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Are international organisations in decline? An absolute and relative perspective on institutional change


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Many international organisations (IOs) are currently challenged, yet are they also in decline? Despite much debate on the crisis of liberal international order, contestation, loss of legitimacy, gridlock, pathologies and exiting member states, there is little research on IO decline. This article seeks to clarify this concept and argues that decline can be considered in absolute and relative terms. Absolute decline involves a decrease in the number of IOs and their authority, membership and output, whereas relative decline concerns a decrease in the centrality of IOs in international relations. Reviewing a wide range of indicators, this article argues that, whereas there is limited decline in absolute terms since 1945, there may well be important decline in relative terms. Relative decline is more difficult to measure, but to probe its significance this article presents data from speeches during the United Nations General Assembly General Debate. It shows that IOs were most often mentioned in 1996 and that there has been a decline since. These findings indicate that, whereas IOs might survive as institutions, they are decreasingly central to international relations.
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Global Policy. 20 22;00:1–15.
International organisations (IOs) carry out core govern-
ance functions. Many international and cross- border
problems— from trade, climate change and migration,
to pandemics and collective securityrequire states
to act through IOs (Abbott & Snidal,199 8). IOs, such
as the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and
International Monetar y Fund (IMF), have become house-
hold names as they regulate international behaviour
and implement ambitious policy programmes. They are
global governors (Avant et al.,2010). In the past couple
of years, however, IOs and the broader liberal and inter-
national order have faced substantial challenges. The
UK has left the EU, Burundi has left the International
Criminal Court, and the USA has left UNESCO (von
Borzyskowski & Vabulas, 2019). IOs must deal with
unreliable budgeting (Patz & Goetz, 2019). The num-
ber of staff available to IO bureaucracies has not al-
ways increased with their expanded mandates (Ege &
Ba uer, 2017; Heldt & Schmidtke,2 017). And although
many organisations regularly meet and decide on poli-
cies, others vegetate into ‘zombies’ without any impact
(Gray, 2018).
These challenges are captured in concepts of legiti-
macy, politicisation, contestation, gridlock, pathologies,
exiting states and the overall crisis of the liberal inter-
national order (Barnett & Finnemore,1999, 2004; Hale
et al.,2013; Lake et al., 2021; Tallberg & Zürn, 2019;
von Borzyskowski & Vabulas, 2019; Zürn, 2018).
Yet impressive as this scholarship is, scholars have
thus far not systematically informed us of the conse-
quences of these challenges: Whether IOs are in fact
in declinedefined as a ‘gradual and continuous
loss of strength, numbers, quality, or value’ (Oxford
Dictionary, n.d.). We know about the establishment
and design of IOs (Hooghe et al.,2019; Johnson,2013;
Koremenos et al.,2001), their development (Barnett &
Coleman,2005; Colgan et al.,2012; Hanrieder,2015;
Li pscy, 2017) and increasingly also their death and
replacement (Cottrell, 2016; Debre & Dijkstra, 2021;
Dijkstra & Debre, 2022; Eilstrup- Sangiovanni, 2020,
2021; Gray, 2018; Shanks et al., 1996). But the
Are international organisations in decline? An absolute
and relative perspective on institutional change
Maria J.Debre1 | HylkeDijkstra2
Received: 16 May 2022
Revised: 18 November 2022
Accepted: 21 November 2022
DO I: 1 0.1111 /1 75 8- 58 99.131 70
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
© 2022 The Authors. Global Policy published by Durham U niversit y and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
1Wirtschafts und Sozialwissenschaftliche
Fakultät, Universit y of Potsdam, Potsdam,
2Department of Polit ical Sci ence,
Maastricht Univer sity, Maastricht, The
Hylke Dijkstra, Department of Po litical
Scienc e, Maastricht Univer sity, PO
Box 616, Maastri cht 6200 MD, The
Funding information
H2020 European Research Council,
Grant/Award Number: 802568
Many international organisations (IOs) are currently challenged, yet are they also
in decline? Despite much debate on the crisis of liberal international order, con-
testation, loss of legitimacy, gridlock, pathologies and exiting member states,
there is little research on IO decline. This article seeks to clarify this concept and
argues that decline can be considered in absolute and relative terms. Absolute
decline involves a decrease in the number of IOs and their authority, member-
ship and output, whereas relative decline concerns a decrease in the centrality
of IOs in international relations. Reviewing a wide range of indicators, this article
argues that, whereas there is limited decline in absolute terms since 1945, there
may well be important decline in relative terms. Relative decline is more difficult
to measure, but to probe its significance this article presents data from speeches
during the United Nations General Assembly General Debate. It shows that IOs
were most often mentioned in 1996 and that there has been a decline since.
These findings indicate that, whereas IOs might survive as institutions, they are
decreasingly central to international relations.
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phase of declinewhich normally precedes death or
replacement— remains understudied.
This article makes a case for a more thorough re-
search agenda on IO decline. As a starting point, it
takes a step back from ongoing debates about the
current crisis of liberal international order to concep-
tualise and measure IO decline. The focus is on for-
mal intergovernmental organisations, which provide
the cornerstones of global governance and the liberal
international order. It argues that IO decline can be
considered in absolute and relative terms and can take
place at the level of the population of IOs as well as
individual IOs. These are important distinctions which
provide us different perspectives on IO decline. For in-
stance, WTO membership has increased in absolute
terms over the past decade, but its relative position in
international relations has clearly declined since the
breakdown of the Doha Development Round.
Reviewing a wide range of indicators (mostly since
1945), this article finds that on many absolute IO
indicators— such as the number of IOs and their au-
thority, membership, secretariat staff or policy out-
put— we see consistent growth or at most stasis. Cases
of absolute decline are historically rare and few and far
between. This is a surprising finding given all the cur-
rent pessimism of IOs and international cooperation.
Nevertheless, we argue that there may well be important
decline in relative terms, by which we mean a decrease
in the centrality of IOs in international relations. To get
an idea of relative decline, for which IO indicators are
less readily available in the major datasets, the article
analyses the political attention that state leaders pay
to IOs over time using data from their annual high- level
United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speeches.
We demonstrate that attention to IOs fluctuates and has
declined since 1996. Although UNGA data present one
relative IO indicator, they reveal the promise of further
research on the relative decline. Overall, these findings
indicate that, although IOs might survive as institutions
(in absolute terms), they are potentially decreasingly
central to international relations (in relative terms).
This article makes three contributions. First, by
studying decline, it focuses on the consequences of
phenomena such as gridlock, legitimacy loss or con-
testation, rather than explaining their causes (Tallberg
& Zürn, 2019). Second, it balances IO scholarship that
is normatively biased on survival inquiring how IOs
can overcome these challenges rather than studying
IO decline (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999, 2004; Hale &
Held,2 017). Third, it points to the complexity of IO de-
cline, noting that it is not necessarily the mirror image
of IO growth. We know from the literature on other
forms of governance (Boin et al., 2010; Finnemore &
Sikkink,1998; Kennedy,1987; Panke & Petersohn,2012;
Young,1982) that this assumption is too simplistic.
By better understanding IO decline, we can better
judge the significance of current challenges to IOs. The
article begins by discussing related concepts and how
they differ from IO decline. It then considers IO decline
at the population level and the level of individual IOs.
Subsequently, it reviews evidence of absolute and rel-
ative IO indicators using existing data. The purpose is
to validate indicators with historical data to help us cap-
ture instances of IO decline (cf. Adcock & Collier,2001;
Gerring, 2012; King et al., 19 94). Because many of
the existing datasets do not yet cover the most recent
years, this article does not make definite statements on
whether IOs are currently in decline.
It is well- known that different forms of governance have
a life cycle (Boin et al.,2010; Fazal,2007; Finnemore
Policy Implications
There is a lot of talk of international organisa-
tions and multilateralism being in crisis, but
we do not know whether international organi-
sations are actually in decline. Policymakers
should be more careful in expressing pes-
simism about the prospect of international
The absolute decline of international organi-
sations involves a decrease in their number,
authority, membership and output. The rela-
tive decline, on the other hand, concerns a
decrease in the centrality of international
organisations in international relations. This
article demonstrates that international organ-
isations can survive while becoming simulta-
neously less important.
Reviewing a wide range of indicators, this ar-
ticle demonstrates that, for all the crises that
have occurred over the decades, few interna-
tional organisations lose authority or member
states or produce fewer policies. International
organisations are well established and policy-
makers should therefore continue to consider
international organisations as vital forums for
international cooperation.
This article also provides some evidence that
international organisations have become less
central to international relations since 1996.
This implies that, in addition to continuing to
invest in international organisations, policy-
makers should be aware of the wider web of
global governance institutions.
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& Sikkink,1998; Kennedy,1987; Leeds & Savun,2007;
Young, 1982). They get established, and they may
disappear. The Correlates of War Intergovernmental
Organizations (COW- IGO) dataset v3.0, for instance,
includes 534 IOs of which 200 no longer exist (Eilstrup-
Sangiovanni, 2020; Pevehouse et al., 2020). Yet
whereas scholars have systematically looked at IO
development and increasingly consider dissolution,
decline as a stage in the life cycle of IOs remains un-
derstudied. Various scholars have advanced con-
cepts that seem to be closely linked to decline. Yet
their emphasis remains on explaining stasis, ineffec-
tiveness or lack of legitimacy, rather than IO decline
(Barnett & Finnemore,2004; Hale et al.,2013; Tallberg
& Zürn, 2019). Other concepts such as state with-
drawal, decreasing policy output or IO capacity can be
seen rather as potential indicators of decline, although
they are rarely theorised as such (Goetz & Patz,2017;
Gr ay, 2018; von Borzyskowski & Vabulas,2019). The
concept of IO decline therefore seems an afterthought
rather than the object of study.
It is worth starting with some of the magna opera
before moving to publications that deal with specific
indicators of IO decline. The concept of institutional
pathologies (Barnett & Finnemore,1999, 2004) is no
doubt one of the most prominent attempts to concep-
tualise IO dysfunction. Barnett and Finnemore(2004,
pp. 34– 35) tried to understand why IOs implement
policies at odds with their stated mission. Pathologies
can potentially lead to IO decline,1 but Barnett and
Finnemore do not consider decline: They discuss
the dilemma of IO ‘expansion’ (2004, pp. 158– 173).
Similarly, the work of Hale et al.(2013) on IO ‘grid-
lock’ denotes the inability of countries to cooperate
via international institutions and address ambitious
cross- border policy problems. Although they con-
sider ‘trends that threaten to exacerbate gridlock and
further weaken multilateralism’ (Hale et al., 2013, p.
275; see also 279– 286), what they really want to do
is find pathways out of gridlock (Hale & Held, 2017 ).
Ultimately, they consider gridlock as ‘stagnation’
(Hale & Held,2017, p. 4).
Zürn (2018) comes closest to dealing with IO de-
cline. He argues that IOs increasingly face growing
politicisation owing to the rise of international authority.
Although Zürn's work mostly problematises politicisa-
tion, he also discusses the consequences: Depending
on the strength of contestation and type of IO legiti-
mation response, the deepening and decline of global
governance are potential outcomes (Zürn, 2018, pp.
13– 14; 255– 257). Zürn defines decline as ‘a decrease
in the level of international authority’ (Zürn,2018, p. 89)
and provides a brief causal mechanism (Zürn,2018, p.
101). In a similar vein, Hooghe et al. (2019) concep-
tualise politicisation as an inevitable product that ‘can
constrain international authority even in the face of
functional [cooperation] pressure’ (p. 88). Hooghe et al.
do not elaborate much either. They are concerned with
the ‘resistible rise of international authority’ (Hooghe
et al.,2019, Chapter 6) and only provide us with de-
scriptive data on the decline in pooling and delegation
of authority in table 3.1. They note that ‘[n]o IO has
witnessed a decline in both delegation and pooling’
(Hooghe et al.,2019, p. 39).
Our conceptual understanding of IO decline thus
remains limited, but scholars are increasingly study-
ing empirical phenomena related to IO decline. Von
Borzyskowski and Vabulas(2019) focus on state with-
drawal. Sommerer et al.(2022) come close to the con-
cept of IO decline by studying the effects of legitimacy
crises on IOs' capacities to rule including their material
capacities, institutional capacities and decision- making
capacities. Cottrell(2016) analyses how legitimacy cri-
ses lead to the replacement of IOs. And many schol-
ars study informal international governance outside
the context of IOs (Westerwinter et al., 2021) as well
as how global governance fluctuates from intergovern-
mental cooperation to nongovernmental cooperation
over time (Grigorescu,2020). These are all impressive
publications, and we will build on them in the second
half of this article. Yet they do not systematically con-
ceptualise and study IO decline as such.
The Oxford Dictionary defines decline as a ‘gradual and
continuous loss of strength, numbers, quality or value’.2
In organisational theory and public administration, or-
ganisational decline is equally understood as a dete-
rioration of resources and performance over sustained
periods (Trahms et al.,2013, p. 1278). Decline thus has
two properties. First, it is a continuous process. It does
not contain instantaneous moments of change. Second,
decline necessitates a clear downward trend. When we
compare t and t + 1, we must be able to draw a linear
line that clearly points downwards. In other words, at
t + 1, there should be fewer IOs, and they should provide
fewer governance functions to fewer members, possess
fewer resources, and/or are less central to international
relations than at t. Although seemingly straightforward,
this section demonstrates that it is not easy to make
claims about the decline of IOs as institutions for coop-
eration. Nor is it straightforward to situate the stage of
decline within the life cycle of IOs.
3.1 | Decline of IOs at the
population level
It is important to first consider the decline of IOs as
vehicles for international cooperation at the population
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level, as a focus on individual IOs can be reductionist.
Unlike international treaties, IOs are relatively recent in-
stitutions founded since 1815. This raises the question
why do states ‘act through IOs’ across time and space
(Abbott & Snidal, 199 8). The utility of formal govern-
mental IOs has, in this respect, also been questioned
for contemporary problems, such as climate change
(Slaughter,2004). Empirically, we have witnessed the
emergence of a whole range of alternative institu-
tions (Haufler,2009; Reinsberg & Westerwinter,2019;
Roger, 2020; Vabulas & Snidal, 2013, 2020; Verdier
& Voeten, 2015; Westerwinter et al., 2021). Indeed,
Grigorescu (2020, fig. 1.3) demonstrates that, over
the course of the past century, the ratio between in-
tergovernmental IOs and other institutions has varied
Drawing on population ecology approaches (Hannan
& Freeman, 1977, 1989), Abbott et al. (2016) have
started to study international institutions at the popula-
tion level. Important is the density of a population and
how it develops over time. They note that ‘new [organi-
sational] forms initially grow rapidly, with little resource
competition and increasing legitimacy; eventually, how-
ever, competition causes growth to level off and de-
cline, perhaps even turning negative as organizations
exit’ (Figure1a; Abbott et al.,2016, pp. 259– 260, see
also fig. 1). The variable of carrying capacity is explain-
ing density: The savannah can only host so many an-
imals. For populations of international institutions, the
situation is more complicated. First, it is not clear what
resource limits constrain the growth of international
institutions, as for most states, financial contributions
to IOs remain limited. Second, as organisational forms
develop, different organisations may adopt consolida-
tion or niche strategies to survive (Abbott et al.,2016,
p. 262 ff.).
These insights are helpful to think of IO decline at
the population level. The total number of IOs or the
density of IOs across policy areas can tell us where
we are in the life cycle of IOs as an organisational
form (Figure1b). Hannan and Freeman, for instance,
demonstrate that the number of craft unions declined
significantly between 1955 and 1985 (Hannan &
Freeman,1989, fig. 3). If we empirically see something
similar with IOs, we can speak of absolute IO decline
as a form of cooperation. Beyond total numbers of IOs,
we might consider the cumulative sum of governance
functions that IOs execute. Although total numbers of
IOs might level off, their mandates and authority can
still expand (Barnett & Finnemore,2004; Kahler,2009;
Littoz- Monnet,2017; Reinalda & Verbeek,1998). At the
same time, overlapping mandates and regime com-
plexity impair their ability to effectively fulfil functions
and can lead to consolidation (Alter & Meunier,2006;
Gutner, 2005; Raustiala & Victor, 2004). States may
reign in their agents and reassert their sovereignty
(Heldt, 2017; Hirschmann, 2020) thereby causing ab-
solute decline.
The notion of an absolute decline of IOs as a spe-
cific organisational form is easy to grasp, but we should
also consider the relative decline of IOs compared with
other organisational forms of international cooperation,
just as we also consider the relative power of states
(Baldwin, 2002; Levi, 1988; cf. Lasswell & Kaplan,
1950). It is worth considering, in this respect, the cen-
trality of IOs: If many IOs occupy at t a central position
in international relations and at t + 1 a more marginal
position, we can speak of relative decline at the pop-
ulation level. This relative, or even relational, perspec-
tive on decline ties into network approaches to global
governance (Hafner- Burton et al.,2009; Kinne,2013a ,
2013 b) that consider IOs as part of a network structure
defined by social and material relationships between
participating agents. Relevant, in this respect, is where
governance takes place. Scholars have, for instance,
pointed at the rapid increase in informal international in-
stitutions (Vabulas & Snidal,2013 , 2020; Westerwinter
et al., 2021). Although they sometimes remain mar-
ginal (Abbott et al., 2016, p. 255f.) or cluster around
formal IOs (Westerwinter et al.,2021), they do present
FIGURE 1 Organisational growth rates over time based on Abbott et al.(2016), fig. 1 (left, a). Organisation numbers within a population
over time inspired by Hannan and Freeman(1989), fig. 3 (right, b).
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potentially competing organisational formats that can
lead to a relative decline of IOs at the population level
(Rog er, 2020). Formal IOs may continue to implement
their mandates, but important strategic decisions may
be taken in the G7/G20 forums. Grigorescu(2020: title),
in this respect, also talks about the ‘ebb and flow of
global governance’ where governance fluctuates over
the decades from formal intergovernmental IOs to other
forms of cooperation and back.
3.2 | Decline of individual IOs
Developments at the population level condition oppor-
tunities for individual IOs. If formal IOs are no longer
widely perceived as the best vehicles for cooperation
and the pendulum swings towards informal, ad hoc
and nongovernmentalism— this potentially leaves less
space on the savannah for individual IOs. IOs may no
longer be asked to address new cooperation problems
as they appear on the international agenda, thereby
losing centrality in international relations. At the same
time, population- level decline does not automatically
imply a decline of individual IOs. Some individual IOs
may well adapt to a new environment, for instance by
developing partnerships with other non- IO actors or ex-
changing resources with other IOs, as a result of which
they come out stronger. In other words, it is important
to complement our understanding of population- level
decline with the study of decline at the level of indi-
vidual IOs.
Conceptualising the decline of individual IOs re-
quires us to consider the idiosyncrasies of their life
cycles. Theories of institutional change provide us
with ideal types. The archetypical life cycle consists
of four stages (Figure2a). IOs are born when they
are established by three or more states with regular
meetings and a secretariat (Pevehouse et al.,2020).
They develop in terms of activities, authority, re-
sources and members (Davis & Wilf, 2017; Hooghe
et al.,2019; Lundgren et al.,2018; Schimmelfennig &
Sedelmeier,2002). They reach their summit and start
to decline in a process that mirrors development.
They die because of formal dissolution or desuetude
(Debre & Dijkstra,2021; Eilstrup- Sangiovanni,2020,
Figure2a conforms to a gradual transformation
logic of institutional change (Mahoney & Thelen,2010;
Streeck & Thelen, 2005), but institutions often evolve
differently. Punctuated equilibrium theory notes that
institutional change comes in short- term shocks after
periods of stability (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993;
Baumgartner et al., 2006; Krasner,1984; for IOs see:
Colgan et al.,2012; Lundgren et al.,2018). In a variation
on the theme, scholars argue that choices made at crit-
ical junctures are path dependent over time (Capoccia
& Kelemen,2007; Pierson,2004). Figure2b presents
such a logic and demonstrates that IO decline is per-
haps less obvious than assumed. Short- term shocks
are not necessarily instances of decline as they are not
continuous, and equilibriums between shocks do not
point downwards.
FIGURE 2 Four ideal- type life cycles of IOs: Gradual change (top left, a), punctuated equilibriums (top right, b), alternating periods of
development and decline (lower left, c), and sudden death (lower right, d).
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Gradual transformation and punctuated equilibri-
ums provide the two standard accounts of institutional
change (Gerschewski,2021). Figure2a,b can be used
to think about, for example, the decline of the League
of Nations throughout the 1930s.3 Yet decline is not
necessarily the mirror image of development. Periods
of development may alternate with periods of decline
(Figure2c). IOs may go through a deep crisis but re-
cover. IOs may be ‘on standby’ to be used when a
global problem hits. Or states might find new purpose
in ‘zombie’ IOs and activate them (Gray,2018). Other
IOs may face ‘sudden death’ (Figure2d) in which IOs
do not go through a stage of decline first. The Warsaw
Treaty Organization is an example which was quickly
dissolved after the end of the Cold War. There are thus
various ways to think about the life cycle of IOs.4 The
purpose here is to underline that IO decline is multifac-
eted and cannot simply be assumed to be the mirror
image of IO development.
The decline of individual IOs can also be considered
in absolute and relative terms. Absolute decline con-
cerns a loss of authority, resources, members, output
and even compliance and impact (cf. the definition of
Zürn, 2018 provided above). Yet just as we consider
the relative decline of the IO population, we should also
consider the relative position of individual IOs in inter-
national relations. IOs can lose status relative to other
IOs because overall numbers of IOs grow, policy fields
get denser, and consequently less attention is paid
to individual IOs. Relative decline might also capture
stagnation or not keeping pace with developments in
a policy field. In the introduction, the example of the
WTO was already mentioned, which has increased in
absolute terms, but clearly declined relatively.
The concept of IO decline is abstract and complex, and
so is its measurement. Quantification of social con-
structs necessarily requires reduction, and we must
pay particular attention to what extent measurements
are valid representations of the phenomenon under
analysis (Adcock & Collier, 2001; Gerring, 2012;
King et al.,199 4, p. 25). It is thus imperative to de-
velop a systematised concept that clearly defines
the phenomenon and its subdimensions and delin-
eates it from background concepts to arrive at suit-
able operationalisations and measurement (Adcock &
Collier,2001, p. 532; see also: Hooghe et al.,2017, p.
6ff.). We have conceptualised decline, in this respect,
as a continuous downward process, which can be ob-
served both at the population level as well as the level
of individual IOs. It entails both decline of absolute
properties and relative decline of centrality. As such,
this article suggests four dimensions for IO decline
(Table1). Concept validity also requires developing
clear operational definitions that can be translated
into measurable indicators. The central challenge in
this endeavour is context specificity: To what extent
can indicators meaningfully be applied to different
contexts without ridding the concept of its meaning
(Adcock & Collier, 2001, p. 534; Gerring, 2012, p.
160ff.; Goertz,2006)?
In this section, we evaluate measurements and in-
dicators for the four dimensions. To illustrate these
dimensions and their measurement, we review exist-
ing empirical evidence. The purpose is not to assess
whether IOs are currently in decline, but rather to un-
cover which indicators can help us to systematically
identify instances of IO decline in the period since 1945.
Only when we are clear about what we talk about, and
when we understand how decline looks historically, can
we meaningfully judge what is happening to IOs right
now and in future. The available empirical evidence
indicates growth or stasis across most absolute IO in-
dicators. This is surprising given the pessimism in the lit-
erature on international cooperation. Data on the relative
position of IOs in international relations are less readily
available. To probe the concept of relative decline of IOs,
the article analyses the political attention that state lead-
ers pay to different IOs over time using data from their
UNGA speeches. This initial probe reveals that, despite
the surprisingly limited decline in absolute terms, IOs
may well have declined in relative terms.
TAB LE 1 Four dimensions of IO decline and indicators used in this article
Absolute decline Relative decline
Population level Decreasing number of IOs and their cumulative global
governance functions
Increasingly international cooperation takes place
e.g. Total IO numbers (per policy field), cumulative
authority and legitimacy of IOs
e.g. Alternative forms of global governance;
cumulative mentions in state speeches at UN
General Assembly
Individual level Decreasing functions, resources and activity of individual
Individual IOs have decreasing centrality in
international relations
e.g. Numbers of member states, permanent staff,
delegated & pooled authority, policy output and
e.g. Mentions in state speeches at UN General
Assembly; number of cooperation agreements/
practices between IOs
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4.1 | Absolute decline of IOs
IO decline in the literature typically concerns absolute
decline, which can be measured by various standard
indicators for which data are readily available. We have
compiled a range of figures based on such data, which
we have included in Figures S1– S3. We restrict our-
selves here to a discussion of the data. Absolute de-
cline at the population level entails a decline in total
numbers of IOs. Here we can rely on the COW- IGO
v3.0 dataset by Pevehouse et al. (2020; Figure S1).5
Since the mid- 1990s, the total number of IOs has
stagnated, and particularly economic IOs have experi-
enced a slight decline since the mid- 1990s (Pevehouse
et al.,2020; Zürn et al.,2021). Overall, the population
seems in equilibrium rather than in decline. Beyond
the density of IOs, we can also measure the cumula-
tive sum of IO authority and liberal intrusiveness (Zürn
et al.,2021; Figure S1), which we can understand as
the total reach of IOs. When assessing such data, his-
torically, there are also no signs of absolute decline in
other population level indicators.
There are neither many instances of absolute de-
cline at the level of individual IOs. IO decline can be
measured in terms of a decline in membership, ac-
tivities and output, resources and authority (Hooghe
et al.,2017; Pevehouse et al.,2020; Volgy et al.,2008;
Zürn, 2018). Various datasets provide us with appro-
priate measures to map absolute decline at the indi-
vidual IO level (FigureS2). Starting with membership,
von Borzyskowski and Vabulas (2019) demonstrate
that withdrawal is a relatively rare event: Only 20 out of
534 IOs have experienced more than three withdraw-
als over the course of their life span, and most exits
cluster in a handful of IOs such as the International
Whaling Commission and UNESCO (von Borzyskowski
& Vabulas,2019). Additionally, only 23/534 IOs end up
with fewer members (by the end of the study period
in 2014) than their numbers at foundation (Pevehouse
et al.,2020). State withdrawal is therefore rare and not
a clear indicator of decline in the period leading up to
IO death (FigureS2).
Other indicators demonstrate similar results.
Delegated and pooled authority of IOs does vary over
time (FigureS2), but mostly grows with few instances
of decline (Hooghe et al., 2019; Zürn et al., 2021).
Importantly, only a handful of IOs ended with lower
levels of authority by 2014 (Hooghe et al.,2019, table
3.1). For bureaucratic capacity (Figure S2), most IO
staff numbers have grown steadily and then remain
relatively constant once IOs have reached a stable
point of maturation (Debre & Dijkstra, 2021; Heldt
& Schmidtke, 2017 ). Some scholars have argued
that IOs are unable to produce relevant output (Hale
et al.,2013). However, measures of policy output do not
find a significant downward trend. Indeed, Lundgren
et al. (2018) demonstrate that policy output conforms
to punctuated equilibrium theory (FigureS2), whereby
change in attention to certain policy agendas only
changes dramatically after exogenous political shocks
and output remains stable over most of the IO life
span. Gray(2018) considers economic activity among
member states as an indicator of the vitality of regional
economic organisations, and she too finds stability.
FIGURE 3 Attention in UNGA speeches across policy fields.
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Although an elegant indicator, its usefulness is limited
to IOs in the economic domain. Lack of compliance is
another potential indicator of decline and central in the
norms literature as it speaks to internalisation of norms,
but we are not aware of cross- sectional data on com-
pliance. Furthermore, compliance rates suffer from
observational equivalence, which makes it difficult to
simply compare them across IOs.
In conclusion, the empirical data do not reveal signif-
icant instances of IO decline at either the population or
the individual level. The absolute IO indicators— which
are considered throughout the literature as the indi-
cators for development, decline and vitality— thus do
not seem to suggest that many IOs have experienced
marked periods of decline. There are obviously histor-
ical examples of absolute decline, such as the League
of Nations, but when looking at a cross section of 30 or
75 IOs post- 1945, as various datasets do, these abso-
lute IO indicators do not point to many cases of decline
(in line with the ideal types presented above), even in
the years prior to death.6 When institutional change
does happen, the trend is upward, not downward. At
most, we can speak of stasis, where IOs perhaps have
reached an equilibrium or stagnation in that IOs do not
develop quickly enough to deal with the many chal-
lenges of our times (Hale et al.,2013). The absence of
IO decline, in the absolute indicators at the population
and individual level, is naturally surprising given the
considerable pessimism about IOs and international
cooperation, and does not correspond to our general
knowledge of IOs. It is therefore important to also con-
sider the alternative, relative, concept of IO decline.
4.2 | Relative decline of IOs
Contrary to absolute decline, indicators of relative de-
cline do not readily appear in the standard IO datasets.
We are only aware of a few datasets that include IOs
as actual actors, but these are restricted to specific
governance fields (Grigorescu, 2010; Holzscheiter
et al.,2020; Song et al.,2020).7 This makes it difficult
to provide definite statements on the validity of the con-
cept of relative decline. To probe the concept, and to
point at a fruitful avenue for future research, the article
analyses the political attention that state leaders pay
to different IOs over time using data from their annual
UNGA speeches. This is a proxy for relative decline
and ultimately only a single indicator, so it must be
considered with some caution. Other forms of probing
the centrality of IOs in their organisational field could
be to look at cooperative practices between IOs such
as formal relationship agreements (Grigorescu,2010)
or regular joint meetings of subdivisions (Sommerer &
Tallberg,2019) but also referencing in annual reports as
a proxy for self- positioning within the field (Holzscheiter
et al.,2020).
To start with relative IO decline at the population
level, it is worth pointing at recent research on infor-
mal and private international institutions as alterna-
tive cooperation vehicles to IOs. Abbott et al. (2016:
abstract) and a recent special issue by Westerwinter
et al. (2021) make the case for studying alternative
forms of global governance by pointing to the stasis of
IOs (as detailed in FigureS3). They demonstrate that
states increasingly turn to less formalised institutions.
Although mere numbers indeed suggest that states
increasingly choose alternative informal venues to co-
operate, and formal IOs might therefore be in decline,
it remains of course unclear to what extent essential
governance functions are actually performed by infor-
mal institutions. Abbott et al.(2016) and Lake (2021)
see, in this respect, more of a niche function for some
of these institutions, such as transnational public–
private governance initiatives (TGIs). There also ap-
pears to be variation across policy fields. Because
IOs, informal IGOs and TGIs are not necessarily in
full competition, collectively they might be reinforcing
each other and add to the overall expansion of global
We therefore focus on the centrality of IOs in inter-
national relations, as measured by the attention ac-
corded to major IOs over time by states. To this end,
we coded the number of mentions of all 34 IOs from
the International Authority Database (Zürn et al.,2021)
during UNGA General Debates between 1970 to 2018
to ensure that all IOs have a similar likelihood of being
mentioned.8 To account for large variation in the number
of speeches delivered per year (from 70 in 1970 to 196
in 2018), including as a result of the increasing number
of member states, we use mentions in percentage of
speeches instead of overall frequencies. Mentions are
understood as any reference to the IO during a speech
irrespective of the context or sentiment expressed by
the speaker. We search for IO full names as well as
IO short names and abbreviations, also accounting for
potential variation in spelling.
Data on the UNGA General Debates are a valuable
source (Baturo et al., 2017; see also Kentikelenis &
Voe ten , 2020 who use these data to study legitimacy
challenges over time). The UNGA General Debate has
taken place continuously, once a year, in September
since 1946. State leaders (heads of state or govern-
ment or foreign ministers) travel to New York where
they get their 15 minutes of fame.9 Although some obvi-
ously also talk to domestic audiences, speakers need
to prioritise their attention. What is in their speeches is
a good reflection of their countries’ foreign policy pri-
orities. Consequently, if speakers pay attention to an
individual IO in their speech, this IO must have some
meaning to them, be it positive or negative (Baturo
et al.,2017, pp. 2– 3; Kentikelenis & Voeten,2020, pp.
5– 7). In other words, all the speeches together at the
UNGA include a scarce pool of political attention and
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how this is allocated over IOs (and other foreign policy
issues) tells us something about the centrality of indi-
vidual IOs in international relations.
We use political attention in the UNGA as a proxy
for the centrality of IOs, but it also resembles the
concept of politicisation, which is about public aware-
ness, public debate and the public sphere, and often
includes an analysis of the contents of (news) media
(Zürn et al., 2012). In this respect, politicisation is
often measured as an expression of (negative) sen-
timent vis- à- vis IOs. The UNGA General Debate,
however, remains more of a diplomatic forum of ex-
change than a public debate. Indeed, throughout
its history, mostly foreign ministers and permanent
representatives have been addressing the assembly
rather than elected heads of state and government.
Political attention as we understand it therefore in-
cludes all types of mentions of IOs irrespective of the
sentiment expressed by the speaker. Furthermore, as
our indicator concerns the percentage of speeches in
which IOs get mentioned (and is a scarce pool un-
like news media), across 100200 speeches per year,
politicisation moves by a single state leader will not
show up in the data.
Figure3 shows the percentage of speeches in which
IOs across policy fields is mentioned. If economic and
financial IOs are mentioned in 60% of the speeches,
this implies that in 60% of the speeches there is at least
FIGURE 4 Attention in UNGA speeches for informal IOs.
Total Number of Mentions
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020
Informal IOs
Formal IOs
Attention to Informal Groupings vs Formal IOs in UNGA Speeches
Mention % of Speeches
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020
Group of 77
Non-Aligned Movement
Group of 20
Attention to Informal Groupings in UNGA Speeches
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one mention of one economic or financial IO. What
these population- level data make clear is that politi-
cal attention for IOs increased during the early 1990s,
reached their summit in 1996 and started to decline
from the early 2000s. Although this corresponds to
what we know about the general enthusiasm for multi-
lateralism in the 1990s, the decline started earlier than
what we typically know about the early/mid- 2000s (e.g.
the entry into force of Kyoto, China's accession to the
WTO and the EU Constitutional Treaty). Noteworthy is
FIGURE 5 (a) Attention in UNGA speeches to political and security IOs; (b) Attention in UNGA speeches to economic and financial IOs.
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also that, currently, political attention has returned to
Cold War levels and is actually substantially lower than
during the 1980s.
The decline of formal IOs also does not seem to be
explained by arguments that more attention might be
paid to other forms of international cooperation, most
importantly informal groupings. Figure4 displays the
total number of mentions of all informal organisations
from Vabulas and Snidal(2020)10 plotted against the
number of mentions of formal IOs (top) and split by in-
dividual groupings (bottom). The patterns reveal that
attention has not shifted from formal IOs to informal
types of organisations, but rather that general atten-
tion paid to multilateral cooperation seems to follow
similar patterns. Overall, these data on relative de-
cline of IOs at the population level correspond much
better to the general impressions we have about inter-
national relations than the data on the absolute indi-
cators above.
The UNGA data also appear to be a useful indica-
tor to consider the centrality of individual IOs in inter-
national relations. Figure5a,b show, respectively, the
mentions for three political and security IOs and three
economic and financial IOs. The CSCE, for instance,
is prominent during the Cold War after its creation in
1975 and gets mentioned substantially in the early
1990s when it is transformed into the OSCE. Since the
2000s, however, mentions are down, which can be ex-
plained by the prominence of the EU and its competing
external policies. The mentions of NATO likewise are
in line with what we generally know about the alliance
with its increased prominence during the ‘Second Cold
War’ after a period of détente. Its crisis interventions
and missions of the 1990s appear in the data, as does
its ISAF mission in Afghanistan. For the ICC, we can
identify the Rome Statute (1998) and its entry into force
in 2002, after which attention for the ICC declines.
Political attention paid to the GATT/WTO neatly mir-
rors the conclusion of the Uruguay Round and estab-
lishment of the WTO until the breakdown of the Doha
Development Round in the late 2000s. The high point
for the World Bank and IMF, according to the data
on political attention, was clearly 1980– 2000, pretty
much in line with neoliberalism and the Washington
Consensus. The IMF and the World Bank again gained
some attention because of the financial crisis in 2009.
These patterns correspond well with our general un-
derstanding of the importance of these IOs to interna-
tional relations.
In conclusion, it appears that UNGA mentions pro-
vide quite a dynamic picture which seems to corre-
spond largely to what we know about IOs and how we
actually tend to think about them in terms of decline.
An alternative explanation for the decline in attention
at the UNGA is that IOs have become accepted mech-
anisms where states work out their cooperation prob-
lems. Along these lines, the period of the 1990s was
one where states debated the establishment of IOs and
giving them additional authority, after which political at-
tention returned to normal. Although the UNGA data do
not provide us with definite answers, such alternative
explanation is at odds with all the literature that states
that IOs have become more contested and politicised
in the past decade. The overall conclusion is therefore
that, whereas the UNGA data have obvious limitations,
it has provided us with a first probe and a good reason
to further study the relative decline of IOs.
Many IOs are currently challenged, yet are they also in
decline? This article takes a step back to conceptualise
and operationalise IO decline. It brings us closer to un-
derstanding the life cycle of IOs, which includes stages
of birth, development, decline, and death. Although de-
cline is often simply seen as the mirror image of growth,
a closer look at institutional developments reveals that
this is not necessarily the case. Without a clear under-
standing of IO decline, it is difficult to say meaningful
things about the consequences of IO contestation. This
article has addressed this topic by situating decline in
the life cycle of IOs and proposed to understand de-
cline as a continuous downward process both in ab-
solute and relative terms and at the individual IO and
the population level. As such, existing concepts such
as IO pathologies or politicisation can be viewed as
potential drivers of IO decline, with a continuous loss
of members, legitimacy, staff or authority as indicators.
Although providing empirical data on some of these
indicators, the article has not tried to assess the cur-
rent crisis of multilateralism, explain IO decline, pro-
vide causal pathways from contestation to decline or
theorise how IO decline can lead to dissolution and IO
We have, instead, proposed four dimensions of IO
decline, and this concept has been validated by the di-
vergent impressions we get from an absolute and rel-
ative perspective on the life of IOs. Although absolute
IO indicators indicate considerable stasis over time, the
relative IO indicators provide a more dynamic picture.
Studying decline from a perspective of the centrality of
IOs in international relations is therefore promising. In
the absence of good data on the relative position of
IOs, we have used UNGA General Debate speeches
to probe the concept of relative decline. At the popu-
lation level, we have seen a decline in mentions of IOs
since the early 2000s, whereas at the individual level,
UNGA mentions also seem largely to correspond to
what we know about the vitality of individual IOs. UNGA
speeches are, in this respect, a valuable source of
data, but more importantly this empirical probe demon-
strates the potential of a relative perspective on the life
cycle of IOs. This also provides a rationale for further
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investment in data that captures the centrality of IOs in
international relations. Future scholarship should find
ways, in this respect, to also include IOs themselves as
nodes of interest to map variation in centrality over time
on a large- N scale.
We thank the editor and reviewers of Global Policy for
their excellent supportive comments on our manuscript.
The article was previously presented at the PCE collo-
quium in Maastricht on 27 January 2021, ISA Annual
Convention in 2021, ECPR Joint Sessions in 2021,
and ISA Research Workshop on ‘The Performance of
Global Governance Institutions’, 24– 25 March 2022.
We thank the participants for their feedback. We
would also like to thank Laura von Allwörden, Farsan
Ghassim, Leonard Schuette and Giuseppe Zaccaria
for substantive comments.
This article is part of a project that has received funding
from the European Research Council (ERC) under the
European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innova-
tion programme (grant agreement No. 802568).
Data used in this article can be founded online in the
Supporting Information section at the end of this article.
Maria J. Debre https://orcid.
Hylke Dijkstra https://orcid.
1 UN peacekeeping deployments dropped significantly after blue
helmets were unable to prevent genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.
2 Oxford Dictionary (n.d.).
3 Walters(1952) and Scott(1973) distinguish between the rise and
fall of the League.
4 This also includes whether IOs eventually die, are replaced or de-
velop some other form of afterlife (Cottrell,2009; Debre & Dijks-
tra,2021; Wessel,2011 ).
5 To ensure readability only figures based on newly gathered data
are presented in- text (Figures3– 5). Figures based on existing data
have been included in FiguresS1– S3.
6 The COW- IGO data (Pevehouse et al.,2020) shows that only 8
out of 241 dead IOs experienced a decline of IO membership in
the years before death.
7 Most network datasets focus on states, not IOs, as central nodes
(Kinne,2013b; Maoz,2010; Song et al.,2020).
8 We only include IOs that have received more than one mention by
at least three or more member states in Figures4a,b.
9 This time restriction is a ‘voluntary’ limit, but generally the speakers
stick more or less to their limit.
10 We only included informal IOs from the dataset that received more
than one mention by three or more member states.
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Maria J. Debre is a postdoctoral researcher and
lecturer at Potsdam University and an associate
researcher in the ERC project ‘Who gets to live
forever?’ at Maastricht University. Her research fo-
cuses on regional and international organisations
and their institutional design and on the interna-
tional dimension of democratisation and autocratic
Hylke Dijkstra is an associate professor at the
Department of Political Science, Maastricht
University, The Netherlands. He is the principal in-
vestigator of the project ‘Who gets to live forever?’
on the decline and death of international organisa-
tions which is funded by the European Research
Council. He focuses on international organisations.
Additional supporting information can be found online
in the Supporting Information section at the end of this
How to cite this article: Debre, M.J. & Dijkstra,
H. (2022) Are international organisations in
decline? An absolute and relative perspective on
institutional change. Global Policy, 00, 1– 15.
Available from: ht t p s : // d o i. o r g /1 0 .1111/ 17 5 8 -
17585899, 0, Downloaded from by EVIDENCE AID - BELGIUM, Wiley Online Library on [20/12/2022]. See the Terms and Conditions ( on Wiley Online Library for rules of use; OA articles are governed by the applicable Creative Commons License
... In particular, IO decline as an outcome of legitimacy crises remains understudied. The OSCE is a clear case of both absolute declineloss of budget, policy scope, policy outputand relative declineloss of centrality in international relations (Debre and Dijkstra 2023). Finally, the article contributes to our empirical knowledge about the OSCE, a vastly under-researched IO. ...
... When it comes to IO decline, Debre and Dijkstra (2023) usefully distinguish between absolute and relative forms of decline. In absolute and conventional terms, IO decline denotes the loss of authority, resources, member states, or policy output. ...
... Decline ensues when these patterns translate into observable and sustained losses of resources, membership, policy scope and output, and a less central position in international relations (e.g. Sommerer et al. 2022;Debre and Dijkstra 2023). Furthermore, as noted above, legitimacy crises are not deterministic. ...
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Various international organizations have recently faced legitimacy crises, but many have demonstrated resilience and relegitimated their rule. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is an exception. It is clearly an organization in decline and is on the brink of irrelevance. The closure of its Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine in April 2022 in the wake of the Russian attack is only the latest manifestation of the organization’s long-term legitimacy crisis. Based on the case of the OSCE, this article contributes to the study of legitimacy crises to better understand when such crises can lead to decline. Drawing on twenty interviews with senior officials, the analysis suggests that the OSCE’s failure to (re)legitimate has two interrelated causes: (1) the organization’s institutional weaknesses and impeded leadership have prevented OSCE actors from engaging in effective legitimation practices, and (2) the heterogeneous and largely zero-sum preferences of the OSCE participating states have made them unwilling audiences for (re)legitimation practices. In doing so, the article contributes to our comprehension of the consequences of legitimacy crises.
... We define existential challenges as challenges that put IOs at risk of no longer being able to effectively carry out some of their core functions. Existential challenges may result in dissolution (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020; Debre and Dijkstra 2021), but may also turn IOs into "zombies" by rendering core function(s) obsolete and/or limiting their relevance to international relations (Gray 2018;Debre and Dijkstra 2022). ...
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The Trump administration posed an unprecedented challenge to many international organisations (IOs). This article analyses the ability of IOs to respond and explains variation in the survival strategies pursued by their institutional actors. It argues that leadership, organisational structure, competences and external networks affect whether institutional actors can formulate and implement responses to existential challenges. Providing evidence from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and World Trade Organisation (WTO), this article shows how institutional actors varied in their ability to pursue survival strategies toward Trump. NATO officials publicly leveraged the Trump challenge on burden-sharing while quietly shielding the alliance from Trump on Russia policy. UNFCCC officials considered United States withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to be inevitable and focused on preventing further withdrawals through coalitions with non-state actors. WTO officials lacked the leadership and organisational structure to formulate a strategic response.
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Maoz views the evolution of international relations over the last two centuries as a set of interacting, cooperative and conflicting networks of states. The networks that emerged are the result of national choice processes about forming or breaking ties with other states. States are constantly concerned with their security and survival in an anarchic world. Their security concerns stem from their external environment and their past conflicts. Because many of them cannot ensure their security by their own power, they need allies to balance against a hostile international environment. The alliance choices made by states define the structure of security cooperation networks and spill over into other cooperative networks, including trade and institutions. Maoz tests his theory by applying social networks analysis (SNA) methods to international relations. He offers a novel perspective as a system of interrelated networks that co-evolve and interact with one another.
John Gerring's exceptional textbook has been thoroughly revised in this second edition. It offers a one-volume introduction to social science methodology relevant to the disciplines of anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology and sociology. This new edition has been extensively developed with the introduction of new material and a thorough treatment of essential elements such as conceptualization, measurement, causality and research design. It is written for students, long-time practitioners and methodologists and covers both qualitative and quantitative methods. It synthesizes the vast and diverse field of methodology in a way that is clear, concise and comprehensive. While offering a handy overview of the subject, the book is also an argument about how we should conceptualize methodological problems. Thinking about methodology through this lens provides a new framework for understanding work in the social sciences.
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As International Organization commemorates its seventy-fifth anniversary, the Liberal International Order (LIO) that authors in this journal have long analyzed is under challenge, perhaps as never before. The articles in this issue explore the nature of these challenges by examining how the Westphalian order and the LIO have co-constituted one another over time; how both political and economic dynamics internal to the LIO threaten its core aspects; and how external threats combine with these internal dynamics to render the LIO more fragile than ever before. This introduction begins by defining and clarifying what is “liberal,” “international,” and “orderly” about the LIO. It then discusses some central challenges to the LIO, illustrated by the contributors to this issue as well as other sources. Finally, we reflect on the analytical lessons we have learned—or should learn—as the study of the LIO, represented by scholarship in International Organization , has sometimes overlooked or marginalized dynamics that now appear central to the functioning, and dysfunction, of the order itself.
The 1990s saw a systemic shift from the liberal post–World War II international order of liberal multilateralism (LIO I) to a post–Cold War international order of postnational liberalism (LIO II). LIO II has not been only rule-based but has openly pursued a liberal social purpose with a significant amount of authority beyond the nation-state. While postnational liberal institutions helped increase overall well-being globally, they were criticized for using double standards and institutionalizing state inequality. We argue that these institutional features of the postnational LIO II led to legitimation problems, which explain both the current wave of contestations and the strategies chosen by different contestants. We develop our argument first by mapping the growing liberal intrusiveness of international institutions. Second, we demonstrate the increased level and variety of contestations in international security and international refugee law. We show that increased liberal intrusiveness has led to a variety of contestation strategies, the choice of which is affected by the preference of a contestant regarding postnational liberalism and its power within the contested institution.
The customary prescription for handling “problems without passports” is to work through international intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), act collectively for humanity's future, and build up specialized knowledge. But around the world, patterns from the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic defied the prescription. IGOs were blamed, narrow or short-term interests were prioritized, and divided reactions to experts were on display. International Relations (IR) scholarship helps explain why: (1) research on bureaucracy and institutional design examines the challenge of making IGOs accountable to member-states but also insulated from them; (2) research on delegation and socialization explores commonplace problems involving time-inconsistency and credible commitments; and (3) research on epistemic communities and anti-elitism describes the rationale and fears of permitting public policy to be guided by unelected experts. The initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic reflect how the world can look when it lacks resolute leadership to overcome commonplace aversions to IGOs, to broader or longer-term interests, and to experts. Yet while IR scholarship makes sense of these patterns, it does not say enough about why resolute leadership wanes, or what to do about IGO performance when it does. Answers to such questions are crucial not only for recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, but for dealing with whatever global crises lie ahead.
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.
The ecology of governance organizations (GOs) matters for what is or is not governed, what legitimate powers any governor may hold, and whose political preferences are instantiated in rules. The array of actors who comprise the current system of global governance has grown dramatically in recent decades. Especially notable has been the growth of private governance organizations (PGOs). Drawing on organizational ecology, I posit that the rise of PGOs is both required and facilitated by disagreements between states that block the creation of what might be otherwise effective intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). In a form of “double-negative regulation,” states block IGOs, which in turn leave open niches that are then filled by PGOs, which then both complement and sometimes substitute for state law. The organizational ecology approach outlined here extends and refocuses inquiry in systematic ways that give us a fuller understanding of how and why PGOs have emerged as one of the most striking features of the contemporary world order. The key innovations in this paper are to (a) shift the level of analysis from single agents or populations of agents to the entire field of GOs, including states, IGOs, and PGOs and (b) draw on principles of ecology to understand the composition and dynamics of systems of governance.