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  • Jason Montaner

The Shifting Role and Definition of IOs

Over the past few decades, there has been an evolution in how we view international organisations (IOs). Gradually, as IOs such as NATO, the EU and the UN have gained more power and as the the world has become more globalised, we have moved away from viewing them in the same way we view states.

The shift in attention from treating international organisations from a statist perspective to a perspective respecting their autonomy and authority is important for a plethora of reasons. Primarily, this shift is important because it steers the academic endeavour away from the theoretical, intellectual, and empirical myopia of looking at IOs that pervaded international relations and towards a more complex, nuanced and accurate representation of their workings and impacts.

This is important because it has shifted the narrative of the field of the study of IOs from one of anarchy in the international system to one of governance in a global society, in which international law, norms and rules underpin our understanding of the international system.

This shift was necessary as the technological developments made by IOs along with their increased expertise in the specific areas in which they exist means that they are now more powerful and influential than mere passive structures. It further recognises how IOs are not solely instruments of their members, a sentiment that informed much of the understanding of the field previously.

In addition, a renewed approach was useful because the nature of IOs has changed over time, they are now also involved in efforts of political activism, humanitarian aid, international jurisprudence, service delivery and many more areas. As a result, a modern analysis of how these IOs create and enforce new rules for global governance in the aforementioned areas is a valuable progression.

This shift in understanding yields many potential new insights into where power lies, whereas classical international relations prioritised states, the new perspective on IOs allows us to properly delve into normative questions surrounding justice, accountability, power and sources of legitimacy in ways that the more archaic notion of power could not.

To supplement this better understanding of power, the shift to appreciating IOs’ autonomy and authority enables a modern reflection of the dynamics of global society and the causal links between IOs’ agendas and their impact on the world.

This acknowledgment of the power and complexity of their structure enabled the field of IO study to be opened up to other realms of scholarly interpretation. This marked an important change in the understanding of IOs as scholars of sociology, public administration and organizational studies, amongst others, could lend their expertise in analyzing IOs.

This change will yield more accurate investigations into the politics and power of bureaucracies in IOs and their importance to shaping policies that effect world governance. This will also yield better insights into the study of IOs as, previously, analysis would be predicated on an automatic assumption of positivity regarding the work of IOs, with this new approach enabling a more critical assessment.

We should treat IOs as organisations and focus more on their internal working because of their complexity and how their internal structures do not resemble those of a state, therefore, different metrics of analysis should be applied. Our definition of an IO should steer away from looking at IOs as simple tools of state cooperation and define them more in terms of their performance which is derived from autonomy and power.

The approaches of understanding IOs’ agency and autonomy enable a greater insight into their efficacy and organisational capacity, which in turn leads to a greater appreciation of the IOs efficacy and ability to affect change in their given area of the international system.

Author: Jason Montaner

Jason is a UK-based political journalist specialising in domestic affairs and foreign policy.

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press