Do International Organizations matter? Why or why not?

International Organizations (IOs) are formal institutional structures transcending national boundaries which are created by multilateral agreement among nation-states. Their purpose is to foster international cooperation in areas such as: security, law, economic, social matters and diplomacy. (Graham & Newham , 1998, p. 270). IOs are subdivided between Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs); Intergovernmental Organizations are entities created with sufficient organizational structure and autonomy to provide formal, ongoing, multilateral processes of decision making between states, along with the capacity to execute the collective of their member (states) (Diehl & Frederking, 2010, p. 15). NGOs are non-state voluntary organizations formed by individuals to achieve a common purpose, often oriented beyond themselves or to the public good (Karns & Mingst , 2010, p. 221). The development and expansion of these large representative bodies date back to the end of the World War II, where there was a need for world reconstruction through International Relations. Since then, there has been an incremental rise of organizations that work on different socio-political and economic aspects with various and specific aims in approaching states, societies, groups and individuals. Based on these key definitions, this essay will thus attempt to explain how important are IOs and the extent to which they have an impact on global politics and international relations through an analysis of two main IR scholar theories namely Realism and Liberalism. Moreover, to understand the impact of IOs, these theories will be explored and analysed through contexts of different and conflicting realist and liberalists thinkers upon their view on these institutional structures. It will also distinguish and compare the two theories and determine which is more relevant to the contemporary world international relations. Finally, the ultimate the goal of this essay is to support the view of liberalism, as the main concluding arguments rest upon the idea that global governance requires a set of different actors across that shape together the process of decision-making in international relations.

Realism is an IR theory based a pessimistic view of human nature. Its central feature lies within the relative power of the state and as there is no world government to impose order and stability, states engage in self-help to ensure their basic survival interests notably (security , power capability and survival). Because of the absence of a world government, the world structure is anarchic and anarchy heightens the stakes of interaction so that competing interest have the potential to escalate into military interactions. The state is the national arbiter who judges its foreign policies. As much emphasis is put on the power capabilities of the state in the international system, realists pay little attention in regards to IOs as they play little influence in global governance. States would never cede to international institutions and IOs and similar institutions are of little interest; they merely reflect national interests and power and do not constrain powerful states (Diehl & Frederking, 2010). One example is the United States hegemony and the use of IOs as means for expansion of power, pursue their self-interest and guarantee security. For example, realists would argue that most of the IGOs that serve as a backbone for contemporary international cooperation can be traced to American hegemony in the immediate aftermath of WW2. The United States promoted the creation of the UN as an umbrella organization for treaty-based cooperation in a variety of global concerns and issue areas. It also oversaw the creation of the International Monetary (IMF), the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) with the express goal of encouraging cooperative economic exchange and also as instruments designed for continuing utility of U.S policies (Weiss & Wilkinson , 2014, p. 295). Even the Soviet Union used Mutual Economic assistance to organize economic relations within the eastern bloc. Powerful states structure organizations to further their own interests but must do so in a way that it induces weaker states to participate (Diehl & Frederking, 2010, p. 33).

Liberalism is a post-war framework for world politics based on the construction of a global, legal and political system which go beyond the state and afford the protection to all human subjects. (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007). The theory is mainly subdivided by two strands; firstly, interdependence liberalism which studies modernization as ways of increasing the level of interdependence of states; and secondly, institutional liberalism which studies international institutions as mechanisms of promoting cooperation between states. The theory mainly bases its assumptions upon positive human progress and modernization in which they together will eventually lead to cooperation. Modernization is the process of involving progress in most areas in life as well as the development of a modern state. This process enlarges the scope of cooperation across international boundaries. Due to modernization, cooperation based on mutual interests will prevail that is because modernization increases the level and scope of transnational relations where transactions costs are lower and levels of higher interdependence are high. Under complex interdependence, transnational actors are increasingly important, military force is a less useful instrument and welfare, (not security) is becoming a primary goal and concern of states (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007, p. 107). Therefore when there is a high degree of interdependence, states will often set up international institutions to deal with common problems and maximize welfare. These institutions are designed to promote cooperation across international boundaries by providing information and lowering costs. Institutions can be formal organizations such WTO (World Trade Organization) and EU (European Union), or they can be less formal sets of agreements such as the so-called regimes. For liberals, international cooperation and progress are the central features that drive states, IOs and non-state actors. These different institutions are responsible for managing transnational problems in a peaceful, human and legal way.

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It is also important to emphasize the structural change in international relations during post-Cold War period that have empowered new types of actors and opened new opportunities for them to act. Such changes also include: globalization and privatization/deregulation. Globalization has undermined the correspondence between social action and he territory enclosed by states border. Ideas about human rights have become platforms for social connections between people across the globe. The Thatcher and Reagan-led privatization and deregulation in the 1980s revolution has compounded this change in relations between states and social power; States transferred public enterprises and state functions to private actors and increasingly encouraged private actors to finance policies such as education, municipal services and even security, which has been part on the pivotal role of many corporation social responsibility (CSR) programmes (Avant , et al., 2010, p. 5). Global change also owes much to the end of the cold war, where a variety of political, economic and security realms, activists and organizations began to push for change. With the triumph of the United States and the liberal model, privatization and deregulation ideas emboldened many organizations to drop the cold-war style of bipolarity of states and push for liberal capitalist change that embodied presence of a variety of actors (Avant , et al., 2010, p. 6). Indeed great proliferation of non-state actors such as NGOs has happened since the 1980s with more than 4,000 International Non-government Organizations (INGOs) and has increased until current years to nearly 8,000 INGOs and several millions national and indigenous NGOs (Karns & Mingst , 2010, p. 230).

The role of these NGOs is explained by a varied number of functions and roles they exert. NGOs can seek the best venues to present issues and to apply pressure. They can provide new ideas and draft texts for multilateral treaties; they can monitor human rights and environmental norms; participate in global conferences and raise issues, submit position papers and lobby for viewpoint; and ultimately they can perform functions of governance in absence of state authority (Karns & Mingst , 2010, p. 235). Large numbers of NGOs are involved in humanitarian relief, from large international NGOs to small, locally based groups. The Red Cross, Doctors without borders, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam are among hundreds of international humanitarian relief organizations involved in complex emergencies such as the conflicts in Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo and Liberia, the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur and natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in Central America (Karns & Mingst , 2010, p. 224). Participation by NGOs has also increasingly been involved within UN summit and global conferences. NGOs are increasingly viewed by those in the UN system as partners or stakeholders in multitasker coalitions. This is evident in the Global compact on corporate social responsibility, which aims to bring multinationals and NGOs into partnership with the UN. Likewise, the Millennium Development Goals propose partnerships for development, calling for all actors including NGOs to cooperate in achieving those goals. In 2002, around 3,200 NGOs were represented at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Also UN specialized agencies work in conjunction with NGOs. Most UN agencies with field programmes and offices, now contract with NGOs to provide services and decision-making in areas of Humanitarian relief and economic development. For example, many services including food, medicine are chased by the UNHCR and WFP and delivered to the local population by CARE, Doctors without Borders or Oxfam. Whether an NGO is focused on human rights, peace, disarmament, indigenous peoples’ rights, labour rights, climate change, or tropical forests, it is clear that they have become an important actor in world politics as they often to seek to change the policies and behavior of both governments and IGOs.

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Disagreement between realism and liberalism as well as other IR theories is not over the existence of institutions or the fact that they are found where cooperation is high but rather on the claim that whether they are more than statecraft instruments and have an independent impact (Weiss & Wilkinson , 2014, p. 7). As realists would conceive it, IOs offer little change to the perpetual power struggle as they cannot change the human nature desire for power nor can they change the nature of the anarchical system. On the other hand, liberalists cannot imagine a contemporary world where governments act solo. Cooperation has made states very interdependent and has also opened new paths for new actors that are willing to work more efficiently together. IR is not only a study of relations between international governments. Overlapping interdependent relations between people and voluntary organizations are bound to be more cooperative than relations between states because states are exclusive and their interests do not overlap and cross-cut (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007, p. 102). Liberals also emphasize that states interest have changed throughout history. Whereas before it was a matter of security and power, today more primacy has been given towards economic development and trade. Throughout history states have sought power by means of military force and territorial expansion. But for highly industrialized countries economic development and foreign trade are more adequate and less costly means of achieving prominence and prosperity; that is because the costs of using force have increased and the benefits have declined. (Jackson & Sorensen, 2007, p. 102).

Realists though maintain that the state is the ultimate authority, they are the ones to sign interstate treaties, create international law, and promulgate wide-ranging rules to initiate, regulate, and govern activity desired. States are by no means alone in this endeavor. They explanation on powerful states using IGOs as means to achieve their ends can be implemented on UN permanent members of the security council which is formed by the most powerful states, that have larger power than other UN member states. Also, there has been many situations where IGOs have failed to constrain powerful states from acting in a certain way, for example, during the cold war, the security council was much ineffective in solving large differences between the U.S and the Soviet Union, more recently Russia’s occupation of Crimea in which no IGO (including the UN) prevented such act from happening. In regards to NGOs, realists explain that they hardly appear as viable international actors. They pose no threat to state sovereignty. While state and non-sate actors may have differentiated responsibilities, ultimately authority rests with the state and that is the essence of sovereignty. The role of states remains central to global governance, no matter how much political authority is decentralized and power diffused to the burgeoning non-state actors (Karns & Mingst , 2010, p. 253).

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Liberals on the other hand acknowledge that powerful states will not easily be completely constrained. However, institutional liberals do not agree with the realist view that international institutions are a mere scrape of paper, that they are completely mercy of powerful states. International institutions are more than mere handmaidens of strong states (Diehl & Frederking, 2010, p. 32). Liberals argue that there is credibility and functionality within IOs in influencing international relations and that they attempt to critic realists idea of IOs as mere instruments led by powerful states but rather they are led universally by different member states and other actors. For example, when the United States decided to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it did not act unilaterally as it turned to the United Nations Security Council. Similarly, when the International Community sought to maintain the suspension of combat in Bosnia, it did not rely on national efforts, it sent in peacekeeping units under the aegis of the UN and NATO (Diehl & Frederking, 2010, p. 27). In regards to non-state actors, such as NGOs, liberals argue that in few cases NGOs can take the place of states, either performing services that an inept or corrupt government is not doing, or stepping in for a failed state. For example, Bangladesh hosts the largest NGO sector in the world (more than 20,000) responding to what Bangladeshi describe as ‘the failure of government to provide public goods and look after the poor, and the failure of the private sector to provide enough employment opportunities (draws on Waldman 2003) NGOs have taken on roles in education, health, agriculture, and microcredit, all of which originally were government functions (Waldman, 2003 cited in Karns & Mingst, 2010, p. 224). Liberals argue that realism fails to read contemporary international order correctly. A priori privileges the states, misses the importance of non-state actors, fails to recognize the social construction of IR because of its rationalist assumptions and its fatalistic tendencies counsel conservative foreign policies that reinforce power politics and hence its own explanations for world affairs (Weiss & Wilkinson , 2014, p. 102).

To conclude, it is imperative that one acknowledges Global governance in assessing who exercises power in decision-making. Based on the arguments on this essay, one would mostly agree that no government/state can govern/act alone. The growing authority of a wide variety of agents/actors can also add potential partners to states and distributing different tasks to different actors. By working collectively, one can certainly argue that multilateralism often requires a network of cooperation that leads to interdependence between different actors whether they are states, IOs or non-state actors, thus after all ‘It is impossible to imagine a contemporary international life without formal organizations.’ (Schermers and Blokker, 1995 cited in Diehl & Frederking, 2010, p. 28).


Avant , D., Finnemore , M. & Sell , S. eds., 2010. Who governs the Globe? . In: Who governs the Globe? . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-31.

Diehl, P. & Frederking, B., 2010. The Politics of Global Governance: international Organizations in an Independent World. 4th ed. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Graham , E. & Newham , J., 1998. Dictionary of International Relations. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books.

Jackson , R. & Sorensen, G., 2007. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press .

Karns, M. & Mingst , K., 2010. International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance. 2nd ed. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Weiss , T. & Wilkinson , R., 2014. International Organization and Global Governance. 2014 ed. Oxford : Routledge.


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