chapter
Introduction: Joel E. Oestreich
ByJOEL E. OESTREICH
Pages 25

The goal of this book is to provide empirical examples of the ways in which international organizations (IOs) can be meaningful, independent actors in international relations. A central issue it seeks to explorecan IOs “act”?—might seem a bit odd to many readers. After all, IOs, like all organizations, act every day in a thousand different ways. The World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on trade disagreements; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) makes decisions about military policy; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decrees picturesque towns to be World Heritage Sites. IOs act all the time, and their actions sometimes have serious real-world consequences-they can help national economies, intervene in civil conflicts, and draw tourists to remote parts of the world. Yet in most mainstream approaches to international relations (IR) theory, IOs are not really thought of as actors at all. Rather, these theories assume that it is states that act, working through the IOs they create. This assumption is made by traditional Realists, who see IOs as essentially meaningless bodies in a world of state actors, and also by many branches of Liberal theory, which assume that IOs influence world politics as loci of social norms and expectations, but not as agents with their own wants and desires, and the ability to act on them. Until fairly recently, these assumptions have meant that IR theory

has produced few studies that relate what actually happens within IOs to IR theory in general. Some newer approaches, however, have gone

a long way to challenge these assumptions. The purpose of this book is to explore the nature of international organizations, and in particular their ability to act on their own, in ways not dictated or perhaps even foreseen by the states that create them. It seeks to present awide-ranging picture of IO action, bringing together work being done in a number of theoretical areas-including principal-agent (PA) theory, “constructivist” or sociological theories, and elements of Realism and its offshoots-to present an overview of when and how IOs are able to act on their own in the international system. It also wants to ask what it really means to act independently. We will begin with a set of hypotheses (set out later in this chapter) about what factors enable or constrain independence, and then use case studies to show how these factors “play out” in the real world of IOs. By presenting so many cases together that open the “black box” of IO decision-making in a way that ties theory to practice, we hope to help both scholars and practitioners better understand what actually happens within IOs. Each case examines a particular example of an IO performing as an

independent, meaningful actor (more on this below) in the international system, or, in the presented counter-examples, failing to act as one when some capacity for independence might otherwise have been expected. Careful examination of the internal workings of IOs and their interaction with the international environment will show the processes by which IOs are able to play a productive role in international politics. The contributors are well cognizant of the limitations of IOs: we understand that IOs are often severely constrained in their powers, particularly when their actions go against the wishes of important states, and we don’t suggest that states can’t control IOs when they really want to. Still, a growing body of literature takes seriously the notion that IOs can be independent, and, when conditions are met, serious actors in the international system. This volume does not in itself claim to want to “prove” the validity,

or expand the scope, of any particular theoretical model of IO autonomy and independence. The authors do not limit themselves to any single body of theoretical material on IO decision-making, but instead feel free to see what is most useful from the various ways that IOs have been examined in the IR literature. This does not equal chaos, or a lack of rigor. Rather, we are trying to see what facets of IO activity are best described by what set of theories, and how those theories might be used in combination to paint a broader, more nuanced portrait of IO activity than any single approach. We aim for no larger, “general” theory of IOs or some sort of consensus model of IO action. Instead, we want to explore how various theories illuminate different aspects of

IO performance and action, and to discover how the most complete possible picture of IOs might be put together. Different approaches help us to understand different aspects of IO decision-making, performance, and interests.