineteenth century, largely in Europe. Innovations associated with the rise of industrialism and the introduction of new methods of transport and communication stimulated the creation of special-purpose agencies, usually called public international unions, designed to facilitate the collaboration of governments in dealing with economic, social, and technical problems. Notable among these were the International Telegraphic Union (1865) and the Universal Postal Union (1874), which survived to become specialized agencies of the United Nations system (the former under the title International Telecommunication Union) after World War II. In the political field, an effort to institutionalize the dominant role of the great powers of Europe was undertaken at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. While the resultant Concert of Europe did not assume the character of a standing political organization, the same pattern functioned until World War I as the framework for a system of occasional great-power conferences which lent some substance to the idea that the European family of states constituted an organized entity. This concept was broadened by the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which admitted small states as well as great powers, and extra-European as well as European states, to participation in collective political deliberations. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the establishment of the Pan American Union and the initiation of a series of inter-American conferences reinforced the Monroe Doctrine and Simón Bolívar’s pronouncements by giving institutional expression to the idea that the states of the Western Hemisphere constituted a distinct subgroup within the larger multi-state system.

These nineteenth-century beginnings provided, in large measure, the basis for the phenomenal development of international organization since World War I. Certain distinctions which emerged during this period—between political and nonpolitical agencies, between the status of great powers and that of small states, between regional and geographically undefined organizations—were to prove significant in the later course of international organization. Basic patterns of institutional structure and procedure were evolved. The trend toward broadening the conception of international organization to include entities beyond the confines of the European state system was initiated. Most importantly, the dual motivations of international institution building—(a) the urge to promote coordinated responses by states to the problems of peaceful intercourse in an era of growing economic, social, and technical interdependence, and(b)the recognition of the necessity for moderating conflict in the political and military spheres—became operative in this period.

The establishment of the League of Nations and its affiliate, the International Labour Organisation, at the end of World War I represented the first attempt to combine into one general organization the disparate elements of organizational development which had emerged during the previous century. The League was the first general international organization in several senses: (a) it pulled together the threads of the great-power council, the general conference of statesmen, and the technically oriented international bureau; (b) it was a multipurpose organization, although its primary focus was onthe political and security problems of war and peace; and (c) it was, in principle, a world-wide institution, even though it retained much of the nineteenth-century emphasis upon the centrality of Europe in international affairs.

After World War ii, the League was superseded by the United Nations, a general organization which derived its major features from the nineteenth-century heritage and the lessons of experience, both positive and negative, provided by the League. The United Nations was conceived as the central component of a varied and decentralized system of international institutions that would include both autonomous specialized agencies, following the pattern first set by the public international unions, and such regional organizations as existed or might be created by limited groups of states. The organizational design formulated in the United Nations Charter called for the active coordination of the work of the specialized agencies by the central institution, primarily through the agency of its Economic and Social Council, and the utilization and control of regional agencies, largely through the Security Council.

In actuality, the organizational system of the post-World War II era has involved the operation of approximately a dozen specialized agencies, many of them newly created, coordinated with varying degrees of effectiveness by the United Nations. The post-1945 system has also involved the proliferation of regional organizations of every sort, most of them functioning quite independently, without any genuine tie to the central organization. The term “United Nations system” may, therefore, properly be used to refer to the United Nations and the specialized agencies, but it does not embrace the considerable number of regional organizations which have developed independently.

The total network of international institutions also comprises more than one hundred intergovernmental agencies outside the scope of the United Nations system, dealing with a vast range of problems and providing a variety of mechanisms for the conduct of relations among states. These are supplemented by approximately 1,500 nongovern-mental organizations which promote international consultation and activity in specialized fields at the unofficial level (Yearbook of International Organizations 1962-1963).

The conceptual basis

The conception of international relations underlying international organization is frequently described as idealistic, in the sense that it minimizes the element of conflict and emphasizes the potentialities of harmony and cooperation in the relationships of states. International organizations are characterized, by supporters and critics alike, as arrangements for cooperation among states. Most accurately, international organization can be said to rest upon a dualistic conception of international relations, one which acknowledges both conflictual and cooperative relationships as basic features of the multistate system. In principle, international organization represents an attempt to minimize conflict and maximize collaboration among participating states, treating conflict as an evil to be controlled and cooperation as a good to be promoted. In these terms, international organization both denies the inevitability of war and other manifestations of hostility among nations and expresses a commitment to the harmonization of international relations.

In fact, a more sophisticated analysis of international organization reveals a much more complex approach to the conflictual and cooperative aspects of international affairs than that described above. Some international agencies are primarily concerned with problems of conflict, while others emphasize the promotion of collaboration: within the United Nations, for instance, the Security Council is illustrative of the former type and the Economic and Social Council of the latter. Moreover, conflicting interests of states intrude upon programs of cooperation, making it necessary for cooperation-oriented agencies to deal with problems of conflict, and the common interests of states provide the means by which conflict-oriented agencies undertake to cope with tendencies toward international disorder. Thus, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a regional agency inspired by the East–West conflict after World War II, but it relies upon cooperation among its members to enable it to meet the dangers posed by that conflict. Similarly, the concept of collective security envisages cooperative action by most members of a general international organization as the essential means for deterring or defeating aggression.

It is significant that both the League of Nations and the United Nations were established in the aftermath of major world wars and were conceived primarily as means for preventing the recurrence of such catastrophic struggles; the Charter of the United Nations begins with the expression of de-termination “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” General inter-national organization in the twentieth century is a reaction to the grim reality of violent conflict among states and a response to the danger of future conflict. In the United Nations system, preoccupation with the conflictual aspect of international relations is so great that the official ideology requires the formal justification of virtually every cooperative project, however useful it may promise to be in itself, in terms of its putative contribution to the avoidance of war. Article 55 of the United Nations Charter calls for collaborative activity in the economic, social, health, cultural, educational, and human rights fields, “with a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations. . . .” Article 76 lists as the first objective of the United Nations trusteeship system the furtherance of international peace and security Moreover, the functional theory of international organization, which explicitly stresses the development of agencies devoted to cooperative solution of problems in the economic and social realm, is ultimately concerned with the issue of political and military struggle; functionalism treats the promotion of welfare as an indirect approach to the prevention of warfare [seeInternational integration, article onfunctionalism and functional integration]. On the whole, international organization has reflected greater concern with the probability of conflict than with the possibility of cooperation.

In the final analysis, governmental leaders of member states impose their conceptions of international relations upon international organization and determine the ends toward which and the means by which international agencies operate. While international institutions tend to some limited degree to develop corporate viewpoints and purposes, usually through professional staff members who identify themselves with the organizations which they serve, these institutions are essentially instruments of their member states. Hence, international organization reflects the variety of viewpoints and purposes which prevails among governments. In the United Nations, a fundamental issue is whether the world organization should serve primarily as a battlefield or a peace conference, an arena for conflict or a chamber for the settlement of disputes. Some statesmen are primarily interested in the waging of political battles and others concentrate more on the mitigation of conflict. Moreover, some leaders give priority to the stimulation of effective international cooperation and treat the organization as a workshop for economic and social collaboration rather than as an agency concerned with conflict. Whether the United Nations emphasizes the conflictual or the cooperative aspects of international relations is determined less by the formal statement of the organization’s nature and purpose contained in its charter than by the day-to-day outcome of the political process of the organization, in which members vie with each other for control over the utilization of its mechanism. International organization does not introduce a distinctive conception of international relations but gives expression to whatever viewpoints may be dominant in the international political arena.

This analysis indicates that international organization is essentially a process of developing a new structural and procedural framework for the interplay of national governments within the context of the multistate system. It represents an attempt by statesmen to improve the operation of that system by enhancing the institutional equipment available for the conduct of relations among states and by promoting the general acceptance of standards of state behavior compatible with the minimum requirements of an orderly system. Insofar as international organization represents a reformist movement within the multistate system, it expresses the awareness of national leaders that international order is requisite to the promotion and protection of the most basic interests of their states. The quest for order through international organization does not involve repudiation of national interests or subordination of national interests to an overriding internationalism, but at most it involves the redefinition of national interests in conformity with the demands of increasing interdependence and the commitment of statesmen to the pursuit of those interests within the revised framework provided by international organization. It should occasion no surprise that governments undertake to use international agencies as instruments of their national policies. Such agencies are created and maintained by governments for instrumental purposes, and their usefulness depends upon the disposition of statesmen to resort to them for the promotion of values deemed compatible with national interests. International organization reflects the view that world order is not more importantthannational interests, but that it is important to national interests [seeSystems analysis, article oninternational systems].

The character of international organization


In keeping with this emphasis upon the national values of member states, international organizations have generally functioned as loose associations, heavily dependent upon the voluntary acceptance by states of the obligations of membership, upon the development of consensus among governments as to programs and policies, and upon techniques of persuasion and political influence rather than command and coercion. In limited areas, international agencies have been endowed with legislative authority and enforcement procedures, but their capacity to function is based essentially upon processes of political accommodation. Usefulness to states, not power over states, is the secret of such strength as an international institution may acquire or possess.

The symbol of the dependence of international organization upon the will of states is theveto—the formally acknowledged competence of a state to frustrate majority decision and block action deemed incompatible with its interests. This constitutional capacity has been progressively relinquished by states, in favor of decision making by simpler or qualified majorities. In the United Nations, this trend has reached the point of confining the veto power to the Security Council, within which only the five major powers holding permanent seats are authorized to veto certain decisions of a nonprocedural character. Even this limited veto power has been eroded in practice, so that its negative effect upon majority will is seldom definitive. Despite this apparent diminution of the veto in international institutions, individual states—particularly the major powers—retain a basic capacity, grounded in political reality more than in constitutional documents, to inhibit the effective functioning of international agencies. If the concept of the veto is broadened beyond the negative vote to include all available manifestations of nonsupport and opposition, it becomes clear that all international agencies, regardless of their constitutional provisions, are ultimately dependent upon the capacity to promote substantial consensus among their members. Indeed, the veto rule is, in positive terms, the rule of unanimity; the latter suggests the fundamentally consensual character of international institutions.

While international organization has sometimes been criticized as involving too radical and idealistic a transformation of international relations, the tendency since World War II has been to compare it unfavorably with a hypothetical world government. Noting the limited capabilities of international agencies for controlling the behavior of states, advocates of world government have insisted that nothing short of the replacement of the multistate system by a global federation, involving the creation of a central institution endowed with authoritative and coercive powers comparable to those of national governments, will suffice to prevent catastrophic war. This point of view has gained widespread acceptance, with the result that the observation that “the United Nations is not, of course, a world government” has become a standard introduction to discussions of the inadequacy of international organization. Critical evaluation of international institutions has tended to measure them against the standard of governmental institutions and to attribute significant value to them only to the degree that they conform to that standard.


From the point of view of approaching world government, the high point in the evolution of international organization since World War II is the development of the European Community, which began with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community by France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and subsequently expanded its functional scope with the establishment of the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community by the same group of states. Certain features of these institutions, including the conferment of significant policy-making and executive authority upon commissions composed of members acting independently of their governments on behalf of the community as a whole, and the capacity of community organs to deal directly and authoritatively with individuals and business enterprises within member states, have led to their characterization as supranational agencies.

The concept of supranationalism has not been precisely defined, but it is clearly intended to designate governmentlike qualities. Supranational institutions are regarded as falling between the poles of federal government and international organization and are defined in terms of their approximation of the former and their deviation from the latter. The adoption of this new designation for the institutions of the European Community suggests a difference in kind from conventional international organizations. The crucial differentiation implied in the concept of supranationalism concerns the relationship between a supranational agency and the governments of member states. In contrast to an international organization, a supranational body is thought to be superior to its member states and relatively independent of their consent and support in its operations. Supranationalism, in short, symbolizes the proposition that certain international organizations have achieved substantial emancipation from the control of national governments and acquired an autonomous role in international affairs [seeInternational integration, article onglobal integration].

The institutions of the European Community have developed remarkable innovations in international organization, and they show promise of leading toward the development of a full-fledged federal arrangement among their member states. Nevertheless, it appears that the quality of supranationalism is not so meaningful in practice as it is impressive in theory. The achievements of the Community have depended upon the successful development of consensus among the governments of member states, not upon the evasion of the necessity for such consensus; the effectiveness of the institutions has rested not upon the elimination of the veto in theory but upon the achievement of unanimity in practice. The evidence provided by the European experience does not suggest that supranationalism offers international institutions a realistic escape from their dependence upon governments. It does indicate that, under appropriate circumstances, the innovations associated with supranationalism may facilitate the development and implementation of the willingness of governments to move ahead in ambitious programs of common action [seeInternational integration, article onregional integration].

For better or for worse, the development of the United Nations system has not pointed toward the evolution of a global federal system or even toward the quasi-federalism of supranational institutions. The expanding membership of the organization has testified to the proliferation of new states and to the increasing dominance within the United Nations of the view that it should be a universal institution which mirrors the complex realities of the multistate system. This expansion of the organization has completed the process of eliminating the European parochialism of international institutions, making formal acknowledgment of the global character of the international system. The rise to primacy within the United Nations of the General Assembly, the organ in which all member states enjoy equality of formal status and voting capacity, is in part attributable to the fact that this body comprises an unprecedentedly comprehensive collection of spokesmen for the units of the multistate system.

Far from undermining the position of national states as the primary actors on the international scene, international organization since World War II has in fact served to strengthen their position by enhancing their viability and effectiveness. States newly formed from colonial empires have been particularly reliant upon membership in the United Nations to provide symbolic confirmation of their emergence to independent status and to give them a political base for promoting the causes which they deem most essential to the consolidation of their position: the definitive elimination of the colonial system, the concentration of international agencies upon the provision of technical and developmental aid to the economically underdeveloped countries, and the prevention of major war. By providing postindependence assistance of various kinds, a diplomatic training ground, and the institutional context within which new states may individually and collectively bring their influence to bear upon international affairs, the United Nations and its specialized agencies have contributed to the working of the multistate system in the difficult period of the drastic alteration of its dimensions and the intensification of its heterogeneity.

The prevention of war

The multistate system has undergone radical change since World War II, not only in the sense that decolonization has effected the quantitative and qualitative transformation of its membership but also in the sense that a series of revolutions in the technology of military power, combined with a fundamental political and ideological cleavage between the states best equipped to exploit the new technology, has radically altered the problem of security and given new urgency to the prevention of military conflict. Under these circumstances, the crucial test of international organization has to do with its relevance to the task of preventing the destruction of the multistate system.

Collective security

Prior to the era of general international organization, the modern state system relied upon the autonomous manipulation of power relationships by its independent units, both singly and in competitive alliances, for the achievement of the stability of the system and the security of its members. This arrangement, known as the balance-of-power system, was not subjected to attempts at significant revision until the formation of the League of Nations. The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 introduced plans for disarmament agreements and institutionalized procedures for pacific settlement of disputes as alternative approaches to peace and security. The founders of the League gave institutional meaning to these approaches by incorporating them in the basic covenant of the new organization. As their major contribution to the restructuring of international relations, they added the concept of collective security [seeCollective security]. In practice, however, members of the League were reluctant to accept the obligations and risks which an operative system of collective security implied for them. Except for a half-hearted and abortive attempt to invoke the scheme in order to frustrate Italian aggression against Ethiopia in 1935, they virtually discarded this approach to the problems of war and peace.

Despite the failure of the League to translate the concept of collective security into a working system, the ideal of establishing such a system caught hold. When statesmen and scholars contemplated the problem of launching a new organizational enterprise after World War II, they appeared almost to take it for granted that a world organization should adopt collective security as the central approach to the maintenance of international peace. The Charter of the United Nations, as formulated at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, endorsed the principle of collective security but repudiated its general applicability by giving the major powers the constitutional power to veto the actions of the Security Council. The formulators of the charter, in fact, rejected the notion that this approach to the ordering of international relations was relevant to the critical problems of war and peace that might arise after World War II. The issue of the feasibility of effectuating collective security against the opposition of a great power has been reopened from time to time, but political realism has prevailed, and instead of expanding the coverage of the coercive system envisaged in the charter, members of the United Nations have in practice abandoned all efforts to establish that system. It is thoroughly in keeping with the history of attitudes toward collective security that the United Nations should have endorsed the principle in general terms, denied the possibility of its application in the most crucial cases, shifted toward the position that the restriction upon its implementation should be lifted, and finally discarded any meaningful commitment to give effect to the concept.

Defensive alliances

In the period since World War II, the struggle between the massive blocs led by the Soviet Union and the United States, commonly designated as the cold war, has stimulated the use of international organizations for purposes quite different from that of implementing collective security. The primary response to the threat of war resulting from the aggressive policy of a great power has been the adaptation of the forms and procedures of international organization to serve the purposes of defensive alliances. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the prime example of the combining of a conventional alliance with the institutional devices developed by the modern process of international organization. The formation of NATO in reaction to the expansionist tendencies of the Soviet Union represented, in fact, the following of the advice implicitly tendered in the United Nations Charter to states confronted with the danger of aggression by a great power; the charter’s renunciation of the intent or expectation that the United Nations should provide security in such a situation is followed, in article 51, by acknowledgment of the propriety of arrangements for collective self-defense. Insofar as international agencies have a realistic role to play in deterring or defeating military ventures by major powers, it is evident that this role devolves upon regional or selective-membership agencies, composed of states perceiving a common threat to their security and resolved to combine their strength in support of a common defensive policy—not upon general organizations such as the United Nations [seeAlliances].

Preventive diplomacy

While the pragmatic division of labor among international institutions assigns the basic function of military defense to agencies of the NATO variety and not to a global organization attempting to effectuate the principle of collective security, this assignment leaves a significant group of functions to the United Nations. From its beginning, this organization has provided a political forum and a setting for diplomacy—public and private, formal and informal—and has exhibited flexibility in the provision of mechanisms and procedures for assisting states to reach agreed settlements of disputes. An essentially new function, albeit an outgrowth of the organization’s development of instrumentalities for pacific settlement, emerged in 1956 with the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) and, more definitively, in 1960 with the launching of the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC). This function was given the title “preventive diplomacy” by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. It deserves to be noted as the major innovation produced by the United Nations in the realm of approaches to the maintenance of peace through the functioning of international agencies. Preventive diplomacy represents the organization’s tentative answer to the question of what major function in the political and security realm it may be able to substitute for the unattainable ideal of providing collective security.

Preventive diplomacy, developed pragmatically in response to the Middle Eastern crisis of 1956 and the Congo crisis of 1960, was ably articulated in theoretical terms by Secretary-General Hammarskjold (Hammarskjold 1960). It involves the intervention of the United Nations in areas of conflict outside of, or peripheral to, the cold war struggle, for the purpose of forestalling the competitive intrusion of the rival power blocs into those areas. As in the cases of UNEF and ONUC, this intervention is carried out by military forces placed at the disposal of and under the direction of the organization by states other than the great powers, and, so far as possible, disassociated from the rival blocs. The mission of the forces, which are dispatched to the scene with the consent of the parties most directly involved, is not to combat an aggressor but to stabilize the local situation so as to prevent the area’s becoming a new zone of cold war competition. A basic requirement of this kind of operation is the consent of the major powers, who, recognizing a common interest in the avoidance of a military showdown, are confident that the United Nations will not favor any one of them in its conduct of the operation. This requirement suggests the fundamental limitations of preventive diplomacy. It is a function which can be carried out by international organization on behalf of competitive great powers only to the extent that political and other circumstances make it acceptable to those powers. Preventive diplomacy is a modest concept in that it assigns international organization only the role of assisting rival powers in the avoidance of unwanted confrontations, not that of exercising coercive control over disturbers of the international peace. Nevertheless, it represents the most significant role presently available to general international organization in the stabilization of an international situation dominated by great-power struggles [seeDiplomacy].

Operationalism and politics

The espousal by the United Nations of the function of preventive diplomacy was only one aspect of a general trend toward the expansion of the operational responsibilities and capabilities of international institutions. The development of the United Nations and its specialized agencies has taken these institutions beyond the minimal function of providing facilities for multilateral diplomatic interchange, to the actual administration of programs and execution of operations in both the economic and the political realms. Many of these programs have been initiated in response to the demand for international assistance to underdeveloped countries in their quest for economic advance. This expansion of the executive function and capacity, in the case of the United Nations in particular, has accompanied the evolution of the secretary-generalship into a post of leadership and policy direction. The status of the secretary-general as a kind of chief executive of the organization has been achieved as the product of a steady evolution, but the precariousness of this result is indicated by the opposition which it has sporadically evoked.

These developments have given rise to controversy over the issue of the political direction and control of the programs sponsored and administered by international agencies. States are not realistically divisible into those which support and those which oppose international organization or those which accept and those which reject the principle of expanding the executive capacity of international agencies. The policies of states with respect to international institutions are dependent upon conceptions of national interests and expectations as to whether or not the activities of those institutions will be compatible with and conducive to the protection and promotion of national interests. In short, states are actually divisible into those which have and those which lack confidence that they and their political allies can exercise effective control over the functioning of particular international agencies or the operation of given programs. No state is committed to the support or the rejection of international operations as a matter of principle, without regard to the nature of their policy direction and control. In the final analysis, member states support or oppose specific international activities in proportion to their success or failure in influencing the nature of the policy which these activities serve.

The struggle of states for control over the policy and activities of the organization has been particularly intense in the United Nations. Such issues as the admission of new members, the integrity of the veto power, the expansion of the realm of competence of the General Assembly, and the financing and general policy direction of the Congo operation have illustrated this point. There has also been a trend toward the organization of member states into distinct blocs and the development of shifting patterns of alignment of states and groups of states in the debates and votes of the General Assembly.

All these developments indicate the emergence of a distinctive and significant political process within the United Nations. This phenomenon is disturbing to idealists who have looked to international organization for the abolition of international politics and the establishment of the rule of law in all its purity on a global scale. From a more realistic point of view, it suggests the coming of age of international organization; the intensity of the political contest is a measure of the significance attached to the institution.

The study of international organization

The development of the politics of international organization as a part of the larger sphere of international politics has been paralleled by the evolution of a political emphasis in the scholarly study of international organization. In its earliest phases, this study was generally characterized by a legal emphasis which was frequently accompanied by a strong value commitment to the amelioration of international politics. Scholarship in this field was largely a quest for structural and legal reforms applicable to the international system. Since World War II, specialists in international organization have tended to be less dominated by aversion to international politics, less oriented toward legal analysis, and more cognizant of the political aspects of the interplay of states within the framework of international agencies. Numerous studies have been made of the policies and attitudes of particular states toward and within the United Nations and other international institutions, and pioneer research has been undertaken on the development of bloc affiliations, voting patterns, and other aspects of the political processes within international agencies.

Research of this type has been largely focused on the United Nations and the regional institutions of western Europe, leaving a need for systematic political analysis of other institutions, global and regional, in order to develop an understanding of the full range of the international organizational system. As researchers provide analyses of the political processes within and the political impacts of an increasing number of international agencies, it may become possible to develop the field of comparative international organization as an area of study which may contribute to an understanding of international politics in the broadest sense.

Trends in international organization research since World War II suggest the possibility that the study of international institutions, of the foreign policies of particular states, and of the international political system as a whole may be integrated in a way conducive to the more sophisticated analysis of the general nature of the interaction of states in a multistate context which is itself undergoing fundamental transformations.

Inis L. Claude, Jr.

[See alsoInternational integration; International law; International politics; Trustee-ship. Guides to other relevant material may be found underInternational relations; War.]


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International administration embraces the performance of tasks by the staffs of agencies established by and responsible to a number of national governments. It consists of a body of practices and procedures in part virtually identical with those of public administration at the national level, in part presenting characteristics peculiar to cross-cultural relations. Not a distinct discipline, international administration as a field of study has drawn variously from the materials and techniques of domestic public administration, international law and organization, diplomacy, and comparative politics.

Historical development

International administration is of comparatively recent origin. Its emergence stems partly from the commissions set up in Europe during the nineteenth century to regulate the use of international rivers, such as the Rhine (in 1804), the Danube (in 1856), and, later, others, and partly from various technical bureaus known as public administrative unions, established for informational and coordinative purposes in such areas as postal and telegraph services, patents, copyrights, and public health, from the 1870s onward. Typically, the pattern of these small, functional agencies included a general conference or assembly, a supervisory board or council, and a permanent office, staffed either by personnel on loan from the host government or by direct multinational recruitment. The headquarters of these organizations were all located in Europe, chiefly at Geneva, Berne, and Paris. The only extra-European example, prior to the present century, was the Pan American Union (PAU), created in 1890 in Washington and then known as the Commercial Bureau of the American Republics.

International administration received a major impetus with the establishment in 1920 of the League of Nations and its affiliate, the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The year-round work of the League, as a multipurpose organization with important political functions, was handled by a central secretariat at Geneva—an organ whose personnel reached about 700 at its peak, in the early 1930s. Within its more circumscribed sphere, the ILO developed an office staff of about 600. All told, the administrative bureaucracies of pre-World War II international agencies, including the PAU and various independent technical bureaus, probably did not exceed 1,500 established posts at any given time.

World War II and its aftermath were marked by a striking proliferation of intergovernmental instrumentalities, notably the United Nations (UN) and such related functional agencies as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Concurrently, in 1946 the League of Nations was liquidated, and its assets and certain of its legal responsibilities were transferred to the UN; the ILO survived, under expanded constitutional terms of reference adopted in 1944.

In addition to the foregoing global agencies, a substantial number of new organizations at the regional level came into being in the noncommunist world during the 1940s and 1950s—all with an administrative apparatus of one sort or another. In the collective-defense field these regional institutions include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in the Middle East, and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), with headquarters at Bangkok. In western Europe a significant movement toward international “integration,” which began shortly after the close of World War II, led to the creation of (1) the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), succeeded in 1960 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with the addition of the United States, Canada, and a little later, Japan, as members; (2) the Council of Europe at Strasbourg; and (3) the so-called European communities, consisting of the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC)—popularly known as the Common Market, and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM). These three communities, in contrast to the previously typical pattern of international organization, are characterized by a limited swpranationalism, with authority to control certain aspects of the economic and technical policies of the six member nations (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg—constituting what is often called “Little Europe”), thus giving rise to unprecedented forms of administrative action at the international level.

Dimensions in the 1960s

The functional sweep of international administration in the 1960s, while still restricted in comparison with that of major national bureaucracies, had acquired dimensions far wider than those before World War II. This expansion can be shown quantitatively by com-paring personnel and budgets. For the UN family of agencies, in the fiscal year 1962/1963 the aggregate number of persons on the payroll approximated 20,000 (not counting the uniformed personnel of the “peace-keeping” forces then maintained by the UN in the Middle East and the Congo). This is roughly fifteen times the number employed by the League and ILO a generation earlier. In addition, some 11,000 civilians were employed by the leading regional agencies, distributed as follows: NATO, 2,250; OECD, 1,200; the three European communities, 6,830; PAU, 750. In budgetary terms, the high point of aggregate League and ILO annual expenditure was only about $13 million, whereas the UN system in 1963 spent nearly $500 million. (This sum covers not only “regular” budget activities but various special voluntary programs and the cost of maintaining peace-keeping units in the field.)

Another significant difference between international administration today and prior to World War II resides in the far greater geographical dispersion of the former’s activities. A generation ago nearly all the employees of the League, the ILO, and the PAU were stationed at the central headquarters of their respective organizations; today at least half of the 20,000 civilians working for the UN family of organizations are on field assignments of varying duration, some of them staffing a network of field offices and others participating in field projects of the “technical assistance” variety —virtually throughout the world, except for the Soviet bloc and Communist China. For the two major technical cooperation programs operated by the UN system, over 4,000 experts were engaged in field undertakings during the year 1963. (Because of the nonavailability of detailed data, the present account does not deal with the kind of “international” administration involved in such special relationships as exist between the Soviet Union and its eastern European “satellites.”)

Functions of international bureaucracies

The combined staffs of present-day international agencies may be said to constitute a “microcosm” of the world community in the making or of the regional communities now emerging. The functions performed by these bureaucracies fall broadly into two categories: housekeeping and substantive.

The main housekeeping functions are the processing of personnel and budget actions, the handling of procurement, accounts, and audit, and in particular the management of international meetings (preparation of agenda and supporting documentation, physical arrangements, recording and reporting, etc.). These actions are not intrinsically different from similar actions within a national bureaucracy save in two respects—the necessity of interlinguistic communication and the utilization of funds in different national currencies. Translators, interpreters, and language editors play an indispensable part in the life of an international secretariat; nearly one-fourth of the UN staff in New York, for example, consists of personnel serving as “groundkeepers” for meetings and as processors of records and reports.

The substantive roles of international officials, in roughly ascending order of discretionary action, include the following: (1) the gathering and dissemination of information—the clearinghouse function; (2) the conduct of research; (3) the registration of treaties (UN and PAU only); (4) the planning, formulation, and coordination of operational programs; (5) the implementation of such programs in the field; (6) the staffing and management of field missions in the domain of peace keeping and peaceful settlement, including truce supervision and border-policing arrangements; (7) assistance in negotiating group decisions and agreements among governments; and finally, upon occasion, (8) the assumption of responsibility for mediating diplomatic controversies. To this list should be added, in the case of the supranational European communities, the exercise of authority to impose fines, orders, or taxes on governments and industrial firms and, for NATO, the conduct of military staff and planning operations and the handling of various logistical and communications problems.

Increasingly, especially in the major agencies, the present-day activity of international bureaucracies tends to range far beyond the traditional “ministerial” duties characteristic of earlier organizations. This enlarged role derives partly from a liberal interpretation of the provisions of constituent instruments (as in the European communities, NATO, and to some extent the UN) and partly from the explicit or tacit delegation of discretionary authority to administrative heads when there seems no other way of moving from diplomatic deadlock to effective crisis action (as, notably, in the UN during recent years), or where, by the very nature of the situation, continuous executive action is required for an indefinite period of time (as, for example, with UN operations in the Congo).

Even so, it should be noted that, except to some extent in the new European communities, international civil servants are obliged to operate in a consensual environment. In contrast to the officials of national governments, they lack powers of coercion and there is no judicial or police authority to sanction their decisions. Whatever impact they manage to make depends essentially on their skill in negotiation, persuasion, the provision of advice, and the contriving of generally acceptable solutions to problems. They do not directly administer public services, nor in any juristic sense do they deal directly with individuals or private groups inside member countries, although, in the context of multilateral technical assistance, international experts do develop close, informal relations with local people, thereby circumventing the legal barriers of “domestic jurisdiction.”

Special problems

International administration is confronted with a number of special problems that exist either not at all or only in minor degree within national administrations.


The first and possibly the most important of these problems is concerned with the selection and status of staff. Staff recruitment is complicated by the necessity of observing the principle of wide geographic distribution, which, particularly in world-wide organizations, may conflict in practice with the criteria of “competence and efficiency.” The existence of low educational standards, along with an acute shortage of specialized personnel, in most of the developing countries makes it difficult for them to provide suitably equipped candidates for posts in agency secretariats. The result, according to many observers, is an unavoidable lowering of performance standards at the international level, since all countries, for prestige and other reasons, insist on having their staff “quotas.” (To date the quota distribution for the UN Secretariat has been based on national budgetary contributions, but a strong movement has recently got under way to have this changed to allow more weight to the population factor.) The seriousness of the problem may in time be alleviated through the development by the UN of adequate in-service training programs, along with the improvement of trained manpower resources in the less advanced countries. A second special feature of personnel management evoking difficulties relates to the process of evaluating individual candidates with widely different cultural backgrounds. In this connection performance tests may be, and are, effectively utilized to recruit such categories of personnel as clerks, stenographers, accountants, junior statisticians, translators, interpreters, and editors; but for persons expected to perform general intellectual work, reliable “culture-free” tests do not yet appear to be available: non-Westerners are probably not testable by adaptations of tests standardized on Western populations, “because so little is known about the thought patterns and mental processes of individuals from other cultures” (Torre 1963,p. 88). There are still numerous geographical areas where the “objective” type of examination is relatively unknown. When the results of the essay type have to be translated from one language into an-other, it may turn out to be more a test of the examiner than of the candidate. Nor has the interview technique been used very imaginatively, untrained interviewers, for the most part, being resorted to because of the substantial costs of maintaining round-the-world teams of skilled personnel technicians. Research is urgently needed on the kinds of personal qualities that are essential for successful adaptation to cross-cultural work situations and on practicable methods of discovering such qualities at the recruitment stage.

A further problem is how to achieve, in multinational staffs exposed to a nationalistic environment, the independence, impartiality, and loyalty that ideally should characterize their behavior. This problem has been dramatically pointed up by the Communist claim (voiced by Khrushchev in the 1960 UN General Assembly) that there can be no “neutral men”—in the ideological sense. International civil servants are legally forbidden to seek or receive instructions from their governments or other external authorities, but this does not prevent them from having to deal with extraneous political pressures of one kind or another. There is no simple solution to this problem. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of UN employees clearly are loyal and dedicated civil servants. To protect them against unfair or arbitrary employment treatment provoked by outside pressures, there have been established independent administrative tribunals, to which they have the right of appeal under certain conditions (Friedmann & Fatouros 1957).


A second set of problems arises from the loose, decentralized organizational pattern of the UN system. In effect, the UN proper and the so-called specialized agencies are tied together only on a kind of partnership basis, through voluntary interagency agreements and a network of more or less informal interstaff working arrangements. Since the functional boundaries of the different agencies lack precision and to some extent actually overlap, it has become necessary to devise methods and procedures with a view to an orderly coordination of their activity. This is an extremely involved and never-ending process, for which there is no absolute parallel in national government organization.

Another difficulty deriving from organizational pluralism is that the action directives, not infrequently vague or ambiguous, that flow from the congeries of representative organs (assemblies, councils, commissions, boards) within the UN sometimes put administrative officials in situations where available human and budgetary resources are inadequate to implement properly the melange of “legislative” mandates given to hard-pressed staffs. Efforts to mitigate such predicaments by fuller advance consultation and program planning by intergovernmental organs have thus far been only moderately effective.

To a lesser extent, similar organizational problems appear to confront the recently established European communities in their relations with one another, e.g., the Common Market in its relations with the Coal and Steel Community. Here, however, the trend seems to be toward a progressive consolidation of the organs and services of these communities into what may eventually emerge as a unified economic and possibly political framework for Little Europe.


A third category of significant differentials between international and national administration concerns communication. Not only does the physical space factor play a more important role internationally than within the context of national bureaucracies (excepting world-wide national foreign-service establishments), but the psychological barriers to effective communication in staff work situations are much greater, both at headquarters and in field relationships. Communication difficulties originate in part from the multilingual composition of staff groups, especially when it is necessary for staff members to employ a language not their own in involved negotiations or in the drafting of complex documents reflecting group decisions. Over and beyond the language factor, semantic misunderstandings may often lead to confusion.

Inherent in this context is the need for adjustment of the divergent traditions, procedures, and concepts of administration with which incoming personnel may be identified. Illustrations of such differences include methods of handling correspondence, the role of the “front office,” the relation of budgetary and personnel to substantive (program) units, the career status of employees, the use of informal task forces as an administrative device, and the attitude of male employees toward female supervisors. There is some reason for believing that different nationality groups have differing capacities to make such adjustments at the international level. Accordingly, an important aspect of the task of administrative leadership is to devise experimentally ways of recognizing cultural differences in work assignments and procedures. Tendencies toward national “cliquishness” call for the conscious development of positive incentives to teamwork on the part of management. In certain international secretariats, staff morale and operating standards have been stimulated by such policies; in others, where the top leadership has failed to enlist the unstinted effort of the rank and file, an indifferent, unimaginative kind of performance has often resulted.

Current research and future needs

The literature relating to international administration has tended, to date, to be historical, legalistic, or broadly descriptive in character. Much of the writing on the subject has been incidental to a primary concern in either international law or organization. Since the epoch of the League of Nations, a limited number of treatises by former practitioners (e.g., Lie 1954; Loveday 1956; Ranshofen-Wertheimer 1945) have appeared. These works present in more or less organized fashion reflections on the authors’ professional experiences and in certain cases provide insightful evaluations of past practices. There has been only one significant attempt by a trained participant-observer to “capture and record” the process of decision making inside an organization (Ascher 1951). Scholarly general surveys of the evolution of individual international agencies (e.g., Laves & Thomson 1957) have appeared in recent years, but their treatment of administration is typically limited to a single chapter or to scattered cursory comments.

A new development within the past decade has been the emergence of a few studies of international administration “in depth” (Berkov 1957; Click 1957; Sharp 1961), dealing with headquarters–field relationships in the conduct of operational programs and attempting to draw conclusions on how to adjust centrifugal and centripetal forces within such programs. In addition to documentary analysis, the authors of these studies have utilized interviewing and observation techniques both at headquarters and in the field.

The totality of empirical research directly focused on international administration remains decidedly spotty and largely noncumulative. Individual studies have tended to be carried out without regard for the findings of other studies, if only because of the glaring subject-matter gaps in what is still the pioneer stage of systematic research in this field. No special models for empirical verification may yet be said to have been produced. Indeed, it is a fair question whether international administration should be studied with a view to its acquiring a discipline of its own, apart from public administration in general or from international organization. As noted earlier, the field is marked by a number of significant differences from the study of national administration, but are these differences of kind or merely of degree? On this point there is considerable divergence of opinion.

Need for comparative research

Probably the most fruitful approach to the systematic exploration of international administrative behavior would be to design a series of studies for the purpose of evaluating the impact of one or more factors peculiar to administration at the international level—by comparing agencies, processes, or case situations. From such inquiries it should become possible to discover the conditions under which recurring patterns of behavior may be anticipated. Stated differently, the patient pursuit of the comparative method should provide findings from which empirical theories of international administration that are not culture-bound might emerge.

The subject-matter areas for such research are legion, so marked has been the neglect of the field by scholars. By way of illustration, a number of such areas are listed below, under three broad headings: personnel, organization and procedure, and substantive roles of international bureaucracies.

The area of personnel would include studies of (1) samples of staff recruitment in cognate agencies in terms of social origins, educational backgrounds, motivation of applicants, and subsequent levels of performance; (2) the impact of “geographic distribution” on communication, standards of performance, staff morale, etc., in a technical agency, such as the Universal Postal Union, as compared with an essentially political organization, such as the UN; (3) the role of “informal” staff groupings in the communication process of related agencies; (4) the role perceptions held by professional personnel in an intergovernmental as compared with a supranational organization (e.g., the ILO and the ECSC; (5) the impact of differing styles of administrative leadership on staff morale in cognate agencies (e.g., the ILO and WHO), or in the same agency over time (e.g., the UN under Lie and then under Hammarskjöld).

Organization and procedure studies would involve evaluations of (1) the use of informal committee and working-party techniques as devices for adjusting differing concepts and patterns of administration in similar agencies; (2) the roles of differently structured “front offices” in the international administration of cognate agencies; (3) the effectiveness of agency field-reporting systems in relation to form, frequency, and routing of reports and utilization of reports as feedback; (4) the headquarters–field communications process in similar agencies, in order to discover, by means of the intensive examination of procedures and case situations, the causes of and remedies for misunderstandings, blockages, and crossed lines; (5) the regional structures of related UN agencies, with the object of determining whether there is any significant correlation between the degree of decentralization and program effectiveness in different culture areas; (6) the economic and social program-coordinative devices evolved by the UN family of organizations since their establishment; (7) the overhead costs of field-program conduct in UN agencies in relation to program size, geographic spread, and degree of devolution of program execution to field units.

The last general area of study, that of the substantive roles of international bureaucracies, would concern itself with (1) methods of attaining policy consensus in the secretariat of an intergovernmental agency, such as the OECD, in comparison with a partially supranational body, such as the EEC;(2) case studies of substantive decision making relating to different types of situations in the same agency and the same type of situation in similar agencies; (3) comparative studies of project programming for technical assistance, as illustrated by the World Bank, the UN Expanded Program of Technical Assistance, and the UN Special Fund; (4) sample studies of the impact of UN field-program operations on local community attitudes toward the UN system and on related policies of the recipient governments; (5) analyses of the kinds of influence exerted by professional staffs on an agency’s substantive policies (e.g., program formulation, the resolution of crises, etc.) in relation to the functional character of the agency and the degree of consensus in its policy-control organs; (6) inquiries designed to determine the conditions of constructive policy role-playing by the bureaucracies of different types of organizations.

For the most part the suggestions listed above represent areas or problems concerning which there is at present little systematic knowledge. In order to explore some of them meaningfully, political scientists and public administration experts would most likely need to enlist the collaboration of psychiatrists, social psychologists, and other experts in group dynamics. In certain cases (e.g., the impact of international programs on grass-roots attitudes in non-Western countries) the cultural anthropologist might provide useful insights.

For maximum objectivity, much of the behavioral research in the field of international administration should be conducted under multinational auspices. Otherwise there will always lurk the danger of cultural bias. This possibility, to be sure, is much more real in regard to the culturally heterogeneous global agencies, where East and West, North and South all meet, than in the more homogeneous regional institutions in the Western hemisphere or in the North Atlantic community. There are, of course, certain practical difficulties in making arrangements for multinational research teams, particularly in view of the relatively backward state of the social sciences in most non-Western countries.

A second condition for the effective investigation of the kinds of problems outlined above is the close cooperation of officials with the outside research scholar or team. Since most senior officials tend to be very busy, it is important that the investigators not let themselves become minor nuisances to harassed practitioners. In addition, the outside investigators must give satisfactory assurances that the anonymity of their informants will be carefully respected. But these conditions are not insuperable obstacles; ordinarily they can be met, with the exercise of patience and discretion.

The outlook

Indications are not lacking that international administration will continue to proliferate in the foreseeable future. Its dimensions give promise of expanding, both at the global and the regional level. If and as the United Nations further develops its peace-keeping activities, not only may it become desirable to attach a military-planning unit to its headquarters (where a military adviser to the secretary-general was recently installed), thereby calling for personnel conversant with military technology, but the realization of any concrete plan for international arms control would require administrative arrangements of some kind for inspection purposes, as well as, possibly, the creation of a permanent international peace force. The staffing of such arrangements would bring the engineer and the scientist more directly into the world’s bureaucratic apparatus than ever before.

Concurrently or perhaps sooner, the projection of international cooperation into the realm of outer space presumably will add to the substantive role of certain categories of UN personnel, who will not only aid in the formulation of legal regulations to govern the peaceful use of outer space but also handle inspection and monitoring operations.

A third possibility is that the scope of multilateral economic and social programs will further expand over the coming years. The establishment of a UN-sponsored capital-assistance program is by no means out of the question, either in conjunction with the present Special Fund, or else through a separate arrangement. In this domain, also, the lending roles of the existing world financial institutions (the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Finance Corporation, the International Development Association) bid fair to grow, while the International Monetary Fund may be called upon to elaborate and administer a new and stronger type of world monetary mechanism.

Globally, the development of the foregoing functional activities will scarcely add up to any sort of world government. Regardless of whether such a goal should be deemed by the West to be politically desirable, its likelihood would appear to be too remote to affect the basic patterns of international cooperation in the near future. But even under a world state, while administration would become either “unitary” or “federal” in the legal sense, it would still remain multicultural in composition. The complexities of behavioral relations now con-fronting international agencies would by no means disappear. The interflow of personnel, hierarchically as well as laterally, through governmental administrations might well increase, but there would still remain serious problems of intercultural adjustment.

Regionally, a wide spread of international institutions would seem to be in the offing. Signs already discernible in all the major areas—Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America—suggest such an evolution. The contours of some of these new arrangements are now only barely visible, and it is impossible to predict just how the over-all regional picture will look by, say, the 1980s. In any event, the picture is not likely to be a tidy one: the institutional gamut will probably run from a congeries of loose, limited-purpose groupings (such as the Organization of African Unity, inaugurated in 1963) through free-trade associations and customs unions to more strongly knit supranationalistic organizations. Should any considerable devolution of control from Moscow take place within the present Soviet orbit, it is not inconceivable that some sort of “confederal” institutionalized relationship might replace the existing Communist-party control apparatus.

As international administration grows in variety and in depth, there is cause for hope that the resources of the social sciences may become steadily more adequate to the task of analyzing and illuminating its key problems, as well as providing valuable operational prescriptions to policy makers.

Walter R. Sharp

[See alsoAdministration; Bureaucracy; Civil service; Diplomacy; Loyalty. Other relevant material may be found inPublic administration.]


Ascher, Charles S. 1951Program-making in UNESCO, 1946-1951: A Study in the Processes of International Administration. Chicago: Public Administration Service.

Asher, Robert E. et al. 1957The United Nations and Promotion of the General Welfare. Washington: Brookings Institution. → An authoritative, scholarly analysis of policy and administration.

Bailey, Sydney D. (1962) 1964The Secretariat of the United Nations. 2d ed., rev. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. → Chief emphasis is on the political aspects of the Secretariat’s operation.

Berkov, Robert 1957The World Health Organization: A Study in Decentralized International Administration.Geneva: Droz.

Friedmann, Wolfgang G.; and Fatouros, A. A. 1957 The United Nations Administrative Tribunal. International Organization 11:13-29.

Click, Philip M. 1957 The Administration of Technical Assistance: Growth in the Americas. Univ. of Chicago Press. → An excellent comparison of United States and United Nations programs.

Haas, ErnstB. 1964 Beyond the Nation-state: Functionalism and International Organization. Stanford Univ. Press.

Hill, Martin (1945) 1946 The Economic and Financial Organization of the League of Nations: A Survey of Twenty-five Years’ Experience. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. → A brief, sympathetic description by a former League official.

Hill, Norman L. 1931 International Administration.New York: McGraw-Hill. → The first general textbook; legalistic in approach.

International Organization. → Published since 1947 by the World Peace Foundation. Contains informative articles on current developments, as well as selected bibliographies.

Laves, Walter H. C.; and Thomson, Charles A. 1957 UNESCO: Purpose, Progress, Prospects. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. → The most comprehensive treatment of UNESCO in English.

Lie, Trygve 1954 In the Cause of Peace: Seven Years With the United Nations. New York: Macmillan. → A moderately revealing memoir by the first secretary-general of the United Nations.

Lindberg, Leon 1965 Decision Making and Integration in the European Community. International Organization 19:56-81.

Loveday, Alexander 1956Reflections on InternationalAdministration. Oxford: Clarendon Press. → Based on many years’ experience as a senior League of Nations official.

Ranshofen-Wertheimer, Egon F. 1945 The International Secretariat: A Great Experiment in International Administration. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. → The definitive treatment of the League of Nations Secretariat by a former staff member.

Sayre, Francis B. 1919 Experiments in International Administration. New York and London: Harper. → Case studies of selected early international agencies.

Schenkman, Jacob 1955 International Civil Aviation Organization. Geneva: Droz. → Valuable for its chapter on the regional organization of the ICAO.

Schwebel, Stephen M. 1952 The Secretary-General of the United Nations: His Political Powers and Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A critical analysis of the evolution of the United Nations secretary-generalship during the term of Trygve Lie.

Sewell, James P. 1966 Functionalism and World Politics: A Study Based on United Nations Programs Financing Economic Development. Princeton Univ. Press. → Compares the operational impact of the IBRD, IFC, IDA, and the UN Special Fund in a “functionalist” context.

Sharp, Walter R. 1958 The Study of International Administration. World Politics 11:103-117. → Includes suggestions for research.

Sharp, Walter R. 1961 Field Administration in the United Nations System: The Conduct of International Economic and Social Programs. New York: Praeger.

Torre, Mottram (editor) 1963 The Selection of Personnel for International Service. Geneva and New York: World Federation for Mental Health.

Young, Tien-cheng 1958International Civil Service: Principles and Problems. Brussels: International Institute of Administrative Sciences.


There are many hundreds of international organizations more or less active at the present time. Some of these are governmental organizations, composed exclusively of state members; some are private and have no states among their members; many are mixed, with both states and private organizations or individuals as members. The financing patterns and practices of these organizations are quite diverse, regardless of the nature of their membership. However, except for the very few organizations that either provide specific services for which fees are collected—such as the registration of trademarks—or subsist on the earnings of capital—as does the International Bank—almost all the associations have one overshadowing financial problem in common: how to collect assessments or pledges in the absence of effective sanctions. In the best of circumstances collecting a bill without effective enforcement measures is difficult. It is much more difficult to collect a bill for expenses incurred in pursuit of organizational policies to which some members are actively opposed, a frequent occurrence in international organizations. Both these difficulties occur with some acuteness in the United Nations and the specialized agencies. This article will, therefore, concentrate on the financing of the fifteen governmental organizations that make up the United Nations complex.

Methods of financing

Even in a spectrum limited to the United Nations organizations, the financing picture is almost incredibly complicated. It is possible to distinguish at least eight varieties of program and budget operations of the United Nations organizations that pose entirely different financing problems: (1) regular budgets financed through assessments upon members according to agreed contribution formulas; (2) emergency operations financed through assessments upon members according to the agreed formulas; (3) recurrent operations financed by special arrangements concerning contributions with members who are primary parties at interest; (4) recurrent operations financed by voluntary contributions of members; (5) recurrent operations financed by voluntary contributions from members, nonmembers, and private individuals; (6) ad hoc operations of variable duration financed from voluntary contributions; (7) regular budgets financed through organizational earnings; (8) investment budgets financed through the use of capital or the sale of organizational or organizationally guaranteed securities.


The “regular” budgets of the United Nations organizations financed by assessments are eleven in number. Their total value in 1963, as reported by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, was about $189 million. The largest was that of the United Nations itself, $87 million; the smallest was the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization, $421,000. These budgets are prepared by the responsible executive officers or authorities of the several organizations and adopted by their legislative bodies. The budgets are subject to review of their program and expenditure proposals by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, which, in accordance with the UN Charter, reports to the General Assembly through Committee V; the views of the General Assembly on the budgets are communicated to the organizations and to the member states. Although without binding effect, these views are very influential in the councils of the specialized agencies. The contributions formulas utilized by the organizations tend generally to follow that of the United Nations itself, which is based upon comparative ability of each member to pay, as measured by its gross national product, with certain adjustments and modifications. However, some of the organizations introduce other factors especially related to their purposes. The International Civil Aviation Organization, for example, weights its contribution formula 75 per cent on ability to pay and 25 per cent on the relative volume of the ton-kilometers of international air transport flown by air lines of the member states, as an index of the interest in and importance of civil aviation among the contracting governments. Although payment is slow, virtually all the assessments for the regular budgets are eventually collected. The United Nations, for example, normally collects about 80 per cent of the annual assessment by the end of the year for which it is levied, about 95 per cent of the assessment by the closing months of the following year, and about 99 per cent by the end of the second year.

The most dramatic examples of emergency financing are provided by the United Nations Emergency Force established after the Suez incident in 1956 and the United Nations operation in the Congo, which began in 1960. In 1956 the United States offered to contribute $10 million toward the cost of the emergency force if other countries would contribute an equal amount—that is, to increase its share under the formula from 33⅓ per cent to 50 per cent, of a total assessment of $20 million. This offer was accepted by the General Assembly and established the assessment formula whereby the General Assembly spread costs of the emergency force over 1957, 1958, and 1959. In 1960 the assessment formula was changed to relieve the members least able to pay, while several of the richer members waived drawbacks to which they were entitled by reason of special services or commodities supplied the emergency force. All of the Iron Curtain countries ignored the assessments; Yugoslavia was the only communist state to support the undertaking. As a result of the refusal of the Iron Curtain countries to pay, and the delinquency of others, total arrears and defaults amounted to about one-third of total assessments. The Congo operation was of a different magnitude. In 1960 the General Assembly spread $48.5 million on the basis of the 1960 formula. In 1962 it spread $100 million for the Congo operation, against an estimated cost of $135 million, as “expenses of the Organization,” without reference to its levying authority under article 17 of the charter, nor did it define the levy as a “binding legal obligation” The ambiguity of the resolution led to the advisory opinion by the World Court, on July 20, 1962, upholding the levy as a legal obligation binding on the members. The default of the communist bloc, France, South Africa, and others, and the arrearages of many of the smaller states, led to the UN bond issue of $200 million in 1962. The financing of emergency operations remains one of the largest and most perilous of the unresolved issues confronting the United Nations.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the financing of special benefit operations by an international agency is the joint-support program operated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). For example, 18 nations cooperate, under the supervision of ICAO, in maintaining radio and weather stations in the northern Atlantic. The 9 floating ocean stations are supplied with ships by 7 of the contracting states, and 11 others, whose aircraft fly northern Atlantic routes, make cash contributions. Each contribution is individually negotiated, but its value in money or kind is generally proportionate to the contributor’s use of the northern Atlantic air lanes.

Voluntary contributions

The Expanded Program of Technical Assistance, inaugurated in 1950, and the Special Fund, launched in 1959, provide the best examples of international “voluntary” programs financed from contributions of members. The Expanded Program of Technical Assistance began with $20 million, contributed by 54 members; its annual budget in 1963 was more than $45 million, subscribed by about 100 governments. The Special Fund finances actual preparatory and preinvestment costs for major economic and social development projects; its annual expenditures on such operations have reached $60 million.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is not only the oldest program financed by members, nonmembers, and private individuals but is perhaps the most successful international philanthropic undertaking in history. It started in 1947 with $15 million, contributed by the United States government. By 1963 its annual budget from governments, including nonmembers of the UN, was more than $23 million, and an additional $8 million was realized from private contributions and the sale of UNICEF greeting cards. The International Refugee Program, which began as a purely intergovernmental organization, has likewise secured important resources in recent years from private sources.

The United Nations Korean Relief Agency (UNKRA), which has been liquidated, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the United Nations Development Fund for the Congo provide examples of ad hoc operations financed from voluntary contributions. UNKRA began its work in 1951 with a budget of about $500,000. It reached the peak of its operations in the years 1953, 1954, and 1955, with expenditures of $58 million, $47 million, and $32 million respectively.

From 1951 through 1960 it spent a total of $149 million contributed by 40 governments, of which 70 per cent was contributed by the United States and 20 per cent by the United Kingdom. UNRWA was established in 1949, following the partition of Palestine. By the end of 1962 it had spent about $434 million, of which about 70 per cent was supplied by the United States, while the United Kingdom, France, and Canada contributed an additional 25 per cent. The United Nations Fund for the Congo set a goal of $100 million for economic and social development in the new republic; by 1963 less than half this amount had been subscribed, of which the U.S. contribution was more than 75 per cent.


The administrative budgets of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Finance Corporation are examples of regular budgets financed through organizational earnings. These earnings are derived from interest and other charges on loans, advances, and investments made from capital subscribed by member states or surcharges on loans guaranteed by the bank. No recurrent assessments on members are involved in meeting these budgets.

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development derives the funds for its investments from the use of capital subscribed by member states and from the sale of the securities of members with the bank’s guarantee to public and private investors. The International Finance Corporation also participates in the financing of development enterprises through the use of capital funds and through the sale of paper representing a combination of equity and loan investment. The ability of these organizations to make loans and investments is a function of their own liquidity, of the availability of funds in the private money markets, and, most important, the prestige of the lending institutions.

Political problems

Profound difficulties arise in fixing the levels of activity and financial support of international organizations. With respect to regular activities financed by agreed annual assessments, these difficulties arise from (a) the insistence of the United States on restricting its contribution to not more than one-third of the total assessment and(b) the probably very substantial underassessment of the Soviet Union and its satellites (in 1964 the U.S.S.R. paid 14.97 per cent of the regular UN budget, while the United States paid 32.02 per cent). These facts produce two consequences: first, since most of the other members have very limited possibilities of increasing their contributions, the activities of the organizations are held to a low level; second, to the extent that activities are expanded, a heavy burden is thrown upon the members least able to pay. Although the sanction of withdrawal of voting rights (which has never been invoked by the UN but has been used by some of the specialized agencies) is sufficient to secure eventual compliance, payment is slow and the burden upon working capital funds is heavy.

The crisis in UN finances, however, has actually been produced by emergency peace-keeping operations, for which many of its members accept no financial responsibility and to most of which the Soviet bloc, along with a varying but substantial group of associates, is actively opposed. Moreover, under the UN Charter the sanction procedures involving the suspension of voting privileges are facultative, not mandatory. The General Assembly is understandably reluctant to invoke sanctions against a major power. But until the problem of financing peace-keeping expenditures is satisfactorily resolved—and no solution other than enforceable assessments seems realistic—the United Nations will continue to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy.

The problem arising with respect to activities financed by voluntary contributions is likewise the low ceiling created by United States policy in limiting its percentage contribution, coupled with the outright refusal of the communist bloc to contribute at all. The UN’s Expanded Program of Technical Assistance, therefore, continues to be a token operation in comparison with the national programs of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Colombo Plan nations, and the U.S.S.R.

The only types of international budgets that do not encounter continuing difficulties in obtaining support are those which finance activities with a definable cash-in-hand value for the participants, such as the ICAO northern Atlantic weather stations, or the administrative budgets financed from earnings on capital, such as those of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and International Finance Corporation. Although extensive attention has been given in academic circles to the development of independent revenue sources for activities without strong economic appeal—all the way from imposing a 3 per cent sales tax to giving Antarctica to the UN as a dowry—no viable proposals have so far materialized. Indeed, the idea of independent financing commands little support—and considerable outright opposition—in political circles of many nations. The prospect is that multilateral international cooperation will, as a consequence of financial limitations, continue to function at a low level of achievement. In view of developing political trends toward nonalignment and the resulting circumscription of bilateral cooperation, the outlook is for a steady decline in all international financial cooperation.

Rowland Egger

[See alsoBudgeting; Political Financing.]


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International Organization

views updated May 21 2018

International Organization

Inis L. Claude, Jr., and

Klaus Larres

International organizations (IOs) serve as crucial forces of coordination and cooperation on many political, economic, social, military and cultural issues. Aside from the traditional domination of international politics by established or recently codified nation-states, IOs are important participants of the international system. The growth of transnational IOs was greatly facilitated by the rise of an increasing number of tenuous networks of nation-states in political, economic, and financial affairs in early modern Europe. They began to proliferate in the course of the nineteenth century. As will be seen, the United States first participated in the development of IOs in a relatively minor way in the first two decades after the Civil War and in a more important way when American statesmen attended the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907. For much of the twentieth century the United States remained a leading proponent of the formation and development of IOs. Washington was even instrumental in the creation of two of the most important IOs ever: the League of Nations founded in 1919 after World War I and the United Nations established in 1945 at the end of World War II.

The breakdown of the international system in the 1910s and late 1930s and the global bloodshed, devastation, and unsurpassed misery brought about by two world wars convinced the international community, led by the United States and Britain, of the urgency for the establishment of a new universal and cooperative order. In the course of World War II traditional American political isolationism was marginalized to a considerable degree. Beginning with the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and continuing with the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods conferences, the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the formation of many other international political and economic institutions, the pillars for a new multilateral order were created. The Cold War soon added another dimension to this, which led to the shelving of the dream of a new cooperative world order for more than four decades: the politics and culture of bipolar containment. Genuine multilateralism was sidelined during much of the second half of the twentieth century. Instead international institutions, in particular the General Assembly of the United Nations, were frequently exploited as a mere talking shop and a forum for ventilating hostile rhetoric.

From the mid-1970s, however, a cautious revival of multilateralism, in the form of the Helsinki process inaugurated in 1975, may even have contributed to hastening the end of the Cold War in 19891991. The dangers of an everincreasing nuclear arms race, as well as economic and financial globalization and, paradoxically, the simultaneous development of a politically and culturally ever more fragmented world, once again gave IOs a crucial role as a forum for consultation, mediation, and arbitration. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries not only globalization and fragmentation but also the influence of more sophisticated means of transportation and communication and the increasingly transnational character of military, political, and environmental conflicts posed entirely new challenges. Despite recurrent bouts of political isolationism, the United Stateslike most other countriesrecognized the impossibility of addressing contemporary problems merely on a nation-state basis. After the end of the East-West conflict and the gradual realignment of eastern and western Europe, this led to the formation of a host of new international organizations and institutions. Yet in the postCold War era the policies of the United States toward international organizations remained ambiguous; a widespread revival of both isolationism and unilateralism could be observed. However, the unprecedented terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 had a fundamental impact on American political strategy. In the immediate wake of the attack no one could say whether it would result in the abandonment of unilateralism, but many policy analysts believed that it might well lead to a much greater American reengagement with international organizations to fight global terrorism.

Intellectually the development of IOs was rooted in Immanuel Kant's eighteenth-century insight that only the "pacific federation" of liberal democratic, interdependent, and lawful republics could overcome the inherent anarchy of the international system, as described by Thomas Hobbes, and therefore the permanent danger of the outbreak of war. While Hobbes believed that a strong authoritarian state and the balance of power among the world's greatest powers could rectify this situation and provide lasting international security, Kant was not convinced. He was in favor of the establishment of peace-creating confederations and thus, in effect, of bringing about the interdependence of nation-states. Over time these insights developed into the contemporary conviction that interdependent democratic states will hardly ever embark on military action against one another. Democracy and cooperative multilateralism within (but also outside) international organizations were thus seen as the best vehicles for the creation of a more stable and peaceful world.


In general international organizations are based on multilateral treaties between at least two sovereign nation-states. The formation of an initially fairly loose bond among the participants is generally fortified by the development of more or less stringent institutional structures and organs to pursue certain more or less clearly defined common aims in the international arena. IOs can either have a global or a regional character, with the latter in general displaying a more centralized structure due to the limited number of regional state actors available. While many IOs are singleissue organizations, others focus their attention on a multitude of issues. IOs can either be open to new members or consist of a closed system. On occasion IOs are established for a certain duration as specified in their respective charters, but more often than not no time restriction is applied.

In some of the older literature IOs tend to be subdivided into political and apolitical organizations, the former referring to military and political alliances to further the power of their member states and the latter referring to organizations dealing with mere administrative and technical issues. However, in the last few decades of the twentieth century many of the allegedly technical and "apolitical" suborganizations of the United Nations (for example, the Atomic Energy Commission and the World Health Organization), as well as such wideranging entities as the International Olympic Committee, the International Monetary Fund, and even many large multinational corporations, developed into highly politicized organizations with a multitude of political aims. The differentiation between political and technical IOs is therefore unhelpful. It makes much more sense to differentiate between international governmental organizations (IGOs) like the United Nations, NATO, the IMF, and the World Bank, to name some of the best-known ones, and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) like Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. Although estimates differ profoundly, at the turn of the twenty-first century at least five hundred IGOs and eleven thousand INGOs were in existence. They were organized in the Union of International Organizations (founded 1907), which is based in Brussels and publishes the annual Yearbook of International Organizations.

While INGOs help to clarify international rules and regulations that enable at least two societal actors (parties, issue groups, unions, associations, international businesses, and corporations) to cooperate in the coordination of certain specified transnational and cross-border issues, IGOs, with which this essay is mostly concerned, are based on the cooperation of nation-states. An IGO is usually based on a multilateral treaty of two or more sovereign nation-states for the pursuit of certain common aims in the international arena. It is helpful to differentiate between supranational or semi-supranational IGOs, like the European Union, or looser confederations of states and nonsupranational IGOs, like the United Nations and NATO. While the former limit the sovereignty of the participating nations to a lesser or greater degree, the latter normally do not infringe on the sovereignty of their member states; they therefore tend to have only a limited degree of influence over their members. Despite the equality of recognized nation-states in international law, in fact a hierarchy of power and influence exists even within nonsupranational IGOs. The UN Security Council, dominated by its five permanent members, as well as the IMF, the World Bank, and many other IOs, are all dominated by the established great powers, not least on account of their political and military influence and capabilities as well as their financial and economic clout. With the exception of China and Russia, the influential powers of the early twenty-first century all come from the ranks of the West.

There are some institutionalized meetings and conferences that can easily be mistaken as IGOs. Among these are the increasingly controversial G7/G8 meetings of developed nations and the meetings of the World Trade Organization as well as summit meetings between heads of states and, for example, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which played such an important role in overcoming the Cold War. In fact they are not IGOs; instead these loose organizational structures are only very temporary alliances of a hybrid nature. But they are increasingly important and, in addition to the IGOs and INGOs, must be characterized as a thirdalbeit no less ambiguous and still largely unexploredactor in international diplomacy.


International organizations began to appear during the nineteenth century in the predominantly European state system. A considerable number of separate and limited-purpose agencies had accumulated by the outbreak of World War I. The organization-creating tendency of this period was stimulated primarily by the interdependencies engendered by the Industrial Revolution. New forms of production and new methods of transport and communication created problems and opportunities that necessitated more elaborate and systematic responses than those traditionally associated with bilateral diplomacy. International organization was an outgrowth of the multilateral consultation that came into vogue. It was a short step, and sometimes an almost imperceptible one, from convening a meeting of the several or many states whose interests were involved in a given problem and whose cooperation was essential to solving it, to establishing permanent machinery for collecting information, preparing studies and proposals, arranging recurrent consultations, and administering schemes agreed upon by the participating states.

The nineteenth-century concern with the challenge of developing rational multilateral responses to the changes wrought by steam and electricity in the economic and social spheres did not exclude concern with either the perennial or the newly developing problems of the "higher" sphere of international relations: war and peace, politics and security, law and order. Indeed it was clear that changes in the former spheres contributed to difficulties in the latter, and it was hoped that organized collaboration in the first might contribute to improvement in the second. Awareness of the increasing complexity of international politics, anxiety about the problems of preventing and limiting war, concern about the orderly balancing of stability and change, and hope for the strengthening of international law combined to inspire the ideal of applying international organization to the politico-legal realm.

The effort to do this at the end of the Napoleonic wars had yielded meager results, but the idea of giving firm institutional shape to the Concert of Europe persisted and was supplemented during the nineteenth century by the ideal of developing judicial means for the resolution of international disputes. It remained for the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 to stimulate the hope, and for World War I to demonstrate the necessity, of extending the concept of international organization into the "higher" sphere of international relations. The League of Nations embodied that extension, represented an effort to provide a central focus for the varied organizational activities that had emerged in the preceding century, and accelerated the growth of the organizing process among states. The collapse of the League and the outbreak of World War II gave rise to the establishment of the United Nations and a network of affiliated organizations. It also gave impetus to the institution-building disposition of statesmen, not least on the European continent, that has produced scores of agencies of almost every conceivable size and concern. If the nineteenth century was the period of the beginning of the movement toward international organization, the twentieth century has been the era of its multiplication. In the postCold War world the landscape is dotted with international agencies: global and regional, single-purpose and multipurpose, technical and political, regulatory and promotional, consultative and operational, modest and ambitious. And the habit of creating new ones and maintaining old ones remains well established among statesmen. By any test of quantity and variety, international organization has become a major phenomenon in international politics.

The beginning of the trend toward international organization in the nineteenth century and the proliferation of that trend in the next substantially involved the United States. The well-known isolationist tradition of the United States and the fact that it rejected membership in the League of Nations but joined the United Nations at its creation should not be taken as evidence that America is a latecomer to international organization. On the contrary, American participation in the nineteenth-century organizing process was at least as active as might reasonably have been expected given the country's geographic remoteness from the European center of the movement and its modest standing among the powers. American initiative contributed to the formation of such multilateral agencies as the Universal Postal Union (1874) and, within the Western Hemisphere, the Pan American Union (1890). Although the determination of the dates of establishment of international organizations and of adherence by particular states is by no means an exact science, one can take it as approximately correct that by 1900 the United States was a member of ten international bodies, and that by the outbreak of World War I it participated in twenty-seven, as against twenty-eight for Great Britain and thirty-six for France.

This record would seem to substantiate Henry Reiff's assertion that "The United States is a veteran, if not an inveterate, joiner of unions or leagues of nations," despite its failure to affiliate with the League of Nations and the Permanent Court of International Justice. America's record of interest and involvement in international organization made it less surprising that President Woodrow Wilson took the lead in creating the League of Nations than that the United States refrained from joining it. The American rejection of the league, historically considered, was an aberration rather than a continuation of settled policy regarding international organization. Moreover, it did not presage a drastically altered policy. Although the United States never accepted membership, it gradually developed cooperative relationships with the league in many areas of activity and ultimately assumed a formal role in several of its component parts. In the final analysis the United States became a more active and more useful participant in the operation of the league than many of the states that were officially listed as members. In addition, between the world wars the United States continued to join organizations outside the league family to such an extent that by 1940 it held a greater number of organizational memberships than did Britain and France, the leading powers in the league. Following World War II the United States became the world's unchallenged leader in promoting and supporting the development of international organizations of every sort.


The attitude of the United States toward international organization, however, has been very ambivalent. Presumably the United States has gone along with, and has sometimes displayed enthusiasm for, the organizing process for essentially the same reasons that have moved other states: it has recognized the practical necessity, in its own interest, of developing and participating in systematic arrangements for dealing with the complex problems of the modern world. It has also shared the ideal of creating a global mechanism better adapted to promoting and maintaining peace and human welfare. Even when it has been skeptical of the utility or importance of particular multilateral institutions, the United States, like most other states, has generally inclined to the view that it can ill afford to be unrepresented in their functioning or to give the appearance of being indifferent to the ideals they purport to serve.

America's limited and informal engagement in the operation of the League of Nations illustrated the first of these points. The United States could bring itself neither to join nor to abstain entirely from the League. Its enthusiastic adherence to the United Nations in 1945 can be interpreted as in part a symbolic act of repentance and reversal, a conscious repudiation of the American abandonment of the League. Moreover, already during World War II, American statesman had been very active in planning for the postwar world. Even though idealistic and quite unrealistic plans predominatedsuch as Franklin Roosevelt's strong advocacy of a "one world" system including something approaching a world government, the abolition of the balance-of-power concept and of geographical spheres of influence, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull's enthusiasm for uninhibited global free tradethis still compared favorably to the passivity of Britain, the nation that had hitherto dominated the international system. While the British hesitated to embark on any postwar planning exercises for fear of undermining the war effort, Washington began planning for the postwar world before the country had even become a belligerent power. After Pearl Harbor, and once Hitler had declared war on the United States, it was unlikely that a return to the political isolationism of the interwar years would occur despite the continuation of a strong isolationist strand in American thinking.

Thus, America's joining the United Nations with New York as the new organization's headquarters and San Francisco as the venue for the ceremonial signing of the UN Charter was much more than a mere symbolic denial of indifference to the high ideals enunciated in the charter. It was, more positively, a declaration of resolve to accept a position of leadership in world affairs, an affirmation of the intention to play a role that this country had never before assumed in international relations. In this sense American ratification of the UN Charter was a unique act, a dramatization of an event of peculiar significance: the decision of the United States to transform its approach to world affairs. The country's subsequent role in the distribution of Marshall Plan aid to western Europe and, above all, its adherence to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949, reaffirmed the same point and even strengthened it. After all, NATO membership carried more concrete obligations and more definite alliance commitments than did membership in the United Nations. Article 5 of the NATO treaty pledged all member states to regard an attack on a member state as an attack on itself. Although during the ratification process the U.S. Senate insisted that the last decision of how the United States would react to any such emergency had to be left to Congress, article 5 imposed a firm obligation of some form of assistance on NATO member states.

In most cases decisions by the United States to take part in international agencies can be assumed to be motivated in much the same way and can be assigned essentially the same meaning as such decisions by other states. Neither in the case of the United States nor in other instances does it make sense to regard acceptance or support of international organizations as in itself a demonstration of virtue comparable with the virtue sometimes attributed to the individual because he goes to church and pays his tithe. International agencies are not embodiments of a sacred cause but, rather, instruments of the purposes of their members, susceptible of use to promote both noble and ignoble causes. States join them for mixed reasons, and the mere act of affiliation typically provides no solid information about the constructiveness, willingness to cooperate, or the peacefulness of the intentions of the state concerned.

America's inhibitions and reservations concerning international organization are a blend of the typical and the peculiar. Despite the vogue of creating new international organizations since the 1990s and the strong trend toward economic and financial globalization, it is clear that all states maintain some measure of reluctance to become too encompassed, circumscribed, and absorbed by international bodies. It is perhaps unfair to accuse them of harboring the illogical desire to have their cake and eat it too, for in the relations between organization and sovereignty, just as in the relations between national society and individualism, the real question is not which to choose but how much of each to include in the package. In either the domestic or the international case, however, the perennial tension between control and autonomy remains, and it becomes especially acute when circumstances require reconsideration of the necessary and proper balance between them. The fact that states need and want international organizations does not eliminate their desire to retain as much as possible of the autonomy that the traditionally decentralized international system affords them. The tension between the desire for effective and useful international organization and the urge to continue to enjoy and exploit the freewheeling possibilities of a simpler era profoundly affects the behavior of states in creating, joining, and operating multilateral agencies. In the Western world both NATO and in particular the European Union are prime examples of this.


Although sovereignty may figure as an abstract concept with definable meaning in legal and political scholarship, in the real world of states and peoples it is a symbol and slogan no less powerful for its having indistinct and highly variable meaning. "Sovereigntyism" as a subjective phenomenon is a more important factor in international relations than sovereignty as an objective fact. Concern about sovereignty has pervaded America's policy with respect to international institutions from the earliest days to the present. While it has rarely prevented the joining of organizations, it has always affected American contributions to their design and the style of participation in their functioning. The fear that organizational involvements might cut more deeply into national autonomy than originally intended or agreed has never been far beneath the surface of American politics.

American "sovereigntyism" was originally linked with isolationism, which was based upon the fact that the new state was substantially isolated from the European cockpit of world affairs; it was distant, separate, and different. Moreover, it was weak and vulnerable to exploitation in any intimate association with European powers. Fixation on sovereignty reflected the conviction that prudence required the fledgling state to go its own way, capitalizing upon its peculiar situation to maintain political distance between itself and the leading states of the day. Isolationist doctrine related to political and military embroilments, not to economic and commercial ties, and for that reason it did not significantly inhibit American participation in the public international unions that began to emerge in the nineteenth century.

It was when international organization turned political, with the formation of the League of Nations, that jealous regard for sovereignty, nurtured in the era of isolationism, came to the fore as an impediment to American involvement. President Wilson's leading contribution to the formulation of the covenant made the league largely an American enterprise, but it was nevertheless profoundly un-American in certain fundamental respects. The league promised or threatened to involve the United States deeply and systematically in the political and security problems of a world that was still fundamentally Europe-centered. The covenant prescribed commitments that seemed to restrict America's freedom to keep its distance, to stand aside. By this time the United States had lost its isolation and the cogency of much of the rationale for isolationism had faded. However, Americans continued to value the freedom to decide, unilaterally and ad hoc, whether, when, and how to become involved in the quarrels of other states. The right to be unpredictable constituted a major part of the substance of the American idea of sovereignty, and membership in the league was regarded as involving the drastic curtailment of that right.

Wilson lost his battle for American affiliation with the league not to nineteenth-century isolationists who believed that their country was safely encapsulated by the huge continent it had ruthlessly conquered and now inhabited without challenge but to proponents of the idea that the United States should continue its recently espoused auxiliary role in world affairs, the central feature of which was untrammeled discretion concerning engagement and disengagement. Wilson's successor, Warren G. Harding, expressed this idea succinctly: "If our people are ever to decide upon war they will choose to decide according to our own national conscience at the time and in the constitutional manner without advance commitment, or the advice and consent of any other power." When the league actually dealt with political and military crises, the United States was sometimes willing and eager to take an active role, but it was never willing to accept an obligation to do so.

Sovereignty, interpreted as the retention of a free hand, continues to have a major impact upon American policy regarding international organization. World War II convinced most Americans that the advance and well-understood commitment of the United States to throw its weight onto the scales was essential to the preservation of world peace, and the United States made the shift from the policy of the free hand to the policy of commitment that it had rejected when Wilson proposed it. Nevertheless the urge to keep options open has not been displaced by recognition of the value of clear and credible commitments. The strength of that urge was demonstrated in American insistence upon having the power to veto substantive decisions in the UN Security Council. It could also be observed in the careful hedging of obligations under the various bilateral and multilateral security treaties concluded during the Cold War. The United States has wanted to put the world on notice as to its future strategy while retaining the possibility of deciding its policy ad hoc. It has wanted to enjoy the benefits of being committed without paying the price of losing the national freedom to choose its course of action.


The American conception of sovereignty has traditionally included another element: the right to national privacy, the capacity to fend off external intrusions into domestic affairs. This concern was rooted in the original American sense of separateness and differentiation from Europe. The New World had broken off from the Old World, and maintaining the sharpness of the break was deemed essential to retaining the valued newness of the qualities of American political society. The isolationist tradition combined cautions against being drawn into European affairs and against Europe's poking into American affairs.

The latter concern is typically expressed with reference to international organization by the concept of domestic jurisdiction. Participation in multilateral agencies necessarily involves exposure as well as commitment; nothing can be done with the collaboration of, or for the benefit of, a member state without something being done to that state. American enthusiasm for international organization has always been qualified by fear of expanding the national vulnerability to external interference, a concern that was manifested in the drafting of both the League Covenant and the UN Charter by vigorous insistence upon provisions protecting domestic jurisdiction. The campaign that defeated American affiliation with the league concentrated as heavily upon what might be done to this country by and through the organization as upon what the United States might be required to do on behalf of the league. Similarly, misgivings about the United Nations and the specialized agencies have often expressed the belief that the United States has been, or the fear that it might be, improperly penetrated by foreign influences flowing through those institutional channels.

This concern for sovereignty, translated as domestic jurisdiction, is shared by all states. It has received peculiar emphasis in American policy for reasons that go beyond the attitudes that were initially associated with an isolated position and an isolationist doctrine. It seems probable that, perhaps until very recently, the United States never shared the keen need for international organization to serve its particular interestsas distinguished from its broader interest in a stable and peaceful worldthat most other states have felt. As a big country, a continental state, the United States appeared not to require the relief of difficulties posed by cramped territorial area that many other states have been compelled to seek through international organizations. It did not fully share the need of European states, now matched by states on other continents with numerous national divisions, for mechanisms of coordination to facilitate interchange across state boundaries. In this respect the American situation was analogous to that of a great rural landowner, in contrast with that of residents in congested urban areas.

Throughout the twentieth century the United States perceived itself as a powerful, wealthy, and highly developed state, not dependent upon others for protection or for economic and technical assistance. This feeling of independence and omnipotence even increased at the end of the Cold War. Given these characteristics it is perhaps understandable that the United States tended to conceive of participation in international agencies as a matter more of giving than of receiving, and that it insisted upon limiting both what it gave and what it received. The United States could afford to resist having undesired things done to it by international organizations because it had little stake in having essential things done for it by those bodies. With regard to the impact of multilateral programs and activities upon and within national societies, the United States accepted the biblical proposition that it was more blessed to give than to receive. America, more than most other states, could plausibly consider its engagement in organized international activities as predominantly a means of contributing to the general welfare of the global body politic rather than as a means of acquiring particular benefits for itself. Perhaps for this reason Americans appeared especially prone to believe that international organizations were, or should be, expressions of collective idealism and altruism. The sudden awareness of the exposure of the hitherto invulnerable American continent to international terrorism, however, changed this attitude dramatically at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Another set of difficulties and inhibitions that affected American participation in international organization in the twentieth century might be said to derive from the reverse of the attitude toward national sovereignty discussed above. International organizations inevitably cut into the sovereignty of participating states in the sense that they require them to accept commitmentsthereby restricting in some measure their freedom to decide what they will and will not doand in the sense that states' domestic exposure to external impacts is enhanced, thereby diminishing their sense of national privacy. Yet the development of so-called international rogue states like Iraq and North Korea in the 1990s, and in particular the increasing vulnerability of the United States to international terrorism, led to a much greater sense of the inevitability of American involvement with the rest of the world. A wide spectrum of U.S. policymakers began to embrace the idea that even the territory of such a vast and powerful and geographically protected country like the United States could not do without the support of the international community to safeguard its physical security.


One should not conclude that the relationship between national sovereignty and international organization is in all respects a competitive one. International agencies are not engaged in a zero-sum game with states, a situation in which the weakening of the latter is the condition of the strengthening of the former. On the contrary, effective international organization requires the participation of broadly competent statesstates that are able as well as willing to meet their obligations, that are capable of formulating responsible positions and reaching meaningful decisions, and that can manage their resources, people, and territories to the degree required for dependable cooperation in multilateral activities. States deficient in these respects are frequently pressed by involvement in international organization to remedy their deficiencies, and the agencies of the United Nations system have attempted to give attention to building up the capabilities of particularly deficient member states to increasing, rather than diminishing, the meaningfulness and effectiveness of their sovereignty.

America's engagement in international organizations has always been handicapped by limited possession of the kind of national sovereignty essential for effective and reliable participation. Its collaboration in multilateral enterprises has been restrained by reluctance to bend to pressure for strengthening the national capabilities in question. When Americans worry about the implications of membership in international bodies, they are at least as likely to exhibit concern about the enlargement as about the diminution of the sovereign competence of the U.S. government.

The essence of the matter is that the United States is a political society dedicated to the ideal of constitutional democracy, a state whose central government is designed to operate within a framework of limitations derived from the principles of democracy and constitutionalism. Democracy implies that government must be responsive to the majority will more than, and in case of conflict, instead of, the exigencies of the international situation, the rules or decisions or pressures of the organs of international agencies, or the obligations prescribed either by general international law or by treaties. The problem posed by the tension between international commitment to order and domestic commitment to democracy is a real one for the United States; and the more the country becomes involved in multilateral agencies and activities the more intense it becomes.

Unfortunately for international organizations, the democratic principle is not exhausted by the proposition that national commitment requires popular consent. Consent theory implies the right of a nation to change its mind and the obligation of a government to accept the implications of the withdrawal of popular consent. The international legal sanctity of national commitments is challenged by the democratic legitimacy of popularly inspired decisions to violate or repudiate such commitments. The government of the United States came face to face with this problem in the 1960s and 1970s, when the popular consensus that had supported the acceptance of commitments in the two preceding decades began to dissolve. So long as the United States undertakes to combine international responsibility with domestic democracy, its leaders will confront serious dilemmas, and uncertainty will prevail in international organizations as to what can be expected from the United States. Democracy coexists uncomfortably with international law and organization.

Constitutionalism, no less than democracy, creates difficulties for the United States as a participant in international agencies. The president's responsibility for the conduct of American foreign relations, including the management of American participation in international organizations, is not fully matched by his legal authority or his political power to exercise this responsibility. He must compete and cooperate with the Congress, which shares in the control of foreign policy. The division of powers associated with American federalism limits the capacity of the federal government to accept and carry out obligations, or to engage in cooperative arrangements, under the auspices of international bodies. The national commitments to preserve a significant degree of autonomy for the private sector of the economy, to maintain the freedom of a press that zealously guards the right to self-definition of its responsibility, and to respect individual rights enshrined in a written constitution and interpreted by an independent judiciary, establish further limitations upon the capacity of those who speak and act officially for the United States to engage the country fully and reliably in the work of international organizations.

To say that the United States is a constitutional democracy is to say that the body politic has not conferred upon its central government the full powers, usually associated with the concept of sovereignty, that may be required for loyal and effective performance in foreign relations, including the country's effective performance in international organizations. To say that the American public is dedicated to the preservation of the system of constitutional democracy is to emphasize its reluctance to enlarge, or to countenance the enlargement of, governmental capacities relevant to involvement in multilateral enterprises, capacities to make and carry out commitments, to act decisively, and to exercise the degree of control over a variety of internal matters that may be entailed by acceptance of international schemes of regulation or cooperation.

There is a constitutional doctrine, derived from the Supreme Court opinion in Missouri v. Holland (1920), supporting the view that the valid acceptance of international obligations carries with it the enhancement of federal powers to the extent required for meeting those obligations. Moreover, early enthusiasm for membership in the United Nations was reflected in a widespread tendency to acquiesce in a broad interpretation of executive authority to act as might be required for effective collaboration with the organization. This acquiescence proved to be short-lived. In the 1950s the Bricker amendment campaign arguedat least according to President Eisenhowerin favor of curtailing presidential power and empowering Congress with the obligation to ratify all treaties negotiated by the executive. Yet the campaign revealed the high regard for the U.S. Constitution. The doctrine of Missouri v. Holland was more generally feared as a threat to the integrity of the American constitutional system than valued as a promise of the adaptability of that system to the requirements of the age of international organization. The formal constitutional renunciation of the doctrine was obviated by assurances that it would not be exploited. Less than two decades later there emerged a political mood dominated by insistence that the competence of the president to commit the country in international affairs should be significantly reduced. In 1973, in view of the lost war in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis, this led a Democratic Congress to pass the War Powers Act, which compelled the president to consult with Congress about sending American troops into combat abroad and required him to withdraw these troops within sixty days unless Congress gave its approval for a longer mission abroad.

Generally, however, it appeared that Americans were more concerned about preventing involvement in international organization from impinging upon the distribution of authority within their political system than about preventing the peculiarities of their domestic arrangements from handicapping the nation's performance in international organization. The dominance of this concern had a great deal to do with American rejection of the League of Nations. Acceptance of the United Nations clearly has not eliminated this element from the American attitude toward involvement in world affairs.

Nineteenth-century isolationist doctrine, with its emphasis upon aloofness from European political entanglements and intrigues, expressed not only a pragmatic judgment concerning the best way for the United States to survive in a dangerous world but also a moral aspiration, an ideal of national virtue defined as innocent abstention from the evils of power politics. This heritage of moral distaste for international politics colored early American thinking about international organization to promote world peace and order. Nineteenth-century Americans, ranging from spokesmen for the various peace societies that sprang up after 1815 to leaders in government, tended to conceive organization for peace in essentially apolitical terms, emphasizing legal formulas and arbitral or judicial settlement of disputes. World courts figured more prominently than diplomatic forums or international armies in favored formulations, and the ground was prepared for the perennial popularity of the "rule of law" in American internationalist thought. In particular the vision of the future did not include the involvement of the United States in the international political arena or the burdening of the United States with weighty political responsibilities. It certainly did not refer to the obligation to participate in military sanctions against disturbers of the peace. America was not to be contaminated by being dragged into power politics; rather, the world was to be purified by being persuaded to rise above politics, to the realm of law. Global salvation was to be achieved by formula and gadget, not by American commitment to share in the hard, dangerous, and dirty work of an organized political system.

The scheme, set forth during World War I by the League to Enforce Peace and by similar organizations in Europe, then formulated in the League of Nations Covenant under the leadership of President Wilson, was not in accord with this American vision. Calling for an essentially political approach to world order supported ultimately by national obligation to engage in military sanctions, it violated the basic tenets of the traditional American creed. It offered a painful, not a painless, solution to the problem of order. The American peace movement had hoped for the appointment of a judge; it was confronted by the demand that the United States serve as a policeman. The league promised not reliance upon predictable legal process but involvement in the uncertainties of political and military activity. True, the new machinery included the World Court, and there was massive American support throughout the life of the league for membership in that body. The movement to join the court was ultimately frustrated, however, by the fear of involvement in the political league through adherence to its judicial annex. The American legalistic tradition demanded acceptance of a court, but it did not permit acceptance of that particular court.


During the Cold War the role of the United States in creating, supporting, and operating the United Nations reflected the official abandonment of pre-occupation with legal system-building and of aversion to engagement in the political and military aspects of international affairs. Nevertheless the Cold War record contains numerous indications of the survival of these sentiments. The mood engendered by the Vietnam War was characterized by the revival of the tendency to conceive national virtue in terms of innocence rather than of responsibility. Fighting for peace, the central motif of the twentieth-century ideal of collective security, tended to be regarded not as paradoxical but as inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. Self-critical Americans are inclined to interpret the performance of the United States in the early years of the United Nations as a record of shameful manipulation and abuse of the organization, not of constructive leadership and loyal support.

The image of the responsible defender of international order was overshadowed by the image of the irresponsible adventurer and imperialist. In the eyes of self-pitying Americans, the national image was that of an overloaded and insufficiently appreciated bearer of international burdens. Those who put the matter as the abdication of a discredited tyrant and those who put it as the retirement of a weary servant were advocating the same thing: the diminution of the American role in world affairs. The appeal of this prescription was strengthened by the rise to dominance in the United Nations of political forces and factions that the United States could neither lead nor control; America's opportunity to exercise leadership declined as much as its inclination to do so.

Traditional American misgivings about involvement in international political organization was thus confirmed. Discounting the excesses of guilt and self-pity, it must nevertheless be concluded that participation in the United Nations entailed the disappointment of national hopes, the frustration of national efforts, and the dirtying of national hands. It required that the luxury of pure adherence to principle be sacrificed in favor of the more ambiguous and less satisfying morality of responsibility. The glamour of sharing in the formulation of a grand design gave way to the never-finished work of international housekeeping and the never-solved problem of managing the affairs of an almost unmanageable international system. It was not surprising that the United States failed to find this work inspiring or pleasant.

From the late 1960s to the 1980sstrongly influenced by the disastrous involvement in Vietnam, the country's subsequent severe economic problems, and, due to East-West détente, the diminishing Soviet threatthe shift from isolationism to international engagement that occurred during World War II was temporarily reversed. Instead attention was focused once more upon the dangers of overcommitment and the advantages of unilateralism. The pursuit of the national right to make foreign policy decisions unfettered by promises to, or participation by, other states was vigorously asserted by the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations. But widespread talk of "American decline" and the loss of will to preserve the standing of the United States as one of two superpowers proved premature. Instead the crisis situation brought about by the end of the Cold War and the subsequent Gulf War of 19901991 to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion saw impressive American leadership and the country's constructive reengagement with IOs like NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations. Above all, leading U.S. involvement in the "two-plus-four" negotiations (the two German states and the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, and France) for bringing about German unification within the NATO, European Union, and United Nations framework, along with constructive American engagement with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, did much to achieve a relatively peaceful and stable transition to the postCold War era.

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union in December 1991, with the United States remaining the only global superpower and by far the most powerful nation on earth, once again American suspicion of restrictive international commitments and American preference for unilateral activities increased dramatically. The symbolic significance of American membership in the United Nations and its many suborganizations was drastically reduced. Washington's reluctance to pay its full dues to the United Nations was indicative of the United States's ambiguous position toward its involvement and responsibilities in international affairs. While the American superpower was unwilling to pay its dues to the United Nations, the UN itself was in debt to some poor countries such as Bangladesh, owing it $15 million. Between 1994 and 1999 the United States built up a bill of $2.3 billion, arguing that it was asked to pay too much to the United Nations. By late 2001 Washington still owed a substantial amount to the world organization; it was committed to pay the outstanding amount of $582 million in 2001 and the remainder of $244 million in 2002. In 1999 and 2000, after passage of the Helms-Biden act, the United States paid some of the $1 billion it had promised to contribute belatedly to the UN coffers. In return the United States had asked for and obtained various UN reforms and the elimination of the rest of the American debt and a reduction of its future annual dues. (Instead of 25 percent, the United States would now finance only 22 percent of the UN's regular budget; it would also reduce its contributions for UN peacekeeping missions from 31 to 27 percent of the overall costs.) While the Senate accepted this, the repayment of the remaining debt was controversial among Republican leaders in the House of Representatives who wished to impose further conditions and asked for greater UN reforms. The attitude of the House of Representatives was partially also a reaction to the fact that the United States was voted off the UN Human Rights Commission in May 2001 by some UN members (including some of America's European allies) who were running out of patience with Washington's less than constructive role in the human rights body and the administration's general lack of support for the United Nations.

Washington's manifold policy of suspicion toward the United Nations, Franklin Roosevelt's harbinger of hope, must serve as just one example for the claim that an increasing concentration on domestic affairs and a neglect of American involvement in IOs was indeed the dominant feature of American policy in the 1990s. The few years of renewed international activism at the end of the Cold WarPresident George H. W. Bush's somewhat rash announcement of a "new world order" in 1990 and the occasional brief burst of peacemaking activities that characterized the foreign policy of the Clinton administration after 1993must be regarded as exceptions rather than the rule. Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole's assessment in the mid-1990s reflected the deep and widespread American unease about IOs. Dole believed that frequently IOs either "reflect a consensus that opposes American interests or do not reflect American principles and ideas."

Yet as G. John Ikenberry wrote in 1996, while the bipolar order of the Cold War years came to an end in 19891991, the dense economic and political "web of multilateralist institutions" and thus the "world order created in the 1940s is still with us." Despite a tendency to focus on the domestic enjoyment of the prosperity and rising share values of the multiplying "dot com" companies of the Clinton years, the United States was unable and indeed unwilling to abdicate its global leadership. In fact globalization demanded the opposite, and the administration made sure that the United States would continue to dominate the World Bank and the increasingly important International Monetary Fund. The efforts the Clinton administration made for the full implementation and expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and for enabling China to become a member of the World Trade Organization, allowing it to enjoy most-favorednation status, are further examples that indicate that the Clinton administration had no intention to revert to economic isolationism.

The same applied to the political sphere. The Clinton administration was careful to denounce any talk of a new isolationism in the postCold War world, including alleged American disinterest in Europe in favor of a Pacific-first policy. In fact, despite the administration's ambiguous if not outright negative attitude to the United Nations and the many petty trade wars with the European Union, the postCold War world at times saw a vigorous and often constructive reengagement of the United States in many parts of the world. However, this became frequently mixed with a strong dose of American unilateralism. Clinton called this "assertive multilateralism." For example, despite much international pressure, for largely domestic reasons the Clinton administration insisted on preventing a UN treaty controlling the trade in small arms. The administration's ambiguity toward the United Nations had disastrous consequences in the East Timor crisis of 19992000, when the lack of U.S. support induced a withdrawal of UN troops, which in turn led to the wholesale slaughter of many East Timorese people in the Indonesian civil war. Clinton's unsuccessful and unilateral bombing raids on buildings in Sudan and elsewhere in response to terrorist attacks on American diplomatic and military targets abroad also turned out to be ill-advised; they may well have contributed to inflaming even more hatred of the United States in the Islamic world.

Still, American peacemaking efforts in cooperation with IOs during the Clinton era often added a constructive element to the frequently chaotic and very violent developments in such embattled regions as the Middle East and the Balkans. It is unlikely that the successful NATO pursuit of the 1999 Kosovo war and the ousting and subsequent handover of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in 2001 would have been achieved without strong American involvement. The Clinton administration's attempts to act as a neutral arbiter in the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and in the reconciliation between South and North Korea were also relatively successful. This explained the regret voiced in many parts of the world of Clinton's departure in January 2001. Paradoxically, despite Clinton's contempt for the United Nations and his many other unilateral activities, the president's reputation as an international peacemaker far surpassed his embattled and scandal-ridden standing within the United States. Yet his years in office may well be primarily remembered for his administration's ability to maintain and increase America's prosperity and the achievement of a substantial budget surplus rather than for a farsighted foreign policy.

After the drama of the presidential election of 2000, which was only narrowly decided by the Supreme Court in December, it was not Vice President Al Gore but Texas governor George W. Bush who moved into the White House. The new president immediately surrounded himself with many right-wing and unilateralist if not isolationist advisers. Many of these people were very experienced policymakers who had already served under Bush's father in the early 1990s and even under Presidents Ford and Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet his administration did not appear to consist of a vigorous modernizing team prepared to tackle the international problems of globalization and fragmentation. In a 1999 article in Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice, who became Bush's national security adviser in January 2001, tellingly talked at length about the importance of the pursuit of America's "national interest" but rather less about American international involvement and engagement in IOs. She wrote that a Republican administration would "proceed from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interest of an illusory international community." Indeed, the Bush administration treated the United Nations with even greater disdain and suspicion than Clinton had done. During its first eight months in office the new administration walked out of five international treaties (and withdrew from the conference on racism in protest at anti-Israel passages in the draft communiqué in South Africa in early September 2001). Among the treaties the United States opposed were the Kyoto Protocol on climate change supported by much of the rest of the world and a treaty for the enforcement of the important Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972. The administration also withheld support from the establishment of the World Court to be based in The Hague. Although Washington agreed with the principle of establishing such a court, it did not wish any of its nationals ever to appear before it. The Bush administration also threatened to abandon several other contractual pillars of the postwar world, notably the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty concluded between Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev to contain the nuclear arms race.

Above all, Bush's insistence on implementing a national missile defense (NMD) to protect the United States (and perhaps its NATO allies) from nuclear attacks from rogue states like North Korea and Iraq caused great unease in the Western world. Not even Britain, traditionally America's closest ally, was able to show much enthusiasm for a missile plan that had not been tested successfully and would cost billions of dollars and resembled Reagan's ill-fated Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), a plan that had not been tested successfully and would cost billions of dollars. America's allies reasoned that not least for financial reasons the implementation of Bush's missile shield scheme would in all likelihood prevent the United States from giving equal attention to the development of other defensive and military schemes that deserved greater priority. Moreover, the Bush administration showed scant regard for international institutions like NATO by making clear that the missile shield decision had already been made. While America's allies would be consulted and informed and would hopefully participate in the project, any allied advice to abandon the project would not be heeded. Unilateralism was triumphing. Multilateralism and constructive open-minded engagement with IOs had been abandoned for good.

Or so it seemed. Then, in September 2001, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred. This was not only a severe shock to the American people, who for so long had felt secure on a continent that was geographically very distant from most of the world's battlegrounds, it also shook the Bush administration to its core. Alexis de Tocqueville's statement in his famous Democracy in America (1835) that the United States was a nation without neighbors, securely enveloped in a huge continent and thus separate from the problems of the rest of the world, became out of date within a matter of hours. Despite its superpower status, and probably even because of it, it was recognized that America was no longer invulnerable. The Economist wrote presciently that the United States and the entire world realized that America was "not merely vulnerable to terrorism, but more vulnerable than others. It is the most open and technologically dependent country in the world, and its power attracts the hatred of enemies of freedom everywhere. The attacks have shattered the illusions of post-cold war peace and replaced them with an uncertain world of 'asymmetric threats.'"

The value of American reengagement with IOs was recognized in many quarters almost immediately. Suddenly the United States was not merely the provider of benefits to the international community but could also greatly benefit itself from a close cooperative engagement with IOs. Within a matter of days the Security Council of the United Nations had unanimously condemned the attack in the strongest terms and pledged its support to the American intention to embark on a prolonged war against international terrorism. The European Union and many other IOs followed suit. NATO went even further. For the first time in its history the North Atlantic Alliance invoked article 5 of its charter, which obliged each member to take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force" if a member state was attacked from abroad. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were interpreted as a military attack on a NATO member state, which obliged all NATO members to come to the common defense of NATO territory. This was unprecedented; above all, it demonstrated the value of IOs to the hitherto unilateral Bush administration.

While it was unlikely that the Bush administration would not resort to unilateralist activities in the fight against international terrorism, it was equally improbable that even a state as powerful as the United States could win this fight by itself. Engagement with international organizations like NATO and the United Nations and cooperative multilateralism appeared to be decisive. Thus the occasional bouts of American neo-isolationism that could frequently be observed in the 1990s were thought by many to be largely a thing of the past. This, however, would also depend on whether or not the unity of NATO and its member states could be upheld for a prolonged period of time. Quite understandably, both the American people and the Bush administration were sufficiently enraged by the appalling attacks that cost the lives of more than six thousand people and caused damage in excess of $30 billion to "go it alone" if Western and indeed international unity could not be preserved. While the danger existed that the attacks might have the opposite effect and induce America to withdraw from international engagement altogether, this is unlikely; after all even an entirely isolationist America would continue to be exposed to the threats posed by international terrorism. Multilateralist engagement with international organizations and acting in concert with its allies appeared to be the best chance of reestablishing a degree of national and international security. However, it was thought abroad, at least, that this could well take the form of the controversial American "assertive multilateralism" that the world had to put up with during the Clinton years.

Still, after 11 September it appeared that unilateralism and isolationism were no longer regarded as viable political concepts. In view of the Bush administration's active engagement with the international community to fight the "war against international terrorism," the Financial Times concluded that multilateralism was "no longer a dirty word." Similarly, British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed the belief that the answer to the unprecedented challenge confronting the world was "not isolationism but the world coming together with America as a community." It was generally recognized that the world had to look beyond bombing Afghanistan, the country that hosted the terrorist network responsible for planning the attacks, and other military options. An American correspondent put it succinctly in a letter to the International Herald Tribune in early October 2001: "The Bush administration's unilateralism has been revealed as hollow. Rather than infringe our sovereignty, international institutions enhance our ability to perform the functions of national government, including the ability to fight international crime."


Abi-Saab, Georges, ed. The Concept of International Organization. Paris, 1981.

Armstrong, David. The Rise of International Organization: A Short History. London, 1982.

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Baratta, Joseph P., comp. The United Nations System. Oxford and New Brunswick, N.J., 1995.

Bennett, A. Leroy. Historical Dictionary of the United Nations. Lanham, Md., 1995.

. International Organizations: Principles and Issues. 6th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1995.

Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. Unvanquished: A U.S.U.N. Saga. London and New York, 1999.

Clark, Ian. Globalization and Fragmentation: International Relations in the Twentieth Century New York, 1997.

Claude, Inis L., Jr. Swords into Plowshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organizations. 4th ed. New York, 1971.

Claude, Inis L., Jr., ed. States and the Global System: Politics, Law, and Organization. Basingstoke, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Diehl, Paul F., ed. The Politics of Global Governance: International Organizations in an Interdependent World. London and Boulder, Colo., 1997.

Feld, Werner J., and Robert S. Jordon. International Institutions: A Comparative Approach. 3d ed. Westport, Conn., 1994.

Finkelstein, Lawrence S., ed. Politics in the United Nations System. Durham, N.C., 1988.

Franck, Thomas M. Nation Against Nation: What Happened to the UN Dream and What the U.S. Can Do About It. New York, 1985.

Haas, Ernst B. Beyond the Nation State: Functionalism and International Organization. Stanford, Calif., 1964.

Iriye, Akira. "A Century of NGOs." Diplomatic History 23, no. 3 (summer 1999): 421435.

Jacobson, Harold K. Networks of Interdependence: International Organizations and the Global Political System. 2d ed. New York, 1984.

Karns, Margaret P., and Karen A. Mingst, eds. The United States and Multilateral Institutions: Patterns of Changing Instrumentality and Influence. Boston, 1990.

Krasner, Stephen D. International Regimes. London and Ithaca, N.Y., 1983.

Kratochwil, Friedrich, and Edward D. Mansfield, eds. International Organization: A Reader. New York, 1994.

Luck, Edward C. Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organizations, 19191999. Washington, D.C., 1999.

Maynes, Charles William, and Richard S. Williamson, eds. U.S. Foreign Policy and the United Nations System. New York, 1996.

Moore, John Allphin, Jr., and Jerry Pubantz. To Create a New World? American Presidents and the United Nations. New York, 1999.

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Union of International Associations. Yearbook of International Organizations. Brussels. Annual.

Weiss, Thomas G., and Leon Gordenker, eds. NGOs, the UN, and Global Governance. London and Boulder, Colo., 1996. A brief but useful compilation of essays on the role of NGOs.

Wells, Robert N., ed. Peace by Pieces: United Nations Agencies and Their Roles. Metuchen, N.J., 1991.

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See also Collective Security; International Monetary Fund and World Bank; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; Summit Conferences .

Government, World

views updated May 23 2018

Government, World




The concept of world government refers to the institutional organization and administration of global affairs, including issues of peace and security, economics, the environment, and the potential constitution of a comprehensive international system of law and justice. In todays international system, the United Nations (UN) most closely approximates the idea of an institutionalized world government. However, to the extent that the UN system does indeed represent a world government, it differs from state or domestic governments in that it possesses no centralized authority with the power to enforce its rule. Generally speaking, domestic governments have a clear vertical or hierarchical structure of authority, with clear rules delineating who has the final say concerning executive decisionmaking, legislation, jurisprudence, and law enforcement. The international system does not operate under such a clear chain of command. To reflect this distinction the term global governance is often used in place of the concept of world government.

An alternative tradition also exists that understands world government in darker, more ambiguous terms. From this perspective, the concept of world government evokes the specter of global domination by a single national power, faceless bureaucracy, or conspiratorial group controlling world affairs from behind closed doors. Nationalists and libertarians see the potential evolution of a world government as a potentially totalitarian threat to liberty and national identity. And for centuries, conspiracy theorists have claimed secret societies such as the Illuminati or Freemasons are the true powers that orchestrate global politics. Today, some fear that private-sector networks of the international political and business elitesuch as the Trilateral Commission or the World Economic Forumpull the strings of the global economy, representing a pseudo world government beyond the reach of public accountability.


While the UN is structured like a typical domestic government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches, it does not function like one. For example, the General Assembly of the UN is not the primary legislative body of international law. Rather, international law has two recognized foundations independent of the UN system: interstate treaties and long-standing customsand as a result, in comparison to domestic governments, lawmaking at the level of world government is decentralized. Treaties are the most common way in which international rules are made. They involve the mutual agreement by two or more states to regulate behavior according to predetermined limits. The Geneva Conventions represent a series of such treaties. Customary laws, on the other handfor example, the recognized freedom of the high seasdevelop over time as a consequence of accepted long-standing conduct in international relations. Whereas treatybased laws only regulate signatories, customary laws are held to be universal. To be effective, however, most international rules must be incorporated into domestic law by domestic legislatorsthus the common requirement that national legislative bodies ratify international treaties. In the United States this is the responsibility of the Senate.

Considered as a form of world government, the UN also has very little independent enforcement power beyond threats of force issued by the Security Council. As a result, the authority of the UN depends upon either the willful compliance of member states or the force of a few dominant military and economic powers. For example, the International Court of Justice, representing the primary judicial institution of the UN systemand otherwise known as the World Courtwas established to settle legal disputes between member states, and to issue advisory opinions if requested by other UN organs, such as the Security Council or the General Assembly. The statute of the International Court of Justice is part of the UN Charter, yet the enforcement of its decisions is generally dependent upon member-states willingness to comply. No state may be sued before the Court without accepting its jurisdiction over the particular case beforehand. Thus the more powerful a state, the more difficult it is to enforce decisions against it. The record of the United States is particularly poor in this regard. In 1986 the Court ruled against it in a case regarding the mining of Nicaraguan waters. The United States refused to recognize the process, and Nicaragua was powerless to appeal.


In fact, rather than referring to the international system as a present-day world government, it is more common to refer to international law as representing only the potential roots of a possible future world government. The modern rise of international law can be traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War in part by recognizing the right of territorial sovereignty in interstate affairs. What came to be known as the Westphalian order is defined by two principles: state territorialitythe international recognition of well-defined bordersand the right to nonintervention in domestic affairs. The Westphalian order placed the independent nation-state at the center of the international system at the expense of larger supranational authorities such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, international law constituted only a minimal system of coexistence, and military force remained the primary mechanism for the settlement of conflict. The early nineteenth century witnessed the formation of the Concert of Europea balance of power arrangement with the goal of establishing security on the continent in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Yet it was not until the end of World War I (19141918) and the founding of the League of Nations that the first systemic international organization was formed with the purpose of avoiding war altogether. And it was not until the close of World War II (19391945) that the formation of the United Nations, and the establishment of the International Military Tribunal for the Punishment of War Criminals, made aggressive war an internationally recognized crime.

After World War II, international law entered a new stage represented by the ban on the use of force and the elevation of human rights to the status of international law through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Historically, the subjects of international law had always been groups or collective actors, principally states. But with the rise of human rights and war crimes legislation more and more international law came to refer directly to the individual person, independent of particular group membership. With this development some understand international law to be following a trajectory that points away from the statist Westphalian model of international relations toward a universalist, cosmopolitan model of world government.

Most international law, however, remained state- or group-based well into the start of the twenty-first century. Many late-twentieth century developments do, however, point toward the coexistence of an alternative cosmopolitan model. For example, the International Criminal Court (ICC) points toward the development of an international system of justice in which individuals could claim to be citizens of the world subject to a single law executed by a single world government. Thus one might imagine a future world government as taking form around such a notion of universal citizenship. The ICC was founded in 1998 to prosecute perpetrators of the most heinous crimes recognized by the entire international community, including genocide and crimes against humanity. However, important obstacles to its success remain: Not all countries immediately recognized its authority, subsequently undermining its claim to universality; most important, the United States disputed its mandate, claimed special exemption from its jurisdiction, and pressured other countriesespecially its aid recipientsto do the same. Similarly, other trends suggest that the decentralized structure of the international system could just as easily develop away from the consolidation of a coherent world government. For example, in the early years of the twenty-first century, international regulation was increasingly the product of private-public partnerships, resulting in a pluralization of rule-making structures rather than their institutional concentration.

SEE ALSO League of Nations; United Nations


Cassese, Antonio. 2005. International Law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Held, David. 1995. Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Held, David, and Anthony McGrew, eds. 2002. Governing Globalization: Power, Authority, and Global Governance. Oxford: Polity Press.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2004. A New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Adam Lupel

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