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date: 17 April 2024

Evolution of International Organization as Institutional Forms and Historical Processes Since 1945: “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodies?”free

Evolution of International Organization as Institutional Forms and Historical Processes Since 1945: “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodies?”free

  • Jacques F. FomerandJacques F. FomerandSchool of Professional Studies, New York University


International organizations (IOs) are a byproduct of the European Westphalian anarchical interstate system to facilitate interstate international economic, social or technical cooperation. They grew exponentially in the second half of the 20th century and have become a ubiquitous component of the international relations landscape. There is now a glut of theories, each making different assumptions about the nature of international politics, focusing attention on different aspects of IO and propounding widely diverging conclusions about the role and functions of IOs. There is, however, a trend among these: the legal/historical tradition which initially provided the intellectual lens through which IOs were understood has given way to a mix of realist regime theory and liberal intergovernmentalism views. In a broad comparative public policy analysis framework, scholarship continues to evolve on the norm-making, regulatory, distributive, and redistributive policies emanating from IOs together with their impact and legitimacy.


  • Organization

Updated in this version

Heavily revised and expanded.

International organization (IO), in the broadest sense of the term, is an “ordering principle” (Thompson & Snidal, 1999), a “method” (Leonard, 1951) of conducting international relations, in brief a process. More narrowly defined, and for the purpose of this article, IO may refer to what the Yearbook of International Organizations (2014) labels as “conventional international bodies”—formal institutions set up by more than three sovereign states through multilateral treaties to achieve, with the support of a permanent secretariat, shared interests and desirable objectives. Transgovernmental networks, which typically involve specialized units of national government ministries, sector organizations, or technical experts, do not fall within the framework of this discussion (Abbott et al., 2018). Neither do standard-setting organizations such as, to cite only some of the them, the International Organization for Standardization (Murphy, 2008), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Slavka, 2008; Weber, 2010), or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Shleper, 2019) which are essentially national private or hybrid groups.

So defined, and it being understood with Alvarez (2017), that new forms of IOs are emerging, IOs are a byproduct of the European Westphalian anarchical interstate system of international relations. Their first, modest, and hesitant stirrings may be traced back to the “Concert of Europe,” which first relied on organic common values and shared preferences rather than written rules (Mitzen, 2013; Schroeder, 1972; Soutou, 2015) and then, progressively, on permanent structures and institutions set up throughout the 19th century to facilitate interstate international economic or technical cooperation (Ardeleanu, 2020; Balbi, 2014; Fari, 2015; Lascurette, 2017; Mackenzie, 2010b; Reinalda, 2013). After a pause in the 1910s and 1930s (Potter, 1935), the number of global and regional, technical and political, regulatory, consultative, and operational institutions dealing with an ever-expanding range of transnational issues grew exponentially in the second half of the 20th century (Goodrich & Kay, 1973; Mangone, 1954; Mazower, 2012; Murphy, 1994; Reinalda, 2009, 2013). The latest issue of the Yearbook of International Organizations, which has been tracking the IO phenomenon since the early 20th century, provides information on some 67,000 active and or dormant international intergovernmental, scholarly societies association and transnational actors of all types. Relying on the narrower definition of IOs offered earlier, the Yearbook identifies a total of 290 “conventional international bodies,” including one federation of international organization, 37 universal membership organizations, 39 intercontinental membership organizations, and 213 regionally oriented membership organizations (Yearbook 2022–2023, Vol. 2, p. xxii). Competing figures can be found in other sources, ranging from 126 by the U.S. Department of State, to over 250 by the Encyclopedia Britannica, to 325 by the Correlates of War database (Davies & Woodward, 2014) to 2,000 according to the 2022 Europa Directory of International Organizations. In event, the IO phenomenon is clearly a 20th century phenomenon as most institutions were founded in the second half of the 20th century (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2018b; Weiss et al., 2013).

International intergovernmental institutions have indeed become a ubiquitous phenomenon as noted by Barnett and Finnemore (2004, p. 1). In Hurd’s equally felicitous words (Hurd, 2011), they are at the heart of many global issues today. Numerous factors have been cited accounting for this momentous transformation in interstate relations. Some have singled out “tectonic changes in the structure and essential conditions of international politics” (Claude, 1968, p. xix); others a “pluralization” of global politics and the emergence of “diverse forms of multi-actor, multi-sector, and multi-level governance” (Weiss & Wilkinson, 2019a); and still others the growing interdependence of nations (Brown, 1972; Keohane & Nye, 2001; Milner & Moravcsik, 2011) and the vulnerabilities of the world economy to humanmade or natural catastrophes (Elson, 2017; Wolf, 2014). The unrelenting processes of the globalization of the past decades (Hebron & Stack, 2017), and the recognition that “peace is everyone’s business” (Ewert & Bird, 2021) and that pressing “global commons” issues transcending national boundaries cannot be tackled, let alone solved, by single states, are perhaps the major factors explaining the expanding IO phenomenon (Annan, 2005; Archer & Marsden, 2014; Ayton-Shenker & Zolli, 2018; Barrett, 2007; Baylis et al., 2014; Bobrow & Boyer, 2005; Burke & Parker, 2017; Commission on Global Governance, 1995; Ferroni & Mody, 2002; Figueres & Rivett-Carnac, 2020; Gorman, 2017; Independent Commission on Multilateralism, 2016; Jasper, 2012; Kaul, 2003; Mohanan & Ganapaty-Dore, 2020; Our Common Future, 1987; Roberts, 2019; Sontag, 2010; South Centre, 1996; Thiel, 2019; Weiss & Daws, 2018; Westra et al., 2017).

These developments have fed a steady stream of constantly shifting theoretical approaches to international relations, within the framework of which the study of IOs remains embedded. There is now a glut of “competing” (Haas, 2017) or “contending” theories (Lawson, 2015), each making different assumptions about the nature of international politics, focusing attention on different aspects of IO and propounding widely diverging conclusions about their role and functions. A sample of this intellectual effervescence may be found in the works of Barkin (2006), Baumann et al. (2011), Booth and Eskine (2016), Doyle and Ikenberry (2018), Gofas et al. (2018), Jorgensen (2018), Peters and Wemheuer-Vogelaar (2016), Light and Groom (2016), Pettiford (2015), Rosamond (2000, pp. 198–205), and Zartman (2009).

One broad trend can be detected, though: the legal/historical tradition, which initially provided the intellectual lens through which IOs were understood, has given way to a mix of realist, regime theory and liberal intergovernmentalist views. This mix was augmented more recently by approaches derived from sociology, by what Margaret Karns and Karen Mingst call the “pieces of global governance” (Karns & Mingst, 2009, p. xvi) and Weiss and Wilkinson refer to as “the contemporary global governance puzzle” (Weiss & Wilkinson, 2019a, p. 5). The strand of what might be called “critical theories” (Budd, 2013) derived from Marxism or Gramsci (Gramsci, 1971) cultural and political concept of hegemony—i.e., the works emphasizing the connections between production, the state, and world order (Anievas, 2010; Cardoso & Faletto, 1979; Cox, 1987, 2002; Cox & Sinclair, 1996; Mentan, 2020; Roach, 2008; Rupert & Smith, 2002; Tansel, 2017), the writings of Elise Boulding and Johan Galtung on peace research (Boulding, 2017; Galtung & Fischer, 2013) and Immanuel Wallerstein focusing on “world systems” comprised of interconnected nations, firms, households, classes, and identity groups of all kinds (Wallerstein, 2004)—have all been practically ignored and remain by and large on the periphery of mainstream scholarship. In spite of their recent growing visibility in the literature, the same observation could also apply to the approaches of feminist and gender students such as Abels and MacRae (2016), Butler (1990), Caglar et al. (2013), Enloe (1990, 2000), Garner (2018), Harraway (1991), Kronsell and Svedberg (2012), Rai and Waylen (2008), Ruyan and Peterson (2014), Sheperd (2010), Sjoberg (2013), Sterling-Folker (2013), Sylvester (2002), Tickner (2001), Tickner and Sjoberg (2011), Weber (2016), Wilde et al. (2007), and Zalewski et al. (2018). Virtually absent are works in a non-Western vein (as noted by Acharya, 2014; Acharya & Buzan, 2009; Voskresenskii, 2017) or studies problematizing “civilizations” as a strategic frame of reference to the current world order (Chebankova & Dutkiewicz, 2022). Students of a “postcolonial” bent (Ashcroft et al., 1998; Chowdhry & Nair, 2004; Ling, 2001; Said, 1993; Seth, 2013; Shilliam, 2011) or a “post structural” inclination (Ashley, 1988; Derrida, 1994; Edkins et al., 2004; Foucault, 2008; Larner & Walters, 2004; Walker, 1993) fare even worse.

A few preliminary caveats are needed for the sake of facilitating accessibility and ease of reading: First, the overall approach is grounded on a public policy methodology and frame of reference (Farazmand, 2018). The hope is that it may draw attention on the need for more comparative multidisciplinary analyses of IOs, which remain painfully scarce. Second, by necessity, this literature review is primarily limited to books published in the English language. There is no dearth of documentary material produced by IOs, government agencies, and civil society organizations, not to mention the periodical literature and what is available on the internet. Only the most important among these items will be cited. In Appendix 1, the reader will find at the end of the article a list of the most important periodicals that deal with IOs matters. Appendix 2 features a number of think tanks that produce material relevant to the study and activities of IOs. Note may also be taken of the practice of some publishers (Routledge, Oxford, Elgar Publishing, and Brill, among others) to issue “Handbooks” which feature authoritative essays from leading academic figures and practitioners on a wide range of IO-related topics.

Finally, IOs are viewed as political systems converting inputs into outputs, reacting to demands and support for their environment, and transforming these into policies directed toward their environment (Easton, 1965; Rittberger et al., 2019, pp. 57–58). From this vantage point, students of IOs have over time raised four sets of questions about the IO phenomenon. One, what is the nature of the environment of IOs, and once they have come into being, to what extent can they be viewed as bona fide international actors? Two, what are the internal dynamics of IOs and modes of decision making? Three, what are the policy outputs of IOs—that is, the purposive courses of action emerging from their decision-making machinery to address particular problems? (Thakur & Weiss, 2009, pp. 18–35). Four, what is the feedback effect of these policies, the support (or lack of) they generate—in brief, their legitimacy and the authority of the institutions that produce them? Policies vary considerably depending on the degree of obligation that they carry or coercion built into them. The literature does acknowledge the extraordinary broadening of the range of types of policies carried out by and through IOs. Drawing from Theodore Lowi’s “arenas of power” and typology of policies (Lowi, 1972), and with a full understanding that there is some overlap between these categories, IO scholarship can be analytically sorted out around “norm-making,” “regulatory,” “distributive,” or “redistributive” policies.

The IO/Environment Nexus: Actorness

Perhaps one of the most enduring central debates about IOs is their “actorness”—that is, the extent to which they can be differentiated from their constituting environment, enjoy a degree of identity, and have structural and functional autonomy as well as the capacity to influence the statist environment they spring from. Throughout the 1940s to the 1960s, realist and legalistic paradigms prevailed, stressing that IOs were simply creatures and servants of their principals. Now, after several decades of IO practice, the prevailing view that IOs are not simply “playthings of states [or] instruments of capitalism” (Barnet & Duvall, as cited in Weiss & Wilkinson, 2019b, p. 57). They may also enjoy a significant, though still conditional and ever fluctuating, degree of autonomy, independence, and the power to effect change. In brief, they have capacity (Tavares, 2009).

The Realist Prism

Whether they emphasize state sovereignty, power, and human nature (Bull, 1977; Carr, 1964; Claude, 1964, 1962; Morgenthau, 1978; Waltz, 1979) or focus on the anarchical structure of the international political system (Gilpin, 1981, 2002; Mearsheimer, 1994–1995, 2001, 2021; Schelling, 1960; Waltz, 1979; Williams, 2007), realists take a dim view of IOs. Balancing power among states whose sovereignty cannot be divided is of the essence (Morgenthau, 1978, p. 328). In a context where the actions of states are driven by their interests rather than universal moral principles, IOs thus come into existence only because states, especially powerful ones (global or regional, as noted by Drezner, 2007), share common interests that they have elected to pursue in multilateral settings under their control. In their operation, IOs are, accordingly, instruments of national policies, arenas, effectors of great power agreements, or legitimizers of dominant state policies. They mirror their environment and are shaped by power politics (Wivel & Paul, 2019). Their actorness is virtually nil (Godehardt & Naber, 2011; Ikenberry, 2012; Rosenau & Czempiel, 1992), especially when the great powers are at loggerheads as is the case in the Ukrainian conflict (Abelow, 2022). What purposes IOs may have flow from the political process and reflect changes in purpose of the states dominating the organization (Claude, 1968, p. xvii). Ultimately, states are and remain in control (Mouritzen, 2019). IOs’ forays in normative policies as liberal institutionalists underline is “delusion” (Mearsheimer, 2018).

From this vantage point, the argument has been made that the strategic interests of the major powers shaped the responses of the international community to refugee crises (Haddad, 2008). In the same vein, the view has been expressed that the possible demise of the postwar liberal international order underpinned by U.S. military, economic, and ideological primacy and supported by global institutions serving its power and purpose will in all likelihood give way to a new world order shaped by a concert of old and new powers and forces (Acharya, 2018). Likewise, some observers have shown how the contest for influence in power transitions spill over into the proceedings, deliberations, and policies of IOs, as illustrated by the experience of the World Bank (Xu, 2017). Some students of the European Union (EU) have highlighted the fact that, without a credible military component (Bull, 1982), the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy is fatally flawed and undermined by a critical “capabilities-expectations gap” (Hill, 1993, p. 305) and a “consensus expectations gap” (Toje, 2008a, 2008b, pp. 121, 199). The result is the emergence of a European strategic culture characterized by continuing dependence on the United States (Cafruny & Ryner, 2007) and a predisposition to “soft” power (Wright, 2011). In Kagan’s trenchant words (which scholars may in the future qualify in light of the EU response to the Russian military intervention in Ukraine), Venus prevails over Mars (Kagan, 2004).

That states are central actors in the international political system, reject any central international authority to enforce cooperation, and seek to maximize their interests in rational ordered preferences are realist assumptions by and large shared by proponents of the application of game theory to interstate conflict behavior (Curini & Franzese, 2020; Morrow, 2020). Within the framework of these premises, game theory modeling may provide a valuable tool for the analysis of the impact of institutional designs and negotiations protocols on the success (or lack) of transnational cooperation (Peinhart & Sandler, 2015). The converts, however, have been far and few between (Finus & Caparros, 2015; Muggy & Stamm, 2014; Selek, 2006; Zagare, 2019), most of them having found refuge in a handful of periodicals, notably the Journal of Conflict Resolution, The International Studies Quarterly, and International Organization, to name a few.

The Invasive Constructivist Perspective

At the other side of the academic divide, constructivists argue that neither international structures, nor states’ identities and interests—especially their sovereignty—are givens. Rather, they are constructed through the social practice, socialization, and interaction of a multiplicity of actors (Guzzini & Leander, 2006). States are prominent, as argued by Kratochwil (1989) and Ruggie (1993). But nonstate actors (Jonsson & Tallberg, 2010; Scholte, 2011; Weiss & Wilkinson, 2019b) have also been increasingly drawn into IO processes. These include, among others, global civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which frequently specialize in “contesting sovereignty” (Ludert, 2023) and have been widely studied (Anthony, 2019; Armstrong et al., 2010; Cheema & Popovski, 2010; Clark, 2003; Davies, 2019; Eberly, 2008; Florini & Korvu, 2000; Gosewinkel & Rucht, 2016; Haddad, 2018; Jarosz, 2014; Kaldor et al., 2012; Kissling, 2008; Marchetti, 2017; Meirelles, 2020; Powell, 2013; Qarmout, 2017; Smith et al, 2016; Stroup, 2012; Thompson & Walker, 2008; Willetts, 2011; Wunsch, 2018); advocacy networks (Boris et al., 2018; Carpenter, 2014; Fuentes-George, 2016; Pallas & Bloodgood, 2022; Prakash & Gugerty, 2010; Snyder, 2011; Waddell, 2011); and social movements (Busby, 2010; Conrad & Sachsenmaier, 2007; Cortright, 2008; Coy, 2015; Diamond & Liddle, 2013; Drachewych & McKay, 2019; Guidry et al., 2009; Hertel, 2006; Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Ludert, 2023; Marino, 2019; Martinez Lopez, 2018; O’Brien, 2000; Reifer, 2016; Rousseau & Hudon, 2017; Rowell et al., 2017; Sharp & Stibbe, 2017; Stienstra, 1994; Tarrow, 2011; Waterman, 2001).

Many scholars have also drawn attention to the role of corporate actors (Andonova, 2017; Brainard, 2006; Ford, 2015a; Garavito, 2017; Hertel, 2019; Kaisershot & Connolly, 2018; Korten, 2001; Malet & Anderson, 2017; McBedth, 2007; Ougaard & Leander, 2012; Rasche & Kell, 2010; Ruggie, 2013; Sagafi & Dunning, 2008; Sullivan, 2017; United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 1973, 1974; Yaziji & Doh, 2009); labor organizations (Banerjee & Colucci, 2007; Bieler & Lindberg, 2010; Ford, 2019; Howard, 2017; Zajak, 2017); think tanks, global policy networks, and universities (Abelson, 2018; Brundenius et al., 2017; McGann, 2016, 2018, 2019; McGann & Weaver, 2017; McGann et al., 2014; Ruser, 2018; Salas-Porras & Murray, 2017; Shoup, 2015) issue specific transnational expert networks (Ambrus et al., 2014; Haas, 1992; Keck & Sikkink, 1998); the media and the Internet (Bahador, 2007; Carlson & Berglund, 2021; Chabot et al., 2016; Cogburn, 2017; Dallaire & Thompson, 2019; Danielli et al., 2018; Dany, 2012; Gies, 2016; Girardet, 1995; Holmes, 2014; Jorgensen, 2013; Kaur & Tao, 2014; Langmia & Tyree, 2017; Mitchell, 2012; Ridge-Newman et al., 2018; Seib, 2008; Sentham, 2020; Sidahmed et al., 2010; Thompson, 2007; United Nations Group of Intergovernmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security, 2015; Wagner et al., 2019; Warkentin, 2001); religious movements (Cherry & Elaugh, 2014; Friedman, 2018; Green & Viaene, 2012; Haynes, 2021; James, 2011; Mandaville & Nozell, 2017; Mitchell et al., 2022; Rudolph & Piscatori, 2018; Sandal et al., 2022); subnational political actors such as cities (Alger, 2014; Amen, 2011; Calder, 2021; Johnson, 2018); transnational criminal networks (Carnevale et al., 2017; Galeotti, 2014; Jakobi, 2013; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010; World Bank, 2020); and private military companies and terrorist and nonstate groups (Brennan, 2019; Bures & Carrapico, 2018; Chesterman & Lehnardt, 2007; Eckert, 2016; Janaby, 2016; Krieg, 2016; Mateu Torroja, 2017; Mcfate, 2014; Patterson, 2009; Rodenhauser, 2018; Schaub & Gary Kelty, 2016).

Finally, to this long list, one might be tempted (not unreasonably) to add the role of individual transformative leaders (also labeled “norms entrepreneurs”), who have been the subject of numerous memoirs and biographical studies (Annan & Mousavizadeh, 2012; Berggren, 2016; Boulding, 2017; Drake, 2000; Dyson & Maes, 2016; Mouat, 2014; Neier, 2017; Ogata, 2005; Pearson, 1994; Rivlin, 1990; Troitino et al., 2022; Urquhart, 1972; Winter & Prost, 2013), and the world of artistry and culture (Merkel, 2014; Ponzanesi & Habed, 2018; Ramel & Prevost-Thomas, 2018).

By assigning a central place to identities and interests and maintaining that such ideas and processes form a structure of their own (Jakobi, 2009), which in turn impact upon international actors, constructivists offer more optimistic analyses of international relations and show how IOs are an integral part of multifaceted international political processes and enjoy a significant though not necessarily complete autonomy in relation to their principals. Their premises may be traced back to the pathbreaking studies of Karl Deutsch on security communities (Deutsch et al., 1957; Taylor & Russett, 2020) and Ernest Haas on European integration (Haas, 1964), who argued that international institutions may create a sense of community and belonging beyond the nation-state. In brief, they can socialize (Biersteker & Weber, 1996; Checkel, 2007; Katzenstein, 1996; Kratochwil, 1989; Onuf, 2013; Ruggie, 1993, 1998; Wendt, 1992, 1999; Zehfuss, 2002). At the same time, they may contribute, through the use of “soft power” (Nye, 1991, 2004) and together with, or as, “norm entrepreneurs” to the development, diffusion, and internalization of acceptable global norms (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998).

Samples of this approach can be found in Audie Klotz (1995), who explained how the sanctions regime, adopted against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, developed out of the emergence of a global norm of racial equality that led states to redefine their interests. The large-scale, multiyear, multivolume UN Intellectual History Project traces the origins and evolution of key ideas and concepts about international economic and social development to the work of UN institutions (Jolly et al., 2004). Haddad (2008) showed how specific images have defined the refugee, for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees policies and practices and for states ratifying the refugee convention. Chwieroth (2010) has traced the evolution of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approach to capital controls back to internal staff debates and their changing beliefs. The EU’s actorness has likewise been conceptualized as the resultant of the interplay of internal political factors with the perceptions and expectations of outsiders (Bretherton & Vogler, 2006; Peters, 2016) and socialization processes (Hayes-Renshaw & Wallace, 2006; Hooghe, 2001). Perhaps even more telling, a number of studies based on questionnaire surveys and interviews have shown that national policymakers closely involved in the EU decision-making process do develop over time interests, values, and identities approximating collective European loyalties superimposed upon their national frames of mind (Beyers, 2010; Chelotti, 2017; Juncos & Pomorska, 2011; Michalski & Danielson, 2019).

In her pioneering work National Interests in International Society, Finnemore (1996) highlighted the role of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Red Cross, and the World Bank in reconstituting state interests. In more recent works, Sikkink (2011, 2017) developed a rigorous rebuttal to pessimistic doubts about human rights laws and institutions by providing credible empirical evidence of their modest but real effectiveness. Emphasizing norms, social relations, and intersubjective understandings, and drawing from social movement and comparative politics theorists, Keck and Sikkink (1998) showed that transnational advocacy networks act as agent and structure and, while operating in a stable universe of shared understandings, try to reshape it. This approach has been somewhat amended by Pallas and Bloodgood (2022), who prefer to use the language of “transcalar advocacy” to reflect the more varied and complex environment of transnational advocacy.

Mention must be made here of the large literature presenting the EU as a normative power whose foreign policy, driven by identity and values such as the promotion of democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law in conjunction with its economic power, may have brought the organization on the verge of global political leadership (Hussain, 2017). Support for the idea may be found in several works, including those of Cebeci (2018), Gstohl and Shunz (2017, 2021), Hussain (2017), Jorgensen et al. (2015), Kurowska and Breuer (2012), and Siddi (2020). The closely related theme of “Europeanization” flows from the same assumptions. The term broadly refers to the effects of the EU on the politics and policies of its member states (as well as aspiring members), which occur as a result of consultations, coordination, and joint policymaking at the EU level. Some studies focus on broad domestic policy changes (Gross, 2009; Jurje, 2013; Mannin & Flenley, 2018; Vaduva, 2016). For instance, Graziano (2012) explores the EU’s impact on Italy’s agricultural policy, cohesion policy, and employment policy. Focusing on the case of Turkey, Gulmez (2017) identifies three varieties of Europeanization—strategic, normative, and ritualized—underpinning the dynamics of the externally induced reform processes in EU candidate countries. Other students of Europe have dealt with the impact of Europeanization on national foreign policies (Ruano, 2012; Ruland, 2018; Wong & Hill, 2011). Specific institutions have provided the basis for developing empirical evidence supporting the effects or limitations of the multifaceted process of Europeanization. Barrett (2018) has explored the evolving role of national parliaments by relying on Ireland as a case study. In a comparative study of the national legislatures of eight EU countries and Switzerland, Brouard et al. (2012) concluded that the Europeanization of national legislation is much more limited than assumed. Other national institutions analyzed in the literature include central banks (Dyson & Marcussen, 2009), contract law (Miller, 2011), pension plans (Hennessy, 2014), and urban agglomerations (Hamedinger & Wolffhardt, 2010). Finally, a number of constructivists have paid considerable attention to the linkages between Europeanization and the emergence of transnational identities and values, notably among national and immigrant minorities (Crepaz, 2016; Ongur, 2015; Risse, 2010; Tanil, 2012).

Drawing from the literature on bureaucracies and their culture (Brechin, 1977), and starting with the commonplace observation that organizations tend to acquire a life of their own as well as distinctive bureaucratic “subjectivities” (Billaud & Cowan, 2020), Barnett and Finnemore (2004) have compellingly argued that IOs may act autonomously and both deviate from and expand their original mandates in ways dictated not by states but by the “constitutive” nature of bureaucracies and their culture. Biermann and Siebenhuner (2009) have argued that international environmental bureaucracies may evolve into “managers of global change.” Abbott et al. (2015) developed the idea that IOs can shape and steer global governance by orchestrating intermediaries such as NGOs. Using an original survey of nearly 200 top European Commission officials, Ellinas and Suleiman (2012) found that the EU’s multilevel structure of political authority limits the capacity of European politicians to curb the autonomy of the Commission. Evidence has been found showing that the stakeholders and the secretariats established under the Aarhus Convention and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) played primarily a cognitive role as they worked to increase awareness of the parties on participation issues in the climate regime (Duyck, 2015). The influence of international bureaucracies on global governance processes as independent agents has been measured by Widerberg and Laehoven (2014) in their comparative study of the Division for Sustainable Development, the bureaucracy that services the Commission on Sustainable Development, the UN Environmental Program, and the secretariat of the UNFCCC. Analyzing the information campaigns, voluntary return programs, and antitrafficking politics of the International Organization for Migration, Bartels (2022) shows how this organization teaches (potential) migrants and North African actors to understand migration as their own problem and its management as their own responsibility. According to Lee (2008a), the World Health Organization (WHO) turned itself into the “world’s health conscience,” and Broome and Seabrooke (2014) have argued that “analytical institutions” of IOs and adjudicatory bodies of the Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development interact with states in such a manner as to determine how public policy problems are identified, comprehended, and resolved.

In some cases, these transformations may pave the way to internal dysfunctions, or “pathologies” in the language of Dijkzeul and Beigbeder (2003). In an odd and perhaps perverse manner, “institutional wrongs” ranging from fraud, corruption, and turf wars, to managerial failures, to the “unintended consequences” of UN peacekeeping operations (i.e., sexual abuse and exploitation, distortions of the local economy, impact on local civil service and on troop contributing countries) all become elements and indicators of “actorness” (Andreas, 2008; Aoi et al., 2007; Mendelson, 2005). Dijkzeul and Salomons (2021, pp. 2–3) add to the list the possible damage to IOs’ public image, a decrease in donors interest, damaged legitimacy, unfulfilled mandates, organizational decline, and eventual demise. A few specific instances can be found in the literature. Efforts to build the police force, the central government, courts, and a customs service developed under local authority may succumb to cronyism and corruption, challenging the premise that local “ownership” leads to more effective state bureaucracies (Skendia, 2014). Salton (2017) attributes the failure of the United Nations in Rwanda to bureaucratic and power political frictions between key UN departments on such issues as reconnaissance, intelligence, and crisis management. Drawing primarily on the case of the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Billerbeck (2016) shows that the UN operationalizes its local ownership discourse in restrictive ways. While seeking to protect the achievement of operational goals, UN peacekeepers in effect constrain the exercise of local self-determination and increase external impositions on the host country. Likewise, Rhoads (2016) argues that despite a veneer of consensus, the norm of impartiality still guiding UN peacekeepers in internal conflicts remains highly contested, a situation resulting in the unintended consequences to politicize peacekeeping and, in some cases, to turn UN forces into one warring party among many.

An important variant on these constructivist assumptions and themes derived from the sociology of law, the “principal agent” (PA) perspective, interprets political institutions as devices designed to solve the ubiquitous principal-agent game in politics (Lane, 2007). The approach originates from theories of the firm, and credit market economics which described contract bases interaction between a principal (the employer) and an agent (the employee) acting on their behalf. Applied to international relations and IOs in particular, PA emphasizes transection costs and rational choice and assumes that individual actors delegate power to institutions to facilitate “mutually advantageous cooperation among rational egoists” (Pollack, 2003, p. 103). From this standpoint, PA has been useful in clarifying the conditions under which IOs can operate independently from states (Brown, 2015; Delreux & Adriaensen, 2017; Haftel & Thompson, 2006; Hawkins et al., 2006; Hooghe & Marks, 2015; Hooghe et al., 2017; Johnson, 2014). IOs are then not merely a set of rules and procedures but may evolve (at their risk, as noted by Bradford et al., 2018) into actors implementing policies and pursuing their own interests strategically, variously as “managers,” “enforcers,” and “authorities” (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2004).

These insights have been applied to the EU (Delreux & Adriaensen, 2017; Fraser, 2015; Pollack, 2003), the World Bank (Chwieroth, 2008; Nielson & Tierney, 2003), the IMF (Copelovitch, 2010a), the WTO (Cortell & Peterson, 2022; Elsig, 2011; Elsig & Pollack, 2014), the WHO (Cortell & Peterson, 2022; Graham, 2014), and environmental institutions (Siebenhüner, 2008). The actorness of IOs is thus explained on the basis of such variables as contracts, agency slack, shirking autonomy discretion, agency losses, staffing procedures, scope of the agency mandate, internal fragmentation, and reflexive or adaptive learning. Hawkins et al. (2006) and Bradford et al. (2018) have explored the conditions under which IOs evolve into dutiful agents, rogue actors, or both. Weinlich (2014) has documented, through an examination of the establishment of the UN transitional administration in East Timor, the development of a peacekeeping doctrine, and the establishment of the standing police capacity, how the UN Secretariat in spite of its limited autonomy was able to shape the development and evolution of peacekeeping operations. In a similar vein, the deepening autonomy of IOs has been explained through the template of constitutionalism, the interaction of a pouvoir constituant with normative and organization principles, the institutional setting, the conditions of membership, the exercise of political power, and the interface between centers of power (Tsagourias, 2007).

The Go-Betweens: Liberal-Institutionalism

In between these two polar opposites, the heterogeneous family of “liberal-institutionalist” scholars offers a wide variety of prognoses about the actorness of IOs. Basically, liberals see individual freedom, democratic accountability, and respect for the demands of the economic marketplace as the domestic foundations of international relations. At the global level, these standards translate into the belief that interstate relations can be progressively improved by means of cooperative and collective-action institutions variously focused on democratization, economic interdependence, and the management of security and economic issue areas (Doyle et al., 1997; Held, 1995; Jahn, 2013). This is what Russett and ONeal (2001) label triangulating peace. The early versions of liberalism, articulated by Normal Angell (1912; Ashworth, 2017), Woodrow Wilson (Babik, 2013), and Alfred Zimmern (1939; Baji, 2021), and the more nuanced interpretations of “pragmatic” “pluralist” thinkers like Inis Claude Jr. (Dogan, 2012), L. T. Hobhouse and G. D. H. Cole (Holthaus, 2018), Raymond Aron (Schmitt, 2017), and R. J. Rummel (Gleditsch, 2017) were followed by normative-empirical “federalist” approaches (Friedrich, 1968), the “peace by pieces” prism of functionalist (Mitrany, 1966; Wells, 1991), and neofunctionalist analyses, applied primarily to the European integration process (Haas, 1964) and occasionally to the United Nations (Sewell, 1966). Studies of the “security communities” (Deutsch et al., 1957) that have been recently applied to the European and East Asian experiences (Acharya, 2014; Kelstrup, 2000; Osborne & Kriese, 2008) can also be viewed as early versions of the theme of complex interdependence developed in the mid-1970s by Jacobson (1984) and Keohane and Nye (2001). From this vantage point, conditions of increasingly complex interdependent relations among states fraught with “sensitivities” and “vulnerabilities” point to a growing need for “cooperation under anarchy” (Oye, 1986) through IOs endowed with varying degrees of autonomy depending on issue areas (Keohane, 1984).

Insofar as states and other actors design institutions to advance their joint interests (Koremenos et al., 2001), liberal institutionalists maintain that the primary function of IOs is to act as facilitators of interstate cooperation. They have explored the types of constellations of interests most likely to lead to the emergence and success of IOs (Snidal, 1985). Some have underlined the fact that the effectiveness of IOs does not necessarily hinge on the continued existence of a hegemon as argued by realists (Keohane, 1984). Others have shown how the regimes IOs are embedded into reduce uncertainty about the preferences and behaviors of concerned state as well as nonstate actors, thus providing a structured and predictable environment that generates expectations of further cooperation as well as reduced transaction costs (Krasner, 1983; Oye, 1986). An offshoot of this “organized voluntarism” (Barrett, 2007, p. 19) is the “public goods” approach pioneered by Mancur Olson (1965), which emphasizes that IOs are more effective than markets in the provision of such “global conditions” as peace, regional integration, health, environmental stability, foreign aid, poverty elimination, human rights, technology transfer, and intellectual property (Andersen & Lindsnaes, 2007; Barrett, 2007; Bobrow & Boyer, 2005; Brousseau, 2012; Collignon, 2017; Kaul, 2003; Kaul et al., 1999; Maskus & Reichman, 2005; Roberts, 2019; Sontag, 2010).

Yet another line of reasoning in the literature is the idea that IOs can help states’ societies develop shared values and norms (Alvarez, 2005; Nye, 2004) and resolve collective action problems in the maintenance of peace and security (Goodby & O’Connor, 1993; Ikenberry, 2012; Slaughter, 2004) or in economic and environmental issues (Breitmeier et al., 2007; Ruggie, 1993). Meanwhile, students of global governance maintain that IOs are entities pertaining to transnational networks of state and nonstate actors crystallizing around and seeking to manage and resolve problems of global scope and concern in a noncoercive way (Karns & Mingst, 2009). They acknowledge that modalities of involvement and contributions of each actor in this constellation of actors fluctuate widely. But they all emphasize the pivotal role of the United Nations as a “linchpin institution” at the center of a “tattered patchwork of authority” and “polycentric,” “messy,” multi-actor interactive networks concerned with the trans-spatial management of global issues beyond the capacity of individual states to resolve (Avant et al., 2010; Diehl, 2005; Finkelstein, 1995; Rosenau & Czempiel, 1992; Weiss, 2013; Weiss & Thakur, 2010; Weiss & Wilkinson, 2019a, 2019b).

The Rules of the Game

The constitutions, legal status, purposes, membership, formal structures and powers, and functioning and institutional problems of international organizations (IOs) have been a long-standing focus of interest of IO students who initially combined factual, historical, and legal analyses with normative concerns. These formal approaches have, by and large, been superseded by writings embedding legal analyses into sociological foundations.

International conferences and public unions that predated the establishment of the League of Nations were studied by Paul Reinsch (1911), Frederick Dunn (1929), and Norman Hill (1929). Subsequently, important contributions by legal scholars and historians were made by Lauterpacht (1934), Potter (1935), and Zimmern (1939), who lauded the League for having institutionalized and expanded on the old conference system. The historical/legal baton was taken over after the Second World War by Goodrich et al. (1969). The normative assumptions that pervaded such early legal studies of IOs—especially the notion that organizations like the League and the United Nations were early manifestations of a de facto and/or desirable evolution toward world government—have virtually disappeared. One notable exception is the World Order Models Project (WOMP), which took off in the 1960s under the intellectual leadership of a number of radical scholars who explored ways in which a new world order could be organized in such a manner as to obtain “peace without national military arsenals,” “economic well-being for all inhabitants on the earth,” “universal rights and social justice,” and “ecological balance” (Clark & Sohn, 1973; Falk & Mendlovitz, 1966; Mendlovitz, 1975). Mendlovitz and Falk and a handful of other scholars have carried over the WOMP into the post–Cold War era, exploring the cosmopolitan goal of transcending the Westphalian state system through international law and “global constitutionalism” (Falk et al., 1993) or a variety of “transnational democracy” to be achieved by making the Security Council more accountable, granting greater financial independence to the organization, and broadening the participation of NGOs in its decision-making processes (Falk, 1995; Walker & Mendlovitz, 1990).

Battered by realists as incorrigible idealists and utopians (Barata, 2004; Bull, 1977; Mangone, 1951), the ranks of normative IO students have been reduced to a handful of academics (Pojman, 2006). The idea of world government has receded into the background, as deemed either currently impractical (Yunker, 2011) or “something for the far future” (Barata, 2004, p. 536). Some diehard advocates still argue that there may be a role for a limited federal world government, a proposition that would entail a significant revamping of the United Nations (Yunker, 2011). But the conversation has definitely shifted to more mundane speculations about whether local federalism might serve as a means to increase levels of international collaboration (Scott, 2011), or whether the European Union (EU) is approaching a constitutional equilibrium approximating national federal architectures (Dosenrode, 2007; Fabbrini, 2005; Glencross & Trechsel, 2010; Laursen, 2016).

The field now is by and large occupied by the heirs of D. W. Bowett (1970). Their focus is on the “common law” or the “principles of the institutional law” of IOs, an area of inquiry that encompasses a broad range of topics, including such subjects as: the participants in the international legal system (D’Aspremont et al., 2011); the structural and functional transformations in the Westphalian constitutional tradition, produced by the emergence of supranational and global legal institutions (Belov, 2018; Collins & White, 2011); IOs’ members state obligations (Varju, 2020); membership and representation, legal personality, privileges, accountability, responsibility, and immunities (Barros et al., 2017; Blokker & Schrijver, 2015; Brownlie & Ragazzi, 2013; Carter, 2011; Evans, 2021; Johns, 2010; Nauta, 2018; Reinisch, 2013); financing, rule making, and dispute settlement roles (Klein, 2005; Menkel-Meadow, 2012); enforcement techniques (Cameron, 2013; Noortmann, 2006); practice of judicial organs (Kolb & Perry, 2013; Pasqualucci, 2003; Rosenne & Ronen, 2006); and liability of members, dissolution and succession, and constitutional amendments (Chesterman et al., 2008; Conforti & Focarelli, 2010; Klabbers & Wallendahl, 2011; Zacklin & Guggenheim, 2006). Useful tools of research on these questions and, more generally, the legal aspects of IOs may be found in the Brill series edited by Niels M. Blokker (1983–) and Erika Wet et al. (1997–), respectively, which include studies penned by practitioners as well as academics.

The proliferation of IOs has prompted more pointed behavioral inquiries dealing with the role of IOs in the development of international law (Alvarez, 2017; Higgins, 1963; Tams & Sloan, 2013), the interface between national sovereignty and IO (Jackson, 2006), the reactions of national courts to IOs (Croon-Gestefeld, 2017; Reinisch, 2008; Ryngaert et al., 2016), the changing relationship between domestic policy and external relations (Dashwood & Maresceau, 2008), the growing practice of IOs to establish mechanisms representing nongovernmental interests (Noortmann et al., 2015; Ruka, 2017; Tino, 2018), and, more importantly, the legal issues arising from IOs increasingly overlapping assigned tasks (Blokker & Schermers, 2001; Foltea, 2012; Gordillo, 2012; Pauwely, 2003). Other scholars have focused on the modalities through which states confer authority to IOs and the exercise of these delegated “sovereign” powers (Hawkins et al., 2006; Sarooshi, 2007; Shan et al., 2008), especially in regard to the conduct of their external relations (Chamon & Govaere, 2020; Czuczai & Naert, 2017; Faleg, 2017). Still others concentrate on how transnational security issues affect the thinking and practice of the UN Security Council (Summers, 2014; Vaughan et al., 2010) or, more narrowly, on the capacity of international legal bodies such as the International Court of Justice to resolve claims of self-determination (Coleman, 2013) or self-defense (Green, 2009).

The process of “integration through law” occupies a large place in these concerns, notably in the making of the European polity (Augenstein, 2011). In this context, it is widely understood that territorial and geopolitical boundaries of the EU have been shifting over time and may be contested (Zwolski, 2018) as would probably be acknowledged by such philosophers as Habermas in his conception of the EU evolving beyond the nation-state (Grewal, 2019). But it is clear that the national sovereignty of EU member countries has been considerably altered by the supranational process of European integration leading to the emergence of what might be labeled a “constitutional identity,” sanctioned by national jurisprudential practices (Arnold, 2016). At the same time, it may not be surprising that the process of economic integration (Badinger, 2016) should become increasingly politicized (Hoeglinger, 2016), especially in the wake of economic crises (Mangiameli, 2017) or the rise of “postnationalism” triggered by immigration (Maronitis, 2017). Notwithstanding its limitations and for a variety of interrelated homegrown reasons—low intraregional economic interdependence, high dependence on extra-regional economic relations, and overlapping and contradictory regional arrangements among them—the European integration experience has not been or cannot be duplicated in the Global South (Council for the Development of Social Sciences in Africa, 2015; El-Anis & Underhill, 2016; Krapohl, 2017; Sanchez, 2008).

Equally interesting are the recent efforts of legal scholars who seek to bridge the gap between formal descriptions of the institutional aspects of IOs and real-world politics, in effect linking law and environment to structures and outputs. Recent instances of such writings include Alvarez’s exploration of the ways through which global IOs like the UN system and WTO are reshaping the development, implementation, and enforcement of international law (Alvarez, 2005); Fassbender’s (2011) probing of the “constitutionalization” of international law, namely, its shift from interstate matters to the rules of a global order underpinning the well-being of individuals and centered around the norms of the UN Charter; Winkler’s (2006) analysis of the Council of Europe monitoring procedures; Chesterman et al.’s (2008) exploration of the constraining impact of the interaction between law and practice on multilateral institutions; and Luck and Doyle’s (2004) investigation of the institutional, political, and legal challenges arising from the gap between “expanding norms” and “lagging compliance.” Focusing on the international and European models of transnational constitutionalism, Tsagourias (2007) explains how laws are created, behaviors regulated, and institutional functions assessed through the interfacing of distinct centers of powers (pp. 1–3). Acknowledging that globalization has blurred the traditional distinction between domestic and international law, Krisch (2010) has mapped out a pluralist vision of a post-national legal framework reflecting the “hierarchical interaction of various suborders of different levels.” Meanwhile, Johnstone (2011), in an effort to understand the dynamics of power in the international system, hypothesized that legal argumentation in and around IOs has a significant impact on international politics. Drawing from social science approaches to international law, some legal scholars have identified the emergence of “transnational legal orders” in business, regulatory human rights, and environment law (Halliday & Shaffer, 2015; Obregon et al., 2022). Others have stressed the need to harmonize the current legal regime of international crimes with transitional justice processes (Olasolo, 2018). According to Bradlow and Hunter (2019), the linkages created by international trade, foreign investment, and international diplomacy have enabled state and nonstate actors to use a combination of soft and hard law to advocate for social change. In Goodman and Jinks’s (2013) view, international law may encourage states to respect human rights norms through a process they label as “acculturation” involving status maximization, prestige, and identification. For Sgueo (2016), “interlocutory coalitions” of NGOs, think tanks, foundations, universities, and activists are possible drivers of a reconfiguration of individual rights, entitlements and responsibilities.


The proliferation and rise of IOs has assuredly altered the practice and character of diplomacy some, citing the ideas and practices of the European Union (EU), going as far as concluding that the EU had in effect initiated a new type of diplomacy departing from Westphalian diplomacy and labeled “structural antidiplomacy” (Rasmussen, 2018). “Parliamentary diplomacy” nevertheless remains the most widely term used (Muldoon, 2011; Stavridis & Jancic, 2017). Its merit is to focus attention on formal modes of decision-making in multilateral institutions. These vary widely, ranging from unanimity to simple and qualified majority to weighted voting systems (Reinalda, 2013; Reinalda & Verbeek, 2004; Schwartzberg, 2013). Most observers of the League of Nations attribute its weak executive authority to the rule of unanimity prevailing in both the Council and the Assembly (Northedge, 1986; Walters, 1952), a predicament that led the drafters of the UN Charter to adopt a mix of procedures seeking to reconcile differentials in power distribution with the legal principle of the sovereign equality of states (Goodrich, 1947; Russell & Muther, 1958). From this formal perspective, the voting and procedural arrangements of the UN Security Council have been explored by Bailey and Daws (1998), the UN General Assembly by Bosch (1998), the procedures of the UN principal organs by Jessup (2008), and UN-sponsored international conference by Sabel (2006). Chronicling the political battles taking place behind closed doors and drawing on extensive interviews of current and former ambassadors on the Council, Bosco concluded that there is almost no limit to the Council authority when its five permanent members are united (Bosco, 2009). Conversely, Cottier and Elsig have shown how the dispute settlement and negotiating platform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have paved the way to policymaking stalemates (Cottier & Elsig, 2011). The institutional design, its evolution, and the voting procedures and modes of decision-making of the EU have also received considerable attention (Christiansen & Reh, 2009; Egenhofer, 2011; Hodson & Peterson, 2017; Jones et al., 2014; Magone, 2015; Zyczkowski & Cichocki, 2010) while Monika Herz explored the history, decision-making procedures, functions, and operations of the Organization of American States.

Early on, however, students of IOs recognized that the operation of formal decision-making machineries can evolve considerably as a result of their internal dynamics and interactions with their broad changing political and cultural context (Sato, 1996). As Stoessinger (1965) showed, the sacrosanct veto built into the decision-making of the UN Security Council to protect the interests of big powers did not always incapacitate the organization. Likewise, veto threats have influenced the outcome of treaty negotiations but have not stymied them within the EU context (Slapin, 2011). Cox and Jacobson (1973) explored the kaleidoscopic sources and exercise of influence in the decision-making process of eight specialized agencies of the United Nations from this vantage point. Antolik (1990) and Aggarwal and Morrison (1998) have shown how regular processes of consultation are distinctive of the ASEAN “way,” and how they shape the proceedings and outcomes of the organization. Conversely, the narrow institutional space granted to the League of Arab States (Salem, 2008) in conjunction with its members’ use of the norm of Arabism in their foreign policies may have contributed to the organization’s “symbolic entrapment” (MacDonald, 1965). Karjalainen et al. (2022) provide numerous instances of the influence of international nondomestic actors in shaping legal regimes. In a pathbreaking study, Naurin and Wallace (2010) empirically documented the games governments play in the Council of the European Union, which range from coalition building, to deliberation and risk regulation, to strategic bargaining. In the same vein, Vreeland and Dreher (2014) show how powerful countries on the UN Security Council trade the political support of the elected members of the Council by extending (or threatening to withhold) financial favors.

Comprehensive accounts of the European policy process, combining analyses of the European institutional machinery with discussions of sectoral policies, are legion (Cini & Borragan, 2010; Kissack, 2010; Niemann, 2000; Versluis et al., 2011; Wallace et al., 2005). These studies generally characterize decision-making in the EU as a system of intertwined and overlapping multilevel governance, where authority is widely dispersed among a wide range of states and nonstate actors, including in particular supranational and national bureaucracies (Berry, 2009; Dionigi, 2017; Hooghe, 2001; Hooghe & Marks, 2001). Comparative studies of integration processes in military security, fiscal policy, and public administration have challenged this conception and have shown that the EU operates primarily by regulating core state national capacities rather than by creating a European-wide standard (Genschel & Jachtenfuchs, 2014). Be that as it may, single-institution studies provide useful insights in the processes leading to changes in the balance of power and division of labor among the institutions of the Union. For the Commission, the reader may consult Ellinas and Suleiman (2012), Geary (2013), Georgakakis (2017), Hartlapp et al. (2014), Kostadinova (2017), Nugent and Rhinard (2015), Riddervold (2016), and Russo (2010). De Boissieu (2015), Jensen and Nedergaard (2017), Naurin and Wallace (2010), and Veen (2011) provide useful insights into the European Council. The Council of Ministers is ably explored by Brandsma and Blom-Hansen (2017), Eggermont (2012), Foret and Rittelmeyer (2014), Hage (2013), Hayes-Renshaw and Wallace (2006), and Smeets (2015). The workings of the European Parliament have been analyzed by Corbett and Jacobs (2021), Costa (2019), Muhlbock (2017), Ripoll Servent (2015), Stavridis and Irrera (2015), Stavridis and Jancic (2017), Thomson (2011), and Whitaker (2011); and the functioning of the European Court of Justice by Beck (2012), Conant (2018), Dawson et al. (2013), Jacob (2014), Micklitz and Witte (2012), Lenaerts and Nuffel (2011), Panke (2010), Rosas et al. (2013), Saurugger and Terpan (2017), Schutze (2018), Schmidt (2018), Schmidt and Kelemen (2013), and Shaw (2018).

The growing number of independent states actively seeking membership and participation in IOs in conjunction with persisting state sensitivities about their formal and/or legal equality have contributed to the ever-widening reliance on and use of consensus as a mode of decision-making. Case studies on decision-making in the UN Security Council (Dedring, 2008; Malone, 1998) have shown how ad hoc informal practices set precedents and evolve into norms guiding decision-making processes that increasingly involve the participation of nonmember states and the consideration of a cross-cutting agenda. An analysis of a data set of 180 elections, from 1970 to 2005, found that UN Security Council elections appear to derive from a compromise between the demands of populous countries to win elections more frequently and the norm of giving each country its turn (Dreher et al., 2014). The consensus principle may be an egalitarian procedure, but it does not necessarily eliminate geopolitical realities, as recent studies of the failure of trade negotiations within the WTO have shown (Sampson & Chambers, 2008), nor does it erase, to use legal language, the “sovereign (in)equality” of IO members (Efraim, 2000). Not infrequently, searching for and achieving consensual decisions may generate a mixed bag of outcomes, involving onerously time-consuming negotiations and ambiguous language, reflecting the lowest common denominator among participants, which in turn leads to contentious interpretations of the agreements reached, and to policy incoherence (Egenhoffer et al., 2006) and “rationality gaps” (Block, 2011). Rather than signaling political agreement, consensus sometimes turns out to be part of a blame avoidance strategy (Novack, 2013), or worse, as anthropological students of IOs have suggested, a “gloss of harmony” hiding “disarticulations” between practice and stated ideals (Muller, 2013).

Another deviation that has received considerable attention has been the emergence of more or less informal groups and bloc voting in large parliamentary diplomatic bodies. Alker and Russett’s pioneering 1965 study documented how voting processes in the UN General Assembly reflected the dual impact of the Cold War and decolonization. Their study has been replicated in more recent explorations of the responses of states to U.S. dominance of the organization in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Bosch, 1998; Russett & Kim, 1996; Voeten, 2004). At the same time, practitioners as well as students of IOs have increasingly noted the formation of “lead groups,” “groups of like-minded states,” “lead countries” crystallizing around issues in which they have a particular economic, historical, and geopolitical interest, or because they can contribute to expertise and knowledge or relevant (diplomacy, financial, military, reputational capabilities). The practice started initially in the fields of peacemaking and peacekeeping (Aggestam & Bicchi, 2019; Amadio, 2021; Christiansen & Neuhold, 2012; Delreux & Keukeleire, 2017; Delreux & Ven den Brande, 2013; Elgstrom, 2017; Whitfield, 2007), becoming an established routine in the functioning of the EU (Sauer, 2019). It has evolved in the United Nations into a system of multilateral leverage to address and press for the solution of a wide range of substantive issues extending from UN Security Council reform, to the promotion of decent work for sustainable development, to the elimination of sexual harassment, to water and peace (Smith & Laatikainen, 2020).

The evolution and widely varying effectiveness of these informal groupings in support of the peacemaking work of the United Nations has been explored through case studies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Georgia, Western Sahara, and East Timor (Prantl, 2006; Whitfield, 2007). Earlier, Rothstein (1979) and Weiss (1986) had shown how North-South group interfacing—especially the role of the Group of 77 in multilateral settings—created rigidities in decision-making and shaped elusive diplomatic policy outcomes. A 2007 study of more than 12,000 recorded votes between 1979 and 2004 established that transnational parties in the European Parliament are highly cohesive and that the classic “left-right” dimension dominates their voting behavior. The authors also showed that the cohesion of parties in the Parliament had increased with the expanding powers of the institution (Hix et al., 2007).

States’ engagement, negotiations, and bargaining in IOs result from both domestic and international considerations (Koops & Macaj, 2014; Takacs, 2009), but constructivists have demonstrated persuasively how national interests are shaped by multilateral institutions (Checkel, 2004) and participants socialized into the norms and rules of the multilateral game (Bulmer & Lequesne, 2005). On this point, it may be worth recalling here the burgeoning literature on the Europeanization of the EU members—the transformative effect of the EU on their politics or on countries seeking membership (Baun & Marek, 2014; Gross, 2009; Mannin & Bretherton, 2013; Wong, 2006). In fact, for some observers of the EU, at least before Brexit, this process of value internalization had anchored the EU into the core interests of national governments (Moravcsik, 1998). From this perspective, the decision-making process of IOs becomes much more diffused and segmented, distinct “networks” of public and private actors informally coalescing and bargaining among one another out of formal institutions around discrete policy sectors. In the mid-1970s, Keohane and Nye (2001), looking at oceans and monetary politics, had drawn attention to the fact that conditions of “complex interdependence,” “sensitivity,” and “vulnerability” had created a policy environment in which the erosion of military power, the absence of hierarchy among issues, and the emergence of multiple channels of contacts prevented any single actor from imposing its agenda, compelling them to enter into a bargaining process that entailed coalition building through the exchange of resources and expertise. This “muddling through” paradigm has been detected in the “management of cooperation” through IOs in global governance (Jordan et al., 2001), as well as in the workings of the EU (Peterson, 2004), and the European Council in particular (Veen, 2011). Bianco (2015) was able to identify circumstances triggering changes in actors interests conducive to consensual policy outcomes in the EU.

In that “global dance” (Smith, 2005) of states and nonstate actors involved in “parliamentary diplomacy” (Jancic, 2012; Kaufman, 1988), it is increasingly recognized that international secretariats may acquire leadership and de facto policy functions that enable IOs to play roles extending beyond what states originally envisaged (Bauer et al., 2020; Chwieroth (2013) has showed how the normative orientations and organizational culture of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff led it to provide favorable treatment to borrowers whose members were sympathetic to their goals. In the same vein, von Engelhardt (2018) documented the development of formal and informal rules to engage specifically with weak or failing states. Ambrus et al. (2014) underlined the growing significance of the role of experts in a wide array of policy areas.

A network version of this insight is the recent identification of a “second” and “third” United Nations, the former consisting of members of the international civil service, and the latter composed of actors associated with the organization but not formally part of it, such as IOs, academics, consultants, and experts (Weiss et al., 2009). In a more recent version of their discussion of the role of the “third” United Nations, Carayannis and Weiss (2021) examine in detail how it generates influential ideas at key junctures of the multilateral decision-making process in interacting with government officials and staff members of the international secretariats.

The second United Nations had long been a matter of scholarly attention (Graham & Jordan, 1980; Reinalda, 2020). The role played by international bureaucracies in developing and shaping UN peacekeeping activities has been explored by Silke (2014). In their seminal comparative analysis of decision-making processes in the UN specialized agencies Cox and Jacobson (1973) documented how the International Labor Organization, between 1945 and 1970, evolved into a kind of limited monarchy in which one central figure—the executive head—played a leading role, subject nevertheless to a variety of constraints. Servais (2016) thereafter updated their findings. The published recollections of senior IO administrative officials are in this regard a rich source of insights into the quiet influential impact of international bureaucracies on multilateral processes, policies, ideas, and priorities (Ogata, 2005; Traub, 2006).

The role of the UN Secretary-General has of course been the subject of considerable debate. The office and its incumbent have thus been conceptualized in contrasted terms: as an adjunct of the intergovernmental system or part of a wider process of global governance that transcends state structures (Newman, 1998); or, more figuratively, as a secretary or a general (Chesterman, 2007). Short-term phases of expansion and contractions notwithstanding, in a long-term perspective, the office has acquired governance responsibilities way beyond the few and elusive formal duties assigned to it in the Charter, and the incumbents have rarely, if ever, embraced a “political celibate” (Gordenker, 2010; Kille, 2007; Rovine, 1970). As noted by Frohlich and Williams (2018), each Secretary-General develops formal and informal relationships with the Security Council. These dynamics, in part, hinge on the personality of the incumbent and their perceived role as a crisis manager, manager of administration, and manager of idea but, not infrequently, shape the contours of the Council’s policy outcomes (Annan & Mousavizadeh, 2012). Likewise, in the EU context, the policy entrepreneurship of the Commission in the enlargement of the EU (Geary, 2013) and the development of its regional policy (Ginsberg, 2010) have been frequently highlighted. Much attention has been also devoted to the interfacing of the “Eurocrats” who work in or around EU institutions (Georgakakis & Rowell, 2013) and the committee system of the Council of Minister (Hage, 2013). This comitology system, it has been suggested, has informally developed as a tool for governments to strike a balance between delegating power to the Commission and controlling it (Blom-Hansen, 2011).

Drawing from these fragmented findings and expanding on them in a more theoretical vein, a (relatively) new and rapidly expanding stream of studies (some of them driven by anthropological approaches penned for instance by Niezen & Sapignoli, 2017) has focused on the informal governance of IOs—“the systematic influence of unwritten rules, shared expectations or norms within international organizations that substantially modify or substitute for formal treaty provisions” (Stone, 2013, p. 123). Their common assumption is that a full understanding of the functioning of IOs entails an examination of not only their formal rules but also their informal practices and arrangements (Christiansen & Neuhold, 2012) as they develop in a loosely organized network or forum, do not engage traditional diplomatic actors, and do not lead to a formal treaty (Berman et al., 2012, pp. 3–4). Randall Stone’s (2001, 2011) pioneering analysis of the influence of the IMF, the WTO, and the EU provides useful insights into these theoretical, conceptual, and normative perspectives. Of relevance here, too, are Kleine’s (2013a, 2013b) studies of the parallel development of the formal rules and informal norms that have governed the evolution of the EU since 1958 and the emergence of informal spheres of influence which he labeled “national chiefdom” within the organization. Also worth mentioning here is the discussion by Colgan and Van de Graaf (2012) of the role of how the coincidence of “regime complexity,” “frozen formal structures” and “changing causal beliefs” have shaped the operation of the International Energy Agency. It should be noted here that there is considerable disagreement on exactly what factors account for the emergence of informal practices, as highlighted in the case studies edited by Stone (2013, p. 123) that deal with international trade in investment regimes, international security, the UN General Assembly, and UN functional agencies, international financial institutions, multilateral banks, the Bank for International Settlements, and regional organizations such as the EU, NAFTA, Mercosur, ECOWAS, CARICOM, ASEAN, and CIS. Broader processes may be involved, driven by such factors as the internal politics of states, the inclination of international bureaucrats to maintain their autonomy, the benefits accruing from joining more or less formal networks in increasingly complex organizational and actor structures, or the sheer pressure of the need to meet the challenges posed by global issues (Boyashov, 2022; Roger, 2020).

Policy Outputs


Normative policies may be viewed as prescriptive statements of action in support of socially desirable goals and aspirational ways of doing things. In this section, the term “norm-making” refers to the decision-making bodies of IOs producing binding or nonbinding resolutions, recommendations, directives, and the like. These acts carry with them a seal of approval (or disapproval) or, as Claude observed in reference to the United Nations, of collective legitimization of broad aims and objectives supported by a majority of actors in the international community. That function, in Claude’s view, was a reflection of an inverse relationship between the UN verbal and executive functioning, “the organization’s incapacity for decisive intervention and control of international relations” (Claude, 1968, p. 88).

Knowledge Production

Whether they are set up to achieve broadly stated objectives, as is the case for the United Nations or regional organizations, or more narrowly defined objectives, for instance Interpol (Martha, 2010) or the International Organization for Standardization (Murphy, 2006), one of the core long-standing aspects of the work of IOs is their “verbal” function (Claude, 1968, pp. 87–88)—that is, the collection, creation, exchange, and dissemination of knowledge-based information. Virtually all IOs produce a plethora of reports, studies, and statistical information on a dizzying number of subjects, all of which have become indispensable sources of information to laypeople, scholars, and policymakers. As has been frequently noted, the information IOs produce may be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from the monitoring of global and/or regional trends, to the identification of emerging issues, to serving as early warning instruments to providing guidance to intergovernmental bodies (Endres & Fleming, 2002). These, in fact, are the very purposes of the so-called flagship reports of IOs. The World Economic and Social Survey produced by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s World Employment and Social Outlook, the World Bank’s World Development Report, the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Cooperation Report, to name only a few, are striking instances of the normatively oriented policy research work of IO, which have made important contributions to international discussions (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2022; ILO, 2023; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development [IBRD], 2023; International Organization for Migration [IOM], 2023; International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2023; OECD, 2023; United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund [UNICEF], 2023; United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], 2022; World Health Organization [WHO], 2022 annual).

From this perspective, the information work of IOs—purposely or not—may shape the perceptions of states (and nonstate actors as well) and contribute to their social construction of reality. Considerable scholarly attention has thus been devoted to how some IOs “changed the world” (Sayward, 2008). The UN Intellectual History Project (mentioned in “The Constructivist Perspective”) has documented the role of the United Nations in the development of key political, economic, and social ideas and their impact on policy thinking and practice, with particular attention to human security (MacFarlane & Khong, 2006); prevention (Ramcharan, 2008b); development approaches (Berthelot, 2004; Jolly et al., 2004); money, finance, and trade for development (Toye & Toye, 2004); transnational corporations (TNCs; Sagafi-Nejad et al., 2008); the “global commons” (Schrijver, 2010); statistics (Ward, 2004); women (Jain, 2005); and human rights (Normand & Zaidi, 2007). The UN system may not always have been ahead of the curve in that process (Emmerij et al., 2001), but Endres and Fleming (2002) document how IOs produced ideas on such essential issues as international business cycles, trade policy, public expenditures, taxation and government investment, full employment, and the North-South divide.

Missionary Crusading

This empirical work is grounded in the constitutive charters of IOs, all of which do encapsulate desirable sets of values for the international system, be they their emphasis on the need for international cooperation, “faith in fundamental human rights,” or the promotion of “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” to use the language of the UN Charter. Their executive heads –not infrequently accompanied by the moral crusaders of civil society (Makuwira, 2014)—are not adverse to indulging in “missionary” work. The term has been narrowly used in relation to the lending practices of World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as they contributed to the globalization of financial practices (Cornia et al., 1987; Neu & Ocampo, 2008; World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, 2004). It could also refer to prescriptive admonitions about sectoral policy areas (Annan, 2014; Ban, 2013; Grigorescu, 2015). In the same vein, the ILO undoubtedly purposefully endeavored to contribute to the “globalization of social rights” (Kott & Droux, 2013) in its quest for social justice (International Labor Organization [ILO], 2009) while the UNEP claims to act as the world’s environmental conscience (Ivanova, 2021). The OECD has been portrayed as a warden of the West and of capitalist development (Leimgruber & Schmelzer, 2017). The International Trade Center views itself as an organization designed to nurture an export culture in as many countries as possible (Browne, 2011). Its Cold War origins notwithstanding, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been described as an instrument furthering democracy, protecting human and minority rights, and encouraging military reform (Galbreath, 2007). The Council of Europe has been praised for fostering regional cooperation in a number of key areas, for helping integrate Eastern European states into Euro Transatlantic structures, and for contributing to the development of a common law in Europe, thus prompting observers to label it a pioneer and guarantor for human rights and democracy (Keller & Sweet, 2008; Kicker, 2010).

Concurrently, the normative role of regional organizations has received growing and considerable attention. Wessel and Blockman (2013) have documented the increasing influence of norms enacted by IOs on the European Union (EU) legal order. The EU, in fact, portrays itself as a “normative power” seeking “to redefine international norms in its own image” (p. 252) on the basis of universalcore norms (peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and human rights as well as “minor norms” (social solidarity, anti-discrimination, sustainable development, and good governance). The concept of “normative power Europe” may be vague (Forsberg, 2011) and unduly Eurocentric (Teti et al., 2020) but it has guided numerous analyses of the effectiveness of EU foreign policy in regard to regions or policy themes (Aydin-Duzgit, 2018; Del Sarto, 2021; Ferenczy, 2019; Geeraert & Drieskens, 2017; Guerrina & Wright, 2016; Jenichen, 2020; Larsen, 2017; Michalski & Danielson, 2019; Muller, 2019; Neuman, 2019; Nicolaidis & Whitman, 2013; Pardo, 2015; Whitman, 2011).

With much less fanfare, the promotion of democracy has been a major priority of the Organization of American States (OAS), especially in the wake of the transition of many countries from authoritarian rule to civilian governance beginning in the 1980s. The 2001 adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter was an important step in that direction and, with varying degrees of effectiveness and consistency (Cooper & Legler, 2006; Perina, 2015), the OAS has since developed an elaborate toolkit of election observations and technical assistance programs designed to foster institutional development, democratic institutions, and good governance (Herz, 2011; Horwitz, 2010; Meyer, 2022, pp. 8–9).

The African Union has been portrayed as contributing to the spread of democratic regimes in the continent (Walinka & Okumu, 2008). The 2000 Constitutive Act of the African Union, the 1986 African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, the 2002 Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, and the 2003 AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption mandate the organization to promote liberal democracy and human rights in the continent (Yusuf & Ouguergouz, 2012). It is also empowered to intervene on behalf of its members “in respect of grave circumstances, namely, was crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” Such interventions have taken place on a number of occasions, notably in Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Darfur, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan, with varying degrees of success and effectiveness (Fombad & Steytler, 2021; Makinda et al., 2016; May & Furley, 2017; Virk & Karbo, 2018).

All this is not meant to convey the notion that the norm-making/“missionary” work of IOs is uniformly successful and effective. The record is in fact, and in varying degrees, mixed, particularly on the implementation side of things as shown by the following examples. Instances of relative “successes” may include the fields of decolonization, human rights, gender equality, and development.

Success Stories? Decolonization, Human Rights, Gender Equality, Development

Close to a third of the world population lived under colonial rule when the United Nations was established in 1945. Over the opposition of colonial powers, the UN Charter set forth principles, notably the right to self-determination, which guided the organization’s subsequent decolonization efforts. The UN Charter also established an International Trusteeship system, superseding the League of Nations Mandate arrangements. In 1960, the General Assembly issued a ringing Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples proclaiming an inalienable right to independence from colonial rule reaffirmed repeatedly in subsequent “International Decades” for the Eradication of Colonialism (Hall, 1948; Murray, 1957; Pomerance, 1982). The multilateral diplomacy of decolonization that followed was a tumultuous, protracted, and (locally) often bloody process which in some aspects may still be viewed as a work in progress (Farsakh, 2021; Milan, 2022; Thomas & Curless, 2017; Zaalberg & Luttikhuis, 2022). Notwithstanding contingent developments which should not be overlooked (Smith & Jeppesen, 2017), the weakening of colonial powers, the rising tide of nationalist movements and anticolonial forces (Eslava et al., 2017; Munro, 2017), the ambivalent Wilsonian zeal of the United States (Kent, 2010; Meriweher, 2021), and the dynamics of the Cold War (O’Malley, 2018; Schmidt, 2007) were determining factors contributing to the demise of European colonial empires. Against this background, the United Nations played a critical role in the collective delegitimization of colonial rule and in speeding the process of decolonization (Eggers et al., 2020; Heiss, 2020; Maul, 2012; Melber, 2019; Muschik, 2022; Urquhart, 1989).

The idea that “every human being, in every society, is entitled to have basic autonomy and freedoms respected and basic needs satisfied” is grounded in the UN Charter. It was reaffirmed on December 10, 1948, when the UN General Assembly embraced and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a ringing endorsement and advocacy of the notion that regardless of race, religion, or nationality, all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled to human rights and fundamental freedoms simply because they are human (Morsink, 1999; Schabas, 2013). The UDHR itself is not a binding treaty and makes no provisions for enforcement. But it has acquired a moral authority and influence close to constituting a source of obligation (Alfredsson & Asbjorn, 1999; Morsink, 1999), in effect acquiring a status roughly equivalent to customary international law. The Declaration has also set the stage for the incubation within the United Nations of additional human rights norms and accountability principles and instruments in addition to 250 multilateral human rights and humanitarian conventions and treaties at both global and regional levels (Alston & Megret, 2011; Ramcharan, 2008a). These legally binding international instruments are monitored by a multiplicity of global and regional actors, notably “special rapporteurs” and “expert” bodies, judicial institutions, and vigilant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which rarely shy away from loudly denouncing and mobilizing public opinion against violations of human rights. At the same time, numerous states have enacted legislation incorporating internationally recognized human rights norms into their municipal laws (Alston & Goodman, 2013; Cantu Rivera et al., 2015; DiGiacomo & Kang, 2019; Freedman, 2013; Hannum, 2004; Keller & Ulfstein, 2012; Mertus, 2005; Nolan et al., 2017; Oberleitner, 2007, 2018; Ramcharan, 2015; Redondo, 2020; Shelton & Carozza, 2013; Tistounet, 2020).

The process, by and large state-controlled and highly politicized, has generated a fuzzy and shifting line between the territorial claims of state jurisdiction and the universalist, cosmopolitan prescriptions of human rights advocates. Some see this as “evidence for hope” (Sikkink, 2017), others as a manifestation of a “twilight of human rights law” (Posner, 2014). The jury is out for some time on this question (Pocar, 2019), but the impact of the power of human rights norms legitimized by IOs is undeniable as measured through the lenses of the implementation of treaty obligations, the discussion of human rights matters in international bodies, the “mobilization of shame,” the judgments of international human rights courts and quasi-judicial bodies, and sanctions against persistent violators (Bogdanova, 2022; Capdepon & Layus, 2020; Goodale & Merry, 2007; Lauren, 2004; Normand & Zaidi, 2007; Pruce, 2019; Shirvani, 2021). Risse et al. (1999), in particular, have analyzed the mechanism through which human rights principles affect the behavior of states, a so-called “spiral model” of staged internalization of human rights norms and practices into domestic political arenas. Building further on these insights, Sikkink (2011) illustrated how human rights prosecutions have impacted on national and global politics.

There is little doubt that IOs and the United Nations and some of its specialized agencies, the ILO in particular, have played an important if not critical role in pressing for gender equality (Adami & Plesch, 2022; Boris et al., 2018) and in contributing to perceptual changes in the status of women from “motherhood to citizenship” (Berkovitch, 1999). Against this background, the October 2000 UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security may be seen as a turning point in this process, as it placed women’s rights squarely on the peace and security agenda of the United Nations. This fledging expression of a new norm in the making (Tryggestad, 2009) has been considerably broadened by subsequent resolutions of the Security Council.

The 2000 resolution of the UN Security Council was primarily focused on the problems of women as victims of armed conflicts and initially sought to mainstream gender considerations in UN peace operations, but it has morphed into a broader transformative narrative and discourse on the governance of peace and conflict highlighting women’s full participation in peace and security and peacebuilding processes for the prevention of conflict and rebuilding of societies (the so-called Women, Peace and Security agenda) with a noticeable impact on the practices of the United Nations and regional organizations as well as those of national governments (Davis & True, 2019; Hamilton et al., 2021; Hans & Rajagopalan, 2016; Kolas, 2020; Martinelli, 2015; Miller et al., 2014; Olsson & Gizelis, 2015; Quiroga, 2022; Reilly, 2019; Schuermann & Zurn, 2020; Shepherd, 2021; UN Women, 2015).

This normative development would not have been possible without the existence of dense networks of NGOs and individual experts with multiple access to, by and large, receptive UN decision-making bodies and the support of the Secretariat (Baksh-Soodeen & Harcourt, 2015; Hamilton et al., 2021). Beyond the rhetoric, the practical significance of Resolution 1325 must be found in measurable changes in peace operations and in individual nations at the local level, a subject that may require further research (Hans & Rajagopalan, 2016; Kolas & Tryggestad, 2017; Popovic et al., 2010; Rayman et al., 2016; Shekhawat, 2018). At a deeper level, preventing conflict, transforming justice, security the peace (Coomaraswamy, 2015), the long-term objectives of 1325, may ultimately require changes in “masculinities” (Frohlich, 2019). For many observers, giving effect to all the dimensions of the 1325 agenda still remains a work in progress (Basu et al., 2020; Popovic et al., 2010; Porter & Mundkur, 2012; Shekhawat, 2018).

Much the same can be said about development, which appears faintly in the UN Charter and only in the context of a list of other objectives reflecting the then-prevailing orthodoxy in economic thinking—the achievement of higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress. In spite of this thin constitutional basis, the United Nations has expanded these responsibilities, spawning over time a large network of agencies and programs concerned with humanitarian, economic, and social development questions, all grounded, in the language of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in the normative aspiration to eliminate poverty (Cimadomare et al., 2016; Frey et al., 2014; Fukuda-Parr, 2010, 2015, 2017) and to create, as called for in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all (Breuer et al., 2023; Bridges & Eubank, 2021; Browne, 2017; Hosono, 2022; Kuenkel et al., 2021; Nhamo et al., 2020).

The extraordinary political journey of the MDGs is unquestionably another reminder of the capacity of an organization even with weak executive capacity, like the United Nations, to generate influential norms. As Fukuda-Parr (2010, 2017) notes, the MDGs have become benchmarks for measuring progress in development as well as a framework for the formulation and implementation of national and international policies. They have also triggered a dense and broad debate about a desirable post-2015 frame development agenda (Weiss & Browne, 2014; Wilkinson & Hulme, 2012). Likewise, UN global conferencing has, since the 1990s, provided avenues for different constituencies to legitimize their conflicting policy claims. Such meetings as noted by Schechter (2005), while mirroring the evolving world order, have also generated new knowledge, mobilized attentive publics, acted as agenda setters and incubators of ideas, and played a part in paradigmatic changes in development thinking.

Ultimately, did the MDGs work? The question has received mixed answers (Besada et al., 2017). What can be anticipated about the SDGs? Conceptually, the SDGs broke significant normative grounds by taking off where the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) had stalled. The Commission can certainly be credited for redefining “economic development” in terms of “sustainability.” But its success may have in fact distracted policymakers to focus on a key dimension of its prescriptions: the need for concurrent fundamental political and social changes (Borowy, 2014; Gerasimova, 2017). The issue was extensively dealt with in the 2030 UN agenda for Sustainable Development with its emphasis on “transforming the world” and “leaving no one behind” (Browne & Weiss, 2015, 2021; Caballero & Londono, 2022; Kharas et al., 2019; United Nations, 2015). But the sheer costs of implementing the SDGs, estimated at the time of their adoption to amount to $5–7 trillion a year through 2030, had already elicited expressions of incredulity about their feasibility. The COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the Ukrainian war have made it clear that the quantitative objectives of the SDGs will remain a pious aspiration.

Normative Dead-Ends: “Partnerships,” R2P and People on the Move

If anything, the examples presented in “Success Stories?” show that it may be relatively easy to place a normative principle on a multilateral organization agenda. To translate the norm into policy and practice, however, may turn into a Sisyphean political task which can lead either to perfectly circular revolutions or to quiet and unceremonial sidelining. IOs-private sector “partnerships” belong to the former category, the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) and the current refugee crisis to the latter.

IO–private sector relations have not always been blessed by warm halcyon winds. Much of this hinged of course on the organizations involved. The experience of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) thus stands in sharp contrast with that of the United Nations, the latter being the setting of contentious and acrimonious debates on several attempts to establish legally binding international rules to govern the activities of multinational businesses. All eventually failed, and as negotiations over a UN draft Code of Conduct on TNCs stalled, the focus moved to voluntary schemes of normative principles centered on self-regulation and loosely framed in the broader context of “corporate social responsibility” or “corporate citizenship” notions designed to ensure the smooth functioning of competitive markets and business operations and to protect society from their negative externalities (Crowther & Seifi, 2021; Dashwood, 2012; Du Plessis et al., 2018; Maak et al., 2022; Sagafi-Nejad et al., 2008).

The OECD led the process with its 1976 Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, a set of voluntary ethical principles and standards for TNCs covering information disclosure, employment and industrial relations, environment, corruption, consumer interests, science and technology, competition, and taxation (Bonucci et al., 2018). The ILO soon followed suit with a 1977 Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, featured as “guidelines to TNCs, governments, and employers’ and workers’ organizations in such areas as employment, training, conditions of work and life, and industrial relations” accompanied by a complaint procedure which has rarely been used (ILO; Tripartite Declaration). Other voluntary mechanisms have gained wide political support, notably, the Equator Principles embedded in the policies of World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which enjoin participating banks to provide loans for projects that have been formulated in a socially responsible manner and in accordance with sound environmental management practices ( Another instance is the 2001 UNCTAD Corporate Responsibility Reporting, which entails high-level meetings, technical workshops, and research projects bringing together governments, academic institutions, and enterprises for the purpose of promoting the development of corporate responsibility indicators to be disseminated in annual reports United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (2008).

Two other UN-sponsored projects, the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the 2000 Global Compact, have been on the norm-making track for some time and have perhaps received greater attention. The latter posits the state’s duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties and asserts that business enterprises should avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and should address and prevent such impacts when they occur. Finally, the Guidelines enjoins states, “as part of their duty to protect against business-related human rights,” to “take appropriate steps to ensure, through judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means, that when . . . abuses occur within their territory and/or jurisdiction those affected have access to effective remedy.” The expectation is that as a soft law instrument, the Guiding Principles will eventually be viewed as an authoritative global reference point on business and human rights. It was in this spirit that the Human Rights Council established on June 16, 2011, a working group of independent experts to promote the dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles (Billmakers, 2019; Martin & Bravo, 2016; Ruggie, 2013; Sagafi & Dunning, 2008).

The Global Compact scheme is essentially a “learning initiative,” an entirely voluntary endeavor that relies on public accountability, transparency, and “enlightened corporate egoism” (Mcintosh & Waddock, p. 7) as catalysts for adherence to and implementation of normative principles. In contrast to the Ruggie Principles, the Global Compact thus does not seek to create new soft law. Instead, it takes off from existing human rights, labor, and environmental standards and invite companies to join on a purely voluntary basis through their chief executives in a “letter of commitment” to the Secretary-General United Nations in which they agree “to making the Global Compact and its principles part of the strategy, culture and day to day operations” of the company and to engage in collaborative projects which advance the broader development goals of the United Nations. Concretely, the operation of the Global Compact entails the convening of “policy dialogues” with the participation of business, labor, NGOs, the United Nations, and governments, “communications on progress” that companies agree to submit every year on progress made in implementing the principles of the UN Global Compact and “integrity measures” in dealing with allegations of systematic or egregious abuses of the principles of the Compact. Possible Global Compact responses range from requests for clarification, to being classified as “non-communicating,” to being removed from the Compact (Fussler et al., 2017; Gonzalez-Perez & Leonard, 2015; Leonard & Gonzalez-Perez, 2015; McIntosh et al., 2004; Williams, 2014).

What both schemes also share—the Compact more than the Principles—is the premise that UN–private sector relations must be framed within the context of global governance structures with due attention to soft law and voluntary standards, decentralization and subsidiarity, “experiential implementation,” and widespread stakeholder participation, especially nonstate actors. Supporters draw attention to the over 20,000 “participants” from 179 countries involved in the Global Compact or the Directives issued by the EU Commission, obliging large multinational corporations to provide nonfinancial disclosure to the markets (Dimitropoulos & Chatzigioanni, 2022; Gonzalez-Perez & Leonard, 2015). Critics, mainly from civil society organizations, view them as thinly disguised forms of “bluewashing” and express doubt about the effectiveness of transparency, dialogue, and accountability to change corporate policies and practices (Adams & Martens, 2018; Deva & Bilchitz, 2013; Flynn, 2017; Martens & Seitz, 2019; Simons & Macklin, 2014). The evidence showing that these constructivist schemes, as well as others such as the Global Reporting Initiative ( Mugabi & Raletsebe, 2017) or the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (Feichner et al., 2019; Tskhay, 2020), have influenced or are influencing corporate practices and policies is mixed. The jury may still be out, suggesting the need for further research.

The norm of a R2P essentially springs from the failures of the international community to respond to mass atrocities committed in the 1990s (Francis et al., 2012). Hatched by an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001), enthusiastically promoted by its progenitors (Evans, 2008) and a number of academics variously labeling it a new global moral compass (Bellamy, 2009, Bellamy & Dunne, 2016; Cooper & Kohler, 2009; Thakur, 2006, 2011a, 2011b) or a Kantian provisional duty (Roff, 2013), the principle, endorsed at a 2005 UN World Summit, posits three ideas: one, that every state has a R2P its populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing; two, that the international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility; and three, that if a state is failing to protect its populations, the international community may take decisive and appropriate collective action in full respect of the UN Charter.

Defined as such, R2P, in many ways, is only an updated version of the old just war notion dressed in blue UN garments and in the more recent notion of a “common humanity” (Gholiagha, 2022; Jarvis, 2022). It may also be considered a reflection of a cosmopolitan approach to human protection (Wyatt, 2019). Be it as it may, the idea is revolutionary to the extent that it does literally put the sacrosanct Westphalian principles of sovereignty and nonintervention upside down (Thakur & Maley, 2015). Hence, the still-ongoing controversies after seemingly enthusiastic support for it initially (Bellamy & Dunne, 2016; Knight & Egerton, 2012; Peters & Krause, 2017; Thakur, 2019). Whether R2P has evolved into a recognized norm or a paradigm shift for general international law remains a point of contention among legal experts and specialists (Barnes & Tzevelekos, 2016; Bellamy et al., 2011; Breau, 2016; D’Costa & Glanville, 2019; Grover, 2017; Hiolpold, 2015; Ivi, 2016; Kuwali, 2010; Kuwali & Viljoen, 2014; Marinelli, 2023; Nahlawi, 2020b; Samara, 2020; Sharma, 2016). Notwithstanding the fact that there is a fledging network of R2P focal points in a number of states and that UN policymaking organs have made a number of references to the principle in their decisions, the political constituency for R2P remains singularly weak. Critics point to its controversial and politically disastrous invocation in the 2011 Libya crisis (Hehir & Murray, 2013; Wester, 2020). They also point to the numerous cases of omission in general (Adams, 2021; Ercan, 2016, 2022; Hulse, 2018; Mills, 2015) and, in particular, Darfur (Lanz, 2020), Sri Lanka (Kingbury, 2012), and Syria (Briggs, 2017; Silander & Wallace, 2015). They also draw attention to either the opposition or the tepid and ambivalent support of many states (Bloomfield, 2017; Erdogan, 2017; Kassim, 2014; Peters & Krause, 2017; Staunton, 2020; Tan, 2019). They alternatively stress the need to reassess the concept by finetuning it and/or involving a broader range of actors in its operationalization (Bellamy & Luck, 2018; Busser, 2019; Butchard, 2020; Fiott & Koops, 2015; Henderson, 2023; Hunt & Orchard, 2020; Jacob & Mennecke, 2020; Jarvis, 2022; Labonte, 2012; O’Bannon, 2016; Sharma & Welsh, 2015) Consolidating it? (Crossley, 2016). Hollow or not? (Hehir, 2019). Or should R2P be reformulated as a “right to assist”? (Ackerman & Merriman, 2019). Fundamental questions remain unsettled about the norm conceptual content, enforceability, and, more fundamentally, level of state support (Nahlawi, 2020a; Serrano & Weiss, 2014) before simply acknowledging that it has secured a firm place in intellectual and political debates.

The refugee phenomenon is by no means new (Ther & Riemer, 2019). Two world wars, the Shoah, and major humanitarian crises of recent years including the killing fields of Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide, the massacres in Bosnia, the 2001 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the bloody conflicts in Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan, and epidemic diseases have been major catalysts in turning it into an ongoing matter of international concern (Gatrell & Zhvanko, 2017; Loescher, 2021; Milliband, 2017; Smallman-Raynor & Cliff, 2018). In fact, the world is currently experiencing record levels of “people on the move.” According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2021, 89.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide, including 27.1 million refugees and 53.2 million internally displaced people. Rising sea levels, heavier storms and drought, and desertification associated with climate change, continuing rapid demographic growth in the Global South, and the proliferation of failed states are likely to swell the current numbers (Wennersten & Robbins, 2017). Refugees have long been protected by international law, at least in principle. But migrants have been treated differently in spite of a 2003 UN convention that has been ratified by only 40 countries, none of them immigration countries (Cholewinski et al., 2009). It was this problem that the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants sought to address. Adopted unanimously, the Declaration called for a strengthening of safe, orderly, and regular migration flow in order to promote economic growth and prosperity while addressing the problems posed by increasing numbers of refugees and irregular migrants (Ferris & Donato, 2020; Ghosh, 2021). The rise of populist movements has obscured the beneficial contributions of refugees in potential host countries (Betts, 2021; Wacker et al., 2019) while prompting governmental authorities to set aside ethical and religious considerations (Hollenbach, 2019) and to circumvent the injunctions of the international refuge regime (notably its core principle of non-refoulement). Some observers have in fact suggested that the 1951 Convention has entered a “twilight” phase. As to the 2016 Declaration, like all similar soft law instruments, it remains voluntary and nonbinding (Micinski, 2021).

Distributive Policies

At the national level, distributive public policies are designed to use government funds to pay for public goods or infrastructural services such as education, highway, and public safety. Such policies may affect certain segments of the population or groups of individuals, but they generally produce public goods of benefit to everyone in society. Translated at the international level, scholars have highlighted the role of intergovernmental IOs, primarily the specialized agencies of the United Nations, in the definition of international rules governing a steadily expanding set of transnational transactions, which they have labeled “the soft infrastructure” of the world economy (Zacher, 1999, p. 4). The idea is very much grounded in functionalist theory, with its emphasis on the notion that international agencies with limited functional technical and economic mandates supported by knowledge and expertise would help meet human needs, attract the loyalty of population, and lead to greater integration among states. Whether this process could remain divorced from politics and contribute to the erosion of state sovereignty are assumptions that have not stood the test of time. The fact remains, though, that “functional agencies” are an important component of the multilateral architecture that has sustained the process of globalization in the past few decades. as they produce at least three types of distributive outputs: data collection, standard-setting rules and principles, and legally binding treaties. Functional IOs are also major providers of technical assistance, a subject discussed in the “Redistributive Policies” section.

Data Collection

In line with the idea that knowledge should inform policymaking, the collection, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of statistical data is one of the key raisons d’être of all functional agencies. The idea is by no means new, as it served as the rationale for the establishment of the International Telegraph Union in 1865 and the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 for the purpose of promoting the free flow of information and commerce. Both agencies still existed in the early 21st century, with different mandates reflecting dramatic changes in communications technologies. One of the main objectives of the UPU is to ensure that the “postal sector is seen as an enabler of inclusive development and an essential component of the global economy.” Overseeing a global network of some 670,000 post offices, 5.2 million staff, and physical infrastructure covering 192 countries, the organization has been analyzing the contributions made by the postal sector and the UPU to the achievement of the SDGs. The self-assigned mission of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is to promote, facilitate and foster affordable and universal access to telecommunication/information and communication technology networks, services and applications and their use for social, economic and environmentally sustainable growth and development. One of the core activities of the organization is the collection, verification, and harmonization of telecommunication/ICT statistics for about 200 economies worldwide, with data on fixed-telephone networks, mobile-cellular services, Internet/broadband, traffic, revenues and investment, and prices of ICT services.

A review of other functional agencies would yield similar insights. Thus, the FAO produces global data on issues related to food and agriculture, including hunger and malnutrition, rural poverty, food systems productivity, the sustainable use of natural resources, and climate change. The statistical reports of the WHO cover a wide range of topics including alcohol and health, antimicrobial resistance, child health, climate change, health systems financing, HIV/AIDS, maternal and reproductive health, mental health, tropical diseases, noncommunicable diseases, road safety, violence against women, tobacco, water, and sanitation. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) compiles databases on education statistics, literacy, inclusiveness in education, global citizenship education, and the right to education. The ILO is a rich source of information on labor statistics, labor productivity and costs, industrial relations, working conditions, and selected groups including migrant workers, women, and youth. The OECD—the origins and evolution of which are discussed by Woodward (2009)—offers comprehensive sets of data covering virtually all policy areas from agriculture to demography and fisheries, economic projections, development, the environment, finance, globalization, health, information technology, and transport.

Set up in 1988 by the UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and endorsed by the United Nations later the same year (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2015), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces reports identifying where there is agreement in the scientific community on topics related to climate change. This material serves as critical inputs in multilateral negotiations. The methodology of the IPCC was first described in a 1993 volume penned by Houghton et al. (1993). A useful update was published by Bhandari (2020).

Standard Setting and Treaty Making

Standard setting basically involves consensus-based rules which may come on diverse formats, ranging from general statements of agreed objectives or criteria, to regulations to be implemented by states in whole or in part, to legally binding treaties by states which have agreed to be bound. Such standards are developed by technical committees involving the close collaboration and/or participation of concerned industries or economic sectors. None of these scenarios empowers IOs to enforce them. National governments are ultimately responsible for their implementation and incorporation into national law. As shown in the examples cited in this section, their rationale varies widely, including the harmonization of national standards for the sake of efficiency, reducing states’ costs of economic regulatory functions, improving the safety and quality of goods and services, facilitating trade and connectivity, and fulfilling human rights norms and principles. A typical instance of such standard setting may be found in the Safety Requirements for the Design of Nuclear Power Plants issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident to strengthen the safety of the plant designs (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2016).

Two broad themes underlay the relatively voluminous body of literature on IOs’ standard setting and treaty making. First, most authors agree that seemingly technical issues become rapidly political. The point is particularly emphasized by Mathiason (2008) in his study of Internet governance, May (2006) in his exploration of the work of the World Intellectual Property Organization, Kaiser and Meyer (2017) in their study of the environmental activities of IOs, Savage (2019) in his exploration of the politics of international communication regulation, and Balbi and Fickers (2020) in their account of “techno-diplomacy” in the ITU. Second, the thrust of academic inquiries remains on the operations of single organizations; only a handful of studies endeavor to be comparative and this only in the sense that they focus on clusters of policies, health (Harman, 2010; Lisk, 2009), the environment (DeSombre, 2006), food and agriculture (Shaw, 2008), and communications (Batura, 2016; Lyall, 2016; Orji, 2018). Likewise, Romera (2018) assesses the interfacing of the international aviation and maritime transport regimes in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) climate change mitigation work.

From its inception in 1865, the main business of the ITU has been to act as a mechanism for the elaboration of standards for international telegraph exchange, telecommunications, and later ICT ecosystems. Over time, study groups of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector have brought together experts who have produced some 4,000 recommendations, which remained nonmandatory until adopted in national law on service network architecture and security, broad DSL, optical transmission systems, and next-generation network issues. UPU, in cooperation with postal-handling organizations, customers, and suppliers, developed and maintained international standards designed to improve the exchange of postal-related information between postal operators. The coherence of regulations in such areas as electronic data interchange, mail encoding, postal forms, and meters is another of its major concerns. Lyall (2016) usefully augmented and updated Savage’s (2019) earlier study of the ITU by also focusing on the regulatory work of the UPU. Both agencies would warrant greater scholarly attention in light of the growing importance of information technology.

The WMO issues “technical regulations” supplemented by a number of manuals (mandatory) and guides (nonmandatory) detailing the procedures and specifications to be followed by member states in the generation of data and information on weather, climate, and water. The activities of WMO are closely connected with those of the IMO, which focus on the safety, security, and facilitation of trade among seafaring states and the environmental performance of international shipping. For these purposes, the IMO has been the source of some 60 legal instruments, including conventions on the safety of life at sea, the suppression of unlawful acts against the safety of maritime navigation, the prevention of pollution, the prevention of collisions at sea, the removal of wrecks, liability and compensation for oil pollution damages, and codes on ship and port facilities, maritime signals, and the investigation of marine casualty or incident (Simmonds, 1994). IMO enacts regulations complementing these instruments, focusing on such questions as the prevention of collisions at sea and the inspection of foreign flag ships by national authorities of ports of call. Silverstein (2019) traces the origins of the IMO back to the operation of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization. An early examination of IMO (Henry, 1985) dealt with its role in mitigating the problems posed by the carriage of dangerous goods by sea. A discussion of the legal regulatory instruments developed by the IMO to improve safety at sea, facilitate trade among seafaring states, and control and prevent marine pollution can be found in the Beringieri comprehensive account (Beringieri, 2014, 2015). More recent studies have focused on the question of corporate responsibility in the maritime industry (Froholdt, 2018) and, more pointedly, on IMO-constrained capacity to prevent the pollution of the marine environment (Karim, 2015). In this regard, Shi (2016) identifies a number of gaps in the current regulatory framework for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping, and proposes options for legal and institutional reforms to improve the system in place. A pertinent and related work in that debate may be found in Fano’s (2019) exploration of the applicability of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the enforcement of international maritime greenhouse regulatory measures enacted by IMO.

The legal and regulatory framework developed by the ICAO is primarily focused on the liberalization and harmonization of international air transport services through the adoption of standards and recommended operating practices concerning air navigation, its infrastructure, flight inspections, and the facilitation of border-crossing procedures for international civil aviation. ICAO also acts as a facilitator of information exchange on states’ policies, air service agreements, taxes, and industry trends by means of workshops, seminars, symposia and conferences, and dissemination of policy guidance manuals. Weber and Mendes de Peon (2007), Milde (2008), and MacKenzie (2010a, 2010b) investigated the standards and practices concerning air navigation developed under the aegis of the ICAO, highlighting its leading role in the fight against sabotage and hijacking. The legal and policy aspects of the question of curbing greenhouse gas emissions as it relates to climate change is explored by Piera (2015) and Fichert et al. (2020). The implementation of ICAO rules about air operators, airport operations, air traffic services, and maintenance organizations are covered by Abeyratne (2018), Hollinger (2013), and Ashford et al. (2013). DeMestral et al. (2018) revisit the subject of greenhouse gas emissions as it connects to the Sustainable Development Goals. Zhang (2022) investigated the ICAO dispute resolution mechanisms and concluded that the organization should develop further into a new arbitral institution.

WHO has adopted internationally recognized methods and standards for the development of guidelines reflecting the organization’s core value of the “right to health” and containing recommendations for clinical practice or public health policy. The ILO has hatched legally binding conventions covering the fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association, the elimination of all forms of forced of compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor, and discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. Over 200 “recommendations” supplement these treaties by providing detailed guidelines on how they should be put into effect. Likewise, the FAO has enacted codes, norms, and conventions in areas affecting the safety of food and agricultural commodities, such as the Codex Alimentarius for food, the International Plant Protection Convention for plants, and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Masson-Matthee (2007) provides a balanced assessment of the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards relating to food production and food safety, serving in many cases as a basis for national legislation produced under the aegis of the WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organization. The role of WHO has been ably explored by Lee (2008a), Chorev (2012), and Clift (2013), the latter also showing that, in spite of the cross-pressures of North and South, the organization was able to preserve a relatively autonomous agenda and to promote a consistent set of values of its own. In contrast, Abbott (2020) presents a rather critical assessment of the rural poverty efforts of the FAO and calls for a more visionary and soundly financed institution.

As Singh (2010) explains, the East-West divide and the subsequent rise of identity politics in global politics did not prevent UNESCO from producing important norms and standards in its areas of work. The Conventions, recommendations, declarations, and charters adopted by the organization from 1948 to 2006 can be found in its 2007 Standard-Setting at UNESCO. Servais (2016) charts the genesis and development of the ILO, offers a comprehensive description of its structure, membership, and role in international cooperation, as well as an assessment of how its rules and regulations are developed and applied in the framework of international law and relations with other organizations. His insights are augmented by Maul’s (2019) perceptive study of ILO articulation of the concept of global social policy, which touches on development policy, world trade, international migration, and human rights, and Beckett’s (2021) reminders of the parallelism and cross influence between the ILO advocacy of global social policy with Catholic social teachings. Meanwhile, Hughes and Haworth (2011) dissect the criticisms and debates surrounding the ILO and in particular the broadening of its agenda. They dismiss Standing (2008) and others who had faulted the ILO for downgrading its standard-setting role and argue that ILO met the challenge of globalization by repositioning itself in such a manner as to focus on core labor standards and providing high-quality technical policy advice. In this regard, and in a more recent work, Servais (2014) provides evidence that in spite of their legal limitations in an international context, ILO rules and standards have become invaluable benchmarks to governments, judiciaries, employers, and trade unions.

Regulatory Policies

Regulatory policies are about achieving government’s objectives by means of administrative regulations, legislation, judicial review, and other instruments, depending on the type of social or economic sector being targeted. Such policies place restrictions on individuals and institutions and may entail a degree of coercion by prohibiting unacceptable forms of behavior and requiring mandatory alternate ones. Instances of regulatory policies at the national level include regulations on business practices, pricing, and access to public goods. At the international level, where sovereign states are the main actors, international rule making by IOs includes a wide array of legal and policy ranging from voluntary tools and incentives, to conditionalities, to legally binding and (more rarely) coercive instruments. A typical example of such policies at the international level might be the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, developed through the European Economic Commission of the United Nations, which is updated every 2 years and serves as a basis for the harmonization of national, regional, and global rules and regulations (Eriksson et al., 2010).

The Unique EU Experiment

The regulatory control that EU institutions exert over member states in the achievement of the single market is probably the closest equivalent to what may be found at the national level (Mathieu, 2016). This much emerges from studies of food safety (Lee, 2008b; Pisanello, 2014; Silano, 2021); consumer protection and competition (Cini & McGowan, 2009; Feretti, 2014; Ge, 2019; Gille, 2016; Hasselblatt, 2018; Montanari et al., 2015; Russo, 2010; Schwemer, 2019; Yoshizawa, 2022); public health and the environment (de Ruitter, 2019; Eriksson et al., 2010; Eritia, 2020; Koff, 2016; Merkisz et al., 2014; Savonitto, 2019); personal data protection (Bohaczewski, 2020; Gogaert, 2017; Hijmans, 2016; Inglese, 2019; Krzysztofek, 2019; Tzanou, 2019); labor (Arnholtz & Lillie, 2020); racial discrimination (Howard, 2010); finance and banking (Bork & Zwieten, 2022; Bukowski & Lament, 2023; Kattel et al., 2016; Marano & Rokas, 2019; Marcacci, 2018; Ospanova, 2022; Quaglia, 2014; Scherf, 2014; Sum, 2016); energy (Herweg, 2017; Prontera, 2019); services, notably the digitalization of the economy (Dabrowski & Suska, 2022; Engelbrekt et al., 2019; Kerikmae, 2014; Ryan, 2010; Wiberg, 2014); and trade (Bunbenberg & Herrmann, 2013; Leal-Arcas, 2022).

The increasing number of executive tasks assigned to the European Union (EU) has led to the emergence of a large and complex machinery (Mathieu, 2016), which may be underfunded (Heims, 2019), but the statutes of which (Bartolini et al., 2019) affect virtually everyone within the EU. This situation has prompted calls for accountability that existing judicial institutions can no longer fully meet (Chirulli & De Lucia, 2021). Others have noted that the EU multilevel regulatory system (Follesdal et al., 2008) has a global reach (Young, 2016). Focusing on the voluntary compliance with EU regulatory standards by multinationals eager to enter the EU market, Bradford (2020) labeled this form of power the “Brussels effect.” Not surprisingly, the expansion of EU regulatory activities has triggered intensified demands for justice and accountability, which cannot be met in existing judiciary bodies (Chirulli & de Lucia, 2021).

Against this background, the European Court of Justice has understandably received considerable scholarly attention. Its landmark rulings (Mitsilegas et al., 2019; Phelan, 2019)—at times controversial, as noted by Arnull (2006) among others—have unquestionably shaped the legal framework within which the EU operates and have gradually helped constitutionalize the Treaty of Rome by legitimizing and de-legitimizing national policies, judicializing national debates, and overseeing policy implementation by EU member states, as emphasized by such commentators as Sweet (2004), Micklitz and de Witte (2012), Dawson et al. (2013), Penttinen (2020), Reich and Micklitz (2020), Saurugger and Terpan (2017), Shaw (2023), and Schmidt and Kelemen (2013). The effectiveness of the court, however, is not boundless (Horsley, 2018; Madsen et al., 2022) and has triggered inquiries into the sources of its authority. The quality of its legal approach and reasoning has been singled out as an important parameter (Beck, 2012; Jacob, 2014; Madsen et al., 2022; Pierdominici, 2020; Shaw, 2018). Others have focused on political factors, such as the degree of compliance of EU member states (Panke, 2010), the horizontal and vertical pressures for coherence arising from the process of integration (Krenn, 2022), the expanding external actorness of the EU (Cremona & Thies, 2014), and, more generally, policy processes including the Court’s relationship to other actors, including other EU institutions, the member states, national courts, third countries, and IOs (Derlen & Lindholm, 2018; Moorhead, 2014; Schmidt, 2018).

The “Unholy Trinity” and Intellectual Property Rights

The World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) enjoy regulatory power akin to those of the EU as a result of their delegated arbitration function, capacity to grant loans with attached conditionalities, and economic surveillance role (Edward, 2015). Other institutions, such as the regional development banks (RDBs; Delikanli & Dimitrov, 2018; Lessambo, 2015; Upton, 2000), the European Central Bank (Gortsos, 2020; Kinsella & Kinsella, 2018), and, to a certain extent, the Bank for International Settlements (Borio et al., 2020; Ozgercin, 2011) share similar attributes.

Labeled “globalizers” (Amin & Foster, 2014; Chwieroth, 2010; Ranis et al., 2006; Woods, 2014) or “controlling institutions” (Stone, 2011), the WTO, World Bank, and IMF “unholy trinity” (Peet, 2003; Ponniah, 2003) have been lambasted for promoting a particular brand of neoliberal capitalism under the broad label of the “Washington consensus,” a label reflecting the interests, financial power, and economic doctrines of their most influential members (Head, 2009; Klein, 2007; Naciri, 2018; Scott-Smith & Rofe, 2017; Wolff, 2018). Their less-than-democratic mode of operation has also triggered a steady stream of virulent criticisms, which can be traced back to the works of Ayres (1983), Buira (2003), Chossudowsky (1998), ul Haq (1995), Hudson (2003), Kenen (1994), Nayyar (2002), Payer (1974), and Society for International Development (1993), whose views may need to be qualified.

Marshall (2008) and Vreeland (2006), in addition to Mason and Asher (2010), provide convenient overviews of the Bretton Woods institutions which can be augmented by earlier insights by De Vries (1969, 1976, 1985) and Kapur et al. (1997). Revisiting the postwar origins of the Bretton Woods institutions may remind the reader that their makeup and assigned roles not only reflected Anglo-American hegemonic interests but also, to a certain extent, incorporated some of the aspirations of emerging powers such as India, China, and Brazil (Helleiner, 2014; Scott-Smith & Rofe, 2017; Steil, 2013). The point is warranted because the basic policy orientations of the World Bank and the IMF have considerably evolved over time. The World Bank originally focused on infrastructural projects (often framed in an anticommunist agenda) and moved on to meeting the basic needs of the poor to the integration of borrowing countries in international markets. Likewise, the IMF was initially concerned primarily with the provision of balance of payments support and then moved onto coping with the sustainability of the debt problems of developing countries and now of more advanced economies. These tribulations are well described and documented in the previously cited overviews of the two institutions as well as the works of Copelovitch (2010b), Marshall (2008), and Kenen (1994, 2001).

It is against this evolving background that the academic discourse about the conditionality of the Bretton Woods institutions (BWIs) must be framed. All throughout the last decades of the 20th century, the World Bank and the IMF were profusely criticized for banking on the poor or trapping them into poverty (Ayres, 1983; Chossudowsky, 1998; Payer, 1974), for promoting the interests and worldviews of economically powerful states (Bird, 2005; Boas & McNeill, 2004; Marshall, 2007), for “mortgaging the earth” (Rich, 1994), for conveying and spreading a corporate neoliberal agenda (Neu & Ocampo, 2008), and for their unrepresentative, undemocratic, opaque, or inefficient decision-making processes (Buira, 2000; Jones, 2015). In the view of some, the policies of the BWIs not only produced few if any economic benefits and eroded local societies (Bevene et al., 2008; Brown, 1997), they also in reality contributed to “losing the development war” (Head, 2009). In brief, those criticisms focused on the neglect of human development built into the policies of the BWIs’ loans (ILO, 2012; Jolly, 2012; Jolly et al., 1988).

Those terse condemnations have more recently given way to more nuanced appreciations. The idea that the IMF is not as powerful as some critics fear has in the first place gained ground (Stone, 2001) and the argument has been made that complex factors varying from one country to another must be factored in the analysis before reaching credible conclusions about the nature and impact of the Bretton Woods conditionality policies. Reviewing some 250 IMF conditionality agreements between 1952 and 1995, Gould (2006) found empirical evidence in support of the view that shifts in the sources used by the IMF to supplement its loans to account for the design of its conditionalities. In his study of IMF surveillance, Edwards (2015) emphasized the importance of political considerations. Routine and behind-the-scenes interactions between IMF officials and local economists in such countries as Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil shape the asymmetrical relations between the IMF and recipient countries in their path to “dependency” (Kedar, 2013). Because IMF management and staff seek legitimacy in their policy choices, especially in the wake of the 1999 and 2008 crises, policymakers, insiders, and external actors appear to have deepened the IMF commitment to “inclusive” growth as maintained by Hibben (2016). The debate may be more muted, but it is not likely to end soon as criticisms of the invasiveness, ineffectiveness, adverse impact of structural conditionality attached to the BWI loans continue to appear in the literature (Cafaro, 2014; Dampha, 2014; Matondi, 2008; Scico, 2017; Toussaint & Millet, 2010; Weaver, 2008; Wolff, 2014).

WTO has also been a long-standing target of criticisms which have only intensified with the rise of populist anti-globalism, economic nationalism, trade protectionism, and superpower tensions. Several academic studies touch on these questions (Rorden, 2014). Is the trade liberalization agenda of WTO supportive of the development needs of Southern countries, asks Rolland (2012); or of the realization of the SDGs, wonder Beverelli et al. (2020) and Guida (2022); or of the protection of the environment and climate mitigation, bemoan Teehankee (2020) and Matsushita et al. (2015)? Do not the norms derived from the multilateral trade regime clash with other international regimes, wonder Gourgourinis (2016), Shadikhodjaev (2018) and this at the expense of an inclusive globalization (Santos et al., 2019) and social regulation (Hoekman, 2007)? Perhaps the most telling criticism of the WTO relates to its internal modalities of decision-making. Geraets (2018) also posed the question of whether new members of the WTO come under stricter rules that the original members. Wilkinson and Hulme (2012) broadens the debate and bluntly asserts that the system is flawed to the extent that it favors Northern countries and is not adequately tuned to the needs of the Global South. Hence, a wide array of reform proposals of WTO dispute settlement institutions and its negotiation machinery (Cottier & Elsig, 2011; Elsig et al., 2017), the membership composition of the organization (Parizek, 2020) and its institutional structure inherited from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT; Jones, 2015).

The WTO dispute settlement system is indeed quite relevant insofar as its decisions are virtually unassailable as they can be reversed only by a “reverse consensus,” which would presumably entail the concurrence of the winning party (Foltea, 2012; Hartigan, 2009; Ortino & Petersmann, 2004). The yearly Disputes Settlements Reports of the WTO provide detailed and factual information on the organization’s panels and appellate reports as well as arbitration awards in disputes involving the rights and obligations of member states. Less initiated or conversant readers, by way of introduction to the WTO operation, may consult McWhinney (2000), Deol (2016), Narlikar (2021), and/or van den Bossche and Zdouc (2022), who explore not only the demise of the GATT and the birth of WTO, its successor organization, but also the methodology of WTO regulatory work and its impact on individuals. They may then turn to the more elaborate and comprehensive analyses of Mavroidis (2015, 2016, 2020) or the more pointed case studies of Ming Du (2020).

A logical follow-up step would be to investigate the contentious interactions among groups of countries or individual members of the WTO. Chigavariza (2016) assesses the perspective of developing countries on the regulation of agricultural subsidies in the WTO. Useful insights in the legal and institutional aspects of African participation in the WTO can be found in Laker (2014) and Mshomba (2009). Baldwin et al. (2014) explore the Asian perspective at a time of shifting balance in economic power. Ruka (2017) focuses on the EU’s participation in WTO dispute settlement proceedings. Zhou (2019) and Muller (2018) review the tense relations between the WTO and China, while Raychaudhuri et al. (2021) evaluate the changing policies of India in the wake of the global trade slowdown triggered by COVID-19.

The 1886 Berne Convention, which established a system of multilateral recognition of copyrights protecting the work of authors, was one of the earliest instances of regulatory policies set by treaty. Its rules were incorporated into the WTO’s 1995 TRIPS agreement and further restricted by the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization Copyrights Treaty (Correa, 2020; Correa & Yusuf, 2016; Ficsor, 2002; Gervais, 2021; Ricketson & Ginsburg, 2006; Stack, 2011). Southern weaker and least developed countries generally, but notably China, India, and Brazil, perceive a strict standardized system of intellectual property rights sanctioned by the WTO dispute settlement system as a push for open markets and a hardly veiled exercise in political and economic power unlikely to deliver the economic benefits its Northern supporters claim it can deliver (Arup, 2008; Deere, 2009; Ghosh & Calboli, 2018; Guan, 2020; He, 2015; Kennedy, 2016; Kur & Levin, 2011; Matthews, 2002; Michalopoulos, 2014; Richards, 2015; Sampson & Chambers, 2008; Srinivasan, 1998; Stiglitz, 2006; Watal, 2015). North-South fault lines over such matters as trade facilitation, services, patents, rules of origin, and dispute settlement procedures contributed to the stalemate and eventual collapse of the Doha negotiations (Parizek, 2020; Takamiya, 2019). Intellectual property rights remain passionately debated (David & Halbert, 2015; Lanoszka, 2009) against a melancholic “Doha blues” background (Jones, 2010), whether negotiations over the implementation of TRIPS focus on big data (Burri, 2021), digital technologies (Aplin, 2020; Bainbridge, 2019), investment (Geiger, 2020), industrial property (Pires de Carvalho, 2019), environment and climate change mitigation (Delimatis, 2016; van Calster & Prevost, 2013; Zhuang, 2017), development (Correa, 2021; Taubman & Watal, 2022), biodiversity, traditional knowledge and cultural heritage (Curci, 2010; Lai, 2014; Stamatoudi, 2022), or more mundane questions like geographical indications (Calboli & Ng-Loy, 2017). But perhaps the most divisive outstanding issues are those related to agriculture and food security (Maidana-Eletti, 2016; Roy, 2019; Sherman & Chapman, 2020) and public health and access to medicines (Azam, 2016; Ragavan & Vanni, 2021; Sekalala, 2017; Sundaram, 2018), the latter having been rekindled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This review of the multilateral economic regulatory landscape should close with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), established in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS and its 1994 Agreement on Implementation (Churchill & Lowe, 2022; Maggio & Daum, 2017; Nordquist et al., 2018; Rothwell et al., 2015; Tanaka, 2023). As a bona fide IO with its own Assembly, Council, and Secretariat, ISA has observer status in the United Nations. Its key function is to authorize and control the development and exploitation of mineral resources beyond the limits of the Exclusive Economic Zone, considered the “common heritage of all mankind.” The Authority is also tasked to protect the ecosystems of the seabed, ocean floor, and subsoil in the “Area” extending beyond national jurisdiction. The ISA has approved a mining code and some thirty 15-year ocean floor mining exploration contracts involving 22 countries. It has also adopted several regulations governing the exploration and exploitation of polymetallic nodules (Freestone, 2013; International Ocean Institute, 2018; Pinto, 2013). The ISA may soon turn from exploration to exploitation, as in 2021, Nauru, in partnership with a Canadian mining company, sought permission from the ISA to exploit minerals in its Area. This request set in motion a UNCLOS provision which mandates ISA to finalize within 2-year exploitation regulations or “consider and provisionally approve” the request. The industrial exploitation of deep-sea minerals outside jurisdiction, according to UNCLOS progenitors, a key element of securing a more just world order by allocating resources to the benefit of all humankind, is likely to pose with greater intensity issues of sustainable development of renewable and nonrenewable ocean resources, conservation and protection of the marine environment, and maritime security and transportation as they are impacted by climate change (Johansen et al., 2023). The legal regime regulating the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans is likely to generate interstate disputes and nonstate actors’ activity which ultimately may reach the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). ITLOS is an independent judicial body established under UNCLOS with contentious and advisory jurisdiction over disputes related to the delimitation of maritime zones, navigation, the conservation and management of the living resources of the sea, the protection and preservation of the marine environment, and marine scientific research. Useful overviews of the organization and structure of ITLOS and analyses of its jurisprudence may be found in the works of Chandrasekhara and Gautier (2018), Klein and Parlett (2023), Kittichaisree (2021), and Tofan (2009).

Adjudication: The Regulatory Weak Link

On the other (and much weaker!) side of the regulatory spectrum, the reader will encounter the adjudicatory functions of international and regional courts. Mention must be made, to begin with, of the unheralded and underestimated contributions of the advisory and compulsory rulings of the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ), the first permanent international tribunal with general jurisdiction, on procedural and substantive aspects of international law and on the development of the international judicial function (Fitzmaurice & Tams, 2013; Lauterpacht, 1934; van der Wolf & de Ruiter, 2011). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) took over where the PCIJ left off and expanded on the jurisprudence of its predecessor as stressed in overviews of its work on the general principles of law, the sources of law, treaty interpretation, and such substantive issues as questions of jurisdiction and procedure, the law of the sea, state sovereignty, and state responsibility (Coleman, 2013; Qureshi et al., 2018; Rosenne & Ronen, 2006; Schabas, 2020a, 2020b; Thirlway, 2016; Zimmermann & Tams, 2019).

Opinions vary widely about the importance and significance of the ICJ’s activities as an instrument of pacific settlement of disputes and a prevention tool. Favorable opinions may be gleaned from the studies of Dordeska (2020), Egede and Igiehon (2018), Gaja and Stoutenburg (2014), Kuc (2022), Obregon (2018), Tams and Sloan (2013) and Zyberi (2008). More nuanced or critical views will be found in the following: Devaney (2016), who faults the court for its inadequate fact-finding; Ramcharan (2022), who calls for a broadening of the ICJ’s competence to extend to vaccine equity in global pandemics, climate disaster, and mass movements of people across frontiers due to climate change and environmental degradation; and Steinitz (2019), who makes the case for the creation of an international court of civil justice to hear transnational mass tort cases. These criticisms do not lack merit. But in all fairness to the institution, it should be born in mind that the ICJ enjoys neither a general nor an unconditional competence in dispute resolution and that the exercise of its jurisdiction hinges on the consent of states (Couvreur, 2017; Zue, 2017).

The political/legal brakes placed on the more recent International Criminal Court (ICC) are perhaps more constraining. By and large a byproduct of the pressures of civil society organizations (Lohne, 2019; Struett, 2008), the brainchild of a handful of “norm entrepreneurs” (Crane et al., 2018), and with a global mandate to investigate and prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the ICC upon its creation in 2002 was hailed as a landmark event in the evolution of the international criminal justice architecture. A review of the political process that led to its establishment (Benedetti et al., 2014; Cakmak, 2022; Novak, 2015) would probably lead the observer to conclude that the ICC was an awkward compromise between “power and principle” (Rudolph, 2017). Before embarking on such a journey, the reader will find useful introductory overviews of the narratives and counternarratives that have been published on the ICC in the works of Bassiouni and Schabas (2016), DeGuzman and Oosterveld (2020), and Schabas (2020a, 2020b). These may be supplemented (for the audacious) by Ambos’s (2022) article-by-article commentary of the Rome statute. The optimist will find comfort and solace in a number of studies highlighting the ICC’s accomplishments: its contribution to consolidating the individual as a subject of the international law (Cakmak, 2022); its promotion of a more equal application of criminal law (Capdepon & Layus, 2020); its judicializing of peace processes, especially on the African continent (Clark, 2018; Gissel, 2018; Malu, 2019); its modest but significant strides in the prosecution of gender-based crimes (Baumeister, 2018; Grey, 2019; Sammie, 2022) and its creating a unique system of victim participation (King et al., 2022; Safferling & Petrossian, 2021). Cassandra-minded observers, on the other hand, draw attention to the limitations placed on the exercise of the ICC’s jurisdiction, notably the conditions for referral under the UN Charter and the Rome statute, the legal effects of heads of state immunity, and the jurisdictional exemptions applied to other categories of nationals (Adigun, 2018; Babaian, 2018; Cormier, 2020; Galand, 2019; Lentner, 2018; McDougall, 2013; Tsilones, 2019; Werle & Zimmermann, 2019). Others point to the muted opposition of the big powers (Boehme, 2022; Jorgensen, 2020; Zhu, 2018) or the open pushback of African nations that perceive the ICC as a neocolonial and/or selective tool of powerful states meddling in and adversely impacting their internal affairs (Agwu, 2020; Benyera, 2022; Clark, 2018; Clarke, 2019; Mystris, 2021; Nyawo, 2017; Schuerch, 2017; Werle et al., 2014). In the early 2020s, some 20-odd years after its creation, the ICC clearly faced major political, procedural, substantive challenges that placed it between a rock and a hard place (Muleefu, 2019) prompting either reform proposals (Steinberg, 2020) or laments that it is, as Judge Antonio Cassese opined about the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, like a giant without arms and legs (Irving, 2020).

An equally striking postwar development has been the emergence of human rights regional courts. Although grounded in widely differing historical context (Cerna, 2014; Franceschi, 2014; Grossman et al., 2018; Izarali et al., 2019; Jalloh et al., 2019; Jamsa, 2022; Kufluor, 2010; Roberts, 2023) and with varying degrees of impact (Boni, 2022; Engstrom, 2019; Engstrom & Hillebrecht, 2019; Haglund, 2020; Hillebrecht, 2013; Kedelbach et al., 2019; Pocar, 2019; Quiroga, 2022; Vives, 2019), their interpretation and application of human rights norms, procedural requirements, and remedies have in no negligible manner impacted on national constitutions and enhanced the principles of accountability and rule of law, a point stressed notably by Shelton (2006, 2008).

In its judgments (often with the support of third-party interventions; Burli, 2017), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has not hesitated to deal with major issues of procedural or social concern (Goldhaber, 2008), notably the need for effective remedies (Reiertsen, 2022), children’s rights (Fenton-Glynn, 2021), the treatment of immigrants (Spalding, 2022), and gender justice (Sundstrom et al., 2019), among others. As highlighted by such different authors as Keller and Sweet (2008), Koch (2009), Anagnostou and Psychoglopoulou (2010), Leach and Trust (2010), Christoffersen and Madsen (2011), Brems and Gerard (2013), and Follesdal et al. (2013), it has been a vital instrument in the process of democratic consolidation and integration within Western Europe after the Second World War and between Western and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War. It should also be noted here that the path of the Court of Justice of the European Union has occasionally intersected with or converged with the ECtHR’s (Seden, 2011). This has been true most particularly in regard to European responses to UN Security Council counterterrorism resolutions, which have prompted the Council to take greater account of human rights norms in its decisions (Avbeli et al., 2014; Istrefi, 2019).

Notwithstanding its relatively modest (and underrated) output, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has issued influential groundbreaking doctrinal precedents in matters relating to the right to life, the right to the truth, the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants, reparations, impunity, and transitional justice (Antkowiak & Gonza, 2017; Bailliet, 2021; Burgorgue-Larsen & Torres, 2011; Davis, 2014; de Matos, 2020; de Paz Gonzalez, 2018; Fernandez, 2015; Grossman et al., 2018; Micus, 2015; Pasqualucci, 2003; Saville, 2018; Tinta, 2008). The sobering political realities of the African continent—the priority given to the sanctity of the territorial integrity of states over the self—of the people, civil wars, and recurring waves of abusive regimes—have in no minor way contributed to the checkered record of the human rights regime, established in the framework African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the system put in place by a 1998 protocol to the Charter (Murray, 2019; Ssenyonio, 2012; Werle & Vormbaum, 2017). Underutilized, strapped by lack of financial resources, and constrained by rigorous rules of admissibility, the regional African human rights regime has nevertheless yielded notable doctrinal rulings about the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the right to development (Alemahu, 2013; Brett, 2019; Ibhawoh, 2018; Kamga, 2018; Mohammed, 2010; Ssenyonio, 2012).

Peace and Security: Regulatory Ad-Hocism

It is in the peace and security field, however, that IOs have exerted a seemingly ever-expanding and most visible web of regulatory activities. The IAEA has inspection and verification functions under the 1968 Non Proliferation Treaty that have been critically assessed by Carey (2014), Brown (2015), Harrer (2013). Maiani et al. (2018), Njoltad (2010), Oiwell and Kahn (2008) and Findley (2022), who focuses on the new standards developed by IAEA in the wake of its failure to detect Iraq’s attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities prior to the 1990 Gulf War. In the same vein, the implementing arm of the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, the little-known Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has been granted powers of verification of state compliance carefully depicted by Pfirter (2009) and Krutzsch et al. (2014). Its creation is ably described by Kenyon and Feakes (2007), while Makdisi and Hindawi (2019) explore its cooperation with the UN Secretariat in the 2013–2014 Syrian chemical weapons disarmament efforts.

This said, the UN Security Council occupies center stage in dealing with peace and security issues to the point that some have entered labelling a ‘global legislator’ (Popovski and Fraser, 2014). In that role, the Council may use a broad range of non-coercive techniques. Its deliberation, investigation, recommendation, and mediation tools have been studied by Damrosch (2008), Bosco (2009), Lowe et al. (2008), Luck (2015), von Einsiedel et al. (2016), Quayle and Gao (2019), Roberts and Zaum (2008), and Turner and Wahlisch (2021).

Peace operations are blunter instruments at the Council’s disposal. Useful overviews of their origins, development, evolving assigned missions, and organizational, financial, and troop provisions may be found in a wide array of studies, notably, from different perspectives and varying time frames, those of Adebajo (2011), Bellamy and Williams (2010), Diehl and Balas (2014), Doyle and Sambanis (2006), Durch (1993, 2006, 2010), Fishel (2019), Howard (2019), Karlsrud (2018), Koops et al. (2015), Richmond and Ker-Lindsay (2011), and Sanchez (2018). Initially, ad hoc responses to individual crises in the context of the Cold War and grounded on the core principles of consent, impartiality, and minimum use of force, “first generation” peace operations primarily focused on the interposition of peacekeeping forces between states, as discussed by Aoun (2018), Bowett (1964), Boyd (1971), Burns and Heathcote (1963), Dawson (1994), Durch (1993), Fabian (1971), Harbottle (1971), Higgins (1993), Lefever (1967), Londey et al. (2020), Miller (1967), Rikhye and Skjelsbaek (1991), Richmond and Ker-Lindsay (2011), Rosner (1964), Skjelsback (1980), Skogmo (1989), Stegenga (1968), and Wainhouse (1973). With the thawing of the Cold War, proxy conflicts among the superpowers and internal cleavages among the Council members abetted, and peacekeeping morphed into more complex multitasked peace operations dealing with the prevention, management, and resolution of internal conflicts (Adebajo, 2011; Aksu, 2003; Colletta & Cullen, 2000; Damrosch, 1993; Diehl & Druckman, 2010; Dobbing et al., 2005; Doyle & Sambanis, 2006; Howard, 2008; Isely, 2010; Weiss, 1995; Zanotti, 2011). The UN’s “new interventionism” (Mayall, 1996) started modestly in Namibia (Hearn, 1999; Richardson, 1984; Weil & Braham, 1994) and El Salvador (Coleman, 1993; Flores, 1995; Montgomery, 2000); gained momentum in Angola, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone (Adebajo, 2011; Olonisakin, 2007; Synge, 1997); and culminated in a number of experiments in international administration (Berdal & Caplan, 2004), approximating the defunct trusteeship system (Caplan, 2002, 2005) in Cambodia (Azimi, 1996; Doyle, 1995; Findlay, 1995; Heininger, 1994; Howe et al., 2021), East Timor (Howe et al., 2021; Martin, 2001; Nevins, 2005; Smith, 2003), and Kosovo (Tomuschat, 2002).

Perhaps reflecting a “crisis of expectations” (Thakur & Thayer, 1995), a pause followed in the wake of the debacles in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia (Hirsch & Oakley, 1995), and Rwanda (Barnett, 2002; Chopra et al., 1995; Clarke & Herbst, 1997; de Rossanet, 1996). Subsequent repeated calls for “robustness” and greater clarity of mandates by and large went unheeded. UN peace operation mandates have in fact become stretched and blurred, especially as they were dispatched in the midst of civil wars or in highly volatile environments as has been the case in Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, Mali, Chad, and South Sudan. The resulting growing complexity of the tasks assigned to peace operations has triggered considerable scholarly attention on the problems associated with their development, operation, and effectiveness. This vast body of literature essentially focuses on matters of strategic doctrine (Billerbeck, 2016; Daniel, 2022; De Coning et al., 2017; Gilder, 2022; Pouligny, 2006; Rhoads, 2016); problems associated with the management, recruitment, command, control, and training of UN forces (Balas, 2022; Bellamy & Williams, 2013; Bove et al., 2020; Coleman & Li, 2022; Curran, 2016; Flaspoler, 2019; Junk, 2017; Neudorfer, 2015; Simic, 2012; Uzonyl, 2020; Williams & Nguyen, 2018); civil-military structures and interfacing (Brocades Zaalberg, 2006; Egnell, 2009; Lucius & Rietjens, 2016); the use of force and rules of engagement (Dorn, 2014; Ekanayake, 2021; Findlay, 2002; Garcia, 2018; Gill et al., 2017; Nadin, 2018; Paige, 2019; Perito, 2015; Pugh, 2013; Weller, 1994); police assistance and judicial reform (Den Heyer & Albrecht, 2021; Hanggi & Scherrer, 2008; Hunt, 2015; Lyck, 2009), the reintegration of former combatants (Jacob, 2017); the protection of civilians and human rights (Everett, 2018; Foley, 2017; Harland, 2019; Holt et al., 2009; Lamont, 2022; Marten, 2004; Maus, 2020; Millar, 2022; Nsia-Pepra, 2014); the promotion of democracy (Breen, 2017; Holt et al., 2009; Muñoz Mosquera, 2011; Nsia-Pepra, 2014); relations with the private sector (Ford, 2015a, 2015b; Patterson, 2009) and potential spoilers (Ballentine & Sherman, 2003; Dayal, 2021; Hirsch, 2001); and role in transitional and restorative justice (Cockayne & Lupel, 2011; Lyck, 2009; Reddy, 2016).

In that context, the mainstreaming of gender into peace operations has been a matter of growing academic concern, especially since 2000, when the Security Council adopted a landmark resolution on the subject (Goswani, 2022; Karim & Beardsley, 2017; Olonisakin et al., 2011; Olsson, 2009; Olsson & Gizelis, 2015; Olsson & Truggestad, 2001; Smith, 2019; UN Women, 2016; Vadies & True, 2019). Not surprisingly, the related and still-unsolved vexing issue of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers has received considerable attention, notably by Akonor (2017), Mudgway (2019), Simm (2013), and Westendorf (2020), among others. The catalog of “unintended consequences” of UN operations in the field, to use the tame language of (Aoi et al., 2007), extends, however, to socioeconomic pathologies including the emergence of black markets (Andreas, 2008), human trafficking (Mendelson, 2005), and corruption (Leckie, 2009). Indeed, a UN presence makes a difference because, as Howard (2008) emphasizes, peacekeepers do have power. The question, of course, is, do they have enough power to succeed in their assigned tasks? A broad but useful overview of the literature on the subject may be found in Howard (2019). But interested scholars will find numerous insights in understanding peace operations outcomes in Akbulut-Gok (2022), Beirmann and Vadset (2018), Fortna (2008), Guehenno (2015), Hunt (2015), Koko and Essis (2012), Mobekk (2017), Paris and Sisk (2009), Sheehan (2011), Wesley (1997) and Whalan (2013). The best guideposts facilitating such assessments may be found in the works of Diehl (2013), Diehl and Druckman (2010), and Druckman and Diehl (2013).

Against this evolving kaleidoscopic background, there has been a growing recognition of the opportunities for a stronger engagement of regional organizations in the maintenance of peace and security. Chapter VIII of the UN Charter does stipulate that the Council should encourage the pacific settlement of local disputes through regional arrangements and may use regional arrangements for enforcement actions under its authority. Long dormant, these provisions took a new lease of life with the end of the Cold War, as the United Nations was increasingly involved in internal conflicts in the overall (recently rediscovered) normative strategic framework of conflict prevention. As noted by several observers, there is a “great diversity” in the cohesion, credibility, financial and operational capability, and competence of regional organizations (MacFarlane, as cited in Weiss & Wikinson, 2019b, p. 477) and their comparative advantage remains the subject of considerable debate among students of IR, such as Acharya and Buzan (2009), Aris and Wenger (2014), Badejo (2008); Borzel (2015), Boulden (2013), Douhan (2013), Dwan (2003), Graham et al. (2006), Howard (2008), MacFarlane (2018), Pugh and Sidhu (2003), Sidhu (2018), Soderbaum and Tavares (2013), Tavares (2009), and Wallensteen and Biurner (2015).

In any case, regional organizations have taken an increasingly significant role in the maintenance of international peace and security. However, their interfacing with the universal United Nations in crisis management and conflict resolution, often hampered by North-South as well as East-West tensions, does not seem to have evolved into a coherent UN-led system of global security management based on agreed shared responsibilities. Joint consultative meetings of the Council with representatives of the African Union, the EU, or the League of Arab States have become routine annual events at UN headquarters. In the field, this partnership has taken different modalities ranging from military subcontracting to bridging, joint, or integrated missions involving the African Union (Adebajo, 2011; Akonor, 2017; Badmus, 2015; Cellamare & Ingravallo, 2018; Cocodia, 2018; De Coning et al., 2016; Dobbins et al., 2019; Engel & Gomes Porto, 2013; Francis, 2005; Gelot, 2012; Nash, 2021; Soderbaum & Tavares, 2013; Spandler, 2020; Tardy & Wyss, 2014; Williams, 2018), ECOWAS (Adetula et al., 2021; Balogun, 2022; Gandois, 2009; Herpolsheimer, 2021; Iyi, 2016), ECOMOG (Adebajo, 2002; Kabia, 2016; Magyar & Conteh-Morgan, 1998; Olonisakin, 2000), the EU (Hadden, 2009; Kmec, 2022; Krause & Ronzitti, 2012; Plank, 2022), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Alexander & Prosen, 2015; Auerswald & Saideman, 2014; Campbell, 2013; Engelbrekt et al., 2014; Hehir & Murray, 2013; Higate & Henry, 2009; Kaplan, 2010; Lucius & Rietjens, 2016; Marcuzzi, 2021; Nazemroaya, 2012; Nelson, 2021; Paget, 2021; Pinos, 2019; Szamuely, 2013), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Dominguez, 2014; Galbreath, 2007; Galbreath & Gebhard, 2016; Leatherman, 2003; Mihr, 2021; Sandole, 2007).


Short of the use of force, which is embedded in the principles of the UN Charter and regulated by international law (Buchan & Tsagourias, 2021; Gray, 2018; Nunez-Mietz, 2019; Ruys et al., 2018; Weller & Xu, 2015; Zacklin, 2010), sanctions are the most coercive tools commonly utilized in the management of peace and security (Anglim, 2022; Beaucillon, 2021; Birkett, 2021; Carisch et al., 2017; Charron & Portela, 2022; Jentleson, 2022; Sullivan, 2020). With the collapse of rigid bipolarity in the early 1990s, the continuing threats posed by intra-state conflicts and the rising salience of counterterrorism as a national and multilateral priority, the UN Security Council has been able to impose sanctions with increasing frequency (Biersteker et al., 2016; Charron, 2011; Portela & Moret, 2020; Russell, 2018; Urbanski, 2020; van den Herik, 2017; Yoshimura, 2021). As noted by Boulden (2013), Gheciu (2008), Sirleaf (2003), and Wallensteen and Staibano (2005), regional organizations have followed suit and are playing an increasing role in implementing and enforcing UN measures or imposing their own coercive measures. In the early 2020s, over 30 EU- and UN-sanctioned regimes were in place. In 2022 alone, new sanctions were imposed on Russia, Belarus, Iran, Mali, and North Korea (Britton, 2023; Holmes, 2015; Luigi, 2022; Portela, 2010; Welfens, 2022). It may be noted here that while the UN Security Council focuses on sanctioning to end armed conflict, most African Union sanctions have been enacted to roll back unconstitutional changes. Between 2000 and 2022, the AU used sanctions 20 times against 15 African member states (Herpolsheimer, 2021; Soderbaum, 2010; Witt, 2020).

The initial modalities of sanctions included such measures as arms, commodities and oil embargoes, travel bans, partial asset freezes, economic blockades, and more comprehensive measures, which have been analyzed by Conion (2000), Damrosch (2008), Jentleson (2022), Meyer and Califano (2006) among others. More recently, the design of sanctions has been to make them more targeted on individuals, groups of individuals, and particular products (oil, diamonds, and timber) used to finance internal conflicts through the export, sale, transfer, servicing, and use of new and emerging technologies (Bergeikj, 2021; Cortright & Lopez, 2000, 2002; Eriksson, 2016; Giumelli, 2013, 2014; Nanopoulos, 2019; Wallensteen & Staibano, 2005).

The decade sanctions of the 1990s were overshadowed by controversies triggered by the humanitarian impact of the unprecedented and rigorous sanctions regime imposed on Iraq (Gordon, 2010; Sponeck, 2006). In subsequent years, another grand debate has taken center stage, prompted by the expanding number of actors involved in the design and implementation of sanctions and the increasing complexity of instruments and mandates involved. These political and academic controversies focus primarily on such issues as the strategic value and effectiveness of sanctions (Asada, 2020; Biersteker et al., 2016; de Galbert, 2015; De Vries et al., 2014; Demertizis et al., 2022; Dorfler, 2019; Friedrichs, 2014; Hakimdavar, 2014; Happold & Eden, 2016; Jaeger, 2018; Jones, 2015; Makarychev & Hoffmann, 2018; Olsen, 2022; Rae, 2022; Ronzitti, 2016), the coordination problems arising from their proliferation (Blokker & Schrijver, 2005), their consistency with international law and the rule of law (Asada, 2020; Chesterman, 2008; Marossi & Bassett, 2015; Sullivan, 2020; Szabados, 2019; Tzanakopoulos, 2014), and their compatibility with human rights norms (Avbeli et al., 2014; Cameron, 2013; Eckes, 2009; Fabre, 2018; Farrall & Robertstein, 2009; Fassbender, 2011; Genser & Ugarte, 2014; Hovell, 2016; Nowak & Charbord, 2018; Scheinin, 2013).

Redistributive Policies

Typically, redistributive policies involve the transfer of goods and services from one social group to another, most frequently by means of taxation. In the performance of that function, IOs act likewise as resource transfer mechanisms, channeling with large (but varying) discretionary powers assessed or voluntary state contributions to public or semi-public recipients in the form of loans, credits, technical assistance, or capacity development projects. International cooperation for development since the end of the Second World War has become a major focus of multilateralism (Unger, 2018), and from the 1960s to the 2020s, developed countries channeled more than $4 trillion in U.S. dollars for development aid (Feveltere et al., 2021). The Bretton Woods institutions (BWIs), the RDBs, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the EU, and the UN development system are important actors in this process.

The BWIs are archetypical instances of IOs primarily involved in redistributive policies. The IBRD raises its funds from capital subscriptions by member countries, the world’s capital markets, and earnings from interest payments on its loans, and it makes conventional loans to credit worthy middle-income and lower-income countries (it also provides advisory and analytical services as noted by Bazbauers (2017). The World Bank made its first loan in 1947. The cumulative principal value of its loans since then amounts to some $828,120 million in U.S. dollars. The lending operations of the World Bank-affiliated agencies are also quite sizable although they have elicited little passionate interest or, for that matter, much recent attention (Baker, 1968, 1999; Weaver, 1965; West & Tarazona, 2001). The principal value of the International Development Association credits and grants is estimated to exceed U.S.$513,047 million. As of 2021, the IFC had issued $10.553 billion worth across 178 bonds in 20 currencies to fund its projects designed to encourage private sector development in less developed countries. Since it began operations in 1988, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency has issued guarantees amounting to U.S.$70 billion in support of some 1,000 projects in over 120 countries of the Global South. It may be noted that the compounding crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine resulted in unprecedented (if not necessarily adequate) levels of financing by the World Bank Group. Also of some significance is the relatively concentrated portfolio of the World Bank. Some 120 low- and middle-income countries are indebted to the World Bank, but only 10 of them (India, Pakistan, Mexico, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Colombia, Ethiopia, Brazil, Nigeria, and China) owe half of the $391 billion owed to the World Bank.

Operating on the basis of the same principles of the World Bank, the RDBs are multilateral financial institutions providing financial and technical assistance for development to low- and middle-income countries within their regions. The most important among them are the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank (Fujita, 2013), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Inter-American Development Bank (Advogados, 2020). Oddly enough, RDBs have received scant scholarly attention in spite of the increasing importance of their role in the world economy (in 2019, they mobilized over $63 billion of private finance for operations in developing countries). Clifton et al. (2021) fill this gap by providing a useful comparative and well-informed analysis of their development, regional integration, and market remotion functions, as well as impact and potential. It may be noted here that multilateral development banks may sanction individuals involved in bank-financed projects (Liakopoulos, 2020; Madir, 2020; Manacorda & Grasso, 2018).

The GEF emerged in the redistributive multilateral architecture as a move by Western governments to placate criticisms against the environmental policies of the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s (Young, 2002). In spite of these inauspicious beginnings, GEF has over time been able to anchor itself solidly in the multilateral redistributive architecture. As an institution jointly sponsored by the World Bank and the UNDP, GEF has evolved into the largest source of multilateral funding for biodiversity globally. Each year, the GEF distributes over $1 billion for projects related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, and forest management in developing countries. To date, the institution has doled out more than $22 billion in grants and mobilized another $120 billion in cofinancing for more than 5,200 projects and programs (Batra et al., 2022; DeSombre, 2006).

With its current overall annual budget of 168 billion Euros, the EU cannot be overlooked. A large proportion of it is redistributed within the EU itself, its largest component being the common agricultural subsidies which took the lion’s share in the last decades of the 20th century (Pearce, 2023). Their proportion has significantly decreased but still represents a third of the EU’s 2021–2027 budget, amounting to some 387 billion Euros on payments for farmers and support for rural development. Less visible but still sizable and an important instrument of “cohesion,” the European Social Fund in place since 1957 “to foster employment, reduce social exclusion and invest in skills” had a total budget of 70 billion Euros for the period 2014–2020 and 88 billion Euros for the period 2021–2027. The external dimension of the EU redistributive policies relates to development cooperation (OECD, 2018a; Van den Sanden, 2022). The EU claims to be the world’s largest official development assistance donor. This is correct only if the figure combines what comes under the discretionary purview of the European Commission and the EU member states’ bilateral budgets. Excluding EU members’ bilateral budgets., the EU development aid amounts to some $14 billion, still a sizable sum. On this subject, the literature is spotty (Carbone, 2007; Saltness, 2022).

The United Nations and its specialized agencies, which were virtually invisible suppliers of technical assistance services in the early 1950s, have inched their way to the position of major provider of “operational activities for development” and humanitarian aid, now funding over $60 billion a year in assistance and capacity building projects through more than 40 entities, the most important of them being the World Food Programme ($8.9 billion), UNICEF ($6.1 billion), UNDP ($5.7 billion), UNHCR ($4.2 billion), WHO ($3.7 billion), IOM ($2 billion), and FAO ($1.2 billion; Dag Hammarskjold and United Nations Multi-Partner Tryus Fund, 2022). There is no dearth of studies of the UN work in development, going back to those of Keenleyside (1966) and Stokke (2009), down to more recent ones penned by Browne (2012, 2017), Browne and Weiss (2021), Ocampo (2016), and Unger (2018). Relatively scant attention, however, has been devoted to the implications of the structural changes that have taken place in recent decades in the financing of the UN “development system.” As noted by the Dag Hammarskjold and United Nations Multi-Partner Tryus Fund (2022), while it can be argued that humanitarian assistance and development may be viewed as two sides of the same coin (Hanatani et al., 2018), total expenditures on humanitarian activities have been increasing exponentially while expenditures on development assistance have been steadily declining, the former surpassing the latter for the first time in 2016. Another troublesome long-term trend is the decline in the relative shares of assessed and core funding, a stark reminder of the governments’ resolve to limit the discretionary capacity of multilateral institutions. Whether humanitarian assistance has expanded at the expense of development remains a politically explosive issue pitting North against South.

In any case, as new actors enter a field hitherto dominated by conventional/traditional humanitarians in new types of conflicts blurring the lines between civilian and military actors and situations marked by blatant violations human rights and humanitarian law, it is probable that the humanitarian assistance regime will continue to evolve as different notions of the norms of sovereignty, impartiality, and humanitarianism vie for dominance in the United Nations (Hoffman & Weiss, 2018; Seygin & Dijkzeul, 2016).

Final Thoughts: The Legitimacy/Accountability Conundrum

Enforcers, managers, or authorities (Jutta et al., 2007; Reinalda & Verbeek, 2004), global players (Wetzel, 2011), self-directed actors (Oestreich, 2012), global conflict managers (Whitman & Wolff, 2012), agents of distinct political cultures (Zervak, 2014)—the common thread behind this language about international organizations (IOs) is not necessarily that they rule the world, as argued by Colemer (2014), or enjoy and exert sovereign powers (Sarooshi, 2007). More accurately, this article suggests that they have come to exercise increasingly broad powers over an expanding range of diverse normative, regulatory, distributive, and redistributive policy objectives. To use the quaint but still relevant language of Harold Lasswell (1936), IOs have become greater participants in who gets what, how, and when in international politics.

Questions of “oughtness” about the exercise (and exerciser) of power and authority, of what is desirable, proper, and appropriate, of accountability and consent—in a nutshell, questions of legitimacy—have been heard since the turn of the 21st century (Clark, 2007; Davant et al., 2010; Ku & Jacobson, 2003). But such questions have grown louder and more insistent, fed over time by the realities of the use of political and bureaucratic power, the proliferation of nonstate actors, and the social media revolution (Barisione & Michailidou, 2017; Diamond & Liddle, 2013; Ellinas & Suleiman, 2012; Heupel & Zurn, 2017; Hoffmann & Vieuten, 2007; Scholte, 2011; Sinha, 2018; Tallberg et al., 2018; Zwass, 2020). Perhaps of greater significance in this process of is the widespread discontent engendered by the social inequities of globalization and their political expression in the rise of populist movements and the Euroskepticism that climaxed in Brexit (Berend, 2019; Bevelander & Wodak, 2019; Diamond, 2019; Fuchs et al., 2009; Gosewinkel, 2015; Jones, 2021; Kirchick, 2017; Mazaar et al., 2017; Norris & Inglehart, 2019; Pasquinucci & Gilbert, 2020; Ramswell, 2018; Stengel et al., 2019; van Herpen, 2021).

The need for “legitimating international organizations” (Ashe et al., 2020; Biegon, 2016; Charlesworth & Coicaud, 2010; Dumas, 2020; Evans, 2021; Georgakakis, 2017; Kutter, 2020; Mentan, 2020; Naciri, 2018; Scico, 2017; Zaum, 2013), including judicial institutions (Adams et al., 2013; Zuniga, 2023), is well understood. But if the notion of legitimacy is relatively clear when applied to national polities, the concept is far more elusive for IOs. The assumption that IOs derive their authority primarily from the consent of their member states (Jutta et al., 2007), especially dominant or hegemonic states (Drezner, 2007), or from a delegation of power under the principal agent theory, is no longer wholly persuasive in light of the mounting “unboundness” of IOs (Matheson, 2006). For some, reasoning on the premise that decision-making arrangements affect both legitimacy and effectiveness, the solution is to be found in devising institutional improvements that would fill IOs’ “democratic deficit” (Campbell, 2018; Goldin, 2013; Nayyar, 2002; Pérez de las Heras, 2017; Schwartzberg, 2013). For others, the notion of representativeness is simply illusory (Hassler, 2013). Should, then, IOs’ legitimacy flow from transnational constitutionalism—that is, shared values about the normative and structural premises of the political orders that they embody (Tsagourias, 2007)—or from a sense of collective identity cutting across regimes and relations between transnational and domestic constitutions? (Christiansen & Reh, 2009; Dunoff & Trachtman, 2011; Joerges & Petersmann, 2011; Wallace & Strømsnes, 2008). Should the legitimacy of IOs be grounded considerations of efficiency, effectiveness, and economics? (Sheehan, 2011; Whalan, 2013). New forms of solidarity? (Bogalska-Martin, 2019). Of social justice? (Barry & Pogge, 2005). Should IOs like NATO that have lost their initial raison d’etre and have yet to find a unifying set of priorities continue to operate? (Rupp, 2006). Should IOs be held accountable when they develop such dysfunctions as fraud, waste, and gross human rights abuses? (Neudorfer, 2015).

Demanding accountability is understandable, in light of the growing scope of IOs’ “invisible governance” (Mathiason, 2007). But to whom is accountability owed, and through what mechanisms? (Rapkin & Braaten, 2007). A revamped UN General Assembly or the European Parliament, which can hardly be described now as “Parliament(s) of Man”? (Kennedy, 2006). The creation of a supranational citizenship regime? (Auvachez, 2009; Balibar, 2004; Zweifel, 2006). Empowered “local institutions”? (Campbell, 2018). Or democratic experimentalism supplementing state-based constitutionalism? (Ortino & Petersmann, 2004). What empirical criteria and parameters should be used to measure claims of greater transparency and accountability?

Adapting the legitimacy models derived from hierarchical, territorially bound constitutions of nation-states to IOs is further complicated by issues arising from “intersecting multilateralisms” (Laatikainen & Smith, 2006). There is a rapidly expanding body of literature documenting how IOs influence one another and act as a source of preference and strategies in their policies, projects, and practices (Biermann & Koops, 2017; Blavoukos & Bourantonis, 2010; Oriol & Jorgensen, 2012). Intersecting, however, does not necessarily mean consistency or convergence, a point relating to the issue of effectiveness discussed earlier (Kissack, 2010; Smith, 2006). Despite shared policy outlooks, the European Union and the Council of Europe relationship in the field of human rights is increasingly fraught with interorganizational conflicts (Kolb, 2013). The disconnect and conflicts between the World Trade Organization principles and practices and international law rules relating to the environment, sustainable development, and social regulation has been repeatedly underlined (Kulosevi, 2011; Pauwely, 2003; Schefer, 2010; Voigt, 2009).

The discourse on the legitimacy of IOs would also gain in depth if the literature were not so overwhelmingly dominated by studies of Western organizations and the UN system, a blind spot lamented by Madeleine Herren (2014). Engaging in truly comparative rather than single institutional analyses might be a step in the right direction. In the meantime, casting a better and sharper light on the legitimacy of IOs is indeed likely to be one of the most vexing challenges facing IO scholars and practitioners alike in the years ahead, especially a time when faint but audible doubts can be heard about “global governance” as the dominant mainstream descriptive and explanatory paradigm of IOs (Weiss & Wilkinson, 2019a, 2019b) against the background of a liberal world order in search of a new lease of life (Ferguson & Zakaria, 2017; Fiori et al., 2021; Fukuyama, 2022; Jervis et al., 2018) and ways and means to cope with baffling nontraditional security challenges occurring in the midst of international structural changes (Burki, 2016).


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Appendix 1. Selected Periodicals


American Journal of International Law

American Political Science Review

Arms Control Today

Bulletin of Peace Proposals (Oslo)

China Quarterly

Chinese Journal of International Politics

Conflict Management and Peace Science

Contemporary Security Policy

Cooperation and Conflict

Development and Change

CEPAL Review

Environment Politics

Environmental Policy and Law

Ethics and International Affairs

European Economic Review

European Foreign Affairs Review

European Human Rights Law Review

European Journal of International Relations

European Political Science

European Politics and Society

European Security

Forced Migration Review

Foreign Affairs

Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy Analysis

Global Environmental Politics

Global Governance

Global Security

Human Rights Quarterly

International Affairs (London)

International Economics and Economic Policy

International Feminist Journal of Politics

International Journal of Children Rights

Journal of Cybersecurity

Journal of Eastern African Studies

Journal of European Integration

Journal of European Public Policy

Journal of Development Studies

Journal of Global Security Studies

Journal of International Humanitarian Action

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs

Journal of Humanitarian Assistance

Journal of International Relations and Development

Journal of International Development

Journal of International Studies

Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding

Journal of Peace Research

Journal of Refugee Studies

Journal of Transatlantic Studies

Journal of World Intellectual Property

Latin American Politics and Society

Latin American Research Review

International Journal on World Peace

International Negotiation

International Organization (London)

International Organizations Law Review

International Peacekeeping

International Political Science Review

International Review of the Red Cross

International Security

International Studies Quarterly

Journal of Common Market Studies

Journal of Conflict Resolution

Journal of Contemporary European Research

Journal of Contemporary European Studies



Political Studies Review

Review of African Political Economy

Review of International Political Economy

Review of International Organizations

Review of International Studies

Security Studies

Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Studies in Comparative International Development

Terrorism and Political Violence

The Hague Journal of Diplomacy

The International Journal of Human Rights

The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance

The Non-Proliferation Review

The Review of International Organizations

Third World Quarterly

Transnational Organized Crime

World Politics

Appendix 2. Selected Think Tanks

American Society of International Law

Atlantic Council

Brookings Institution

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Carnegie Europe

Centre for European Policy Studies

Centre for Global Development

Chatham House

Clingendael Institute

Council on Foreign Relations

European Council on Foreign Relations

European Policy Centre

Freedom House

Heritage Foundation

International Alert

International Crisis Group

International Peace Institute

Population Council

Security Council Report

South Centre

Transparency International

United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research

United Nations University

United States Institute of Peace

World Policy Institute