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Who gets to live forever? An Institutional Theory on the Life and Death of International Organizations



International organizations do not live forever. Recent empirical studies show that around 39% of international organizations created since 1815 have formally died. Yet we know, in fact, little about their decline and death. This is surprising as it is well-known that different forms of governance-city-states, great powers, public agencies, alliances and others-have a life-cycle. Building on recent empirical studies, this paper provides a conceptual and theoretical perspective on the decline and death of international organizations. It embeds debate on decline and death in the broader academic literature on the life-cycle of different governance arrangements. Building on research about the design and development of international organizations, it outlines an institutional theory on the decline and death. An institutional theory helps us to understand why, subject to similar external pressures, some international organizations decline and die where others survive.
Who gets to live forever? An Institutional Theory on the Life and Death of
International Organizations
Hylke Dijkstra
Maastricht University, The Netherlands
Paper prepared for the ECPR Joint Sessions, Mons, 8-12 April 2019.
Feel free to use, circulate and cite.1
Updated information on this paper and our research project NestIOr on "the decline and death of
international organizations" is available here:
International organizations do not live forever. Recent empirical studies show that around 39% of
international organizations created since 1815 have formally died. Yet we know, in fact, little about
their decline and death. This is surprising as it is well-known that different forms of governance --
city-states, great powers, public agencies, alliances and others -- have a life-cycle. Building on
recent empirical studies, this paper provides a conceptual and theoretical perspective on the decline
and death of international organizations. It embeds debate on decline and death in the broader
academic literature on the life-cycle of different governance arrangements. Building on research
about the design and development of international organizations, it outlines an institutional theory
on the decline and death. An institutional theory helps us to understand why, subject to similar
external pressures, some international organizations decline and die where others survive.
Key words
international organizations, governance, life-cycle, death, institutional theory
Funding information
This paper is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC)
under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement
No 802568).
1 Please cite as: Dijkstra, Hylke (2019). Who gets to live forever? An Institutional Theory on the Life and Death of
International Organizations. Paper presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions, Mons, 8-12 April. Retrieved from
1. Introduction
Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kenneth Waltz made the infamously-
wrong prediction that "NATO's days are not numbered, but its years are" (1993: 76). With the
principal threat out of the way, NATO no longer had a purpose. Waltz rhetorically asked "[h]ow
can an alliance endure in the absence of a worthy opponent?" (ibid.: 75). Against the odds, NATO
survived the end of the Cold War. It adapted itself to the new security environment and its member
states have sent military missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya under its authority
(e.g. McCalla 1996; Wallander 2000; Thies 2009; Dijkstra 2015; Johnston 2017). And yet NATO
continuously needs to prove itself. President Trump notably refused to endorse the cornerstone
Article 5 during the Brussels summit in 2017 and continues to question the organization's future.
NATO is just one example of international organizations (IOs) currently under pressure. The World
Health Organization was heavily criticized over its handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak (Kamradt-
Scott 2016). The United States stopped contributing to the UNESCO budget in 2011, thereby
depriving the organization of nearly a quarter of its resources (Eckhard, Patz & Schmidt 2018), and
left the organization in 2018. The United Kingdom will quit the European Union (EU) in 2019 and
Burundi and the Philippines the International Criminal Court and Japan the International Whaling
Commission. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) finds its Appellate Body eroded by
the American refusal to reappoint judges and has been in a stalemate ever since the breakdown of
the Doha Development Round. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) demanded to
be taken seriously in their Durban declaration of 2013 and have set up alternative institutions.
The ultimate way for states to show that IOs have outlived their purpose is to disband them all-
together. Some of the textbook examples include the League of Nations, International Refugee
Organisation, Warsaw Treaty Organization and Western European Union. But beneath the surface,
the death of international organizations occurs even more frequently. Eilstrup-Sangiovanni (2019)
finds that 39% of the IOs (218 out of 561) created since 1815 have formally ceased to exist (see
also Pevehouse, Nordstrom & Warnke 2004). Even if not formally declared dead, Gray (2018)
shows that no less than 38% of 70 international economic organizations were inactive during the
period 1948-2013, thus essentially in a state of coma.
In light of the Trump presidency, observers have been quick to predict the end of the liberal world
order (e.g. Foreign Affairs 2017; Ferguson & Zakaria 2017; Mearsheimer 2018; Walt 2018; but see
Ikenberry 2018). Yet we know in fact very little about the actual decline and death of IOs. This is
surprising for two reasons. First, it is well-known that different forms of governance including
city-states, great powers, public agencies, alliances and regimes have a life-cycle (e.g. Young
1982; Kennedy 1987; Boin, Kuipers & Steenbergen 2010; Ashley Leeds & Savun 2007). Second,
there is a vibrant research agenda on the institutional design and development of IOs (e.g.
Koremenos, Lipson & Snidal 2001; Hooghe & Marks 2015; Barnett & Coleman 2005; Colgan,
Keohane & Van de Graaf 2012; Jupille, Mattli & Snidal 2013; Hanrieder 2015; Lipscy 2017). It is
thus surprising that the decline and death of IOs have not been comprehensively assessed.
This paper provides a conceptual and theoretical perspective on the decline and death of IOs. While
it builds on two recent empirical papers (Gray 2018; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2019; also Shanks,
Jacobson and Kaplan 1996), the purpose of this paper is to embed debate on the decline and death
of IOs in the broader academic literature on governance. Building on insights on the life-cycle of
different forms of governance, this paper also makes the case for an institutional theory on the
decline and death of IOs. It argues that IOs are subject to all sorts of external pressures -- wars take
place, cooperation breaks down, problems change, and domestic politics affects IOs -- but the key
question is which IOs survive and which IOs decline or die. Institutional theory potentially provides
us with powerful answers. This paper theorizes that the degree to which IOs can adapt and/or resist
external pressures is in large part dependent on their institutional design.
Before outlining developing a new theory on the decline and death of IOs, one of the final questions
is whether the death of IOs and other forms of public governance actually matters. Just as Italian
city-states, such as Siena and Venice, were replaced by regional forms of government and later the
Italian Republic, IOs are also regularly replaced by other IOs (Cottrell 2016: table 1.1). This points
at continuity even in cases where IOs are formally closed down (see also Pevehouse et al. 2004; see
for a legal perspective Wessel 2011). At the same time Kaufmann (1976) points out that "The death
of government organizations is important even though their functions are assumed by other units
and continue after the organizations disappear themselves" (p. 65), because political system may
change with a different opportunity structure for political actors. Global governance will likely
continue in a post-liberal international order, but the dynamics may differ.
The first section of the paper provides a literature review. It shows how scholars have analysed the
life-cycle of different forms of governance in philosophy, history, and particularly public
administration. The second section discusses what we already know about the life and death of IOs.
The third section introduces an institutional theory on the decline and death of IOs.
2. Governance life-cycles: Insights from philosophy, history, and public administration
It is well-known that all forms of governance eventually come to an end. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(1762 [1997]: book III, chapter 11, paragraph 1) noted "[i]f Sparta and Rome perished, what State
can hope to last forever?" or as Hobbes (1651: part 2, chapter 29) succinctly stated "nothing can be
immortal which mortals make". Indeed, the idea that forms of governance have a life cycle is
explicit in political philosophy and the metaphor of a "body politic" (De Pizan 1407). Historians
have also focused this theme. Following Gibbon's (1776-89) The Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, they have notably written about the rise and fall of the great powers (Kennedy 1987) and
vanished kingdoms (Davies 2011). In the longue durée, there is nothing permanent about forms of
governance and it is important to analyse the entire process from creation to death.
Political philosophers from Plato until Hobbes have adopted a body-state analogy, which puts an
emphasis on state illness and internal political disorder (Sontag 1978; see also Musolff 2010, 2011)
when it comes to the death of forms of governance. Hobbes notably dedicates a full chapter, to the
"things that weaken or tend to the dissolution of a Commonwealth" (Hobbes 1651: part 2, chapter
29). Inspired by his own experience during the English civil war, the emphasis is on "internal
diseases" arising from, amongst others, "imperfect institution[s]" and "seditious doctrines". The
Commonwealth, weakened by internal disease, will be dissolved "when in a war, foreign or
intestine, the enemies get the final victory". Hobbes thus identifies external factors, but his focus is
on internal characteristics.2 For Hobbes (1651: part 2, chapter 29), "if men had the use of reason
they pretend to, their commonwealths might be secured, at least, from perishing by internal
Jean-Jacques Rousseau also explicitly draws parallels between the human life-cycle and those of
states (1762 [1997]: book III, chapters 10-11), even though he differs in his notion of the body
politic from previous philosophers, notably Hobbes (e.g. Steinberger 2008). For Rousseau, the
"health" of states is affected by its internal composition -- its social contract. Indeed, barring an
"unforeseen accident", the longevity of the body politic is almost entirely determined by the quality
of its constitution:
2 John Locke (1690), on the other hand, argues that the "inroad of foreign force" is "[t]he usual, and almost only way
whereby" states are dissolved, but also considers that states can be "dissolved from within", and indeed discusses
this at some length (Chapter XIX).
If we want to form a lasting establishment, let us ... not dream of making it eternal. To
succeed one must not attempt the impossible, nor flatter oneself that the work of men can be
endowed with a solidity humans do not allow for. The body politic, just like the body of a
man, begins to die as soon as it is born and carries within itself the causes of its destruction.
But either body can have a constitution that is more or less robust and suited to preserve it
for more or less time. ... Even the best constituted State will end, but later than another, if no
unforeseen accident brings about its doom before its time. (1762 [1997]: book III, chapter
11, paragraphs 1-2)
Even Niccolò Machiavelli himself -- the poster boy of realists -- pays considerable attention to the
internal characteristics of forms of governance. In The Discourses rather than The Prince, one of his
key concern is how to avoid a corrupt state, on the basis of lessons from the Roman Empire.
Contrary to contemporary neorealism, which considers that "domestic pathologies" are "anomalies"
(Mearsheimer 2009: 246), for Machiavelli it is by no means given that states domestically organize
themselves. Indeed, Machiavelli (1531) puts an emphasis on variation in internal institutions and
the ability of states to change:
Those States consequently stand surest and endure longest which, either by the operation of
their institutions can renew themselves, or come to be renewed by accident apart from any
design. Nothing, however, can be clearer than that unless thus renewed bodies do not last.
(Book III, Chapter I)
Of all the historians in the "rise and fall" genre, Kennedy (1987) comes closest to a generalizable
and testable theory with his hypothesis of "imperial overstretch". Regardless of the scepticism of
fellow historians about causality (pp. xxi-xxii), and much debate over his predictions about the
future of the United States in his concluding chapter (pp. 514-535), his thesis also focuses on the
"interaction" (p. xv) between internal and external explanations: great powers last as long as they
can pay for the war effort. If the economic fundamentals change, which Kennedy argues that they
constantly do, societies tend to benefit differently and this benefits some powers in relative terms at
the expense of others (p. xvi). If great powers fail to benefit from economic change, war spending
soon becomes a too large chunk of the overall economy, and great power decline (p. xvi).
Another formidable historian Davies (2011) provide a more pluralist account when analysing what
he calls vanished kingdoms -- states that were either "once great", never aspired to "greatness", and
entities that "never had a chance" (p. 5). While he has sympathy of the Hobbes/Locke's dichotomy
that states die from external force or internal malfunction, he suggests a broader typology of causes:
implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation and infant mortality (p. 732). Infant mortality, at the start
of the life-cycle is particularly important: "No state is as vulnerable as in the very early days of its
existence, and the vultures begin to hover as soon as the infant takes its first breath" (p. 738). In
general, Davies notes that successful statehood is a "rare blessing" and that it depends on a number
of factors. It requires "health and vigour, good fortune, benevolent neighbours and a sense of
purpose to aid growth and reach maturity" (ibid.). In other words, a combination of factors.
While political philosophers and historians provides with an important big picture on the life-cycle
of forms of governance, in public administration academics have studied the death of (public)
organisations with methodological rigor. Starting from bureaucratic politics and evolutionary and
population ecology models (Downs 1967; Hannan & Freeman 1977; Aldrich 2008), they often
argue that public organisations have a relatively high survival rate (Weber as cited in Shanks et al.
1996: 593; Downs 1967). A classic reference is Kaufman (1976), who found that only 27 out of 294
U.S. government agencies had died. Yet Kaufman also argued that "[t]he portrait of government
agencies as removed from competition and its often fatal effects is greatly oversimplified" (p. 13).
Indeed, more recently scholars have found that also U.S. public agencies die at a considerable rate
(Van Witteloostuijn, Boin, Kofman, Kuilman, & Kuipers 2018: figure 1).
Following these empirical findings, public administration theory on agency termination has become
significantly more advanced in recent years. The focus is both on population-level and agency-level
explanations for termination. At the level of individual agencies, an important distinction is between
external and internal explanations (Adam et al. 2007). External explanations focus on pressures that
negatively affect agencies. This includes, notably, political turnover: The agency's survival chances
decrease once the politicians who established the agency are voted out of office (Lewis 2002).
Other external reasons for termination include budgetary pressures (austerity), perceptions of a lack
of agency effectiveness, or social pressures (Adam et al. 2007: 229-230). In other words, the
environment in which agencies operate tends to change and this may put pressure on agencies.
Most research focuses, however, on internal explanations for the survival of agencies: external
pressures being equal, which public agencies survive and which agencies die? One key assumption,
widely shared in the literature, is the ability of organizations to adapt to changing external demands
(for an overview see Boin et al. 2017). As Aldrich (1999: 194) notes " an organization that cannot
change in fundamental ways will constantly be at risk, if its environment is evolving and its cannot
keep pace". At the same time, it is well-documented that public administration reform is often less
effective than imagined as a result of all sorts of bureaucratic inertia (Hannan and Freeman 1989:
66-80). Testing different hypotheses, Boin et al. (2017) find that the ability of public agencies to
react to external pressures improves chances for survival. Proactive change, without external
pressures, on the other hand puts agencies at risk.
In addition to analysing the ability of agencies to adapt, public administration scholars have also
studied the extent to which agencies are insulated from outside pressures. The emphasis is, in this
respect, on the design of agencies (Kaufman 1976: 3-9). Because political principals know their
terms in office will eventually end, they may seek to create new agencies by law rather than decree
or put them on arm's length from political interference (Kuipers et al. 2018). Lewis (2002) indeed
finds that public agencies are particularly vulnerable in their first years (cf. Davies 2011; Eilstrup-
Sangiovanni 2019) and that survival chances increase over the years once agencies become more
established. At the same time, Kuipers et al. (2018) argue that the different stages in the life-cycle
present involve risks: "institutional design can protect them in the short run but over time turn into a
liability" (p. 264).
Apart from the autonomy and an agency's age, the size of public organizations is often seen as
positively relating to survival. As Downs (1967: 17) notes "large organizations have a better chance
of survival than small ones" and public agencies will therefore focus on expanding their resources.
Kaufman (1976: 9) equally note the agency of public organizations in affecting their development
and indeed life prospects. Empirical studies, however, only identify a modest effect of the size of
agencies for survival (Corbett and Howard 2017). Part of the challenge is that size is often
operationalized as budget, yet it is not immediately clear why a higher budget would result in higher
survival chances. After all, some public agencies may have considerable budgets but limited actual
agency or ability to fight off external pressures (cf. Dunleavy 1985).
Just like political philosophers and historians, public administration scholars find that agency
termination cannot be explained by a single internal or external variable but often involves a
combination of factors (Kuipers et al. 2018). This also makes sense. If agencies do not face external
pressures, there is no reason why they would be terminated. At the same time, if decades of public
administration theory has told us one thing it is that "bureaucracy matters", hence the importance of
internal institutional design when it comes to survival. Recently, public administration scholars
have gone further, in this respect, by moving beyond agency-level analyses and providing a
population-level analysis (van Witteloostuijn et al. 2018). Such a density analysis helps to
understand the level of competition that individual public agencies are facing and the extent to
which they face pressures to adapt (ibid.).
Striking about much of the literature on the life-cycle of different forms of governance, across the
disciplines, is the emphasis on internal characteristics. While exogenous factors such as war,
technological change, political turnover, or unforeseen accidents are mentioned, they are in
themselves not sufficient to explain the death of city states, the decline of great powers, or the
termination of public agencies. This focus on internal factors contrasts sharply with much of the
international relations literature, most notably neorealism, which privileges systematic explanations
and grants little agency to international institutions. The recent advances particularly in the public
administration literature provide a rather detailed and nuanced view on the death of public
organizations. As such, they present important insights also for the decline and death of IOs, and
particularly the case for institutional theory.
3. Design, development, decline and death of international organizations
The previous section shows a general understanding that different forms of governance go through a
life-cycle. So where does this leave us when it comes to IOs? The short answer is that we know a
lot about the design of IOs and that, in recent years, also quality work has been published about the
development of IOs. In comparison we know little about decline and death apart from some recent
empirical papers, considerable work on NATO, and some recent work on "norm robustness". At the
same time, it is also clear that insights from institutional design and development can potentially
serve as important building blocks for an institutional theory on decline and death. Indeed, as also
the previous section has shown, the way forms of governance are designed may significantly affect
their chances of survival.
Before discussing the existing literature, it is important to specify what we mean by the design,
development, decline and death of IOs. IOs are often defined as (1) having at least three member
states, (2) holding a plenary session at least every 10 years, and (3) have a secretariat and
correspondence address (Pevehouse et al. 2004).3 Hence, IOs that once fulfilled these criteria, but
no longer, are considered dead. This is a strict definition of death, as the threshold to be alive is not
very high (cf. Gray 2018). Development and decline, on the other hand, can be measured along
indicators such as increases/decreases in the policy scope and output, the IO resources, and
membership. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionary (n.d.) defines decline as a "gradual and continuous loss
of strength, numbers, quality, or value". These definitions result in an ideal-type parabola of life
(see figure 1). While few IOs follow this ideal-type exactly, and it is important to avoid
determinism, it is a useful way to conceptualize the life-cycle of IOs.4
3 This excludes notably a lot of informal and non-state-driven international institutions. At the same time, other
scholars use a more restrictive definition (Volgy et al. 2008; Hooghe et al. 2017).
4 Following the definitions above, the League of Nations started to decline in 1931 and 1933 when it lost Japan and
Germany as members, well before its ultimate death as a result of the Second World War. The Warsaw Treaty
Organization faced a relatively brief period of decline between the withdrawal of East Germany in 1990 and the
dissolution in 1991. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe seemed in a terminal state of decline
during much of the 2000s until it was resurrected to launch a large-scale monitoring mission in Eastern Ukraine in
2014. Despite such variation, it remains a helpful ideal-type for conceptual purposes.
Figure 1. Ideal-type life-cycle of IOs with design, development, decline and death phases.
Of the four different phases, scholars have, by far, paid most attention to the design of IOs.5 In their
rational design project, Koremenos, Lipson and Snidal (2001) sought to explain why international
institutions "are organised in radically different ways" (p. 761). They put forward a number of
important conjectures, many of which have been tested subsequently in greater detail. Scholars
have, for instance, analysed who the designers of IOs are (Johnson 2014); the trade-offs between
formal and informal institutions (Stone 2011; Vabulas & Snidal 2013); the differentiation between
"general purpose" and "task specific" IOs (Hooghe & Marks 2015; Lenz et al. 2014); the delegation
of tasks to IOs and their permanent secretariats (Pollack 1997; Hawkins et al. 2006); power
asymmetries during the design stage (Krasner 1991; Gruber 2000; Drezner 2007); how uncertainty
affects design (Koremenos 2001, 2005; Rosendorff and Milner 2001; Rosendorff 2005; Thompson
2010); and whether NGOs get access (Tallberg et al. 2013). What scholars have, in general, found is
that states take great care in designing IOs, as they anticipate that institutional design significantly
affects how IOs will function. In other words, "design matters".
Increasingly scholars also focus on the development of IOs. Barnett and Finnemore (1999, 2004)
notably showed that IOs may develop in ways differently than intended. In addition, various
scholars have studied processes of institutional and policy change within IOs (e.g. Nielson &
Tierney 2003; Barnett & Coleman 2005). In recent years, we have seen major scholarly advances
with regard to change and development in IOs (Jupille, Mattli & Snidal 2013; Hanrieder 2015;
Dijkstra 2015, 2016; Rixen, Viola & Zürn 2016; Lipscy 2017). Whereas much of the design
literature is rationalist, and features cost-benefit calculations, these publications on IO development
borrow from historical institutionalism (both the rationalist and sociological variant) and as well as
the concept of bounded rationality. In conclusion, scholars note that change does not come about
automatically, as a result of exogenous factors, and that there is a strong endogenous institutional
logic to the development of IOs.
In contrast, few scholars analyse the decline and death of IOs. While Susan Strange's provocatively
asked "Why do International Organizations Never Die" (1998), her answer remained speculative at
best: That low mortality is caused by resistance of the international elites, who personally have too
much to lose from IO death. While her critical view pushes the argument, and her evidence is
anecdotal, it is well-known that IO staff have agency when it comes to the institutional design and
development (cf. Johnston 2014; Barnett & Finnemore 2004). One can thus also logically deduce
that they are potentially relevant when it comes to design and death (see further below). The most
advanced article on death, by Gray (2018) indeed suggests that the ability of international economic
organizations to attract quality civil servants closely relates to vitality. She argues that "competent"
5 While recognising “spontaneous institutions” (e.g. Young 1986; Williamson 1991) and the “myth of the intentional
designer” (Goodin 1996), IOs normally emerge as a result of some design process. When states agree on
cooperation they have to determining the degree of legalization (Goldstein et al. 2000) and one of their options is in
this respect to act through IOs (Abbott & Snidal 1998).
staff "not captured by state interests" (p. 4) can make more effective policy which benefits vitality
of the IO. She operationalizes this argument by analysing bureaucratic autonomy and the degree of
hardship of secretariat locations noting that "bureaucrats prefer IOs that are well-located and offer
meaningful employment opportunities" (ibid.). While her argument is not entirely satisfactory, as a
result of a high degree of simplification, Gray (2018) provides the strongest empirical test yet of
importance of the internal organization of IOs.
Two other key articles on the decline and death of IOs, while embedded in international relations
theory, are essentially inductive and only provide a "first cut" at the question of death (Shanks,
Jacobson & Kaplan 1996; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2019). The two decades old article by Shanks et al.
(1996) starts from the classic public administration theories discussed above, but provides mostly a
descriptive overview of IOs along the institutional design categories such as membership. It briefly
touches upon population ecology theory, but as a concluding thought rather than a theory tested.
The recent article of Eilstrup-Sangiovanni (2019) is similar. Starting from international relations
theory, this article also analyses key design categories. It does include an empirical test (table 1;
figure 5), but mostly includes readily available variables (such as number of member states, region,
or scope) rather than carefully developed hypotheses. Eilstrup-Sangiovanni (2019) notably points at
the importance of age: young IOs are particularly vulnerable.
In spite of some academic research on the final stages of life-cycle of IOs, decline and death remain
under-theorized. This gap in the literature is not just surprising when compared to other types of
governance outside the international realm, but also when considering other forms of global
governance. Whether it concerns regimes, alliances or norms, international relations scholars have
in fact regularly adopted the terminology of life and death (Young 1982; Holsti, Hopmann &
Sullivan 1973; Walt 1997; Ashley Leeds & Savun 2007; Finnemore & Sikkink 1998; Panke &
Petersohn 2012, 2016; Deitelhoff & Zimmermann 2019). Moreover, Abbott, Green and Keohane
(2016) have explicitly used the organizational ecology to explain the "proliferation of [private
transnational regulatory organizations] compared with the relative stasis [emphasis added] of
intergovernmental organizations" (abstract).
It is thus worth studying the life-cycle of IOs. To explain which IOs decline and die, we can rely on
a well-developed institutionalist research on design and development. Scholars have found that such
institutional perspectives are particularly important in understanding why IOs are designed in very
different ways and how design choices (in the past) endogenously affect the development of IOs
over time. Based on these insights, it is thus reasonable to assume that institutional theory can also
help us understand by some IOs die where others survive. Importantly, however, not all IOs follow
the ideal-type life-cycle presented above. Some IOs never take off, others bounce back between
development and decline, and yet others are best described as "zombies" (Gray 2018). Yet even
when not adopting the body-state analogy of a life-cycle,6 it is still important to consider why a
considerable number of IOs are dissolved.
4. Institutional theory on the decline and death of international organizations
Across disciplines, scholars have discussed the life-cycle of different forms of governance, and as
the previous section has shown, it also makes sense to study the design, development, decline and
death of IOs. What is left is to develop (and test) a theory on the decline and death of IOs. The
remainder of this paper focuses on outlining an institutional theory. Before putting forward such a
theory, however, it is important to acknowledge that IOs operate in a broader international system
and that external environmental factors provide IOs with opportunities and threats (Rittberger,
6 Regardless of the literature on governance more generally as discussed above, including the prominence of the life-
cycle approach, one could make an argument that the Westphalian order is relatively stable, an equilibrium in which
states are prominent, and where IOs address cooperation problems.
Zangl, Kruck & Dijkstra 2019). For instance, wars break out, economic cooperation fails, problems
change, and also domestic politics affect IOs. We therefore need to understand precisely which
external factors put IOs under pressure and which internal institutional factors allow for longevity
and survival.7
4.1 External pressures on international organizations
There are many theories of international relations and they all provide many possible explanations,
variables and hypotheses on the life and death of IOs. While not trying to be exhaustive, it makes
more sense to survey some of the major theories and acknowledge that IOs are constantly under all
sorts of external pressures and changing inputs by different political actors. Indeed, the environment
in which IOs operate, and the external factors they are subject to, can be very specific for the
individual IOs. For instance, war in the Caucasus will not necessarily affect cooperation in South
America. We therefore need to control as much as possible for these external pressures in order to
understand the significance of institutional theory.
The systemic theory of realism provides for a starting point for analysis. For realists, IOs are either
forums where great power politics plays out, or temporary vehicles for member states to pursue
their collective interests (e.g. Mearsheimer 1994: 13-14; Walt 1990). IOs are considered secondary
actors and their design reflects the distribution of capabilities among the membership (Krasner
1991; Gruber 2000). We can thus distill that once relations between states become less cooperative,
IOs will likely suffer. For instance, when the great powers went to war in 1939, the League of
Nations did not survive. Similarly, realists expect that changes in the distribution of capabilities
among states will likely have repercussions for the relevant IOs. A power transition from the United
States to China will likely negatively affect cooperation and thus IOs (e.g. Gilpin 1981; Kennedy
1987; Mearsheimer 2001).
Theories of liberalism focus rather on the problems that IOs are meant to solve and whether they do
so in an efficient manner (Keohane 1984; "demand and supply", Keohane 1982, Moravcsik 1993).
Many international problems are temporary and fluctuate over time which likely affects the relevant
IOs. The decline and death of IOs can, in this respect, also indicate that problems have been solved
or have disappeared from the international agenda. More regularly, however, liberal scholars point
at the expanding scope of IOs as a result to changing problems (e.g. Koremenos, Lipson & Snidal
2001; Jupille, Lipson and Snidal 2013). As technology evolved, the International Telegraph Union
became the International Telecommunication Union. Rather than the risk of irrelevance as a result
of "solved" problems, liberal-institutionalists often claim that problems have become "harder" and
more complex resulting in institutional gridlock (Hale, Held & Young 2013). This raises questions
whether IOs are still capable of effectively addressing problems. If effectiveness is (perceived to be)
low, this could result in serious external pressures by political actors.
The ability of IOs to solve problems also points at the relevance of organizational ecology theory
(e.g. Hannan & Freeman 1977; Abbott, Green & Keohane 2016). While there is no market-type
competition in the international realm, many IOs are dependent on the same scarce of the member
states, just as public agencies also compete for resources (Downs 1967; Kaufman 1976; see above).
Furthermore with increasingly overlapping scope of IOs (e.g. Haftel & Hofmann 2017), we witness
a degree of competition, not just between IOs themselves, but also with other forms of global
governance (Abbott, Green & Keohane 2016). Such competition within the same ecology results in
external pressures on IOs, which may lead to decline, specialization, integration, or death.
7 A challenge for institutional theory is endogeneity. The institutional design of IOs is often a reflection of the
distribution of capabilities among states. At the same time, institutional design also affects the extent to which IOs
are actually subject to external pressures. The purpose of the theory advanced here is, however, different. I am
interested in what happens to IOs when they come under external pressure.
Finally, domestic politics theories provide a whole range of potential external pressures on IOs. Just
as political turnover, societal pressures, problem pressures, and austerity may result in the
termination of public organizations (e.g. Adam et al. 2007), such pressures may also result in the
death of IOs. For instance, Lewis (2002: abstract) notes that “[w]hen an agency's opponents gain
power, the hazards of agency mortality increase.” This has clear relevance for IOs. One only needs
to point at international climate change regimes and the US presidency (from Clinton to Bush to
Obama to Trump) to understand the significance of political turnover. Furthermore, ideas developed
at the domestic level may result into international policy affecting the life and death of IOs. For
instance, neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus may have affected IOs focusing on
This brief survey of different international relations theories shows how IOs almost constantly face
external environmental pressures. The purpose has not been to be exhaustive (constructivism, for
one, with its emphasis of mutual constitution would identify connections between these external
pressures and the institutional argument made below, see further below), but rather to show that the
external pressures are diverse and context specific for individual IOs. Important is as well that
external pressures affect IOs differently across their life-cycle. In other words, the age of IOs is very
important (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2019). Young IOs are likely to be problem-relevant but may face
considerable political pressures (or even fail to take off, e.g. failed U.S. ratification of the League of
Nation) (see Kuipers et. al 2018; Davis 2011). Older well-established IOs may be less vulnerable to
the political flavor of the day, but may be less problem-relevant (ibid.). Other external pressures,
such as war, may affect IOs of all ages. The relevant question is not whether IOs face external
pressures, but rather which IO survives and which one dies.
4.2 Institutional adaptation and resistance
These external environmental factors provide input into the political system of IOs. The institutional
structure of IOs and internal factors are subsequently critical in how these inputs are channeled and
how political games are played out (see Rittberger, Zangl, Kruck & Dijkstra 2019). In other words,
just like other forms of governance, some IOs will be better than other IOs to adjust or resist
external pressures as a result of their institutional characteristics. To explain variation across IOs in
terms of decline and/or death, we need to develop an institutional theory that accounts for internal
institutional characteristics.
Focusing on institutional characteristics of IOs is nothing revolutionary and has been established
practice at least since the landmark special issues of Goldstein et al. (2000) and Koremenos et al.
(2001). Indeed, the research agenda on institutional design is so elaborate that one runs the risk of
including too many variables that are not always closely connected to the underlying theories and
causal logic. This paper therefore takes a step back and argues that IOs essentially have two
strategies to address external pressures and changing input by political actors. First, IOs can try to
adapt to the changing external environment and remain relevant for the membership. Second, IOs
can try to fight external input by resisting pressures from the membership. This seems particularly
likely when they have high replacement costs, resulting in institutional stickiness.
The first institutional hypothesis is that flexible IOs are more likely to outlive less-flexible IOs,
because flexibility allows them to adjust and be more responsive to external pressures. As Adam et
al. (2007: 223) write “[i]f organizations fail to adjust to their environment, they are no longer able
to extract resources from it”. This does not mean that non-flexible IOs will automatically face
existential problems. IOs, like any other institutions, tend to provide stability among ever changing
political inputs. And because IOs are difficult to change (e.g. Pierson 2004; Nielson & Tierney
2003; Scharpf 1988), there will likely be a degree of institutional stickiness resulting in a misfit
which member states may permit (see further below). But at a certain threshold, a lack of flexibility
in light of external disturbances is likely to result in less performance and policy output by the IOs,
less committed resources, and potentially member states quitting and dissolving the organization.
We can distinguish institutional flexibility from flexibility related to performance. Institutional
flexibility is about the ability of IOs to change their treaties, institutional structures and scope in
light of external pressures. We know from the institutional design literature that particularly when
faced with uncertainty, states may include provisions for institutional flexibility in the design of IOs
(e.g. Koremenos 2001, 2005; Rosendorff & Milner 2001; Best 2012; see also particularly the
hypothesis in Thompson 2010, p. 274). Koremenos (2016) identifies duration provisions, escape
clauses, and also imprecision and reservations as means to create institutional flexibility. The
specific intention of such flexibility is to make sure that IOs fit purpose even when circumstances
change. In other words, IOs can have in-build flexibility which may increase longevity.
While duration provisions and escape clauses change incentives, provide IOs with timeouts, and
thus may prevent a meltdown, arguably the most important form of institutional flexibility is the
lack of precision. Marks et al. (2014) link incomplete contracting directly to the ability of IOs to
adapt to changing environments. At the same time, a lack of precision should not always be equated
with a purposeful strategy to tackle uncertainty. Incomplete contracting creates ambiguity (ibid.)
and therefore a demand for delegated decision-making and adjudication. So unless incomplete
contracting is coupled with an institutional strategy on how to tackle ambiguity, it can also simply
be an indicator of a limited degree of legalization or lack of ambition (Goldstein et al. 2000; Abbott
& Snidal 2000). The point for the purpose of this paper however remains: if IOs are not highly
precise, it is easier to change them.
A key aspect with regard to flexibility is also the scope of IOs. As noted above, IOs may need to
increase or adjust their scope to remain relevant in light of changing cooperation problems. This is
particularly important when it comes to "task specific" IOs (Lenz et al. 2004). The mentioned
International Telegraph Union had to become the International Telecommunication Union. The
challenge is smaller for "general purpose" IOs. Because they arguably serve a community of states
(ibid.), it is more straightforward for them to amend scope in light of changing problems. Indeed,
many IOs have been rather successful in expanding their scope (Haftel & Hofmann 2017). The
same logic may also results in an explanation why general purpose IOs may outlive task specific
IOs. After all, the faith of task specific IOs is much closer related to the underlying problems and
their (perceived) effectiveness. If general purpose IOs have flexibility to adjust their scope and to
move resources and capabilities across policy areas, this helps them to adapt to the environment.
While the design scholarship has discussed in-build institutional flexibility in light of uncertainty
and thus a changing external environment, it pays less attention to flexibility related to performance.
For survival, it is not just important that IOs are in a position to revise their institutions and
mandates, but it is at least as important that they remain capable of producing relevant output, in
other words: perform. Hale, Held and Young (2013), for instance, argue that the current "gridlock"
of global cooperation is not just the result of institutional inertia and fragmentation, but also the
inability of IOs to perform when it comes to harder problems. And the continued (perceived) lack of
performance may well trigger external pressures resulting in the decline and death of IOs. Political
actors may result their support, withdraw membership or call for dissolution.
This brings us to flexibility related to performance. While there is an extensive research agenda on
effectiveness of international cooperation, the question is whether IOs can still provide meaningful
output (Tallberg et al. 2016; Gutner & Thompson 2010) while inputs are changing. When it comes
to decision-making, the ability of IOs to perform is often linked to the number of political actors,
their heterogeneity, and decision-rules (Sommerer & Tallberg 2016). More generally, different IOs
convert similar inputs into different outputs as a result of the institutional context (Rittberger et al.
2019). While IOs have, in general, limited flexibility with regard to performance (Tsebelis 2002;
Pierson 2004: 43), some have more than others. Significant, for instance, is the degree to which
states have 'pooled' their sovereignty including through majority voting rather than consensus rules
(Hooghe & Marks 2015).
To conclude, IOs vary in terms of their institutional flexibility and their flexibility to perform. Some
IOs are based on very precise founding treaties and have near-impossible treaty revision procedures.
Other have more open-ended mandates and build-in institutional mechanisms to deal with
uncertainty and a changing external environment. General purpose IOs may also have more
flexibility in adjusting their scope than, for instance, task specific IOs. Similarly, some IOs have
rigid decision-making procedures, which result in a standstill once inputs from political actors start
to change. Others may be able to continue to perform even in light of a changing environment and
changing political inputs. Such variation is critical in understanding the ability of IOs to adapt in
light of external pressures. More flexible IOs are more likely to live longer.
The second institutional hypothesis is that larger IOs are more likely to outlive smaller IOs. Large
indicates here the investment that states have made in an IO. First, it will be more difficult for states
to replace larger IOs with alternative or new IOs that better fit-for-purpose. Indeed, institutional
creation is costly due to bounded rationality and a high degree of uncertainly involved. Jupille,
Mattli and Snidal (2013) argue that states, even when unhappy with certain IOs, rarely create new
ones and prefer to "stick with the institutional 'devil they know' as long as the status quo produces
results above some minimum threshold" (p. 7). They prefer to select among alternative institutions
or change existing institutions before creating new ones (ibid.: figure 2.2). Keohane (1984: 102)
notes, in this regard, that "[t]he high costs of regime-building help existing regimes to persist".
This logic of uncertainty and replacement costs seems particularly significant with respect to large
and complex IOs, such as the EU, IMF, NATO and the UN. It is, for instance, fair to say that the
complexity of the United Kingdom leaving the EU is exponentially more challenging than Burundi
quitting the International Criminal Court. As Pierson (1996: 47) noted "[w]hile the governments of
'sovereign' member-states remain free to tear up [the EU] treaties and walk away at any time, the
constantly increasing costs of exit in the densely integrated European polity have rendered this
option virtually unthinkable". Indeed, the more effort states have invested in setting up complex and
large IOs, through repeated negotiations, high transaction costs and generally many member states,
the less likely they are to walk away and disband these organizations. Lipscy (2017) points out that
if it is difficult to set up alternative institutions, IOs are more capable to resist external pressures.
Apart from the considerable investment states have made in negotiating agreements, and problems
of uncertainty and indeed the unintended consequences of such drastic actions, it is also worth to
point at the investment states have made in terms of organizational capacities. Wallander (2000) has
argued that large IOs may possess significant institutional assets. Coupled with the flexibility of
NATO to adjust, she explains NATO persistence after the Cold War in part as a result of these
capabilities. IO capacities are real. The World Health Organization has, for instance, a large staff
and regional field offices. The IMF is one the world's principal bodies on macroeconomic expertise
(e.g. Barnett & Finnemore 2004). Abandoning such IOs and replacing them is costly.
The second logic is that, beyond the investment member states make in IOs, larger IOs are more
likely to outlive smaller IOs because they have agency of their own (e.g. Barnett & Finnemore
2004; Hawkins et al. 2006). They can therefore more easily resist external pressures including from
key member states. But perhaps more important, if IOs have significant capacities of their own, they
become formidable advocates for their own survival. What Kaufmann (1976) writes about public
organizations is equally applicable to IOs:
Agencies do not rely exclusively on circumstance, however. They are not helpless, passive
pawns in the game of politics as it affects their lives; they are active, energetic, persistent
participants. The motives of their leaders and members to preserve the organisations to
which they below are very strong. The techniques they can use are abundant, and their
experience in using them is extensive. (p. 9)
One does not have to adopt Strange's (1998) critical perspective on elites to see how international
staff in IOs can fight for the survival of their own institution. Chorev (2012), for instance, shows
how the World Health Organization "strategically adapted" to external pressures by playing
member states from the North out again member states of the South. Dijkstra (2017) furthermore
argues that IO secretariats rarely take on the full membership. Rather they "collude" with like-
minded member states and they benefit from each other's authority. Brexit perhaps presents the best
example of the importance of IO agency and international staff fighting for their institution. While
Brexit could have affected the EU very significantly, the delegation of negotiations to the European
Commission, which has a keen interest in survival, significantly altered the course of Brexit.
Furthermore given that IOs are normally often several degrees removed from the everyday politics
in the member states (Nielsen & Tierney 2003), member states may decide against taking on IOs
with considerable agency.
In addition to IO agency and bureaucratic strategies for survival, it is also significant that some IOs
have been purposefully put at arms length of their member states precisely to safeguard them from
domestic political turnover. Member states worry about the "shadow of the future" and therefore
often demand credible commitment, delegation of functions and institutional locks (e.g. Keohane
1984; Moravcsik 1998; Pollack 2003). This is no different from public agencies created by statute
rather than executive order in the United States to "hardwire" them in the absence of political
property rights (Kaufman 1976, pp. 3-5; Moe 1990; Kuipers et al. 2018). Autonomy may thus make
IOs more resistant toward external pressures. At the same time, a key claim in the principal-agent
literature is that more autonomous agents can be more effective, because they are not limited in
their functioning. Along these lines, Gray (2018) indeed finds that increased autonomy of staff leads
to IO vitality.
In addition to flexibility, we can therefore expect that size will affect the ability of IOs to cope with
external pressures. Larger IOs will be more difficult to replace and international staff, particularly in
larger IOs, will also use their agency to fight for survival. At the same time, it is important to note
the possible interaction between flexibility and size. Institutional resistance in light of external
pressure only works up to a point. And large IOs may be more difficult to change than a smaller
IOs. Furthermore, Hooghe and Marks (2015) find trade-offs between flexibility and delegation and
argue that both are a function of the scope and membership of IO. Nevertheless, we can expect that
flexible large IOs are more likely to survive than inflexible small IOs.
The arrival of a post-liberal international order is the talk of town in Washington, Brussels and other
world capitals. In academia, scholars have equally started to study the demise of international
norms, the deadlock of global governance, and indeed the dissolution of IOs. While Ikenberry
(2018) cautions against writing off international institutions and wonder how far the post-liberal
international order actually "runs", it is clear that further research on this crisis of the liberal order is
beneficial. It is important, in this respect, to pay attention to the conceptual and theoretical
foundations. Only by providing deductive and theory-informed explanations, we can engage in
rigorous empirical tests. Building on recent empirical studies, this paper has thus tried to outline an
institutional theory to help us understand why, subject to similar external pressures, some IOs
survive where others die.
This papers shows that we can draw on insights from public administration theory as well as other
disciplines about the life-cycle of forms of governance. In addition, many of the theoretical insights
on institutional design and development of IOs also help us to better understand decline and death.
This theory advanced in this paper starts off with the considerable external pressures that IOs
continuously face: wars break out, economic cooperation breaks down, problems change over time,
and domestic political forces may put IOs under pressure. The theory continues by showing that the
institutional features of IOs can help us to understand how IOs can adapt and/or resist such external
pressures coming from the international environment.
The first explanation is that IOs with institutional flexibility and flexibility related to performance
will be more able to adapt in light of external pressures. In-build flexibility may therefore help to
explain why some IOs live longer. The second explanation is that larger IOs are less likely to be
replaced and are better at resisting external pressures. Replacement costs of IOs tend to be high and
IO staff may use their agency to resist external pressures. These two explanations, which are
entirely in line with the academic literature on the life-cycle of other forms of governance, provide a
first basis of a theory on the decline and death along internal institutional characteristics. These
explanations can surely benefit from further refinement, including on the causal logic, but they
provide a theoretical starting point in thinking about the decline and death of IOs.
As Gray (2018) and Eilstrup-Sangiovanni (2019) convincingly show, large-n empirical research
which uses existing datasets on IOs provides a good research strategy to study the decline and death
of IOs. More than anything else, it allows us to identify important patterns within the life-cycles of
IOs. At the same time, in spite of important recent advances in large-n IO data, existing datasets do
not necessarily include all the relevant institutional variables discussed above. It is furthermore also
important to recognize the potential of qualitative research on this topic, which would allow us to
identify the precise causal conditions leading for instance from decline toward death. A challenge
for qualitative work, on the other hand, is case selection. In addition, given the long timespan of
many IOs, it is not straightforward to use standard social science methods for data gathering, such
as interviews with IO officials.
Researching the current crisis of liberal international order is a bit like shooting at a moving target.
We do not know precisely what the outcome will be. Whether the Trump administration is just a
temporary glitch, whether we facing a shake up of global governance, or whether we are indeed
moving to a post-Western international order. At the same time, political philosophers from Hobbes
to Rousseau also remind us that we are not simply bystanders as different forms of governance
come and go. Through "the use of reason" and proper institutional design, we can establish robust
institutions that are resilient in the fact of external disturbance. Further academic research on the
decline and death of IOs is therefore not just about intellectual curiosity, but also about gaining
insight on how to increase longevity.
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... International Relations (IR) analyses are abundant in the study of International Organizations (IOs), especially with regard to their importance, institutional designs, and role in international relations. However, studies on the factors that lead IOs to work regularly or to stop working are still relatively scarce, especially in mainstream IR (Dijkstra 2019;Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020). In a seminal study in the 1970s, Wallace and Singer (1970) systematized an overview of IOs from 1815 to 1964. ...
... In a seminal study in the 1970s, Wallace and Singer (1970) systematized an overview of IOs from 1815 to 1964. In the late 2010s, the growth of research on why International Organizations decline/survive is noticeable (Debre and Dijkstra 2021;Dijkstra 2019;Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020;Gray 2018). Research on the theme is methodologically diverse, leading to different conclusions. ...
... Realists are the exceptions, since they see IOs as only an epiphenomenon of States relations (Mearsheimer 1994 these theories are not specifically committed to identify the factors that make international organizations keep regular activities and those that lead them to paralyze. Nonetheless, in the late 2010s, Dijkstra (2019) and Debre and Dijkstra (2021) made important efforts to build an institutional theory about the life, decline, and death of international organizations. In order to identify these variables, rather than looking into broad theoretical approaches, it is necessary to address more fine-grained literature. ...
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This article seeks to identify the conditions that lead Latin American International Organizations (IOs) to remain active or to paralize. It surveys various elements identified by IO literature that accounts for the IOs activity/paralysis and applies Qualitative Comparative Analysis to search for configurations that explain the out-comes. By exploring 31 IOs in the Americas, the analysis shows that adequate staff is crucial for an IO to maintain regular activities in the region. High-quality staff and large teams are sufficient to keep regular operations, with the possible tradeoff either by restricting IOs’ scope or having a high number of member states. Conversely, we found that a more complex combination of institutional features and external aspects is needed for Latin American IOs to paralyze. Small teams and diminished political autonomy combined with low levels of statehood and member states that contest the organizations proved to be a consistent path to drive IOs not to operate regularly.
... IGOs (Debre & Dijkstra, 2019;Dijkstra, 2019;Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, 2018Gray, 2018), my conceptualization allows for a comprehensive perspective on different degrees of vitality in different types of institutions. ...
Conference Paper
While the United States (US) have been one of the key promoters of the rule-based international order, they have regularly terminated their commitment to or participation within multilateral institutions. Faced with the severe challenge of hegemonic withdrawal, some multilateral institutions decay while others are resilient. This paper develops a theoretical framework to explain this variation. I suggest that hegemonic withdrawal poses a twofold challenge for multilateral cooperation as it deprives the institution of material capacities and questions its legitimacy. I argue that whether multilateral institutions withstand this challenge depends on alternative leaders and an institution's authority. Multilateral institutions are more likely to be resilient (1) when remaining states possess significant soft and hard power and are willing to take over leadership; or (2) when institutions possess extensive capacities and legitimacy in their own right. A logistical regression analysis based on my original ExitUS Database of 115 instances of US withdrawal from multilateral institutions from 1945 through 2020 lends support to my theoretical expectations.
The current binary understanding of membership in international organizations (IOs), especially regional organizations (ROs), creates blind spots and biases in our understanding of who matters in IOs, as well as why and how they matter. Existing scholarship primarily looks at full member-states or non-state actors to capture who influences such organizations. Associated states are often portrayed as passive receivers of IO rules instead of active contributors. We address this blind spot and resulting analytical bias by exploring what types of association relationships exist and how they impact IOs. We propose a novel conceptualization of membership that we call member ness. On the level of IOs, memberness is based on the relative openness of organizational boundaries and stratified access via material and ideational contributions. On the level of states, memberness captures associated states’ individual choices to contribute materially and/or ideationally to an IO. Memberness moves away from a purely rights-based understanding of membership (or who you are in an IO) to include a capacity-based understanding (or what you do in an IO). This shift in focus uncovers new channels of influence on IOs. Associated states’ material and ideational contributions to IOs constitute three memberness types: payroller, sponsor, and advisor. We argue that these memberness types impact IOs’ vitality, design, and performance in previously unrecognized ways. We illustrate these types with empirical examples from ROs across the globe and discuss the implications of memberness for IO research programs.
Informal intergovernmental organizations (IIGOs) such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and G20 increasingly play a central role in governing international relations. IIGOs are based on recurrent meetings among high-level state representatives but are not legalized through a treaty and have no permanent secretariat. They allow states to organize internationally without sacrificing autonomy to a supranational entity. We present the IIGO 2.0 dataset, the most comprehensive compilation of these institutions to date, and illustrate the significance of IIGOs through several key empirical findings. First, while the creation of formal IGOs (FIGOs) has plateaued, states are increasingly creating IIGOs to address critical global issues. Second, states disproportionately use IIGOs for high politics issue areas including peace, security, and political agenda-setting which challenges conventional wisdom that IGOs (intergovernmental organizations) are less relevant in the security realm. Third, IIGOs are remarkably durable. Although states could readily formalize or abandon IIGOs, they generally organize cooperation informally for long periods. Finally, IIGOs are typically smaller than FIGOs and this design choice is increasingly used by states of all levels of development, power, and region. The availability of the IIGO 2.0 dataset will promote further analysis on the growing diversity of international institutions.
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The introduction develops this special issue's main research question: under which conditions are challenges to norms likely to decrease their robustness? The issue presents current research on contestation and norm robustness and discusses its limitations. We conceptualize a norm's robustness by examining both the practical and discursive dimensions. Robustness is high when norm addressees express widespread discursive acceptance of a norm's claims (validity) that also generally guide addressees’ actions (facticity). When normative claims are discursively rejected by most addressees and do not guide their actions, robustness is low. The contributions develop four broad indicators for measuring robustness (concordance, third-party reactions to norm violation, compliance, and implementation). The norms analyzed here were not easily eroded; despite direct challenges, they remained surprisingly robust. This indicates that norm robustness is not determined by the relative power of norm challengers, but rather types of contestation and structural factors. These include being embedded in larger normative structures, institutionalization, and legal character, although effects of these factors are more ambivalent than norm research has usually supposed.
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Under what conditions do international governmental organizations (IGOs) cease to exist? Surprisingly, leading theories of international organization rarely address this question. Across the theoretical spectrum scholars assume that international organizations have a high degree of “staying power”. Yet reality looks different. More than one-third of IGOs created since 1815 have since died. This article addresses the puzzle of why IGOs cease to exist. Using a combination of cross-sectional and survival analysis, I seek to identify factors associated with IGO termination. My analysis is based on a novel dataset coding detailed information on all IGO created since 1815, including their function, membership, and geographic span. Against prevailing theoretical expectations, my analysis demonstrates i) that overall mortality is high among IGOs, ii) that states often prefer to create new IGOs as opposed reforming existing ones, and iii) that having a large and heterogeneous membership is associated with greater organizational survivability. These findings indicate a need for refinement of existing theories of 'institutional robustness'.
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Why do some public organizations survive for many decades, whereas others are terminated within a few years? This question of organizational survival has long intrigued public administration scholars. To explain longevity, public administration research has focused on organizational design features and adaptive capacities. The results have been inconclusive. This article explores an additional explanation for survival and demise: the density dependence theory as formulated in the field of organizational ecology. The underlying premise of this theory is that certain environments can only sustain a certain number of similar‐type organizations. A rising number of organizations fuels competition for scarce resources, which inevitably leads to the demise of organizations. Density theory has often been tested in the business literature, but has been rarely applied to public sector organizations. In this article, we test whether this theory can help explain organizational survival in a population of US federal independent public agencies (n = 142). Our results show that density matters. This is good news for public administration research: the inclusion of density boosts the explanatory power of traditional variables such as design and adaptation.
Since 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched numerous programs aimed at improving health conditions around the globe, ranging from efforts to eradicate smallpox to education programs about the health risks of smoking. In setting global health priorities and carrying out initiatives, the WHO bureaucracy has faced the challenge of reconciling the preferences of a small minority of wealthy nations, who fund the organization, with the demands of poorer member countries, who hold the majority of votes. In The World Health Organization between North and South, Nitsan Chorev shows how the WHO bureaucracy has succeeded not only in avoiding having its agenda co-opted by either coalition of member states but also in reaching a consensus that fit the bureaucracy's own principles and interests. Chorev assesses the response of the WHO bureaucracy to member-state pressure in two particularly contentious moments: when during the 1970s and early 1980s developing countries forcefully called for a more equal international economic order, and when in the 1990s the United States and other wealthy countries demanded international organizations adopt neoliberal economic reforms. In analyzing these two periods, Chorev demonstrates how strategic maneuvering made it possible for a vulnerable bureaucracy to preserve a relatively autonomous agenda, promote a consistent set of values, and protect its interests in the face of challenges from developing and developed countries alike.
International organizations (IOs) and their bureaucracies frequently face calls for reform. To express discontent and exert reform pressure, member states can withhold their budgetary contributions to IOs. In extreme cases, these cuts result in organizational crises during which reform efforts become unavoidable, as happened in UNESCO after 2011. Traditional IR research sees member states as being in the driver’s seat when it comes to achieving – or failing to achieve – reform under such conditions, whereas scholars of international public administration underline bureaucratic action or pathology as driving, or preventing, reform. By tracing UNESCO’s reform dynamics from 2011 to 2013, this paper demonstrates how a budget crisis can trigger major reform efforts by IO bureaucracies and by IO member states, but how the lack of joint and synchronized action by both actors still results in failed or limited reform. This contributes to key debates on international public administration, IO reform, and the role of budgetary crisis. The article suggests a dynamic and actor-centred theory of IO reform that highlights the need for synchronized crisis cognition and for substantively and temporally coordinated efforts of both states and bureaucracies as key elements for reform success – and their absence as explanation for failed reform.
A major theoretical statement by a distinguished political scholar explains why a policy of liberal hegemony is doomed to fail In this major statement, the renowned international-relations scholar John Mearsheimer argues that liberal hegemony, the foreign policy pursued by the United States since the Cold War ended, is doomed to fail. It makes far more sense, he maintains, for Washington to adopt a more restrained foreign policy based on a sound understanding of how nationalism and realism constrain great powers abroad. It is widely believed in the West that the United States should spread liberal democracy across the world, foster an open international economy, and build institutions. This policy of remaking the world in America's image is supposed to protect human rights, promote peace, and make the world safe for democracy. But this is not what has happened. Instead, the United States has ended up as a highly militarized state fighting wars that undermine peace, harm human rights, and threaten liberal values at home. Mearsheimer tells us why this has happened.
International institutions constitute the basis of global order. As they struggle to accommodate shifts in power and emerging threats, their legitimacy - their political authority and right to govern - often comes under fire, at times fuelling perceptions of crisis. Yet scholars seldom ask why some institutions are replaced while others are not. Blending theory with history, M. Patrick Cottrell examines some of the world's landmark security institutions, arguing that the possibility of replacement hinges on the sources of institutional legitimacy and the nature and timing of the challenges to it. The analysis not only reveals different pathways to replacement, but also offers a window into the future, including a potential dark side of too much legitimacy. Indeed, as global society becomes ever more dynamic, the fault lines of conflict with the most significant implications for order will not occur over territory, but rather over the legitimacy of international institutions. Provides new perspectives on continuity, crisis, and change in international institutions through a novel focus on replacement A fresh application of the concept of legitimacy revealing a paradoxical 'dark side' of legitimacy Draws on history and theory to provide an accessible analytic narrative of some of the world's landmark security institutions.
Rising powers often seek to reshape the world order, triggering confrontations with those who seek to defend the status quo. In recent years, as international institutions have grown in prevalence and influence, they have increasingly become central arenas for international contestation. Phillip Y. Lipscy examines how international institutions evolve as countries seek to renegotiate the international order. He offers a new theory of institutional change and explains why some institutions change flexibly while others successfully resist or fall to the wayside. The book uses a wealth of empirical evidence - quantitative and qualitative - to evaluate the theory from international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union, League of Nations, United Nations, the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The book will be of particular interest to scholars interested in the historical and contemporary diplomacy of the United States, Japan, and China.
International-relations scholars tend to focus on the formation, design, and effects of international organizations (IOs). However, the vitality of IOs varies tremendously. I argue that IOs end up in one of three situations. They could die off altogether, though this happens infrequently. More commonly, many IOs become “zombies.” They continue to operate, but without any progress toward their mandates. A third category includes IOs that are alive and functioning. I develop a theory to explain an organization's vitality, hinging on the quality of the bureaucracy. In an environment where IOs with similar goals, and with many overlapping members, compete for bureaucrats, the ability of the secretariats to attract talented staff and to enact policy autonomously are associated with whether organizations truly stay active, simply endure, or die off. I demonstrate this proposition using a new measure of the vitality of international economic organizations from 1950 to the present. Around 52 percent of the organizations in the sample are alive and functioning, around 10 percent are essentially dead, and nearly 38 percent are zombies. Using these original data, tests of these propositions support the theory.