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date: 21 February 2018

International Organization and Bureaucracy

Summary and Keywords

The evolution of international administration in theory and practice mirrors the pattern of development of international organizations and the institutionalization of governance for the international system, which can be divided into three time periods: 1815–1945, which marks the initial organization and bureaucratization of the international system; 1945–91, the period of rapid growth of international organizations and reconstitution of the international system that had been destroyed by World War II; and, 1991–present, which represents the end of the Cold War and a transformational moment for the international system as globalization and the technological revolution challenge the structure and function of international governance system. The bureaucratization of the international system is due to the effectiveness of this type of organization for administration and government on the national level. However, the structure and function of international administration is different from national administration. The bureaucracies of today’s international organizations reflect both the changes in the environment in which they observe and the nature of the issue areas they are tasked to manage. Meanwhile, the creation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 marked the transition from the first stage to the second in the development of international organizations and the system of governance for a new international order. Finally, the end of the Cold War and the dramatic changes in the world’s political, economic, and social landscape brought about by globalization revived interest in international organizations, and the role that they would play in the “new” world order.

Keywords: international administration, international organizations, international system, bureaucratization, globalization, technological revolution, United Nations, new world order


Bureaucracy is a term that few, if any, scholars of international organization (IO) look kindly upon these days. Today, the bureaucracies of international organizations are often decried as wasteful, inefficient, rigid, inept, and bloated. Such epithets may be warranted in regards to large public organizations, but they miss the point (and utility) of this particular organizational form, which is so pervasive in both the public and private sectors, to the way organizations and institutions are structured and function. In fact, the bureaucratic form – “a distinct organizational setting, the bureau or office: formalized, hierarchical, specialized with a clear functional division of labor and demarcation of jurisdiction, standardized, rules based and impersonal” (Olsen 2006:1) – is the dominant organizational model for modern governments and the administrative machinery of political systems, including the international system. While the bureaucratic type of administrative organization is often beset by problems, such as overspecialization, rigidity of procedures, nepotism, and corruption, it remains as Weber (1947) argued a rational and efficient way of conducting administration (Hall 1963; Wriston 1980; Kilcullen 1996).

The bureaucratization of the international system is due to the effectiveness of this type of organization for administration and government on the national level, which was apparent (and commonly accepted) by the nineteenth century when the system of governance on the international level began to take shape. Hence it was to be expected that the institutional form of governance for the international system would be similar to that of states. However, international administration is quite different from national administration in both structure and function; and the differences, which were not so great early on in the development of international organizations, have become more pronounced over the course of the international system's evolution. The bureaucracies of today's international organizations – the Secretariats – bear little resemblance to their original design or their national counterparts, reflecting both the changes in the environment in which they operate and the nature of the issue areas they are tasked to manage.

Scholarly interest in international administration has only recently been revived in the discipline of international relations (IR). After years of neglect, the study of international organizations is rebounding as an analytical focus within the discipline. Today, both academics and practitioners are revisiting and rethinking the role of international organizations in how the international system is to be governed in this era of globalization. Since the end of the Cold War, the demands on international organizations have grown and this creates pressure on the Secretariats to reform in order to respond more effectively or efficiently to the increasing demands made of them. Moreover, the new circumstances brought about by globalization that international organizations have to contend with are challenging long-standing theories of and approaches to the structure and function of governance for the international system. Due to these factors the study of international organizations from an organizational perspective has become more prominent within IR as well as in the disciplines of business and public administration (Dijkzeul and Beigbeder 2003:9–10).

This return to the study of international organizations as organizations is the third time that serious attention to international administration can be found in the IO literature. Previously, scholarly interest in and focus on the administrative structure of international organizations appeared to peak when modern international organizations first appeared in the late nineteenth century and after World War II when the “new international order” and the United Nations (UN) system was established, though interest quickly waned in the postwar era as scholars turned to other topics such as the balance of power, security competition between the major powers, and international regimes. Like before, the current interest in international organizations has emerged during a period of significant change and transformation of the international system and at a time when international organizations, particularly their Secretariats, are under pressure to adapt their procedures, operations, and management. Hence the evolution of international administration in theory and practice mirrors the pattern of development of international organizations and the institutionalization of governance for the international system, which can be divided into three time periods: 1815–1945, which marks the initial organization and bureaucratization of the international system; 1945–91, the period of rapid growth of international organizations and reconstitution of the international system that had been decimated by World War II; and, 1991–present, which represents an important historical turning point in world politics with the end of the Cold War and a transformational moment for the international system as globalization and the technological revolution challenge the structure and function of international governance system.

Administration of an International Society

The historical account of international organizations traditionally begins in the nineteenth century – a period when people's international consciousness was growing and transnational interactions were rapidly increasing. The international system, as we now know it, emanates from the European nation-state system that emerged after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and is firmly rooted in the Westphalian principles of sovereignty and the territorial state. The interstate system is premised on the notion that:

the most intensive patterns of human interaction would take place within territorially defined jurisdictions, each having its own regime of governance (or “state”) whose supreme authority over what happened in its jurisdiction would be recognized and respected by the other states […] Each of the presumably sovereign states would control interpersonal and intergroup behavior within its jurisdiction so as to provide at least the minimum personal and institutional security necessary for the performance of basic societal functions […] Because these basic functions of society and governance in the traditional world polity were to be provided within each of the sovereign “nation–states,” international or transnational interactions could be relatively sparse and could be managed for the most part through peaceful negotiation or periodically (in cases of conflict unresolvable through peaceful bargaining) by war.

(Brown 1996:108–9)

It is this inherent “anarchy” of the European state system or international society that has both impeded and facilitated the initial development of international organizations.

Because each state jealously guards its sovereignty and independence against all threats (and has the right to do so by arms if necessary), the will to cooperate on matters of strategic importance (or high politics) has always been weak. Indeed, the state system is a product of war, as Bull (1995 [1977]: 181) points out:

War appears as a basic determinant of the shape of the system at any one time. It is war and the threat of war that help to determine whether particular states survive or are eliminated, whether they rise or decline, whether their frontiers remain the same or are changed, whether their peoples are ruled by one government or another, whether there is a balance of power in the international system or one state becomes preponderant.

Yet a pattern of cooperation in the form of large diplomatic conferences began to develop. Initially these intergovernmental or interstate gatherings occurred intermittently, primarily to work out the terms and conditions of an armistice or treaty to end hostilities. This pattern of consultation became regularized and institutionalized with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the subsequent series of congresses convened under the Concert of Europe (Mangone 1954; Schechter 1998; Muldoon 2003).

The Concert of Europe was an important innovation in how the institution of diplomacy and IR was organized. It was the “first intergovernmental political structure in the sense of regular meetings with broad objectives and an open agenda” to be established through which the great powers of the period committed themselves to manage their political and security relationships through consultation and negotiations (Seary 1996:18). This informal structure, which lasted throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, was a precursor of today's international governmental organizations in that it had most of the core features of a modern intergovernmental organization – committees and conference secretariats – lacking only the formal structure of a continuous nature. The experiences accumulated from the Concert were to greatly influence future designs of international organizations – in particular, the League of Nations, which succeeded the Concert of Europe in the aftermath of World War I and initiated a pattern of collaboration on issues affecting world peace through a formal intergovernmental organization.

Another important factor in the evolution of international organizations was the Industrial Revolution, which was to transform Europe's predominantly rural agrarian societies into urban industrial societies. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there was a dramatic increase in the commercial interaction of states as new sources of energy (oil and electricity), new devices for communications (telegraph and telephone), and new means of transportation (steamships, railroads, and automobiles) were developed, enabling swifter and more efficient economic transactions to occur. At the same time, the social dislocations and change brought on by industrialization were particularly acute during the spread of the industrial economic model around the world and elevated concerns about people's welfare, particularly those most affected (e.g., the rural weavers and spinners in the textile industry, the guilds of trained journeymen and masters in the industrial crafts, and the landlords in agriculture) or most vulnerable (e.g., women and children, factory laborers). The Industrial Revolution “transformed the balance of political power – within nations, between nations, and between civilizations; revolutionized the social order; and as much changed ways of thinking as ways of doing” (Landes 1999:187).

As industrialization spread and trade intensified, a number of socioeconomic problems and conflicts also emerged between states that were to prove less resistant to collective action through formal intergovernmental organizations. Because these kinds of international problems neither challenged the delicate balance of power nor would cause loss of treasure or prestige of European states, they “offered statesmen and specialists alike the opportunity to confer without rousing too roughly the delicate sentiments of national pride […]” and to agree to formalize or bureaucratize their cooperation on issue areas of relatively low political salience (Mangone 1954:67–8). These problems led to creation of a number of international governmental organizations – the so-called public international unions – in the nineteenth century, including the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine (1815), the European Commission for Control of the Danube (1856), International Telegraph Union (1865), International Meteorological Organization (1873), Universal Postal Union (1874), International Bureau of Weights and Measures (1875), Union for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883), and the Intergovernmental Organization for the International Carriage by Rail (1890).

These organizations

developed at a time when central governments were expanding their administrative competence, both relative to provincial governments and, most relevantly, in terms of issue areas within which they exercised jurisdiction (i.e., aspects of social and economic lives previously within the private sphere were now part of the public domain) […] [and] served as collection points and clearinghouses for information, centers for decisions of problems of common concern to governments, instruments for the coordination of national policy and practices, and agencies for promoting the formulation and acceptance of uniform or minimum standards in their respective fields.

(Schechter 1998:10)

Obviously, the impetus for establishing these administrative and regulatory agencies on the international level was the need to ease or eliminate constraints on commercial transactions between sovereign jurisdictions. For states, creating these international organizations was a pragmatic and practical response to the challenges posed by technological developments and economic change that they all were facing. But states were also careful not to vest these international bodies with too much authority, limiting their scope, function, and tasks to specific purposes and technical matters.

The administrative character of these early international organizations was rather simple, often emulating the rapidly bureaucratizing governmental machinery on the national level. The fact that these organizations were the product of negotiation and diplomatic conferences meant that they were designed by and entrusted to the foreign affairs ministries of the countries involved (which were predominantly European). This led to small bureaus or offices, usually employing only a handful of officials, whose function was informational or ministerial with little or no power to control the actions of the states that created them. Moreover, it was common for the administrative organs of the public international unions as well as the officers or functionaries of the bureaus to be appointed by and maintained under the “supervision” of the government where the permanent bureau of the International Union was located. Although there were instances of states delegating executive power to an international organization (i.e., Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine (1815) and the International Sugar Commission (1901)), such power was never actually accorded to the bureau but to an executive body or commission made up of representatives of the member states (Woolf 1916; Sayre 1919).

The bureaucracy on the international level was intentionally relegated to “harmless duties [such] as the collection of information, the preparing of statistics, or the publication of a specialized magazine” (Sayre 1919:13). This reflected the conventional juristic view at the turn of century that “the international milieu was one where states led an independent and isolated existence […] States were presumed to have no obligations to any other entity but themselves, and compliance with external rules was deemed to be strictly voluntary” (Schmidt 1998:442). The dominance of juristic theory of the state and the legal approach to IR within the emerging discipline of IR at the start of the twentieth century precluded serious discussion of delegating political authority to international organizations beyond what was already in place. However, as the Concert system and the international order began to break down in the first half of the twentieth century, interest in the problem of IO – the process of institutionalizing world order – rapidly grew among political scientists and international lawyers, generating myriad proposals and schemes for world federations and government, international arbitration, world courts, and leagues of peace (Kuehl 1969; Muldoon 2003). In most if not all of these proposals and schemes, a crucial element was the creation of executive agencies (a council and a permanent secretariat) that “could function continuously and be available in times of crisis” (Kuehl 1969:272; see also Sayre 1919; Eagleton 1932).

The creation of the League of Nations at the end of World War I fulfilled to a great extent the dreams of the Internationalists from both Europe and the United States who had been promoting for decades the idea of a universal organization, “a permanent agency through which countries could collaborate continuously on the problems that affected world peace” (Schechter 1998:8; see also Mangone 1954; Kuehl 1969). Moreover, the League of Nations, particularly the League's Secretariat, became the subject of intense study during the interwar period as scholars of IR and law turned to IO and the institutional approach to IR. As Thompson (1992:42–3) points out:

The rise of representative national governments and their preference for the familiar institutions and processes of domestic governments have spurred the scholar and citizen alike to support [the institutional] approach […] The institutional approach has moved from the 1920s and 1930s, when scholars were heavily preoccupied with building their own models of an ideal international community, to a changing emphasis on institutional description and analysis. In the 1930s, it involved assessing the role of the League of Nations Secretariat, the changing concept of the office of the secretary-general, the unique structure of the International Labour Organization (ILO), and similar questions.

Many scholars of the early twentieth century considered the League of Nations an important evolutionary step towards “government” of international society and a bold experiment in international administration (Sayre 1919; Hill 1931; Eagleton 1932; Ranshofen-Wertheimer 1945; Potter 1948).

The League of Nations Secretariat was the first truly international bureaucracy in that it was

constituted as an international civil service, to furnish expert and impartial information in the interests of the community, rather than in the interests of the separate states […] [and based upon] the principle that persons once chosen to posts in the Secretariat were no longer in the service of their nations, but exclusively in the service of the League of Nations.

(Eagleton 1932:422)

The League Secretariat's organization, composition, and structure were unique due to its relationship with the policy-shaping bodies (the Assembly and the Council) of the League and to the particular mix of ministerial and operational administrative duties it was assigned to perform. Yet, as Ranshofen-Wertheimer (1945:8) argues:

The manner in which these [administrative] processes are actually organized is not the consequence of some mysterious quality inherent in international administration but is due to a conscious choice from among a number of precedents supplied by existing highly developed and differentiated national administrative systems, and within these systems, of a choice made from among services with comparable functions (not tasks!) […] [So], it was the appointment of a man [Sir Eric Drummond] to the post of Secretary-General who had grown up in the British civil service tradition, and the original establishment of the League's headquarters at London, that gave British usage and technique a natural advantage in the organization of the League's administrative system. It was later, partly at least, supplemented or supplanted by French administrative methods. The League Secretariat was furthermore enriched in subsequent years by the administrative experience brought to Geneva from other countries with their peculiar traditions.

The League Secretariat's development was closely followed by scholars and practitioners of public administration and IR throughout its relatively short life and even more intensely as the end of World War II approached and plans for a new international organization to succeed the League of Nations were being drawn up.

The outcome of this level of scrutiny was recognition of the crucial role of the League Secretariat in developing efficient and effective techniques and methods of international administration and a better understanding of the various difficulties and challenges that the Secretary-General and staff encountered in the course of performing their duties. It also revealed the weaknesses of the League's intergovernmental organs (the Assembly and Council), which failed to “provide adequate collective security measures in its key tests of Manchuria and Abyssinia/Ethiopia, much less Nazi and Soviet expansion” (Schechter 1998:11). The lessons learned from the League experience were visible in the design of the UN, including having all the great powers as members, granting the Secretary-General more constitutional powers, making the Secretariat a principle organ equal in standing with the Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, and Trusteeship Council, and embracing the idea that decisions be taken by simple or qualified majorities rather than previous practice of unanimity (Ranshofen-Wertheimer 1945; Jessup 1947; Potter 1948; Mangone 1954; Muldoon 2003).

A New World Order American Style

The creation of the UN in 1945 marked the transition from the first stage to the second in the development of international organizations and the system of governance for a new international order. It also marked the ascendance of the United States as a great power and the shift from a European centered international order to an American one. The international order that emerged after World War II was for the most part designed by the United States and reflected the American view of order. According to Ikenberry (1999:24),

the order that was envisioned for postwar relations among the industrial democracies – and hopefully for the larger world system – was inspired by liberal sentiments, an economic theory of war, and lessons drawn from the 1930s […] A postwar order that would ensure “economic peace” based on free trade and investment, rules and mechanisms of joint economic management, and political institutions to facilitate the peaceful settlement of disputes.

American policymakers conceived of an international system that “projected the philosophy, substance, and form of the New Deal regulatory state onto the world […] They adopted the same generic solution for the world's problems as for the nation's: government intervention through specialized administrative organizations” (Burley 1993:130). The American blueprint for the postwar international order that became the UN Charter did address many of the structural weaknesses of the League of Nations system, but did not go so far as to create a centralized world government.

On paper, the Charter was a more comprehensive approach to IO in that it foresaw the need to integrate the various specialized agencies (i.e., Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), International Labour Organization (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Universal Postal Union (UPU), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO)) that were being created to handle particular problems within the overall framework of the UN.

Because of the size and complexity of the world problems with which these various organizations must deal, it is highly desirable that the work be decentralized. At the same time it is essential that effort and funds be conserved by some arrangement for the avoidance of duplication and conflict. These are not problems which can be disposed of once and for all by some magic administrative formula.

(Jessup 1947:9–10)

Although the Charter assigned the task of coordinating the efforts of the specialized agencies to the Economic and Social Council, the arrangement never really worked as intended since the “autonomously governed and financed specialized agencies were reluctant to submit to centralized coordination from the United Nations” (Weiss et al. 1997:207).

The Charter was more specific on the role of the Secretary-General and the Secretariat than the League Covenant, but it did not alter the basic principles of international administration developed by Sir Eric Drummond. In fact, Chapter XV of the UN Charter simply recognized constitutionally what had already been established in practice. Like Article 6 of the League Covenant, Chapter XV (Articles 97–101) of the UN Charter emphasized the administrative role of the Secretary-General and the staff. (Article 97 states bluntly that the Secretary-General is “chief administrative officer of the Organization” and, in Article 98, “shall act in that capacity in all meetings of the General Assembly, of the Security Council, of the Economic and Social Council, and of the Trusteeship Council, and shall perform such other functions as are entrusted to him by these organs.”) But unlike Article 6 of the Covenant, the Charter recognized a political role for the Secretary-General in Article 99, which allows the Secretary-General “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” In granting this “right” to the Secretary-General, the UN Charter gave the office “a reservoir of authority, a wide margin of discretion, which requires the most careful political judgment and is limited only by prudence” (Pérez de Cuéllar 1997:94). The Charter gave exclusive power of staff appointments to the Secretary-General (Article 101) and admonished member states to “respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities” (Article 100). Hence, the notion of an independent international civil service responsible only to the organization was legally defined and constitutionally protected, though the member states often violated this doctrine in practice.

The most significant change to occur was the introduction of American management methods and techniques that had been developed and applied to the US government's administrative system for the New Deal. This transposition of American public administration was evident in the detailed plans for the structure of the UN Secretariat put together by the Preparatory Commission which included a table of organization (eight departments covering the main fields of UN activity), recruitment principles and standards (estimating that a staff of 2,450 was required), and a temporary budget (the first General Assembly session at London in early 1946 allocated $21.5 million to cover the estimated costs of staff and facilities for the year). This was a massive bureaucracy compared to the relatively modest set up under the League (which topped out at a staff of 670 covering 11 sections) and was quickly criticized as overstaffed, inefficient, and too expensive (Loveday 1956; Melvern 1995:25–30; Bertrand 1997; Muldoon 2007:98–99). According to Jessup (1947:10–11):

At the last meeting of the General Assembly the same outcry which is heard in Washington, was raised against the development of an international bureaucracy […] It is probably true that under the urgent pressure of setting up an organization which had to begin functioning immediately, there was the usual amount of overstaffing in the administrative divisions of the Secretariat. Americans, with their highly developed theories and techniques of public administration, are particularly prone to build up an elaborate administrative machine functioning under a multitude of rules and regulations designed to grind out answers as automatically as one of the great calculators developed by the International Business Machines Corporation. The result of this process in any governmental unit is the creation of red tape […] It is probably inevitable that a certain number of matters in any large administrative unit should be handled according to an automatic rule instead of on the basis of a consideration of the individual merits of a particular case. When, however, the clientele of the administrative unit is composed of sovereign states and their official representatives, the elements of prestige and of wounded feelings are just as important as the requirement of efficiency in the discharge of a task […] An international organization must also struggle with the difficulties created by the fact that in drawing officials from more than 50 different countries, it draws into itself dozens of different concepts of proper methods of administration.

But it wasn't only the UN Secretariat that adopted the “big government” style of American administration. The bureaucracies of the Specialized Agencies and the Bretton Woods institutions were also designed in line with the American model.

The UN system, a complex network of diverse organizations, was an elaborate organizational design for international governance. While the various international organizations of the system fostered greater international cooperation and improved policy coordination on a range of international problems, they did little to curtail or circumscribe the prerogatives of states or to alter the diplomatic character of IR. Rather, they reinforced the Westphalian order of independent territorial states and the control of states over the international system. Kratochwil (1993:467) argues that postwar international organizations have a

curious organizational design that bolted together various organizational forms familiar from domestic politics. The assemblies of these organizations concerned with the definition of “problems” are held together by little more than a yearly schedule to discuss and thereby legitimate and delegitimate issues of concerns. Precisely because the domains of these organizational efforts are barely specifiable or of unquestioned legitimacy, only the weakest form of institutionalization is possible: the debate. Topics have to be attended to sequentially and all members ought to pay attention. The organizational economies that are available are schedules (forcing an end to debate), consensus procedures, reduction of participants (committees), and limited delegation (to produce, e.g., a draft agreement). “Councils” are formally empowered to make decisions on certain issues and represent some weak form of authority based on some notion of representation. Only seldom is the actual formal, hierarchically organized bureaucracy entrusted with the administration of programs.

While there was considerable discussion among practitioners in the immediate postwar period about the structure and role of international organizations, the academic community's interest in the structural/functional dimensions of IO was already starting to wane. The study of IO gradually shifted its analytical focus away from the UN system, which dominated the field between 1945 and 1960, to regional integration studies (particularly, the development of the European Communities) in the 1960s, and then to transnational politics, networks of interdependence, and international regimes throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Dijkzeul and Beigbeder 2003:5). As Rochester (1986:783–4) pointed out: “One pattern that can be discerned throughout the maturation of the international organization field in the postwar era has been the steady disengagement of international organization scholars from the study of organizations, to the point that today one may question whether such a field even exists any longer except in name only.”

The field of IO was also being undermined by the rise of the so-called Realist school within IR that had been feuding with the Liberal Internationalists since the late 1930s over the direction of the discipline.

By the early 1940s, it was apparent that the field of international relations was undergoing a transition, which was best exemplified by the argument that the study of international politics should replace international organization as the central focus of the field. Those who identified themselves with the theory of realism, such as E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau, Frederick Sherwood Dunn, Frederick L. Schuman, Nicholas J. Spykman, and John Herz, sought to direct attention away from the study of international organization and toward international politics where the enduring and endless quest for power and survival was preeminent.

(Schmidt 1998:452)

Their argument seemed to gain some ground as the postwar international system became embroiled in the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union of the Cold War. In this context, other more traditional institutions of international society – such as the balance of power, diplomacy, international law and war (see Bull 1995 [1977]) – seemed to reflect more accurately the dynamics of and actual behavior in postwar IR. Obviously, the study of international politics as defined by the realists did not replace IO altogether within the discipline, but the preeminence that the study of international organizations enjoyed within academic circles during the first half of the twentieth century was considerably diminished (Muldoon 2003:75–80).

The growing indifference in IR scholarship to international organizations during the Cold War period was also evident by the lack of interaction between IR theory and management and organization theory. Dijkzeul and Beigbeder (2003:5–11; see also Dijkzeul 1997:11–25) point out that organizational and management theories are largely absent in the IO literature, with the exception of decision-making theories and organizational learning that briefly appeared in the 1970s, while attention to international organizations in the disciplines of business administration and public administration was also minimal. Ness and Brechin (1988:269–70) argued:

a gap exists between organizational and international organizational analyses. It is perhaps best reflected in the perspective on organizational performance, which is central in organizational sociology and largely neglected in international organizations. If the field of international relations focuses on the organization rather than the organizations of the international system, they are likely to neglect the organizations. Ironically, this neglect leaves the field with an essentially naïve view of organizations as simple mechanical tools that act directly and precisely at the bidding of their creators […] In sociological analyses, it is precisely the focus on organizations as significant units of action that has brought a more critical, even cynical, view of them. They are seen as tools of action, to be sure, but as recalcitrant tools that come to have a life of their own, serving interests other than the rational and altruistic ends for which they were originally, at least publicly, created […] International relations will be enhanced if we pay greater attention to how modern organizations emerge and what they do in action – in short, if we pay greater attention to organizational performance.

This “mutual neglect” between general organization theory and the study of IO not only perpetuated an oversimplified view of international organizations as black boxes controlled internally by traditional bureaucratic mechanisms, but also reinforced the realist's view that international organizations were inconsequential to states’ behavior in the international arena.

The lament that was heard throughout the 1970s and 1980s over how little was known or understood of how international organizations actually work reflected a growing frustration among IO scholars with the persistent criticism of the UN system and its management (especially by the US) – “accusing the UN ‘bureaucracy’ of self proliferation and of being responsible for all the failures of the organization” (Bertrand 1997:85) – much of which was often unfounded or based on political/ideological machinations of particular groups or countries. By the 1980s, the list of specific complaints against the UN in particular and international organizations in general had become quite long and detailed. The Reagan Administration was especially outspoken in its criticism, pointing out that the UN's “effectiveness is seriously compromised by the organization's politicization, by an inefficient and swollen bureaucracy, and by a lack of proper program priorities” (Gati 1983:3). Bertrand (1997:84–5) argues that a

theory of the “excessive cost” of the UN, which implies a systematic critical evaluation of the Secretariat – too much bureaucracy, too many civil servants, a large number of whom are incompetent (“dead wood” needing to be cut out), priorities which are not respected, etc. – [had] been developed […] [and] that succeeded in convincing public opinion in the rich countries that the UN costs too much to its contributors and that its “bureaucracy” is a model of waste.

In fact, the unwieldy administrative structure of the UN Secretariat as well as that of other international organizations is no more than a reflection of the complexity of these organizations’ intergovernmental committees, which were created by the member states and never subject to rationalization (Weiss 1975, 1982; see also Müller 1992). International bureaucracies were portrayed as part of the problem instead as part of the solution to the world's many difficulties.

The vilification of international bureaucracies was consistent with the ideological shift to the right in US and UK politics that was particularly hostile toward the existing bureaucratic “big government” view and had embraced a more business-like approach to government (i.e., public sector managerialism or New Public Management) which had become popular in American public administration circles (Bouckaert and Pollitt 2000; Hood and Peters 2004). Primarily a strategy for reform of the public bureaucracy on the national level, many of the ideas and practices associated with the New Public Management (NPM) – such as, “competition between public and private service providers; decentralization and delayering of government bureaus; more choices for citizens; benchmarking and output measurements; performance contracts and other financial incentives for public servants; creation of internal markets; and assimilation, within the public sector, of private-sector management techniques including better risk-management” (Stark 2002:137) – reflected the neoconservative belief that the time had come to roll back government involvement in the economy and to rein in runaway bureaucracies that had grown too big, bureaucratic, and unaccountable. The traditional organization of public bureaucracies was failing to provide public services effectively and efficiently and was out of line with modern society. The administrative reforms promoted under the NPM's small-government economic-rationalist paradigm did make their way into discussions of reforms of international organizations’ bureaucracies, though any effort to implement these ideas and practices was resisted by both the member states and the staff of international organizations.

Globalization and the Changing Role(s) and Function(s) of IOs in the Post–Cold War World

The end of the Cold War and the dramatic changes in the world's political, economic, and social landscape brought about by globalization in the 1990s revived interest in international organizations, particularly key world organizations such as the UN, the World Bank and IMF, the GATT/WTO, and the G8, and the role international organizations could, should, or would play in the “new” world order. In the early post–Cold War period, international organizations were considered well positioned within the international system for managing globalization and its many manifestations and therefore “effective agencies of global governance” (Hewson and Sinclair 1999:4; see also Rosenau and Czempiel 1992; Simai 1994; Commission on Global Governance 1995; Kennedy et al. 2002). Scholars and policymakers, alike, sought to expand the roles, functions, and powers of international organizations, but over the course of the last decade of the twentieth century the problems and limitations of international organizations became increasingly apparent (Diehl 1997:3; Mathews 1997; Simmons and de Jonge Oudraat 2001; Nayyar 2002). International organizations and the multilateral system were in a sense “failing” to meet the challenges or to respond to the new global problems of the post–Cold War world (Ruggie 1993; Elliott 2000; Brühl and Rittberger 2002). It is this perceived ineffectiveness and in some situations negative impact of international organizations on a range of old and new global problems that have compelled some IR scholars to focus their research on what these organizations do and how they do it.

Reflecting the rise of constructivism in IR, a number of IO scholars have sought to rescue international organizations from the accusation that they are merely “intervening variables” in the affairs of states, rather than actors in their own right. Constructivist work, most notably that of Barnett and Finnemore (1999 and 2004), has focused on the “bureaucratization” of world politics and the ways in which large international organizations are able to use knowledge and expertise, as well as their capacity for organized behavior, to influence state behavior. This work draws upon bureaucratic and organizational theory from sociology and from public administration and management studies in an effort to explain how the organizational culture and bureaucratic politics of a variety of international organizations shape these organizations’ preferences, behavior, and change and how internal bureaucratic features and dynamics affect these organizations’ performance (cf. Dijkzeul 1997; March and Olsen 1998; Reinalda and Verbeek 1998, 2004; Farazmand 2002; Dijkzeul and Beigbeder 2003; Bøås and McNeill 2004; Xu and Weller 2004; Bebbington et al. 2006; Joachim et al. 2008; and Weaver 2008)

In another vein, recent work on Principal-Agent (P-A) theory has developed models that examine the conditions under which IOs are able to free themselves from control by governments. This work is less concerned with the power of IOs, than with the conditions under which IOs can and do become autonomous actors. Following on from neorealist, institutionalist theory, the principal-agent literature focuses on delegation: why states as collective principals delegate power and responsibilities to IOs as the agents, and how IOs perform the functions they have been assigned (Pollack 1997; Gutner 2005; Gould 2006; Hawkins et al. 2006). P-A theorists posit that principals (states) delegate authority to an agent (e.g., an international bureaucracy or secretariat), empowering the agent to act on behalf of the principals. Principals delegate authority because of the potential benefits to them by ceding control to the agent, but also seek to minimize the inevitable “agency loss” when an agent acts in ways that diverge from principals’ interests. Hence, principals often put in place mechanisms such as rules, monitoring and reporting requirements, institutional checks and balances, to limit an agent's ability to act independently, while agents try to expand their authority and increase their autonomy by interpreting mandates, reinterpreting rules, expanding permeability to third parties, and creating barriers to monitoring (Hawkins et al. 2006). The IO scholars using P-A theory are less interested, however, in what the IOs do with their autonomy than with how this autonomy comes about and how it aids or frustrates the very reason why states delegated in the first place. A number of factors can determine the level of agent independence. P-A theory looks primarily at factors – asymmetric information, the number of principals, and the heterogeneity of principal preference – which explain how IOs relate to their surroundings and particularly to states. This is in contrast to the more inward-looking focus of sociological theories, which have looked more at internal factors such as bureaucratic culture and organizational learning.

Much of the current research on and analysis of international organizations combines rationalist and constructivist approaches and is increasingly interdisciplinary which focuses on the actual work of IOs and how to improve their performance. There is a growing body of literature that “opens up the black box” of international bureaucracies exposing their pathologies and dysfunctions, probing their design, structure, processes, relationships, weaknesses and strengths, and prodding their leaders, advocates and critics to reexamine, rethink, and reform what it is they do and how they do it. This represents a welcome return to the study of IO in IR and a revival of scholarship on the international public sector (Mathiason 2007 and 2008). Yet there is a great deal more work to do – theoretically and empirically – before the study of international organizations can, once again, take center stage in the IR discipline. There are still critical gaps in our understanding of international bureaucracies – how they change and learn, how they interact and engage with other actors and new forms of global governance, and how they contribute to effective and accountable global governance – that need to be addressed. To this end, a comprehensive and coherent research agenda is required that will build upon and expand the theoretical and empirical work on international organizations of the last 10–15 years and that will encourage “innovative approaches to the comparative analysis of bureaucratic activities in the international arena” (Bauer 2008:71; see also Benner, Mergenthaler, and Rotmann 2007). In other words, understanding the work of international bureaucracies and their contribution to global governance is likely to be an ongoing interdisciplinary concern of both scholars and practitioners in the field of IO for the foreseeable future.


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