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The Evolution of International Organization as Institutional Forms and Historical Processes to 1945

Summary and Keywords

The evolution of international organizations (IOs) can be divided into three phrases. The first phase started with the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), which set in motion a series of innovations, inventions, and learning processes, shaping the core of what we now call IOs. The second phase of international organization in the nineteenth century is characterized by the building of permanent institutions. This is reflected in the new and dominant term “union” for organization. The term “public international union” (PIU) became the overarching term for the by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. PIUs have been regarded as “early IGOs” which later transformed into specialized agencies of the UN system, with their subdivisions as institutional prototypes for the League of Nations and the UN. The third phase of international organization is the continued existence of IOs during the first half of the twentieth century. The outbreak of World War I can be regarded as an exogenous shock to the evolutionary development of IOs. During the war, the concept of international organization was not lost and was even central to the thinking on international politics in the UK and the US. Detailed plans for an international peace organization, using the term “international government”, were produced and discussed by politicians and citizens. These plans, which became part of the institutional strategy devised by the US, strongly reflected the organizational experiences of the PIUs.

Keywords: international organizations, international relations, institutionalization, public international union, intergovernmental organizations

In the field of international relations (IR) research a prelude to international organizations (IOs) is not denied, but it is assumed that the relevance of such IOs was mostly negligible, unlike in the second half of the twentieth century, when international politics was becoming more and more institutionalized and global and regional IOs as well as international regimes were receiving more attention. Included in the prelude are early proposals to organize internationally, the “long” nineteenth century (starting with the Congress of Vienna and ending with the beginning of World War I) and the League of Nations (1919–46), which is considered mostly a failure. Given the low status of the prelude – reinforced by the skepticism of the dominant realist paradigm in IR about IOs as international actors – relatively little attention has been paid to it (Kahler 1997:29).

Whereas classical realists like Inis Claude and Hans Morgenthau incorporated history into their works on world politics, including IOs, the historical perspectives to a large extent disappeared from the research of later realists and liberal institutionalists. In the 1970s the latter argued in the journal International Organization that research should no longer focus on organizations, because their formal and bureaucratic character would block a proper view of world politics. Their focus on broader, more informal forms of cooperation between states, such as international regimes, for a long time drew attention away from the growth of both IOs and international law. Various other strands of IR thought have paid more attention to organizations and their historical development, such as those focusing on actors and political behavior within IOs (Ernst Haas, Robert Cox, Harold Jacobson), those focusing on nonstate actors (Francis Lyons, Steve Charnovitz), critical theorists (Cox, Craig Murphy), and social constructivists (Margaret Keck, Kathryn Sikkink, Michael Barnett, Martha Finnemore). The constructivists returned to history and bureaucracy, as they are interested in critical ideas put forward by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the agenda-setting phase and in the emergence and acceptance of new norms by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), followed by their acceptance and internalization by a broader public of states and citizens. Constructivists are interested in rational-legal authority as characteristic of bureaucracies as well. Long-term time perspectives can also be found with John Ikenberry, who combines realism and liberal institutionalism because realism has neglected the role of institutions after major wars (as in 1815, 1919, and 1945), whereas liberal theories have neglected the role of leading states in restraining themselves in such situations.

Building on these “dissident” strands of thought, this article assumes that the history of IOs, or of international organization as a process (Claude 1966:4), started with the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), which set in motion a series of innovations, inventions, and learning processes, shaping the core of what we now call IOs. From the 1860s on, these developments were followed by a process of institutionalization, which replaced ad hoc mechanisms with permanent arrangements based on rational-legal authority. Institutionalization was succeeded by a phase of continuance, in which institutionalization persisted, bureaucracy developed further, and factors other than those explaining their establishment accounted for the continued existence of (most) IOs.

Early Proposals for International Organization

The Delian League (478–338 bc; with interruptions) and the Hanseatic League (1265–1669) are sometimes considered historical prototypes of modern IOs. The Delian League facilitated military cooperation of Greek city-states (with Athens as a hegemon) against common enemies and as such was more than a temporary alliance. The Hanseatic League of northern European harbor cities was defensive (against pirates) as well as providing cooperation in order to overcome trade impediments. However, these leagues remained “isolated phenomena” in the political systems of their times (Jacobson 1979:9).

The general background of the nineteenth century developments is the breakup of the unity of medieval European Christendom during the Middle Ages and the invention of new territorial entities. The two conferences in 1648 that agreed the peace treaties of Westphalia have been called the first European Congresses, as they laid the foundation for the modern European nation-state characterized by principles such as sovereignty and the balance of power. The peace treaty of Utrecht (1713) confirmed these principles. The multilateral diplomacy at these large conferences of states was abandoned as soon as the conference had concluded its tasks. The same applies to the Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Constance (1414–18), which were early examples of “mixed” international congresses with votes for both Roman Catholic bishops and envoys of kings (Charnovitz 1997:191).

During the period of the formation of the European state system many individuals, among them Pierre Dubois, William Penn, and Abbé de Saint-Pierre (extensively in Ter Meulen 1917), put forward so-called “peace plans.” These plans are important in “their broad intellectual contribution of trying to conceive of ways of giving greater structure to a political system comprising numerous autonomous units” (Jacobson 1979:30). The plans raised fundamental questions, suggested various solutions and different ways of handling problems, and outlined many of the major choices. The writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, and Immanuel Kant (Perpetual Peace, 1795) advanced proposals for the creation of IOs through the designing of structures and the assignment of functions to these structures. Their ideas were to play a role during the various phases of international organization, the first of which was set in motion by the powers at the Congress of Vienna.

The First Phase of International Organization: A New Type of Multilateral Diplomacy

Claude’s seminal book on IOs, Swords into Plowshares, first published in 1956, set international organization in the wider context of evolving world politics, at the time mainly European politics. In 1814, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Claude’s (1956/1966:17–18) four prerequisites for the development of IOs were satisfied in sufficient measure and in proper combination: states functioning as independent political units; a substantial measure of contact between them; an awareness of the problems which arise out of their coexistence; and recognition of the need to create institutional devices and systematic methods for regulating their relations with each other. Later Ikenberry (2001:41) added that at historical junctions after major wars, when states are grappling with fundamental questions of order, the hegemon may use a strategy of institutional binding. Instead of keeping the option of disengagement open, states then build long-term security, political and economic commitments, that are difficult to retract. Binding mechanisms include treaties, interlocking organizations, joint management responsibilities and agreed-upon standards and principles. These raise the costs of exit and create voice opportunities, thereby providing mechanisms to mitigate or resolve conflicts.

Although it looked as if the Congress of Vienna was repairing the rights of former rulers, in fact a “transformation of European politics” was taking place (Schroeder 1996). The United Kingdom as the hegemon recognized that in order to achieve a far-reaching settlement it had to be generous during the negotiations and to be lenient with regard to matters that in the long term were less important. It managed to do so by using its financial resources and making concessions. The great powers in Vienna recognized that the state system as it had developed up to then was no longer adequate and that they had to seek new institutional arrangements for states to “pursue their interests and manage their affairs in the altered circumstances of the age of communication and industrialism” (Claude 1966:20). Their decisions set in motion a number of related innovations, inventions, and learning processes, which resulted in a new type of multilateral diplomacy.

Diplomatic Relations Regulated

Given the inadequacies of the traditional bilateral diplomacy, the new regulations for diplomatic relations agreed upon at Vienna (successive classes of representatives; precedence of states) simplified the functioning of both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. A continuing process of codification of customary diplomatic relations was set in motion by the habits and rules practiced by multilateral conferences and IOs. The rules that developed in order to protect diplomats (privileges and immunities) would also apply to conferences and IOs. The spread of information through modern techniques (telegraph, faster printing presses for newspapers) undermined diplomatic traditions based on information monopolies. States adapted their institutions to the new developments. The major change by the end of the nineteenth century was in the composition of the diplomatic community. It gradually moved away from its aristocratic base toward a more citizen-based community, in which foreign ministries gained a stronger hold over the diplomats (by offering career paths with formal training and individual exams organized by the ministry) and hence over diplomacy itself. Simultaneously new actors intruded on the traditional diplomatic domain, such as “professional specialists and technical experts, members of the embryonic body of international civil servants, private interest-group and humanitarian organizations, and governmental officials and ministers outside the foreign offices” (Claude 1966:33). Traditional diplomats had to learn that ideas put forward by nondiplomats could make sense as well, even if they conflicted with diplomatic logic.

Conferences and Follow-Up Conferences as Instruments

The creation of a new balance-of-power system at Vienna with a pivotal role for a group of great powers (alliances) represented a major effort to secure international peace and stability within a multilateral framework. The Concert of Europe has been discussed as a regime with international norms and decision-making procedures and as a prototype for the executive council of the great powers later found in the League of Nations and the United Nations. The major invention in 1815 with regard to this intergovernmental structure of recurrently convened multilateral conferences with broad purposes and an open agenda was the mechanism of a conference plus a follow-up conference, created at the second peace conference of Paris in November 1815 by Article 6 of the Treaty (Seary 1996:18). This resulted in the custom that states, having reached agreement at a conference, would convene a follow-up conference to assess whether states had actually implemented the agreed-upon decisions and policies. If not, as was mostly the case, the situation required new deliberations and decisions during this conference, including a decision about a further follow-up conference. Unlike before 1815, this mechanism resulted in an ongoing cycle of conferences dealing with similar and related issues. Apart from this (still ad hoc) continuity, it produced path dependency with regard to the selected common solutions and efforts.

Notwithstanding the debate about the Concert’s salience (until 1822, 1854, or later) multilateral conferencing took place during the entire century, often after a political or military conflict (Richardson 1999:78). Participation to an increasing extent became a matter for all states. Although the term “great power,” newly introduced at Vienna, remained the cornerstone of their legitimacy in arrangements such as the Concert of Europe, the great powers became aware that in the longer run they needed the support of the smaller states in order to keep the arrangements functioning. Despite their inclination to handle things behind the scenes, the other states’ engagement became stronger over time, because the broader base enhanced the legitimacy of the decisions jointly taken at the conferences. The new principle of joint consultation by states required the development of techniques and the creation of psychological prerequisites to make multilateral negotiations successful. The participants needed time to adopt such attitudes and to gain experience before they would understand all procedural and diplomatic innovations. The convention that multilateral conferences were in essence great power affairs was left behind with the Hague Peace Conferences (1899, 1907), since almost all then existing states participated on a more equal footing than they had done under the Concert (the number of nation-states rose from 23 in 1815 to 38 in 1850, 42 in 1900, and 44 in 1914).

Institutional Experiment and Learning Processes

Multilateral conferences did not restrict themselves to security or high-politics issues. The main economic issue on the agenda at Vienna was securing the freedom of navigation on international rivers. It took the members of the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine, established in 1815 as the first IGO, 17 years to reach agreement about the functioning of this formal organization and to issue its first Act. The representatives, among themselves and in contacting their governments, had to clarify the exact interpretation of all legal clauses and the relationship between articulating interests and reaching agreement. In order to achieve progress, the formal rule of unanimity had to be used more flexibly and other institutional procedures and arrangements had to be agreed upon to make the organization function. These years represented a thorny learning process among negotiating and cooperating diplomats, adapting the organization’s original setup. The foundation of the (private) International Committee of the Red Cross (1863) and its responsibility for monitoring the intergovernmental Geneva Convention (1864) was another widely observed experiment in creating new structures.

During the second half of the century the initiative in convening multilateral conferences was not restricted to governments but also came from organized citizens, the aristocracy, or industrialists. The government which actually set the convening process in motion acted as the host of the conference, providing meeting places and secretarial assistance as well as persons who were significant enough to preside at the meetings. The general model that evolved was one of a preparatory conference of technical experts and permanent civil servants, which if successful was followed by a diplomatic conference where governmental representatives would take decisions. Nongovernmental representatives could be present in both cases and influence debates with expertise or suggestions. Whereas the first kind of conference could only pass resolutions meant to influence governments, the second kind could agree to, and sign, treaties which were binding and would add to the development of international law or result in the creation of IOs (Lyons 1963:21–2).

Multilateral Treaties and International Law

Path dependency was promoted by the fact that multilateral conferences ended with written documents. States encapsulated everything that had been settled and agreed upon in one complete document (Acte finale), which contained a summary of the work done and had annexed to it the various documents which had been signed by the governments, initially by the foreign minister but later also by ministers of other specific departments (the first time in 1909). Practice soon revealed that treaties on the same topics concluded at a later date would make use of the older ones by building on what the older agreements already contained. States that were not parties to a multilateral treaty often showed their willingness to recognize, and follow, the norms and procedures embodied in it, or to become parties to it. The traditional interstate treaty developed into the multilateral convention, “hammered out in committee and conference of many states, voted upon as if it were a legislative bill, and adopted to serve as a joint legislative enactment” (Claude 1966:32).

The conventions resulting from multilateral conferences thus enabled the further development of international law. Ikenberry (2001:98) refers to the diffuse promulgation of norms and rules of European public law, which together were intended to give “the institutional, territorial, and great-power arrangements in Europe a certain sense of legal-based legitimacy and authority.” The drafting of precise and detailed regulations in its Final Act, including the constitution of the German Confederation, gave the Congress of Vienna to some extent the character of a legislative assembly, with the Final Act as a new moment in the development of international public law.

Early Nongovernmental Influence and Transnational Contacts

As NGOs also organized to strengthen international law, international treaty making in the nineteenth century was not just an intergovernmental affair. In his inventory of NGO presence in IR Charnovitz (1997:212) has shown that governmental officials displayed little embarrassment at participating alongside NGOs in multilateral conferences, where NGOs discovered their capacity to influence governments with ideas and expertise. “There were NGO fingerprints on new international conventions regarding rules of war, intellectual property, admiralty, prostitution, narcotics, labor, and nature protection.” Whereas mainstream IR theory has long regarded the impact of nongovernmental actors as insignificant, these findings confirmed transnationalism, which in the 1970s had questioned the assumption that states are the only or primary actors in world politics. NGO influence had not only been stronger than often assumed, but also older. The creation of issue-oriented societies (now known as NGOs) in the UK from the mid-eighteenth century began with small groups of citizens becoming aware of ethical and social problems. They combined their critical attitude with the assumption that part of the solution was to form associations aiming to deal with these problems. This engagement resulted in group activities, which often included appeals to authorities. The antislavery societies understood the importance of the Congress of Vienna, where they were present together with other citizens lobbying the Congress (representatives of German printers and Jewish communities, arguing for liberty of the press and democratic rights). The antislavery groups were successful in agenda setting, achieved by having petitioned the British Parliament, which had spurred the government into pressing for action in Vienna by including the issue on the agenda (which the Foreign Secretary had done). They also obtained an international declaration against the slave trade from the Congress and the standard embedded in this declaration was intensively used in further action.

American and British societies promoting the abolition of slavery developed transatlantic ties and organized an international conference in 1839. After that British delegations were sent to Continental states to further encourage citizens to establish societies and to pressurize their governments, using information politics as a means of public pressure (Keck and Sikkink 1998:18). The resulting transnational advocacy networks encouraged those advocating peace, who found their inspiration both in a critical religious conviction and in a preference for free trade as an economic policy. The peace movement of the 1840s thus built on the older networks of the antislavery movement and would itself inspire women to establish their own organizations and transnational networks (1868) and to address multilateral conferences. The peace movement strongly promoted and elaborated the idea of arbitration, which also played a role in intergovernmental politics. The schemes that made it possible to establish the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1899 were prepared by authoritative law-related NGOs (Reinalda 2009:59–71).

Popular Sovereignty, the Open Character of Multilateral Conferences, and the Role of the Press

The creation of NGOs with transnational connections in the nineteenth century was related to the emergence of social groups with the time, education, and resources to take part in such societies and activities and to the increased ways of communication. It also formed part of the transformation of states into national democracies, which had begun against the background of new ideas about popular sovereignty and human and citizens’ rights that were declared during the War of American Independence (1776) and the French Revolution (1789). The mere proclamation of declarations (Bill of Rights, Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) did not itself make them effective. The way to transform the new ideas into political reality was through political struggle, also by (organized) citizens, in favor of stronger parliaments, a trias politica, and universal suffrage. The nineteenth-century European world grew smaller politically as the topics citizens engaged in were being discussed at multilateral conferences and in the press. Citizens and NGOs considered this as an invitation to participate. All this happened in an era that saw a substantial degree of peace (from 1815 to 1848 and from 1878 until 1914), in which issues could be addressed internationally (Seary 1996:18), notwithstanding the creation of national identities that was taking place simultaneously.

The system of multilateral conferences thus had an open character from the very beginning, with citizens traveling to conferences initiated by governments and, in turn, governmental representatives attending privately initiated conferences. No serious obstacles were constructed, although formal procedures gave governments means of control, but rather nongovernmental attendance was appreciated because of the expertise and understanding the NGOs brought to the debates. Private experts included in official delegations were often given the leeway to vote independently, and if NGOs were not invited to multilateral conferences they would invite themselves. The first time that NGOs were formally invited to present their opinion was at the 1907 Hague Peace Conference, which may be considered the first time consultative status was granted.

The open character of the conference system was also promoted by the press. The first multilateral conference in times of peace (Aix-la-Chapelle 1818) attracted many journalists who were eager to report the event. The conference chair had to consider what exactly he would disclose to them. This is considered the beginning of public international diplomacy, because a press communiqué was released followed by a verbal explanation by the chair. The official policy of not informing the press during the 1899 Hague Peace Conference was greeted with dissatisfaction among the members of the press and resulted in the publication of a regular chronicle by the NGOs. At the 1907 Conference this restricted press policy was abandoned and the conference organization even cooperated with the newsletter published by NGOs. The official scenario of observing confidentiality was inexpedient, as it had hampered the general acceptance of what was being discussed during the sessions (Eyffinger 1996:45) and so did not help to find public support for the agreed-upon international policies. Other multilateral conferences and IOs had similar experiences.

The Second Phase of International Organization: Institutionalization

The second phase of international organization in the nineteenth century is characterized by the building of permanent institutions. This is reflected in the new and dominant term “union” for organization, which replaced the word “commission” as used by the Rhine Commission and the Danube Commission of 1856. The word “union” was used by organizations such as the International Telegraph Union (ITU) of 1865 and the Universal Postal Union (UPU) of 1874. The term “public international union” (PIU) became the overarching term for the IGOs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. PIUs have been regarded as “early IGOs” which later transformed into specialized agencies of the UN system (such as ITU and UPU), with their subdivisions as institutional prototypes for the League of Nations and the UN.

Regular General Assemblies rather than Ad Hoc Conferences

The PIUs responded to the expansion of modern capitalism and technology, which did not take much notice of national borders, as is illustrated by steamships and the telegraph. The main causes for their formation were: inconveniences and delays in crossing borders; the need to raise the level of economic competition and the fear of unfair competition; and nonregulated dangers, such as the bringing in of epidemics through faster ships arriving from the colonies, or the stealing of submarine telegraph cables on the high seas, according to Reinsch (1911:13) in his overview of the work of these PIUs. The main purposes of the PIUs were “uniformity” in legislative and administrative arrangements and “mutuality of advantages,” in the sense that subjects of each of the member states should be able to share in the legal advantages granted to the subjects of every other member state. The PIUs filled the needs for comparative knowledge and standardization with regard to measuring the earth, establishing a standard time, equal weights and measures, the protection of intellectual property rights, and common regulations for international shipping, railways, and roads. They supplemented the administrative work of governments and espoused many problems which had been outside the scope of traditional diplomacy. Set up as mechanisms for doing a job that had never been done before, the unions helped governments by serving as “collective points and clearing houses for information, centers for discussion of common problems by governments, instruments for achieving the coordination by agreement of national policies and practices, and agencies for promoting the formulation and acceptance of uniform or minimum standards in the fields of their concern” (Claude 1966:31).

A great many of these PIUs arose out of a series of multilateral conferences, which since the 1850s had proved helpful instruments in regulating the common problems. But given the continual character of the issues, the series of conferences were given a permanent character to consolidate and widen the cooperation so far and to improve regularity, efficiency, and expertise. They went through a process of institutionalization, in which the regular general assembly meetings replaced the former ad hoc combination of conferences and follow-up conferences. The unions were based on an intergovernmental treaty (constitution), which defined their often functional aims. The reference to “functional” or “technical” should not obscure that these unions were related to direct government involvement and national interests, taking into consideration the necessary infrastructure (transport and communication facilities) and their security aspects (the use of these facilities by the army in times of crisis and war) or their impact on the national economy’s performance.

Often governments were not the only representatives, as in several countries various national services, such as postal, railway, and meteorological ones, were in private ownership or the conferences had been initiated by private groups. This mixed character was reflected in the governance structures of several unions. Eventually, however, the various types of mixed institutions tended to change into an intergovernmental form, without excluding arrangements for influence by actors other than governments (Reinsch 1911:144). The League of Nations later refused admission to unions if they were not intergovernmental and established by general treaties. Some private unions later transformed into IGOs, such as the World Meteorological Organization in 1950, as they could not adopt international treaties. The work of the private International Association for Labor Legislation of 1900, which instigated two labor conventions signed by governments in 1906, was continued in 1919 by the tripartite International Labor Organization (ILO), consisting of governments, workers, and employers.

Permanent Secretariats: Setting the Agenda and Institutional Memories

While the bodies that organized conferences were not continuous in their operation, the staff members engaged by the PIUs became responsible for the day-to-day running of their union, thus taking care of continuity and regularity. The primary function of the bureau or secretariat was to provide information to the member states. The bureau had to collect data and statistics relevant to the purposes of the union and to collate, arrange, translate, and circulate the material in the form of reports, periodicals, and yearbooks. Parallel to the creation of national statistical agencies (which, together with ministries, also had to provide data to the international unions), the PIUs produced reliable international statistics and specialized information, highly appreciated by governments, without which international administration would have been impossible (Lyons 1963:33). In 1901 the ITU’s bureau completed and published an international telegraphic vocabulary with nearly 2 million terms in many languages and over more than 20 years the bureau of the union for the publication of customs tariffs issued roughly 100 volumes with details which made trade conditions transparent. In some cases the secretariats were also charged with other, more responsible tasks, such as the registration of national reports and state papers and suggesting specific measures for the approval of the member governments, also in the form of advisory opinions. Given the accumulation of expertise in secretariats, professional staff members would also help to design new international agreements and treaties, representing in the institutional process the logic of appropriateness.

The secretariats became more and more responsible for preparing the agenda and reports for the periodic conferences, in some cases under the responsibility of a governing board which, however, soon became identified with the proper functioning of the organization. The Governing Board of the International Bureau of the American republics prepared the third conference of these republics in 1906 in detail. This saved the delegates a lot of work and time and enabled them to prepare more fully for the issues on the agenda. Other unions took notice of such practices. Although the International Bureau of the Permanent Court of Arbitration was not designed to prepare a third Hague Peace Conference, in 1907, it was charged with this task, including working out a system of organization and procedure for the next conferences.

In his book about the role of IOs in industrial change and global governance since 1850 Murphy (1994:111–12) argues that by 1910 the conferences called by the PIUs began to outnumber those arranged at the invitation of heads of state or government. Ironically, most states were unaware of the effects of this institutional innovation engineered by the unions, because they still saw the periodic conferences as a way to oversee the unions’ work, whereas the necessary preparation for the conferences in fact gave the unions’ functionaries power over the agenda. By 1910 the PIUs were playing the roles that used to be played by the foreign ministry of a hosting country or the monarch’s personal attendants: “sending out invitations, deciding on a venue, negotiating a preliminary agenda, arranging for transportation and housing of some delegates, preparing meeting rooms, performing conference services (including translation, editing, and copying) and following up on the conference by publishing and circulating documents, circulating conventions for signature, and keeping track of ratifications.” The institutional memory related to these roles enhanced the position of the secretariat as well as the awareness of the path dependency in what the PIUs had been undertaking.

Most secretariats started and remained relatively small (a secretary, assisted by administrative officers and clerical workers). However, when activities increased the secretariats would grow and express specific wishes about the competence of staff members, as part of the professionalization that was taking place also in national ministries. The staff was either appointed by the national government charged with the supervision of the secretariat (a form later abandoned), or by the governing board, council, or commission if this existed. Out of courtesy, the secretary, later secretary-general, mostly was a national of the country in which the secretariat was situated, with staff members recruited from the civil services of the participant member states. Given the usefulness of the services delivered, most governments paid their dues regularly by 1910, after both some initial suspicion and pressure of public opinion during conferences when arrears in payments were revealed.

Voting with a Degree of Practicality: Departing from Unanimity

Although the PIUs displayed the utmost variety in their setups, most of them had three (or two) prominent features: a periodic conference (or general assembly), a bureau (or secretariat) and (not always) a permanent executive council or board. International law expert Derek Bowett (1982:8–9) argues that the trend toward permanence with regard to the functioning of the unions’ bodies was very marked, showing “a realism and degree of practicality which was of the utmost significance for future developments.” He mentions the representation of interests other than those of governments, the distinction made between convention and règlement, proportionate budgetary contributions, and departures from the unanimity rule. Many unions invented arrangements for representation by dependent territories, private corporations, and private unions, with or without the right to vote. That the convention of a union was signed by diplomatic representatives and the règlement by experts allowed PIUs such as the ITU to consider the convention (or constitution), which embodied the general rules and basic principles, as something which was to remain substantially unaltered and the règlement, which contained the detailed implementation of the rules, as a text that permitted amendment by a much simpler process and more frequently. Many unions used this flexible approach, as it allowed them to adapt to changing needs and circumstances, assuming in this expansion that the constitution provided them with implied powers to deal with related new topics. Various unions experimented with fair membership dues systems. The postal union divided states into seven classes, with varying levels of dues related to the characteristics of the state. This was further detailed in such ways that it was very practical and acceptable. The UPU then saw its system copied by a number of other unions. Debates in national parliaments show that politicians in favor of international cooperation were aware of solutions created by the PIUs and used them as arguments in domestic politics (Reinalda 2009:162–70).

The departure from the unanimity rule became quite common, even in the Rhine Commission where equality and unanimity were the formal rule. But as the Commission had the power to amend its règlement and in addition had a court of appeal arrangement, voting power in certain administrative matters was changed to vary with the length of the river bank of the member state and for tolls levied on river traffic it frequently resorted to a majority vote. Most unions invented techniques of weighted and majority voting. The Permanent Commission of the International Sugar Union is known for its decision making by majority vote, each state having one vote. Although the principle of unanimity was stressed by the president of the 1907 Hague Peace Conference (Claude 1966:112) and by the constitutions of most PIUs, practice was more flexible. The Peace Conference allowed majority voting for voeux, which may be a weak form of agreement, but once adopted later political debates effectively built on voeux and declarations as if they were treaties. Murphy’s (1994:108) data show that in 1914 unanimity in decision making by PIUs was the exception (16 percent), with 18 percent weighted voting, 53 percent majority voting, and 13 percent little oversight.

Reinsch (1911:152) argues that the unanimity rule was not meant to prevent unions from taking action, while internal debates and practical advantages eventually resulted in bringing about common understandings, sometimes through diplomatic creativity. When the 1901 conference of the International Union of American Republics (the first regional IO) faced uncomfortable strains between participants over an arbitration treaty, it was decided to trust further negotiations to a smaller subcommittee. This diplomatic tactic helped the conference to not become deadlocked, as the subcommittee made a common mode of action possible, which then was accepted by the entire conference (Reinsch 1911:86). This procedure was both copied and (re)invented elsewhere. The departures from unanimity allowed secretariats of PIUs to come out well documented on policies that went beyond what the most conservative members would allow. This trend continued. In the League of Nations the number of practical exceptions to unanimity grew, although this principle was mentioned in the covenant. The ILO worked the other way around, with majority voting as the rule and tighter regulations as exceptions. The UN continued on the latter road, with its charter prescribing voting by a two-thirds majority for a group of specific questions and a majority vote for all other questions and with the great power unanimity or veto privilege in the Security Council as its major exception.

Public System Builders and Trust among States

Murphy (1994:64) shows that the multilateral conferences and PIUs of the second half of the nineteenth century attracted public system builders, or entrepreneurial types who helped to design public rail, health, relief, and other systems. They valued order and control and tried to make society more structural and predictable. The PIUs thus fostered modern industry, managed potential social conflicts, and helped strengthen the state system as well as national societies. In this way the PIUs and their international agreements and treaties helped create the noncoercive part of the international political order that was needed for Europe to enter the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century (Murphy 1994:46). The unions allowed the member states to perceive common interests, or in Robert Keohane’s (1984) terms, reduced the information and transaction costs of intergovernmental cooperation (Murphy 1994:109). While the creation of a continental market in Europe was a matter for many PIUs, each one for a specific aspect, the establishment of a continental market in the Western hemisphere was the work of one union of American republics, which dealt with all aspects. Among the entrepreneurs were people like Alfred Nobel and Andrew Carnegie, who supported international cooperation through the Nobel Peace Prize and the establishment of buildings for international courts and the American union.

Inspiring trust between states was promoted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Although not too much was expected of this institution, its position was strengthened when in 1901 the Latin American states decided to become signatories to the Hague Convention en bloc, and thereby enlarged the still strongly European international system of states. The Court’s existence and its wide social, political, and legal support resulted in the inclusion in treaties of a stipulation that disputes arising out of the particular treaty had to be referred to arbitration and to the Court. PIUs encouraged similar action. Between 1900 and 1914 more than 120 general arbitration treaties were concluded between states (Rosenne 1989:9). The period 1907–14 was the Court’s heyday. Although optional, it was morally authoritative, with the main rules of international arbitration firmly drawn. The major psychological effect of the availability of arbitration procedures was the facilitation of economic and other relations between states, since disputes could be settled in peaceful ways.

The Third Phase of International Organization: Continuance

The third phase of international organization is the continued existence of IOs during the first half of the twentieth century. The outbreak of World War I can be regarded as an exogenous shock to the evolutionary development of IOs. Although 10 PIUs did not survive the war period, most of them (27) as well as the arbitration court did. During the war the concept of international organization was not lost and was even central to the thinking on international politics in the UK and the US. Leon Bourgeois’s term “League of Nations” (1908) featured in this thinking, with the British government seeing such a League as a means of involving the US in the war, while the US saw it as an opportunity to modernize international and European politics. During the war detailed plans for an international peace organization, using the term “international government” (Hobson 1915; Woolf 1916), were produced and discussed by politicians and citizens. These plans, which became part of the institutional strategy devised by the US, strongly reflected the organizational experiences of the PIUs.

The League’s International Secretariat: Not a Principal’s Agent

As the peace negotiations approached, the UK and the US increasingly denied the good experiences of the Hague Peace Conferences, as they wanted the League they envisaged to be free of all associations with previous common efforts (Armstrong et al. 1996:12). Their new approach was helped by the fact that the governmental preparations for such a League to a large extent took shape outside the normal channels of the ministries of foreign affairs (in the UK in two bodies that prepared the so-called Peace Books and in the US in the Inquiry which produced Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” document). The drafting of the League’s covenant in Versailles (1919) was not determined by the US but by a power-based negotiating process led by experienced politicians of the principal victors. This resulted in the founding of a formal organization that continued the traditions and activities of the Concert of Europe and the Hague Peace Conferences, including responsibility for the multilateral treaties concluded up to that point.

The world war offered an opportunity to establish a newly designed organization which, however, continued the universal tradition of combining all states (even if not all of them, among them the US, joined and others withdrew) and which copied the main organizational model of the PIUs with three main bodies. Another continued tradition was the League’s open stance toward NGOs. International women’s organizations gained access by lobbying and inviting themselves to be participants, with their first success a clause in the covenant stating that all positions in the League should be open equally to men and women. Regarding the League’s organizational principles, the negotiators agreed on the creation of an Assembly for consultation, an executive Council, and an administrative Secretariat representing the organization. The wish that only the great powers should have a say, with the smaller states playing a subordinate role, was opposed and solved by the suggestion of making the great powers permanent members of the Council and a number of small states nonpermanent members. This compromise disappeared from the draft texts of the great powers, but due to pressure from the smaller states was reinstated and accepted. Concerning the Secretariat, one position favored a secretariat based on national officials who would be loyal to and paid by the member states. This principal’s agent model of the previous war councils, however, was rejected in favor of the establishment of a truly international secretariat, whose members had to distance themselves as far as possible from national ties and to devote themselves to the purposes of the League. They needed to be capable persons of broad vision and flexible mind, according to Dubin (1983:472), who investigated transgovernmental relations during the interwar period.

Leadership of a Bureaucracy: The ILO Case

Although the organizational structure of new IOs, such as the League and the ILO, and the candidates for secretary-general were subjects of political discussion between the founding states, there was not much reflection on the requirements of the office and the expansion of the bureaucratic apparatus. In 1919 Albert Thomas’s candidacy as ILO director (as the secretary-general of this IO was called) took most governments by surprise, as they had not agreed among themselves on any candidates and had not given much thought to the needs of the office. Thomas, however, had strong feelings about the position and, given the support of the trade union movement in the tripartite ILO, used it as “a base for initiative in international policy” (Cox 1973:103). He managed to secure within the ILO’s constitutional bodies a position for the director “not unlike that of a minister introducing and defending his proposals in Parliament” (Ghebali 1989:12). He also initiated modifications of the intentions of the founders at Versailles, as he succeeded in arranging that constitutional links with the League did not block ILO action. He found a modus vivendi on budgetary matters, providing the ILO with sufficient resources, and ended shared membership of the two organizations, which promoted ILO membership of states that were not League members. This kind of leadership turned the ILO into a specialized agency of the League, with its own room for maneuver, as was shown during World War II when the ILO, unlike the League, moved to Canada and continued to function as well as it was able. The development of the ILO’s independence from its environment of member states was a gradual process. The industrial states’ willingness to carry on examining industrial issues at an international level (since 1900 promoted by an international NGO and in 1919 continued by the ILO) had two unintended consequences. The first was an increase in its programmatic range, resulting from the fact that judicial decisions in the context of monitoring the implementation of ILO standards, expressed in its conventions and recommendations, led to additional categories of issues being discussed. The second consequence was the emergence of an authoritative annual review and discussion procedure because of dissatisfaction of key client groups with the implementation of ratified ILO conventions. Although several member states objected to this development, they were unwilling to block it. The director consciously stimulated this growth by taking up new issues and supporting proposals for the expansion and enhancement of monitoring procedures in ways that states could hardly refuse, for instance by asking for certain powers not at the level of the annual conference, but rather at the sublevel of experts.

In his book Beyond the Nation-State, in which he regarded IOs as entities that converted purposes into functions and as subsystems that influenced the international system of states, Haas (1968:100–1) explains this trend toward organizational autonomy and actor capacity of the ILO by applying theories of bureaucracy and organizational growth. After the definition of an organization’s mission, a process of choosing external clients and supporters and of identifying competitors and enemies begins. Then the institutional core has to be built up, involving choosing personnel motivated by and indoctrinated with the organization’s ideology and mission. It also entails fostering an elite, inside and outside the organization, capable of giving continuity to the program and of adjusting it where necessary. As the organization grows in size and complexity, internal and external administrative procedure must be formalized into legal and constitutional channels, with decentralization of staff and program implementation as parts of this process. Finally, the organization’s viability depends on the elite’s exclusive leadership. The elite has two ways to acquire this. One consists of fostering a strong belief in the organization’s specific values, the second of permitting subunits of the organization some autonomy to develop certain values, such as the articulation of principles and procedures to be used in the interplay between the organization and the participating states or other IOs. An IO’s actor capacity, however, is not only an internally directed, management-dominated concern, but also an externally directed, politically adaptive pursuit in which leadership is crucial. Once an organization’s leadership has built up a stable and coherent machinery within its boundaries and does not want to remain in the realm of routine, the secretary-general has to test its environment to find out which demands can become threats, to change the environment by finding allies and other sources of external support and to gird the organization by creating the means and the will to withstand attacks. In this political process most impulses stem from the reasoned demands of governments rather than the subjective needs of international bureaucrats. But the secretary-general may try to make its organizational influence as extensive as possible, because most of the time the member states do not fully agree and thus leave room for maneuver by the IO.

These bureaucratic characteristics and trends can be recognized in both the ILO and the League, which soon had large secretariats. In 1921 the ILO had 262 staff members, in 1930 more than 400; the League started with 121 in 1919 and had 700 in 1932 (Van Ginneken 2006:178). The Economic and Financial Organization with its 53 staff members was the largest body within the League. The secretariats of most PIUs, employing up to 100 people, bureaucratized similarly.

The Promotion of International Law by IOs

The international law tradition, strongly promoted by private institutions, resulted in the founding of a Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) related to the League, with the purpose of administering justice and developing jurisprudence. The main sources of law for this court were the general principles of international law, rather than the written rules. As there were still few written rules, the existence of the court prompted the need for codification of international law, with a first conference of experts in 1929. The judicial department of the League’s secretariat, which was responsible for the registration of international treaties, was also given responsibility for the codification.

In the Westphalian state model the adoption of conventions is a prerogative of states and resolutions of IOs in a strict sense are only recommendations. However, the agreements concluded by IOs were regarded as if they were real international conventions (as those between states). Although IOs are not legislative bodies, they have concluded conventions as if they had legislative power. This began in policy areas where no customary law existed, such as health and labor. Resolutions of IOs, taking the shape of international conventions and treaties, thus became a new source of international law. States accepted this trend, as they regarded international law as an adequate and reliable working method and agreed that multilateral cooperation is based on rights and duties which should be adhered to.

Coordination of IO Activities

The PIUs were not invited to the Versailles negotiations, nor did they invite themselves. They remained outside the League because they preferred to keep their independence. The economic and social subjects mentioned in Article 23 of the covenant covered part of their fields of activity and Article 24 enabled the League to have a coordinating role for specialized agencies such as the PIUs which, however, would place them “under the direction of the League.” The League, which itself had one specialized agency (the ILO) and assessed external organizations such as the PIUs by its own criteria, did not offer extra value to the PIUs. In the Versailles debate on whether a universal peace organization ought also to have an economic dimension, most states had shown no desire to commit themselves to such activities within the League, with the exception of the fields mentioned in Article 23 and the ILO. Notwithstanding this, the League became active in the economic and social fields (Hill 1946). Three specialized bodies, which (like the ILO) used the term “organization” in their names and were supported by sections of the League’s secretariat, became international actors that collected and published general and comparative statistics, organized conferences, and were engaged in the adoption and implementation of multilateral treaties in the economic, financial, communication, transport, health, and social fields, including clashes between these actors. As such they became competitors of the PIUs functioning in the same fields. Internally, these League bodies gradually became less dependent on member state governments than had been agreed at their foundation. The stipulation that the Council had to approve their agenda was swiftly dropped and after some years they were allowed to publish and send their reports directly to governments without first having to have them discussed by the Council. They obtained permission to consult experts, set up special committees, and undertake research. The change of name in 1936 of the advisory committee on the traffic in women and children to one on social questions reflected the broadening of the League’s social interests, initiated by women’s NGOs in relation to the League’s updating of two older treaties (1904, 1910) in 1921. The economic and social activities of the specialized League bodies, including the transgovernmental relations appreciated by governments and high-ranking civil servants, would form the basis of separate specialized agencies after World War II in fields such as finance, trade, health, transport, intellectual cooperation, and refugees. Each of these would build on the standards and procedures embedded in agreements and treaties adopted by the League.

Negative assessments in the literature of the League, including economic aspects, do not diminish the fact that the organization, partly because it was unable to achieve much in the area of security, showed increasing leadership in the economic and social fields. With hindsight these activities, which were appreciated least at the time, seem more impressive than what was achieved in the political arena, where expectations had been highest. The League proved to be a suitable medium to restore relations in places where measures had been taken during the peace negotiations, but where acute tensions still existed. This resulted in arrangements such as temporary administration, conflict settlement, and the accommodation of large numbers of refugees. Efforts to disarm, however, remained the domain of the great powers, despite attempts by the League to play a part. The League had scarcely any grip on the political and military developments, because the great powers took little notice of it.

With US support, the League in 1939 set up a committee chaired by Stanley Bruce to assess its international cooperation in economic and social affairs. It recommended that the League should bring all its economic and social work, including that of the ILO, under the direction of one coordinating body, which would be representative and effective. During World War II not all of the League’s activities came to a standstill, as the ILO and a group of staff members from the League’s secretariat moved to Canada and the US, where they sided with the Allies. The staff of the economic, financial, and transport departments moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to continue their monitoring of developments around the world, with their Monthly Bulletin of Statistics the fullest regular source of essential economic statistics on many states, including those in Europe. The outlines of the future UN were managed by the US as the new hegemon and began to take shape at Allied conferences, eventually showing an improved version of the League and, in line with the recommendation of the Bruce Committee, including a socioeconomic dimension. The US wanted to avoid some of the mistakes made after 1919, when insufficient effort had been invested in the actual implementation of their cooperatively conceived economic policies, which had resulted in Europe’s economic and political fragility. The US concluded that if free trade and monetary stability did not occur by themselves, they had to be helped by institutions. These insights resulted in the Bretton Woods (1944) and the San Francisco (1945) conferences. The institutional order constructed under US leadership between 1944 and 1951 was “the most far-reaching of any postwar settlement in history,” with the industrially developed nations engaged in a “flurry of institution building […] vastly greater in scope than in the past, dealing with issues of economic stabilization, trade, finance, and monetary relations” (Ikenberry 2001:163).

Survival of IOs

The preparations for the postwar situation regarding food supply, rescue operations for refugees, and the economy in 1943 and 1944 were supported by the League’s Princeton mission and the ILO, but also caused the ILO to make its presence felt in the new international relations for fear of being overtaken on its home ground. To show that it had not left a vacuum to be filled, it prepared itself at a regular labor conference in Philadelphia (1944) for the postwar conditions by revising its constitution and adjusting its organization. This survival strategy allowed the ILO to become a specialized agency in the new UN system. Although the US favored an Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), it was not mentioned in the Dumbarton Oaks proposals of the great powers of 1944, but at the San Francisco conference the Latin American states insisted on a role for the UN in social, economic, and human rights cooperation. They received support from other states in the conference committee dealing with these issues. As a result of this pressure and by referring to the recommendations of the Bruce Committee, the ECOSOC was created as one of the principal organs of the UN. It was responsible for coordinating all the economic and social activities of the various UN bodies and of the specialized UN agencies, such as the ILO, the newly established agencies, and various PIUs, which this time joined the UN system as specialized agencies.

The UN Charter states that the ECOSOC can arrange consultations with NGOs. This was a codification of the League practice but also a formal restriction, as Article 71 stipulates that NGOs can have a say in economic and social affairs, and hence not in security issues. As the PCIJ could be too easily linked to the inactivity of the League, it was decided to create a new International Court of Justice, to give the UN a legal dimension and to make the new court a principal organ of the UN. The new court’s statute and activities, however, were based on those of the PCIJ.

Exogenous shocks such as the two world wars thus did not end the earlier process of international organization, but rather showed continued institutionalization: In 1919 a formal organization replaced the previous system of conferences and in 1945 the UN became an improved and enhanced version of the League. The process of bureaucratization, which was also set in motion, allowed actor capacity of IOs and helped the secretariats, or parts of them, if headed by entrepreneurial secretary-generals or departmental heads, to play certain roles of their own. In the case of the League’s economic and social activities and of the PCIJ’s arbitration work, which overlapped with that of the arbitration court, this resulted in a new kind of competition between overlapping IOs, producing both a certain need for coordination and divisions of labor. The coordination problem was solved by the creation of the UN ECOSOC and the status of specialized agencies in the UN system. The new competition between IOs and the new institutional strategy of the US put the ILO and various PIUs in a survival scenario, which caused them to adapt their organizations to the new situation in order to continue their existence or to remain relevant.

Realism versus Idealism

The development of public international law as an academic discipline, including university positions and academic journals, was promoted by the process of international organization discussed above. During the nineteenth century the concept of the law of nations, as deriving from the law of nature, was steadily being abandoned and was moving toward positivism. But although international law developed as a system of rules governing the relations between sovereign states, and as such influenced the new disciplines of political science and IR, it has grown beyond that, with an open mind for the process of international organization and multilateral legal rule making. The introduction of the concept of power politics in political science and IR theory as they were breaking away from international law caused a first great debate between different schools, with on the one hand realists, armed with a theory grounded in human nature and state action and therefore prescient in their reading of IR, and on the other hand liberal institutionalists, later referred to as idealists, “wedded to legal and institutional analysis and blind to the requirements of power politics” (Kahler 1997:21). German emigrant Hans Morgenthau introduced the Continental European emphasis on power politics into American political science, which was professionalizing and through the Chicago School adopting the model of natural science for its research. When Morgenthau arrived in Chicago, however, his vision was not particularly welcomed, as the scientific movement of the 1920s and 1930s shared more goals and personnel with liberal institutionalism than it did with realism. “Power politics was a dirty and forbidden word in the Chicago of his time” (Kahler 1997:26).

Nonetheless, realism ultimately established itself as the dominant paradigm, with Edward Carr’s Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939) and Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations (1948). Various caveats apply with regard to the term “idealistic.” William Olson and John Groom (1991:81) identified 40 titles in mainstream IR from 1916 to 1941. Defining “idealistic” as stressing the efficacy of law and organization, they concluded that “only about half of these can be said to be even primarily idealistic in tone.” Many authors were liberals and institutionalists, but definitely not “idealists.” Cecelia Lynch (1994:594) argues that Carr’s labeling of peace actors as “utopian,” as opposed to “realist,” has created a stigma around attempts by social forces to influence the course of IR. “This stigma has endured in both popular and theoretical parlance over the past fifty years and should be re-examined,” as it prevents research into what actually happened. Portraying world federalists and NGOs as clumsy and insignificant obscured both their often very practical contributions to the functioning of IOs and the implementation of their policies, and the goodwill they created by their distribution of knowledge about the purposes and activities of IOs among citizens. These qualities were stressed by David Mitrany, whose Working Peace System (1943) was regarded a useful antidote to the realist approach (Taylor 1990:136): “it does not claim to eliminate the pursuit of power, but only to consider the circumstances in which it might be limited or redirected, and it accepts that different standpoints might reveal valid insights.”

Some Numbers and Yearbooks

Between 1815 and 1915 37 PIUs and 466 private unions were established (Speeckaert 1957; Lyons 1963:14). Twenty of these 37 PIUs and 191 of the 466 private unions were still active in the mid-twentieth century. The number of IGOs in the interwar period was 72 in 1920 and 82 in 1940 (Wallace and Singer 1970:272), the estimated number of INGOs 400 in 1920 and 700 in 1939 (Seary 1996:17). A world congress of international associations in Brussels in 1910, attended by 132 unions and 13 governments, founded the Union of International Associations (UIA). The UIA published with the collaboration of the Institut Internationale de la Bibliographie and the Institut Internationale de la Paix (which had already published the L’Annuaire de la Vie Internationale 1905, 1906, and 1907) the L’Annuaire de la Vie Internationale 1908–9 and 1910–11 (the latter with the support of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). The UIA initiative was continued by the League of Nations in the bilingual Répertoire des Organisations Internationales/Yearbook of International Organizations (1921, 1923), the French Répertoire des Organisations Internationales (1925, 1936), and the English Handbook of International Organizations (1926, 1929, 1938). These are the informative predecessors of the better-known Yearbook of International Organizations, which is based on an agreement between the UIA and the UN.


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