International Organizations

International Organizations

International Organizations (IOs) have become a central part of international relations. As Hurd (2014) writes: “As interdependence increases, the importance of international organizations increases with it. We find international organizations in one form or another at the heart of all of the political and economic challenges of the twenty-first century” (1).

While their existence in the international system is relatively new, the presence of these IOs have shaped the way that international relations between different actors are carried out. International Organizations, while often a vessel of state actions, have also themselves become actors. International organizations are organizations, comprised of states, in order to pursue some sort of common purpose or objective. Often, these organizations set the rules for behavior and activity among state and non-state actors in the international system.

As Ian Hurd (2014) explains, international organizations “…are constituted by international law as independent entities, separate from states that make them up as their founders and their members. The practical expression of this independence varies greatly across organizations, but in a formal sense they are corporate “persons” much like firms are “persons” in domestic commercial law. This means that they have legal standing, with certain rights and obligations, and can sue and be sued” (29). This is an interesting point, and one that will continue to be discussed with regards to different international organizations. On the one hand, they are their own entity, and are often treated as such. On the other hand, they are often made up of states, of which the leaders of those said states have their own domestic and international political interests. The balance between their interests and the charters and objectives of an international organization are critical in the international relations discourse. In fact, Hurd says as much, saying that “The dilemma of international organization as a practice in world politics is of course that these actors are composed of units which are themselves independent actors, and so formal international organizations are always collective rather than unitary actors. When they operate as “agents” they are unitary actors in the same way that national governments, also composed of many individuals and factions, are recognized as unitary actors in world politics” (29). And often times, we have seen just this; international organizations have clearly failed to live up to what its charter has specifically called for, the reason why the international organization exists to begin with (Pease, 2012: 3).

This distinction in how to understand what an international organization is is not unique; many, have asked “what is an international organization, saying that “[t]he history of international organizations as a field of study suggests no clear answer to the question…” (Pease, 2012: 2). Historically, the early international organizations were comprised of state actors (Pease, 2012). However, much of this is because, for much of the history of international relations, particularly since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the international system has primarily been a state-centric one. However, we have started to see a much greater role for non-state actors in international organizations. As we shall see in cases such as the United Nations, there are specific roles for NGOs which include shadow reports, involvement on committees as consultants on global issues , etc… This page will cover the overview of international organizations in the international system, how international organizations relate to international relations, what roles these different IOs serve, as well as how they are related to state and non-state actions. Then, sub-pages under the International Organizations category will cover specific international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, and regional organizations such as the European Union, The Arab League, along with other regional international organizations.

History of International Organizations

As I alluded to earlier, international organizations are gaining prevalence in terms of influence. There was arguably a lack of attention on international organizations by academics (Keohane, 1998), although this has changed, particularly since the foundation of the United Nations (Keohane, 1998). 

But this in no way suggests that IOs are a new phenomena in international relations. In fact, as long as there have leaders, there have attempts at working with one another on various issues. But while this is the case, it wasn’t until the early 1800s (1815-1822) with the Council of Vienna that states came together to cooperate on international relations following the Napoleonic Wars (Pease, 2012: 15-16). About a century after the Council of Vienna, following World War I, the world saw the birth of the League of Nations, an international organization set up to cooperate against any entity that was destabilizing international peace (Pease, 2012: 16) . However, despite its importance in the history of international relations and international organizations, it did not last long, dissolved in 1939 with the onset of World War II. However, the League of Nations has been seen as a precursor to arguably the most influential international organization today: The United Nations. The United Nations was set up in 1945, following the Second World War, to also address insecurity in the international relations system. The UN has expanded. Early on there were questions on just how great of a role the United Nations had (and would have) in international affairs. However, decolonization, the Cold War, oil politics, among other issues put the United Nations at the forefront of international politics (Keohane, 1998).

Following the United Nations have been several other international organizations. Some of these international organizations are the International Labour Organization, the World Trade Organization, World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and regional organizations such as the African Union, the European Union, and the Organization of American States.

International Organizations Theory

The different international relations theories approach international organizations from their own set assumptions about how the international system works, and the role of international organizations within their respective positions. Based on how they view the world, international organizations serve a specific role in international affairs. So, for example, for a theory that advocates power and security, international organizations may be seen as functioning a particular way given this behavioral characteristic, whereas someone else who views the international relations theory as something different, could also in turn have a different perception on international organizations. Thus, it depends on who you ask as to how what role international organizations serve, as well as their level of effectiveness in the international political system.

Realism and International Organizations

Realism is one of the main theories in the study of international relations. Realists make a number of points, but their main focus is on the concepts of power and security as they relate to states in the international system. Realists argue that power and security are what really matter in international relations. And because of this attention to power and those who emphasize state security, for many realists, international organizations serve only to help a state reach its objective in that idea of security or increased power. Thus, for a realist, international organizations either don’t matter very much, particularly compared to individual states, or if they are worth noting, it is only in that IOs function for the interests of the states. And while the state may at times cooperate with other states on international matters, to many realists, once we are speaking about actions against a state’s true interest, international organizations will be highly unlikely to be influential (Pease, 2012: 57). Realists do not believe that an international organization can stop powerful countries from doing something, particularly if their interests are not aligned on a said issue (Pease, 2012).

This is not to say that they don’t matter, but rather, that international organizations might not be achieving what some hope that they do. As Pease (2012) explains, “International organizations can also play an intervening role in great power calculations”, something in line with the state-interest argument. She goes on to say that “These [international] organizations are used by the hegemony and great powers to further their interests in the international system (see, e.g., Foot el al.) [link not in original reference]. Other non-great-power states may also use international organizations to attain goals and to have a voice within the existing system” (57). Furthermore, on the issue of realism as it relates to international law, a cornerstone of international organizations, similar to international organizations themselves, international law is either “irrelevant” to a realist, or only serves to benefit the state and their objectives of power and security (Pease, 2012: 57-58).

Realists often point to major wars in the past as an example of failed attempts of international organizations. These international organizations came out of conflict, created to stop additional wars from breaking out. Yet, this is not what has happened. Rather, international organizations such as the League of Nations, and also the United Nations were unable to stop conflict from taking place.

However, there are also arguments that IOs can matter on some matters. Pease (2012) referencing Schweller & Preiss (1997) writes that “First, international organizations provide a mechanism for great-power collusion. Great powers usually benefit from the existing order and have an interest in maintaining it. After all, the fact that they are great powers suggests that they are doing well under existing rules and institutions. International organizations may not be useful if great-power interests collide, but do permit great powers to control other states in international systems. Second, international organizations are useful for making minor adjustments within the existing order, while the basic underlying principle and norms remain uncompromised. An enduring international order must be flexible to account for changes in national interest and for rising and declining states. Third, international organizations can be agents of international socialization. International organizations legitimize the existing order, thereby gaining the acceptance of the status quo by those who are dominated. Finally, “international institutions are the ‘brass ring’ so to speak: the right to create and control them is precisely what the most powerful states have fought for in history’s most destructive wars” (Schweller & Preiss, 1997: 13)”.

Liberalism and International Organizations

The international relations theory of liberalism takes a very different position regarding international organizations and international law. For a liberalist who advocates the possibility of cooperation in international relations, international organizations are quintessential, as they not only allow a physical platform and space for state cooperation, but within the international organizations’ charter is often a set of requirements that states and non-state actors have regarding this cooperation in international affairs. International organizations are not formed for calculated interests of one state (solely for their own power) (there there is not a need for a hegemon to exist for an international organization to continue functioning), but rather, these organizations are created because of their need with regards to international issues (Pease, 2012). Thus, for a state, they have a lot of positive incentives to join an international organization. 

Furthermore, they challenge the idea that the international system is all about the need for military power (Pease, 2012). Thus, for liberals, international organizations are avenues for diplomacy, cooperation, and international peace. They often point to various achievements on human rights, environmental policies, among other issues such as economic cooperation and interdependence to illustrate the positive role of international organizations in international affairs. In fact, not only do international organizations allow actors to come together to solve issues, but their presence more specifically helps to circumvent the “collective action problem” issue, where, by working together, much more can be accomplished than if each state or actor works individually (Pease, 2012). 

Liberalists argue that the more interdependent countries become with one another, the more of a need there will be for international organizations to help in the sharing of information, and with regards to coordination and cooperation efforts (Pease, 2012).

And unlike realists’ views of international law, “[f]or liberals, the rule of law is the foundation of society and international law is the foundation of global society” (Pease, 2012: 72). International law is a key element in the evolution of international human rights, international environmental issues, as well as other themes such as just war theory (with the formation of international courts such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

For liberalists, international organizations not only get over the ‘collective action’ problem issue of anarchy, but they also help advance economic conditions in the word, help foster common norms, they allow multinational corporations to have a role in bringing socitiest closer to one another through the international market, and lastly, based on the issue of the rule of law, international organizations have offer just to those who are victims of rights abuses (Pease, 2012).

Constructivism and International Organizations

Constructivism is seen as one of the newer, yet also highly influential international relations theories. Constructivism suggests that international relations, and within that international organizations, are in and of themselves not necessarily pessimistic and towards issues such as power and security, nor are they innately positive and cooperative in their nature. But rather, relationships and institutions are viewed a certain way depending on the actors. As Hurd (2014) explains, “actors behave toward the world around them in ways  that are shaped by the ideas that they hold about the world, and that these ideas are generated by past interactions (23). Therefore, while the past helps form how actors interact, this is not permanent like a realist or liberalist may have one belief; interactions, as well as negative or positive perceptions, are not infinite, but can be altered (Hurd, 2014).

Feminism and International Organizations

Feminism in international relations looks at the role of gender in international affairs. They example how leaders view gender, policies related to gender, as well as human rights abuses based on gender. In addition, they also bring to light the role of women in international relations; historically,  since unfortunately and quite sadly, as some such as Pease (2012) argue, “[d]iscussion of women’s roles, contributions, and issues are rare and tend to be trivialized because the female experience is not as valued as the male experience” (93). Thankfully, due to the work of feminists, this has been changing, and women and their countless positive actions in international affairs are now beginning to be given the equal importance that they so rightly deserve. In terms of feminist theory and international organizations, feminists attempt to examine how gender plays a role in terms of international organizations, whether it is through NGOs, jobs in such organizations, issues of equal pay, or their role in policy formation on issues that are taking precedent at international organizations (Pease, 2012).

Marxism and International Organizations

Marxism as it relates to international relations and international organizations looks at the role of economic power as it relates to international affairs. To some marxists, international organizations are merely tools used by more economically powerful states to impose their control and influence over less economically strong states. Thus, those who are economically dependent on other states and international organizations are often the ones who suffer in the international system. Thus, even the economic system itself, in the case of capitalism today, is viewed by some as another form of exploitation and control, as they are seen by some “to promote capitalism” (Pease, 2012). International Organizations such the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have received a great deal of criticism by Marxists and others for what they see as the promotion of capitalist-liberalist policies, often as the expense of what is best for the citizens of that state, with some suggesting that the international system–in the context of human rights and development–cannot and will not improve as long as there are conditions (which often are manifested in liberal market economic policies) that are set by international organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (Pease, 2012: 87).

Themes Related to International Organizations

Along with the various arguments as to how international relations fits into competing international theories, there are also other related questions that are brought up when trying to understand the functionality of international organizations in the international system. Ian Hurd (2014) outlines three primary themes revolving around international organizations, which are: questions regarding the obligations of these created international organizations, the level of state compliance within the expectations and mission of the international organizations, as well as the level of the international organizations to enforce their own charters and rules.


When states join an international organization, they have a set of obligations that they must carry out. These are the “rules” of the international organization. States usually know about what these obligations entail, as they are laid out in the initial foundational document of the international organization. Therefore, it is essential for a state to know what the treaty says, since in the treaty will be what they are bound to. 

However, there are instances, depending on the rules of the international organization, where states within the IO are still obliged to follow new laws, as is the case in the United Nations with the UN Security Council, and the power that they have on other states in the United Nations (Hurd, 2014).

Hurd (2014) argues that it is important to keep in mind what the specific obligations of an international organization are, particularly if one is to criticize said organization, or aspects of the organization. If it is not the mandate of an organization to do something (or it does not have the power to do something), then expecting states to abide by a rule that does not exist is not fair. Here is part of the problem with international organizations, at least in terms of power. If the obligations are stringent, then this might turn states away from joining. However, if they are weak, then this could bring more states in, but could make it seem as if the international organization is ineffective in bringing about change (if change requires stronger obligations for member-states).


But along with the obligations listed, it means little if states are not willing (or able to be held) to be accountable to the stated obligations. States have to make this choice of compliance when they first become a part of the international organization, and also where there is a chance to follow the rules or not (Hurd, 2014).

There are many reasons why states choose to comply (or not comply) with the obligations set forth in the respective international organization. Often times, their decision to comply or not often has to do with the level of power that a state has, as well as the number of incentives that a state benefits from by complying, or the benefits they can receive or gain by not adhering to the obligations of the international organizations that they are a part of (Hurd, 2014). In addition, as Hurd (2014) explains, sometimes the evolution of the international organizations’ norms and activities have led to a more specified environment where states have to comply within these new norms. Case of increased emphasis on humanitarian interventions, for example, have affected how states act in the international system.

As Keohane (1998) explains, in the early international organizations literature, the topic of compliance sometimes has to do with issues of credibility, as states can see other states who engage with the rules of international organizations as more credible than states who are not a part of the IO, or that choose not to comply with the conditions of the international organization. Plus, through the international organizations, one could document a state’s level of commitment.

States themselves want to say that they are complying. They also often want to suggest that it is others who are not following the outlined obligations of the international organization (Hurd, 2014).


Along with the obligations a state has when joining an international organization, as well as whether they decide to comply with the rules of the international organizations that they are a part of are the enforcement mechanisms that international organizations have to ensure that states are complying with their obligations. However, as it has been mentioned, few international organizations have the mechanisms to make states comply with the organization’s obligations; for most international organizations, the charters are not written with significant enforcement mechanisms. Thus, for many international organizations, it is the threat of reputation, and not other punishments that can be applied towards states (Hurd, 2014). Yet, as Hurd (2014) argues, states do in fact adhere to many obligations of the international organizations, even if they are not made to do so. As he argued, the more important question is “why” they do so (7).

There are many reasons why states decide to comply with international organizations. To begin, despite the fact that they are rarely coerced to follow the rules, doing so actually serves in their interests. Leaders of states join international organizations because of the benefit that they believe they will receive from doing so. They may also feel that the international organization can serve as an effective third party for any potential disputes that they (the state) needs settled (Hurd, 2014).

International Organizations and International Law

International organizations clearly have extended capabilities when speaking in regards to global affairs. As Kelly-Kate S. Pease explains, “IGOs have a special legal status under international law in that they have international legal personality. International legal personality means that IGOs have the capacity to act under international law. In order to attain legal personality, the organization must be a permanent association of states that possesses some power that is distinct from that of its members states (Sloamanson, 1990: 65). The legal personality of IGOs enables them to act in a manner that is similar to how states act. IGOs can reach international agreement with other international organizations and states. IGOs have many of the same privileges of states, such as legal immunity or the right to sue in national courts…” (3). But along with their ability to be involved in international law has been what many have suggested is one of the greatest accomplishments of international organizations: the establishment of international law itself. While international law has a detailed history well before the formation of international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations, IOs such as the United Nations have been cited as key institutions when speaking on the formation and advancement of international law such as human rights. For example, through the United Nations, a rich body of international human rights law has been implemented: through the UN, we have seen the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the Convention on the Rights of the Child etc…

International Organizations List

Below I have included a list of just some international organizations in the international system. These different international organizations serve various functions. For more information, refer back to to find the page for each of the organizations:

African Union

Arab League

Association of South East Asian Nations

International Monetary Fund

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Organization of American States

United Nations

World Bank

World Health Organization

International Organizations Books

There are a number of excellent books on the overall topic of International organizations. We will be including just some of the works below. These books are great in examining how international organizations fit within the discussion in international relations. Many of these books cover international relations theory as it relates to international organizations, they go into detailed analysis regarding the formation of the different international organizations, as well as what has been the role of these international organizations in international affairs.

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