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date: 15 October 2019

The History of International Organization(s)

Summary and Keywords

The emerging discipline of Political Science recognized international organization as an object of study earlier (i.e., around 1910) than International Law, which through an engagement with League of Nations ideals began to follow the developments of international organizations (IOs) during the 1920s, and History, which kept its focus on states and war rather than on IOs until the early 2000s. The debate between Liberal Institutionalism and (after 1945 dominant) Realism deeply influenced the study of IOs. The engagement of the United States in the United Nations System, however, stimulated further studies of IOs and produced new theoretical orientations that left room for Realist factors. The modernization of International Relations studies through Regime Theory eventually removed the need to ask historical questions, resulting in short-term studies of IOs, but new approaches such as Constructivism and Historical Institutionalism contributed to studies of long-term change of IOs and critical junctures in history. The main International Relations approach traces the rise of the United Nations System (or, more broadly, IOs) as an instrument of American exceptionalism in the world. This view is being criticized by the paradigmatic turn in the discipline of History in the early 2000s, which has included IOs in its research and relates the creation of IOs to imperial powers such as the United Kingdom and France that wanted to safeguard their empires. These historical studies start in 1919 rather than 1945 and also question International Relations’ Western-centrist universalism by including competing universalisms such as anticolonial nationalism.

Keywords: international relations studies, international organization, intergovernmental organization, historical institutionalism, history, diplomatic history, transnational history, global history, international law


This article reviews the literature about the history of international organization (singular) as a process and international organizations (plural) as “representative aspects of the phase of that process which has been reached at a given time” (Claude, 1956/1966, p. 4). The history of the process and the organizations are like children neglected by both historians and political scientists working in international studies. This neglect and the disagreement about when exactly international organizations (IOs) began to matter (1945 or earlier) raise the issue of this history’s relevance. Charles Tilly (2009) once showed that processes of state formation were far more contingent, transitory, and reversible than political scientists expected in their assumption that state formation often followed roughly the same course. He favored the use of history to build more adequate explanations of politics past and present, with history becoming “an essential element of sound explanations for political processes” because “Not only do all political processes occur in history and therefore call for knowledge of their historical contexts, but also where and when political processes occur influence how they occur” (p. 524). Does Tilly’s argument about history and state formation also apply to the process of international organization and the emergence of IOs?

The article explores this question by tracing how in both disciplines (as well as occasionally Law) the neglect of IO history appeared (or disappeared), which historical perspectives matter, and whether history indeed is an essential component that helps to explain IOs more adequately. Based on literature, I trace the actual attention paid to the history of IOs in both disciplines with an open eye, attempting to cover several theoretical approaches and remaining aware that in debates between approaches, retrospective imaging occurs. However, these debates reveal moments when more, or less, attention is paid to (the history of) IOs. IOs exist in two forms: intergovernmental (IGOs), with states as members, and international nongovernmental (INGOs), with private associations as members. While in the Anglo-American world the expression “IOs” often refers to IGOs, it also is (as in this text) an umbrella term covering both forms.

The article starts with the lack of attention to IOs in the discipline of History and continues with the emergence of IO studies by political scientists, the different pathways chosen by History and International Law, and the first debate between Realism and Liberal Institutionalism, which deeply influenced the study of IOs. The article then examines the studies of the United Nations (UN) System and other IOs that emerged after 1945, with new theoretical inroads and some interest in IO history. Another debate in the subfield of International Relations (between Regime Theory and Neorealism) removed the need to ask historical questions, but this was followed by a period in which IO studies widened their perspectives again, also paying attention to processes of change. The article ends with the early 21st-century paradigmatic turn in the discipline of History, which began to include IGOs and INGOs in its research. It fundamentally criticizes existing views on IO research and proposes an alternative approach.

Little Interest in IOs Among Historians

There is no obvious disciplinary division of labor between the two disciplines, with Political Science analyzing IOs as actors in international power relations and History covering the rise and development of these actors and relations, as the history of IOs has not received much attention from historians, who rather have focused on states as actors. When Francis Lyons (1963, p. 5) studied 19th-century “internationalism” in Europe and focused on river commissions, public international unions, and private associations between 1815 and 1914, he noticed that political scientists and international lawyers had studied these experiments in international government and organization but that historians had to a great extent neglected them. Most historians had written the 19th-century history “largely in nationalistic terms.” By neglecting the “international Europe where the traditional divisions between countries had come to have less and less meaning,” historians did not provide “the whole picture,” because internationalism then was “virtually all-embracing in its scope” (Lyons, 1963, p. 11).

In a handbook article historians Rodogno, Gauthier, and Piana (2013) concluded that diplomatic historians and scholars of international relations (IR) had overlooked IOs as a unit of analysis. With few exceptions these scholars did not “deem IOs as objects worthy of inquiry” and, if taken into consideration, there was a lack of attention “to understanding how IOs emerge and operate” (p. 95). Historians Glenda Sluga and Patricia Clavin (2017) observed that “internationalism” as an idea or ideal or manifest in the making of IOs could rarely be heard in History “as more than a whisper in narratives of the past” (p. 3). They explain the neglect of international law and IOs by the primacy of states and their foreign policies that has dominated the discipline’s premises. As in Political Science, states are seen as the principal actors in IR, with politics defined as a struggle for power. Even if IOs contribute to the management of IR, major powers retain ultimate authority. IGOs have few power capabilities and therefore are less important and exciting, which is even more true for INGOs. If actors are seen as of little significance, there is no need to investigate their history. It would take a long time for this attitude to change.

Early IO Studies

How did Law, Political Science, and History view the early process of international organization? The scientific outlines of public and private International Law were shaped in 19th-century debates about what constituted the “Law of Nations.” Universities created chairs in various aspects of International Law. The first periodical was set up in 1869, and in 1873 two INGOs began to promote the discipline’s general progress. In the early 1890s some lawyers published overviews of IOs (Descamps, 1894; Moynier, 1892), but the general international legal literature of the time did not pay any special attention to these: “At best the books mentioned the founding treaties without pointing out that these had installed stable institutions” (Peters & Peter, 2012, p. 175). English-language standard treatises published between the late 1850s and 1910 did not discuss IOs at all. Hence, professional neglect occurred also in early International Law.

With Political Science still strongly rooted in Law, the emerging discipline recognized international organization as an object of study. Paul Reinsch (1911) published his overview of the work and organization of IOs as “a study in international administrative law,” arguing that international law’s traditional ideas were in need of revision (p. v). Reinsch saw a “new internationalism,” “which is slowly and carefully embodied in the forms of political organization,” and regarded the realm of international organization an accomplished fact.

Around 1910 several institutions began to collect and disseminate information about IOs. The first listings of IGOs and INGOs, providing profiles with information about objectives, means, and composition of bodies, were published in the L’Annuaire de la vie internationale. Alfred Fried published the first series in 1905–1907, and the 1908–1909 and 1910–1911 editions were published in cooperation with what in 1910 became the Union of International Associations (later responsible for the Yearbook of International Organizations). In 1910 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace transformed the periodical International Conciliation into the first professional journal in IR and supported the 1910–1911 publication of the L’Annuaire.

Ideas about international organization mattered seriously in this period. During the First World War plans for an international peace organization or “international government,” that is, an organization jointly set up by states, were prepared in both private circles and special units created by the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States. These plans, based on ideas about global social engineering and the need of a grand design, played a role during the creation of the League of Nations in 1919. “World government” as a viable solution to war was an even larger idea, referring to the notion of a single cohesive political organization of a world state (Yunker, 2011). John Hobson (1915) and Leonard Woolf (1916) published detailed plans for “international government,” which reflected the experience of the 19th-century IOs and assumed that peace as a condition had to be actively and jointly promoted by governments. Regarding fundamental ideas, both authors built upon those who had much earlier put forward “peace plans,” such as Abbé de Saint Pierre, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, and Immanuel Kant (Kant, 1795/1796). These philosophers had advanced proposals for the creation of IOs through the designing of structures (a general assembly, an international court) and the assignment of functions to these structures. Their ideas (Ter Meulen, 1917) had also mattered to the statesmen who designed the Concert of Europe a century earlier (Jarrett, 2014).

New institutions to analyze international developments were created: the Royal Institute of International Affairs (known as Chatham House, London, 1921) and the Council on Foreign Relations (New York, 1921). Rather than being public opinion–focused, the Graduate Institute of International Relations (Geneva, 1927) was established as an academic institution awarding degrees. Philanthropic organizations such as the Carnegie Endowment and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913) financed research and backed movements that supported the League in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere (Parmar, 2011, p. 64). In this era IO studies could have barely progressed without such philanthropic assistance (on their influence, see Kuru, 2017; Olson & Groom, 1991, pp. 74–76).

Different Paths for History and Law

Subjects such as collective security, peaceful change, and the use of economic policy as a means to peace were on the scientific agenda of the 1930s, but the study of IR and IOs developed only in a few democratic countries, where it enjoyed indirect government support without being subject to official control, whereas in authoritarian states the study existed as an explanation and justification of state policy. Based upon 14 IR textbooks published between 1919 and 1931, William Olson and John Groom (1991, p. 69) presented the topics discussed by textbook authors, listed in order of frequency. Of the nine topics, “international organization” held second place, after “diplomatic history” (first) and before “economic aspects of world affairs” (third) and “international law” (fifth). Mainstream IR texts published between 1931 and 1941 continued to cover IOs designed to prevent war.

While IR had an interdisciplinary start, with Law as its central building bloc, other sciences (Economics, Sociology) showed little evidence of interest in its further development. Diplomatic and Contemporary History mattered, but more strongly in the United Kingdom than the United States. However, History had its own methodology, was not future oriented, and focused on war rather than organizations. History thus developed differently from International Law, which now viewed itself as “a positive reflection of the progressive elements of free democratic states associating themselves in a League of Nations to create a better international community” (Olson & Groom, 1991, p. 184). Consequently, Law began to follow IO developments closely and continued doing so after 1945, with several International Law handbooks (Alvarez, 2005; Hillier, 1994; Klabbers, 2013; N. D. White, 1996) better informed about IO developments than Political Science ones.

Realism Versus Liberal Institutionalism

Olson and Groom (1991) asked the question of to what extent IR literature was “idealist internationalist” but concluded that the literature of the 1920s did not particularly reflect this paradigm: “The short answer is, ‘not much.’ All the authors possessed an international, as contrasted to a narrowly nationalistic, outlook” (p. 81). They also discovered neither internationalist nor idealist predominance in the approximately 40 mainstream IR textbooks published between 1916 and 1941: “Even if by ‘idealist’ we mean no more than stressing the efficacy of law and organization, only about half of these can be said to be even primarily idealistic in tone” (p. 81). Their conclusion of not much idealism is relevant, given the controversy between Realism and Idealism, with the central features of Idealism being defined retrospectively by postwar Realism (Schmidt, 2002, p. 10).

Edward Carr’s (1939) The Twenty Years’ Crisis and Hans Morgenthau’s (1948/1978) Politics among Nations established Realism as the dominant IR paradigm, with states as major actors. Historian Carr argued that the science of International Politics should leave its “utopian” phase and embark on the “hard ruthless analysis of reality,” with Realism as the “necessary corrective to the exuberance of utopianism” with its idealistic wishes about a world-state and an alleged harmony of interests (pp. 13–16). The utopian character of IR analyses prevented full understanding of the ongoing crisis. Carr and political scientist Morgenthau refer to philosophers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes and use history to support their arguments but do not leave much room for international law and IOs in the search for power and peace. Because law is a function of politics, Carr (Part 4) did not expect much of international treaties and dispute resolution. Morgenthau characterized international law as primitive and the contribution of IOs as modest, while INGOs were not given real consideration.

When IR theory began to break away from International Law, the concept of “power politics” caused the first debate between the schools of realists and liberal institutionalists. German emigrant Morgenthau introduced the Continental European emphasis on power politics in American Political Science. However, when he arrived in Chicago in 1943, his vision was not particularly welcomed, as the discipline, in line with Olson and Groom’s (1991) conclusion, shared more goals and adherents with Liberal Institutionalism than it did with Realism. This changed after the war, when Realism became IR’s dominant paradigm with an almost prejudiced opinion about IOs. Cecilia Lynch (1994) criticized Carr’s labeling of peace actors as “utopian” and “idealist” because it stigmatized attempts by actors other than states to influence the course of IR: “This stigma has endured in both popular and theoretical parlance over the past fifty years and should be re-examined,” as the exclusion of several actors presents an incomplete picture (p. 594).

When Should IO Studies Start?

IR studies often assume that IO prominence made its real start in 1945. A prelude is not denied, but previous organizations are seen as peripheral and negligible. This fits with the fact that governments that designed new IOs after the world wars portrayed older IOs as outdated and of little relevance. This happened in 1919 with the IOs set up since 1815 and the Concert of Europe, which was not an IO in the true sense (Mackenzie, 2010, p. 5). Several authors, however, see 1919 as the beginning, with the League of Nations as “the first experiment at world organization” (Cottrell, 2018). Literature easily assumes that international secretariats and officials did not emerge before 1919, when the League and its Secretariat were designed at the Peace Conference. For example, John Mathiason (2007) states bluntly: “Before that time they simply did not exist” (p. 25). In reality, however, the (still active) Rhine and Danube commissions established combinations of well-elaborated sub-bureaucracies (technical services, accounting, inspections, judicial), and public international unions could not have performed their worldwide tasks without secretariats hiring fixed and variable staff (Mangone, 1954, ch. 3). When the UN replaced the League in 1945, the League’s asserted “failure” became a persistent myth and, as such, an argument for not seriously discussing its history. As a result, many IR books dealing with IOs actually start in 1945, with just a few pages discussing their prelude.

The year 1945 is a noteworthy caesura in international encyclopedias. In the International Studies Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Denemark (2010, Vol. III), political scientists Bob Reinalda and Jacques Fomerand discuss, respectively, the years 1815–1945 and the period thereafter. The Oxford Handbook of International Organizations has historian Madeleine Herren (2016) examining the years 1865–1945 and Lawyer B. S. Chimni (2016) the period 1945 to the present day. Herren (p. 91) touches upon earlier developments but sees the 1860s as the take-off period, when IOs began to shape states’ access to the world market. Yet Chimni claims that “it is only since the Second World War that IOs have become an integral part of the landscape of international politics” (p. 113). Tallberg, Sommerer, Squatrito, and Jönsson (2013) see the opening up of IGOs to transnational actors as a post-1950 affair, arguing that IGOs “were long the exclusive preserve of member governments” (p. 1). They thus ignore all previous private influence within IGOs (Charnovitz, 1997; Davies, 2013; Reinalda, 2018; L. C. White, 1951/1968).

It is questionable if 1865, with the first public international union being created, can be seen as a starting point, since multilateral behavior had to be learned and IOs did not fall out of a clear blue sky. In 1815 the first formal IO, in the form of a river commission, was created, which among diplomats set in motion a thorny and widely followed learning process in multilateral negotiation. Related was the invention of a follow-up conference by British Foreign Secretary Castlereagh, who wanted to keep control over the implementation of decisions taken by the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815). He developed this idea and achieved its inclusion in the bilateral treaties between the major powers at the second Paris Peace Conference of November 1815 (Seton-Watson, 1955, p. 48). The mechanism of a conference plus follow-up conference, also in fields other than “high politics,” resulted in the custom that states, having reached agreement, would convene a follow-up conference to assess whether the agreed-upon decisions and policies had been implemented. If not, new deliberations and decisions were required, including a further follow-up conference.

Series of multilateral conferences produce “incremental decision making,” with decisions building on past policies through small rather than extensive adjustments (Lindblom, 1959). Unlike before 1815, when international follow-up conferences were absent, the new mechanism resulted in ongoing cycles of conferences dealing with similar and related issues. Apart from ad hoc continuity they produced “path dependence” regarding selected common solutions and efforts (once decisions have taken a certain direction, they continue in that direction). History since 1815 matters here because a path of previous outcomes with relatively small and contingent events resulted in larger consequences, among them since 1865 the institutionalization of several conference series, with regular assembly meetings of the public international unions replacing Castlereagh’s ad hoc mechanism and permanent secretariats taking care of continuity. Hence, the inclusion of institution-building factors makes 1815 the starting point, with 1865 (the unions), 1919 (the League), and 1945 (the UN) as other options.

Functionalism and Nuanced Realism

US engagement in the UN System, with IOs headquartered in New York and Washington, stimulated US postwar studies of IOs and produced new theoretical orientations, although realists viewed the Cold War as confirming their assumptions. The World Peace Foundation understood the requirement of comparative knowledge and founded the journal International Organization, which in 1947 began to publish articles on and summaries of IO activities. Among the new theoretical approaches were David Mitrany’s (1948) ideas about Functionalism as the basis for postwar planning. He rejected the “grand design” approach of the League and the UN and suggested that international cooperation should begin with specific transnational issues (e.g., disease control) followed by further development of successful “functional” arrangements. Ernst Haas, who built upon Mitrany’s work, expected that progress on more technical and economic issues, with “spill over” from one policy field to another, would lead to greater political cooperation between states. Karl Deutsch anticipated that transactions between populations and the growth of integrative institutions and practices would help states to relate to each other in pluralistic security communities. These approaches were subject to criticisms but “undermined” Realism by selecting IR developments that fitted realist predictions poorly and explained these by “processes and actors outside the state” (Kahler, 1997, p. 33).

Inis Claude (1956/1966), a nuanced realist, was aware of the relevance of IO history and regarded international organization as “a distinct modern phase of world politics” (p. 5). Like Reinsch in 1911, he saw it as “an established trend”: “International organizations may come and go, but international organization is here to stay” (pp. 5–6). In his book Swords into Plowshares, Claude discussed the 19th century since 1815, the League’s establishment, and the origins of the UN System as well as constitutional problems and approaches to peace through international organization. Although IOs are a product of politics between states, Claude pointed to the “mutuality of interaction, with international organization becoming a factor influencing the course of international politics” between states (p. 7). Based in International Law, political scientist Mangone’s (1954) history of international organization examined IO history from “before Napoleon” to the early 1950s and attempted to portray developments “along constitutional lines with attention to procedure and law, hoping to indicate a potential, though by no means inevitable, growth toward world order” (p. v). Donald Puchala (2003) kept defending the systematic analysis of history to inform IR theory.

Several researchers combined Liberal approaches and Realism. Ernst Haas’s (1964) Beyond the Nation State developed an analytical framework that combined Functionalism with Organization Theory, leaving plenty of room for Realist factors. The Anatomy of Influence (Robert Cox and Harold Jacobson, 1973) scrutinized eight IOs through a common framework developed by Cox and Jacobson, who analyzed them as political systems with linkages to member states. Although they arrived at a Realist conclusion (the more salient the decisions, the less autonomy the IO achieves), their analyses also showed that IOs can become fairly autonomous. Unlike Claude, who he had excluded INGOs, Jacobson (1979) included these in his Networks of Interdependence.

Following up on Quincy Wright’s (1942) A Study of War (see Chapter XXIX on international organization and war), the Correlates of War (COW) project in the field of International Security contains information about IOs from 1815 onwards (collected at five-year intervals until 1965, thereafter annually). David Singer and Michael Wallace (1970) analyzed the effect of IOs during any five-year period on conflict behavior of states in the following period, but this first foray into quantification of IO effects ended in disappointment, as the IOs did not appear to reduce war. The COW data set has been improved, and several studies with historical dimensions have been published using statistical relations between IOs and topics such as peace, governance, democratization, and determinants of membership (Gartzke & Schneider, 2013). The other widely used source for IGO and INGO numbers over time is the Yearbook of International Organizations, published since 1948 (Bloodgood, 2011; Laqua, Van Acker, & Verbruggen, 2019). Many researchers have created their own data sets to show developments over time (e.g., Johnson, 2014, pp. 223–253), using these and other sources, but a critical assessment of their composition is missing (e.g., how to count colonies, dependent entities but several of them also IO members).

On the assumption that the more stable states are economically and socially, the smaller the chances of radical change, many IO studies and Functional theories developed during the 1960s and 1970s presupposed the normality of gradual change, emphasizing order instead of change. UN specialized agencies were regarded as sources of stability rather than (potential) sources of change, while the scope of change remained limited. The approach was status quo oriented, seeking to improve the operation of IOs incrementally and to correct perceived malfunctions of the existing order (Reinalda, 1999, p. 113). Chimni (2016) characterizes mainstream Liberal-Institutionalist history of IOs as “a narrative of progress,” with international cooperation between states bringing a more rationalized world, including fundamental liberal values (p. 115).

Regime Theory, Neorealism, and the English School

During the 1960s the interstate paradigm was questioned as a result of ongoing European integration, the increasing weight of transnational corporations in IR, and Dependence Theory, which argued that corporations and IOs sided with the rich Northern states. The major change for IR studies, however, came from the move toward theory. When Robert Keohane (1969) became an editor of International Organization, he argued that studies of the UN and its agencies suffered from the “Mount Everest syndrome.” IOs were studied “because they were there,” rather than on the basis of relevant theoretical questions. As a result, the journal’s focus moved from concrete IOs to IR theory, which caused another debate with Realism. Neoliberal institutionalists, as they were called, used the term “regime” to capture the cluster of rules, institutions, and conventions that go beyond the formal IO definition, while “international institution” comprised IGOs, INGOs, and less formal regimes and customs. During the 1990s the term “institution” replaced the term “regime,” allowing for analyses of formal and informal sets of rules that specify what states should do.

Regime Theory’s widened perspective, however, was challenged by the Hegemonic Stability Theory, which stressed the importance of state power and explained regimes in Realist terms. While Keohane (1984) in After Hegemony argued that regimes change governments’ calculations of advantages and that international institutions make the international system less anarchical and facilitate cooperation among states, so-called neorealists succeeded in maintaining the argument that IOs are second-order phenomena or tools of states, lacking power and moral agency (Oestreich, 2011, p. 164). Theoretical modernization of Neoliberal Institutionalism thus remained restricted, as it, like Neorealism, regarded institutions in instrumental terms and took constant international anarchy for granted (Ruggie, 1998, pp. 9–10). The latter premise removed the need to ask historical questions about the evolving structure of states and the international system (Little, 1994, p. 17). However, the outcome of this debate also resulted in concerns that research left international institutions of a formal kind behind (Abbott & Snidal, 1998; Kratochwil & Ruggie, 1986, pp. 771–772).

The definition of institution by the so-called English School, which is related to British international studies (rather than science) and is more historically oriented, is broader than that which originated from the American debate. The English School assumes the expansion of a society of states in the Grotian tradition, with ideas, norms, and institutions guiding state behavior (Bull & Watson, 1984). It also de-emphasizes formal organizations, since these are regarded as important only to the extent that they strengthen the basic institutions of diplomacy, international law, and the balance of power. In their overview of international systems in world history Barry Buzan and Richard Little (2000, p. 267) regard transnational corporations and INGOs as non-state units but not IGOs, because they do not have sufficient autonomous actor quality to count as such. However, Buzan and Little also theorized that the existence of IGOs raises the political interaction capacity of the international system by providing preset pathways for diplomacy as well as agreed-on rules, practices, and obligations to participate. Because more political interaction is possible in an international system that possesses IGOs than in one that does not, it allows attention to be paid to the question of when IGOs emerged (i.e., during the 1860s and 1870s; Buzan & Little, 2000, p. 290). INGOs had begun to play an increasingly important role in world politics by the end of the 20th century, particularly through their association with IGOs. Although their actor status was not in doubt, INGOs faced restrictions in contributing to political interaction (Buzan & Little, 2000, p. 274).

Constructivism and Global Governance

While American IR theory moved away from IO research and historical questions during the 1970s and 1980s, viewpoints from domestic politics began to play roles during the 1990s. Liberal IR study widened its perspectives as a result of non-state actor research and Constructivism, as well as the creation of new platforms to study the UN System. Whereas some claimed that INGOs (an old phenomenon) had developed “alongside but outside” the state system and with little impact on it (Huntington, 1973, p. 368), others interpreted them as transnational pressure groups with their own assets (Princen, 1994; Willetts, 1996) or showed that INGOs were prominent enough to be part of IR research programs (Gordenker & Weiss, 1995). Historical outlooks helped to illustrate their value or to interpret them as part of an increasing civil society and its international dimensions. In the Constructivist mode, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink (1998) developed the “transnational advocacy network” approach, including the targeting of IOs and historical examples. Martha Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) complemented this approach by clarifying the function of IOs as organizational platforms in an international norms dynamic.

Constructivism as a theoretical approach changed the IR assumption that state preferences have their sources located within the state (Finnemore, 1996), as IOs may help states to identify their interests (Weber, 1997) through epistemic communities (P. M. Haas, 1992) or processes of socialization within IOs (Checkel, 2005). Constructivism builds on Neoliberalism but starts out from an international system where ideas and identities are able to change over time, rather than being given. It does not depart from the rational self-interest of states but sees interest formation as “more complex, changeable and contingent” (Oestreich, 2011, p. 169). Constructivism accepts IO agency and has a greater interest than realists and liberals in the internal operations of IOs. Barnett and Finnemore’s (2004) Rules for the World does not look at intended purposes of IOs but rather at processes that develop over time and may result in inefficient and self-defeating outcomes (called pathologies). Their Sociological Institutionalism draws strongly on Max Weber’s ideas of bureaucracy and depicts IO bureaucracies “as powerful social forces with their own sources of authority as well as their own internal rules that shape outcomes” (Oestreich, 2011, p. 170; see also Steffek, 2017).

The new term “global governance” reflected moving beyond the sole focus on the interests of states to include other actors, such as IGOs, transnational corporations, INGOs, and new kinds of networks (Barnett & Sikkink, 2008, p. 64), and recognized processes of change. It starts out from the social engineering thesis that society is malleable by governmental policies and institutions. Governments and IOs manipulate long-term processes and are willing to perform tasks, such as designing and implementing infrastructural works. Legislation provides a steering effect, and the concept of policy cycles comprises the possibility of evaluation and adjustment. Private actors may influence governments directly, but also through participation in (quasi-)governmental institutions and influence within IOs. The term “governance” suggested coherence in international efforts to manage political, economic, and social affairs, particularly through the web of IOs and regimes, the entanglement of states and IOs, and the transnational roles of private actors. This coherence includes elements of cooperation, coordination, steering, learning, and correction but not the authority or hierarchy implied in the older term “world government.”

In 1987 IR academics in the United States created, with some UN support, the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) in order to overcome the decline in interest in the UN that had occurred in that country. Academics used ACUNS annual meetings to discuss IO research with a strong focus on the UN System, and in 1995 ACUNS launched the journal Global Governance as a review of multilateralism and IOs, thus increasing interest again in how IOs behave and develop. The International Studies Association also stimulated debate and research on IOs. It saw its International Organization Section increase in size and established a Historical IR Section in 2013.

Set up in 1999 by social scientists Louis Emmerij, Richard Jolly, and Thomas Weiss, the UN Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) resulted in 15 monographs, published between 2001 and 2010, providing an impressive overview of what the UN did to originate and foster important ideas and what consequences those efforts have had (Berg, 2006). Based on 73 in-depth interviews with key individuals, archival research, and historical and political analyses, it investigated the birth of the UN as an instrument strongly rooted in U.S. ideas. This reading is much in line with mainstream ideas tracing the UN as an instrument of American exceptionalism in the world, following Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime ideas. While the idea of “development” receives the most emphasis, “independence” as an idea relevant elsewhere in the world is almost completely neglected. UNIHP summarizes the US Political Science view of (the creation of) the UN System. It does not fundamentally question IO history by also considering earlier attempts of British imperialism to preserve its power, an argument put forward by historians (Baert, 2009, pp. 49–50).

Paying attention to the UN’s history was not always planned. IR specialist Stephen Schlesinger began to document the UN’s founding after historian Gar Alperovitz had discovered, through the Freedom of Information Act, that the United States had been spying at the 1945 San Francisco conference. Since a single full-length account of the UN’s establishment did not exist, which is telling in itself, he decided to write one. His Act of Creation (Schlesinger, 2003) reconstructed the events in much detail, describing both personalities and political games that helped to overcome rivalry between states, reservations, discontent, a sceptical press, and several moments when the founding nearly collapsed. The outcome in 1945 was not fixed in advance, as is assumed in many publications. The period of the “United Nations” as Allied war participants (1942–1945) had “faded from cultural memory” and also from Plesch’s (2011) own understanding of UN history until 2004, when he decided to write a book about this “forgotten” period (p. xv).

Neo-Institutionalism and Critical Theory

Neo-institutionalism also impacted IO research by emphasizing aspects of change and adaptation. Sociologists Gayl Ness and Steven Brechin (1988; see also Brechin & Ness, 2013) compared Organizational Sociology and IR and concluded that IR had an “essentially naïve view” of organizations as “simple mechanical tools that act directly and precisely at the bidding of their creators,” rather than as “significant units of action” (1988, pp. 269–270). Political scientists James March and Johan Olsen (1998), who had argued in Rediscovering Institutions that administrative institutions provide order and influence change in politics, showed that, regarding the logics that guide decision making within IOs, Realist-dominated IR theory had paid more attention to the “logic of consequentiality,” which focuses on expected consequences in terms of survival and power relations, than to the “logic of appropriateness” with its focus on fitting solutions. As a result, IR had missed the slow pace of historical adaptation and should have portrayed the match between IOs and their environments as “less automatic, less continuous, and less precise” than in the Realist focus on national interests and competition for survival (pp. 954–955).

Historical Institutionalism emerged as an established research tradition in domestic politics, emphasizing how institutions change. It is concerned with long-term evolution and outcomes, intended or not. The notion of “path dependence” helps to identify agents relevant for the establishment, development, and change of institutions. Kathleen Thelen’s (2003) distinction between “institutional layering” and “conversion” and that of Ernst Haas (1990) between “adaptation” and “learning” in IOs have been ways to examine, respectively, gradual and far-reaching change in IOs. Tine Hanrieder (2015) combined Historical Institutionalism, Bureaucratic Politics, and Resource Dependence Theory to trace long-term IO reform, throwing light on internal coalitions preventing adaptation as they are privileged by a given pathway, either formally (relying on rules) or informally (relying on practice).

The path-dependent logic may also reveal critical junctures in history when change is possible. In his book After Victory, Ikenberry (2001, p. 72) chose institution-building moments after major wars (1815, 1919, 1945), which are rare in history. To explain junctures when states are aware of high costs but willing to perform multilaterally, he combined Realism and Liberal Institutionalism. Realism neglected the role of institutions, while Liberal theories neglected the role of leading states in restraining themselves by using a strategy of institutional binding in order to build long-term security, political and economic commitments that are difficult to retract. Binding mechanisms include treaties, interlocking organizations, joint management responsibilities, and agreed-upon standards and principles. These raise the costs of exit and create voice opportunities for smaller states, thereby providing mechanisms to mitigate or resolve conflicts. Ikenberry (see also Ikenberry, 2019) thus explains the three junctures, including why the United States, the most powerful state in 1945, agreed to spin a dense web of IOs and place itself squarely within them, playing a “more sophisticated power game than neorealism appreciates” (p. xiii).

Robert Cox’s Neo-Gramscian Critical Approach is based on Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of institutions within a larger social order. Cox (1981) criticized IR as a pure expression of state interests. Discerning between “problem-solving” theory that takes the world as it finds it and “critical” theory that “stands apart from the prevailing order of the world and asks how that order came about,” the latter does not take “institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in a process of changing” (p. 129). Craig Murphy (1994, p. 25) regretted that Keohane’s work concentrated only on the last 20 years. Inspired by Cox, Murphy (p. 7) did not treat the public international unions, the League, and the UN as three successive generations but linked the history of IOs to that of industrial progress and the invention of new technologies. Reinalda (2009, 2010) developed an evolutionary approach for his comprehensive history of IOs, taking into account the entire period (1815–2008), all policy fields (security, economics, and humanity), and IGOs and INGOs. Because it left little room for an analysis of relevant individuals, particularly the executive heads of IGOs and their leadership, he initiated IO BIO, the Biographical Dictionary of Secretaries-General of International Organizations (Reinalda, Kille, & Eisenberg, n.d.) with life and career descriptions of executive heads, which also allow prosopographical studies and analyses of interorganizational relations over time (Reinalda & Kille, 2017).

Cox also inspired feminist political scientists such as Sandra Whitworth (1994) and Deborah Stienstra (1994) to incorporate an analysis of gender relations into the history of IOs, a topic also researched by historians (Rupp, 1997). Stienstra covered the period 1840 to 1990 and showed the “inherent conservatism” of IOs: “even when new ideas or practices based on gender were introduced there was significant resistance by those within the organizations and a tendency to constrain the suggestions related to gender.” Unwilling to undertake radical changes, states and IOs “chose to accommodate some of the demands of women’s groups” (p. 157). Kirsten Haack (2014) elaborated this gender approach further.

History’s Transnational and Global Turn

The discipline of History began to change toward the end of the 20th century. When the journal International Security organized a symposium about history and theory, Haber, Kennedy, and Krasner (1997, p. 34) noticed that the disciplines of Political Science and History had drifted apart, with Diplomatic History, where IO history may be expected to be found, being marginalized within the larger study of History as the result of Postmodernism. Although IR continued to flourish within Political Science, the symposium organizers noted that formal theory and quantitative methods appeared to be commanding an ever-larger share of attention and resources in the field of IR. Proponents of case-study and process-tracing methodologies “do with fewer funding and publishing opportunities, and are increasingly pressed to defend their status as social scientists” (Elman & Fendius Elman, 1997, p. 6).

History’s neglect of IOs has impacted the knowledge of IO history. In the absence of academically written histories of IOs, civil servants who were organizational “insiders” became “amateur historians and wrote volumes on ‘their’ IOs,” which gained the status of these organizations’ “official history,” although their authors lacked “impartiality, a critical regard and did not quote their sources according to conventional scholarly standards,” according to Rodogno, Gautheir, and Piana (2013, p. 95). They see many “success stories, or, worse, hagiographical accounts,” which gave the history of IOs “a bad reputation among historians and others” (p. 95). They blame most of these “insider historians” for the fact that they “rarely used their insider’s vantage point to describe the dynamics taking place within a single organization, the rivalries and tensions within and among organizations” and did not “cross-reference their sources or connect their accounts to the broader context” of the time periods discussed (p. 95). Frank Walters’s (1952) history of the League of Nations has quality, but it remains an insider history as Walters was its Deputy Secretary-General. Insiders have written several IO histories, large or small (e.g., on websites). Most IOs allow outside scholars access but may not always be transparent or content with too much attention to internal developments.

In the early 2000s History questioned its Realist premises and started its so-called transnational and global turn. Akira Iriye (2002) remarked that historians had almost entirely ignored the roles that IOs play in modern world affairs. Given the complex interplay of states, IGOs, and INGOs, he used the term “global community” to refer to “the building of transnational networks that are based upon a global consciousness, the idea that there is a wider world over and above separate states and national societies” (p. 8). In his book Global Community he traced the historical evolution of IOs since the 19th century but with a major focus on the period since 1945. Professional debates about non-state actors resulted in new approaches using names such as Transnational, World, and Global History, in which IGOs and INGOs are also discussed and Western-centrism is questioned (Maurel, 2014; Middell, 2018).

Likewise, the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) called for the “decolonization” of IO history. TWAIL found a profound continuity of post-1945 IOs with their predecessors in the colonial era. International financial institutions perform the same function as the League’s mandate system: “producing knowledge about backward peoples in order to guide them to becoming developed” (Anghie, 2000, p. 243). TWAIL sees the post-1945 history of IOs as “facilitating a neo-colonial project under US hegemony,” which neglects the history of the struggle of states from the Global South for independence and against hegemony (Chimni, 2016, pp. 123–124).

The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, edited by Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier (2009), covers the period “from the mid-19th century to the present day.” Interested in links and flows, it tracks “people, ideas, products, processes and patterns that operate over, across, through, beyond, above, under, or in-between polities and societies” (p. xviii). The dictionary’s entries summarize many of the new trends and contribute to the historization of interdependence and interconnection phenomena between national, regional or cultural spheres, the advancement of knowledge on neglected or hazy regions of national and other self-contained territorial histories, and the understanding of trends and protagonists that are often left on the periphery of national and comparative frameworks (p. xx). The Dictionary is informative about IOs. In a special issue of the journal Critique internationale, Sandrine Kott (2011) and others proposed a sociohistorical approach of IOs in the context of globalization.

The journal Comparativ (founded in 1991), devoted to innovative approaches in Transnational, Transregional, and Global History, has cherished a longue durée perspective and questioned conventional borders between regions and area studies. In 2002 it became the official journal of the European Network in Universal and Global History. The Journal of Global History (founded in 2006) has addressed problems of global change, histories of globalization, and countercurrents to globalization and seeks to transcend the dichotomy between “the West” and “the rest.” Sunil Amrith and Glenda Sluga (2008) questioned the assumption that the political borders of nations determine the nature of experience, ideas, or ideologies, seeing the “transnational turn” as a move away from Diplomatic and Institutional History with “national biases.” They favor “new histories” of the UN. Its intellectual history should not merely be seen in the Western tradition (as in UNIHP) but also include other competing universalisms, such as anticolonial nationalism. They propose to benefit from “considering the paths that were not followed” from problematizing the history of assumed progress and being aware that the history of the marginal should be moved into the center (p. 272).

When historian Paul Kennedy (2006), known for his 1988 book about the rise and fall of great powers, was approached in 1993 to become a member of an international commission that would report on the UN’s long-term future during its 50th anniversary, his knowledge of IOs was “most shallow” (p. 291). With the report published in 1995, Kennedy decided to write the UN’s history as “a story of human beings groping toward a common end, a future of mutual dignity, prosperity, and tolerance through shared control of international instruments,” also “a tale of multiple setbacks and disappointments” (p. xiii). The first chapter tells the story of the League, that “significant but flawed institution” that preceded the UN, and the years 1941 to 1945 (Kennedy, 2006, p. 13). The seven remaining chapters discuss the evolution of the UN System as well as its present and future as another narrative of progress. Amy Sayward (2017) criticized Kennedy’s book, referring to “the trap of framing” the UN “in moralistic and emotional language,” with many scholars feeling compelled to prognosticate about its future and to call for its reform. She preferred a more historical examination of the institution and a wider variety of actors engaged in it, which is “where much of the new scholarship on international history takes us” (pp. 2–3).

Historical IO Studies That Include the League

In his No Enchanted Palace, historian Mark Mazower (2009) fundamentally criticized the history of IOs, arguing that a discussion about the UN’s future should rest on a proper understanding of its past and not on a one-sided and too-optimistic view. However, historians of the postwar international order had ignored the subject of the UN and thus “failed to do justice to the complexity of the ideas and ideologies that lie behind the UN,” while IR scholars, who idealize the abstractions of Game Theory and Rational Choice, had “eliminated the possibility of taking contests of ideas and philosophies seriously in world affairs” (p. 9). Mazower’s look at what the UN’s founders actually had in mind aims at taking less for granted about how it started out and what it would become. Rather he focuses on the contribution of British imperial thought to the League’s formation and “hence the entire edifice of twentieth-century world institutions” (p. 13). Mazower thus regards the UN as “essentially a further chapter in the history of world organization inaugurated by the League and linked through that to the question of empire and the visions of global order that emerged out of the British Empire in particular in its final decades” (p. 14).

A vision of organized cooperation among states as it has inspired IOs lies somewhere in the middle between world government and no government, according to Mazower (2012) in his Governing the World: The History of an Idea. His aim this time was to explore the historical evolution of the many visions and to show how some of them have shaped realities through the institutions they have inspired and to ask what is left of them. Again, he criticized political scientists, who “have addressed the question of the benefits of multilateralism, but mostly as part of an American conversation among scholars and policymakers about the character of the U.S. foreign policy and the usefulness of the United Nations to the American national interest” (pp. xiii–xiv). Because this conversation’s chief function is to counsel those in power in Washington, it has “rather little to say about the ideological goals behind liberal institutionalism in its various incarnations” (pp. xv–xvi). The book’s first part discusses the “Era of Internationalism” (1815–1945) and the second part “Governing the World the American Way.” Mazower thus has a long-term perspective and sees the creation of IOs by imperial powers as a way to safeguard their empires.

The global turn in History resulted in several extensive studies of the League and the interwar period in which both IGOs and INGOs matter. Herren (2009), who pays detailed attention to transnational and multilateral developments, published her history of IOs since 1865 (in German) as a global history of the international order, discussing states and international order, people (epistemic communities and global civil society), objectives (global information mediation), and historical reflections on silence and forgetting. In 2010 she launched the League of Nations Search Engine (LONSEA; n.d.), which allows searching digitally for IOs and persons to find international connections and relationships, as well as regional activities related to the League (see also Rodogno et al., 2013). The League represented a new generation of IOs with Geneva as its focal point, followed by the rise of a Fascist version of internationalism that denied the Liberal ideological framework. Herren (2016) regards the historical development of IOs as relevant for the period after 1945 because of their influence “on the creation of an international system beyond traditional diplomacy from the 1860s onwards” (p. 112; see also Herren & Löhr, 2014).

In The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s Daniel Gorman (2012) combined his interest in the history of the British Empire with that in the early forms of international governance and cooperation. The book’s first section deals with “imperial internationalism” and the second with “trans-Atlantic internationalism.” Clavin (2013) regrets that economists and historians had lost interest in studying the League’s economic and financial activities. Her book Securing the World Economy refutes the myth of the League’s failure. As the League’s origins lay in 19th-century internationalism, its relatively successful interest in economics “left a profound legacy for the global order” of the UN, “transmitted through a dense institutional and personal network” (p. 10). Susan Pedersen’s (2015) The Guardians provides the history of the League’s mandates system, which was intended by its Anglo-American founders to serve as a vehicle for interimperial collaboration in the hands of government officials but turned into a system that was less statist and much more genuinely international than anticipated: “It was more dependent on the Secretariat, and that Secretariat was more independent than expected as well” (p. 11).

In the context of de-nationalizing history Sluga and Clavin (2017) edited a book that retells the 20th century based on the idea of 19th-century internationalism, with its chapters exposing “the distortions and teleology of an exclusively national historical lens, in which international ambitions, institutions and practices are not taken into account” (p. 12). Other aspects researched are the history of Latin America at the League (McPherson & Wehrli, 2015), alternative alliances without the West (Jackson & O’Malley, 2018), IOs and the media (Brendebach, Herzer, & Tworek, 2018), the emergence of globalism (Rosenboim, 2017), and the invention of international bureaucracy (Gram-Skjoldager & Ikonomou, 2019).


When IR was breaking away from International Law, the process of international organization was recognized early by Reinsch in 1911 and philanthropic associations actively supported IO studies. A Realist-oriented historian qualified these studies as “idealist,” but text analysis displays that these studies showed far less idealism than claimed retrospectively. Carr’s (1939) qualification, however, stigmatized IOs and international law in post-1945 IR studies, when Realism became the dominant paradigm. While Morgenthau (1948/1978) regarded International Law and IOs as of little significance, Liberal-Institutionalist researchers began to study the emergence of the new UN System, using Functionalist and other approaches that left room for Realist factors. Nuanced Realism, as represented by Claude (1956/1966), recognized the process of international organization since 1815 as an established trend that was to influence relations between states. The COW project also goes back to 1815. Most of these IO studies presuppose gradual change (incremental improvements) and emphasize order (IOs as sources of stability), with history mattering, in Chimni’s (2016) words, as “a narrative of progress.”

Keohane’s move in International Organization from concrete IO studies to IR theory resulted in another debate between theories. The outcome (IOs remain instruments of states; international anarchy unvaried) removed the need to ask historical questions and resulted in research with short-term time perspectives. However, ideas from domestic politics and the new Constructivist approach, which accepts IO agency and has an interest in the internal workings of organizations, stimulated IO studies, including processes of change. Criticisms from Organizational Sociology (IR had a naïve view of organizations, according to Ness & Brechin, 1988) and Neo-Institutionalism (March & Olsen, 1998, showed that mainstream IR had missed the slow pace of historical adaptation) come close to Tilly’s (2009) discussion of processes of state formation as more capricious than political scientists assumed. March and Olsen argued that the match between IOs and their environment of states should have been “less automatic, less continuous, and less precise” (pp. 954–955) than presented by realists. Historical Institutionalism in turn contributed to studies of long-term change of IOs (Hanrieder, 2015) and critical junctures in history (Ikenberry’s [2001] institution-building moments after major wars). Cox’s (1981) Neo-Gramscian Critical approach stimulated historical IO research by political scientists, highlighting industrial progress (Murphy, 1994) and gender relations (Stienstra [1994] showing IOs’ inherent conservatism).

The impressive UN Intellectual History Project summarizes the American Political Science view of IO History, tracing the UN as an instrument of American exceptionalism in the world, based on Wilson and Roosevelt’s ideas. The year 1945 is the moment that IO prominence in IR made its real start, but without much continuity with the League (seen as a failure). Hence, IO developments in the world are seen through typical U.S. lenses. This view is being criticized by the paradigmatic turn in History in the early 2000s, which relates the creation of IOs to imperial powers, such as the United Kingdom and France, that wanted to safeguard their empires. History’s transnational and global turn breaks with its long-time focus on states and diplomatic relations with national biases. The new approach includes IGOs and INGOs and questions IR’s Western-centrist universalism. It wants to transcend classical state borders and includes competing universalisms (e.g., anticolonial nationalism). Mazower (2009, 2012) fundamentally rejects the taken-for-granted way of how the UN System emerged. He rather focuses on the contribution of British imperial thought to the League’s formation and sees the UN as a further chapter in the history of world IOs. Several historical IO studies have followed the new approach, refuting the myth of the League’s failure. Mazower’s search for the broader ideological goals behind Liberal Institutionalism supports Tilly’s (2009) argument that History may help to build more adequate explanations of political processes (in this case international organization) by discussing the contexts (moving back in time) and the ways in which these processes occur (not through U.S. ideals but via imperial interests).


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