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Conceptualizing and Operationalizing the Decline of International Organizations: Toward a Relative View of Institutional Change

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Many international organizations (IOs) are currently challenged, yet are they also in decline? Despite much debate on the crisis of liberal international order, politicization, contestation, loss of legitimacy, gridlock, pathologies, and exiting member states, there is little research on the concept of IO decline. This research note aims to conceptualize and operationalize processes of IO decline. It argues that IO decline can be considered at the level of individual IOs as well as the IO population and entails both absolute and relative decline. The research note empirically reviews a wide variety of indicators, complementing existing datasets with newly gathered data (mostly since 1945), to find out which indicators best capture instances of IO decline. It finds that many of the indicators of absolute decline are ill-suited to systematically identify instances of IO decline in the postwar era. The indicators of relative decline of IOs are beneficial for the population-level and are also promising to study individual IOs. This research concludes with further directions for studying IO decline.
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Conceptualizing and Operationalizing the Decline of International Organizations:
Toward a Relative View of Institutional Change
Maria Debre
University of Potsdam, Germany
Hylke Dijkstra
Maastricht University, The Netherlands
This paper has been prepared for the ECPR Joint Sessions (virtual), 17-28 May 2021. Feel
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Abstract
Many international organizations (IOs) are currently challenged, yet are they also in decline?
Despite much debate on the crisis of liberal international order, politicization, contestation, loss
of legitimacy, gridlock, pathologies, and exiting member states, there is little research on the
concept of IO decline. This research note aims to conceptualize and operationalize processes
of IO decline. It argues that IO decline can be considered at the level of individual IOs as well
as the IO population and entails both absolute and relative decline. The research note
empirically reviews a wide variety of indicators, complementing existing datasets with newly
gathered data (mostly since 1945), to find out which indicators best capture instances of IO
decline. It finds that many of the indicators of absolute decline are ill-suited to systematically
identify instances of IO decline in the postwar era. The indicators of relative decline of IOs are
beneficial for the population-level and are also promising to study individual IOs. This research
concludes with further directions for studying IO decline.
Key words
International organizations, decline, lifecycle, institutional change, liberal international order
Funding information
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 innovation programme (grant
agreement No 802568).
2
Introduction
Recent debates around the contestation of the liberal international order show that many
international organizations (IOs) face substantial challenges. The United Kingdom has left the
European Union, Burundi the International Criminal Court, and the United States UNESCO.
IOs must deal with unreliable budgeting due to increasingly diversified forms of public and
private contributions.
1
The number of permanent staff available to IO bureaucracies has
declined extensively in several organizations since the 2000s
2
leading to implications for their
proper functioning.
3
And while many organizations meet regularly to decide on policies, others
vegetate in a “zombie” state without meaningful levels of cooperation.
4
The global Covid-19
pandemic may further exacerbate these pressures on multilateral institutions and lead to
gridlock.
5
These developments have not escaped scholarly attention. The challenges faced by IOs are
captured in concepts of legitimacy, politicization, contestation, gridlock, pathologies, exiting
states, and the overall crisis of liberal international order.
6
Yet impressive as this scholarship
is, it falls short in systematically informing us about the consequences of these challenges:
Whether IOs are in fact in decline defined as a gradual and continuous loss of strength,
numbers, quality, or value (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.). Indeed, the phase of decline remains the
missing piece in the lifecycle of IOs. After all, we know about the establishment and design of
IOs,
7
their development,
8
and increasingly also their death and replacement.
9
But the phase of
decline prior to death or replacement presents somewhat of a mystery.
This research note takes a step back to conceptualize and operationalize IO decline. It argues
that IO decline can be considered at the level of individual IOs as well as the population of IOs.
Absolute decline should be furthermore distinguished from relative decline. As such, the
research note develops four dimensions and sets of indicators of IO decline: (1) the absolute
decline of individual IOs in terms of activities, resources, and members; (2) the relative decline
of individual IOs in terms of political attention; (3) the absolute decline of IOs in numbers at
the population-level; and (4) the relative decline of IOs at the population-level compared to
other institutional forms of cooperation. For each dimension, the research note reviews a range
of indicators complementing existing datasets with newly gathered data. By systematically
looking at historical data (mostly since 1945), it finds that there are few instances of absolute
IO decline, while we find interesting variation with regard to relative decline both of individual
IOs and at the population-level. If we want to understand IO decline, we should thus focus on
the relative position of IOs in international relations.
Through this conceptualization and operationalization, the research note seeks to address four
shortcomings in the current literature on IOs. First, for all the literature on the recent challenges
to IOs, it is not always clear whether phenomena like gridlock, withdrawal, legitimacy loss, or
1
Patz and Goetz 2019.
2
Heldt and Schmidtke 2017.
3
Ege and Bauer 2017.
4
Gray 2018.
5
Drezner 2020; Debre and Dijkstra 2021b; Johnson 2020.
6
Barnett and Finnemore 1999; Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Hale, Held, and Young 2013; Zürn 2018; von
Borzyskowski and Vabulas 2019; Tallberg and Zürn 2019; Lake, Martin, and Risse 2021.
7
Koremenos, Lipson, and Snidal 2001; Johnson 2013; Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019.
8
Barnett and Coleman 2005; Colgan, Keohane, and van de Graaf 2012; Hanrieder 2015; Lipscy 2017.
9
Shanks, Jacobson, and Kaplan 1996; Cottrell 2016; Gray 2018; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020; Debre and Dijkstra
2021b; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2021.
3
contestation are causes or rather indicators of IO decline. Tallberg and Zürn helpfully consider
legitimacy as a dependent variable.
10
This implies that a loss of legitimacy is a potential
independent variable to explain IO decline, but not an indicator of IO decline as such.
11
We
thus do not know much about the consequences of legitimacy loss or contestation for IOs.
Second, IO scholars have focused on how IOs can address the challenges they are facing. Hale,
Held, and Young have notably tried to explain IO “gridlock.
12
Yet rather than considering
how gridlock can lead to IO decline, what they really want to do is find pathways out of
gridlock.
13
Similarly, for all their discussions of institutional pathologies, Barnett and
Finnemore do not even consider decline: They discuss the dilemma of IO “expansion.
14
Even
in public management literature, where organizational decline has been a central topic of
research since the 1970s, the focus rested largely on dealing with decline through cutback
management strategies.
15
Third, in the rare cases that scholars address the concept of IO decline, they think of it as the
mirror image of IO development and growth. Zürn, for instance, defines decline as “a decrease
in the level of international authority” and gives a brief causal mechanism, which remains
empirically untested.
16
Yet we know from some of the literature on EU disintegration
17
or other
forms of governance
18
that decline is not necessarily the mirror image of gradual growth.
Fourth, scholars have looked at different aspects of IO decline. This includes member state
withdrawal,
19
the link between legitimacy and resources,
20
how legitimacy crises may result in
institutional replacement
21
or informal governance outside IOs.
22
Yet, while all impressive
publications in their own right, without a more systematic study of IO decline, we remain blind
persons trying to identify an elephant.
This research note therefore takes a step back. Only by conceptualizing and operationalizing
IO decline, we can judge the significance of current challenges of contestation and crises of
legitimacy. The research note starts by considering the concept of IO decline at the level of
individual IOs and at the population level. It subsequently proposes key indicators of IO
absolute and relative decline and surveys the evidence using existing data complemented by
new data. The purpose is to validate indicators with historical data (mostly since 1945) to help
us to capture instances of IO decline.
23
Since many of the existing datasets do not yet cover the
most recent years, this research note does not intend to make statements on whether IOs are
currently in decline. It concludes by discussing promising ways forward to study IO decline.
10
Tallberg and Zürn 2019, 584.
11
cf. Bes, Sommerer, and Agné, 2019.
12
Hale, Held, and Young 2013.
13
Hale and Held 2017.
14
Barnett and Finnemore 2004, 158-173.
15
For an overview, see: Bozeman 2010.
16
Zürn 2018, 89, 101.
17
Vollaard 2014; Jones 2018.
18
Young 1982; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; e.g. Boin, Kuipers, and Steenbergen 2010b; Panke and Petersohn
2012; Kennedy 1987.
19
von Borzyskowski and Vabulas 2019.
20
Bes, Sommerer, and Agné 2019.
21
Corttrell 2016.
22
Westerwinter, Abbott, and Biersteker 2021.
23
cf. Adcock and Collier 2001; Gerring 2012; King, Keohane, and Verba 1994.
4
Concept of decline: IO lifecycles and population dynamics
It is well-known that different forms of governance including city-states, great powers,
empires, public agencies, alliances, regimes, and norms have a lifecycle.
24
They get
established and at a certain point they may disappear. This also applies to IOs. The authoritative
Correlates of War Intergovernmental Organizations dataset v3.0 includes 534 IOs of which
200 no longer exist.
25
Yet whereas scholars have systematically looked at IO design and
development and increasingly also consider dissolution, decline as a stage in the lifecycle of
IOs remains a blind spot. Various scholars have advanced concepts that seem to be closely
linked to decline, yet the emphasis is on explaining statis, ineffectiveness, or lack of legitimacy,
instead of IO decline.
26
Other concepts such as member state withdrawal, policy output, or IO
capacity in contrast can be rather seen as potential indicators of decline, although they are rarely
theorized as such.
27
IO thus decline seems an afterthought rather than the object of study.
The Oxford Dictionary defines decline as a “gradual and continuous loss of strength, numbers,
quality, or value.
28
In public management and administration, organizational decline is equally
understood as a deterioration of resources and performance over sustained periods of time.
29
Decline thus has two important properties. First, it is a continuous process that evolves over
time. It does therefore not contain instantaneous moments of change due to short-term shock.
Secondly, decline necessitates a clear downward trend over time. When we compare the
situation at t and t+1, we need to be able to draw a linear line that clearly points downward.
Thus, neither developments that trend up and down to loop back to similar values, or that stay
in statis, qualify as decline according to our definition of the concept. While seemingly
straightforward as a definition, this section shows that it not straightforward to situate the stage
of decline within the lifecycle of IOs. Furthermore, it is neither easy to make claims about the
decline of IOs as institutions for cooperation compared to other forms of global governance.
Decline of individual IOs
All lives are unique, and this also goes for IOs and other institutions. Still, it is worth thinking
about different ideal-types of IO lifecycles on the basis of theories of institutional change. The
archetypical lifecycle, in this respect, consists of four stages (Figure 1a). IOs are born when
they are established by three or more member states with regular meetings and a secretariat.
30
They develop in terms of activities, authority, resources, and members.
31
Development thus
refers to growth, maturing, expansion, and success. They reach their summit and start to decline
in a process that mirrors development. IOs become less fit for purpose and reduce their
activities. They lose some of their authority, less resources will be committed, and member
states may even withdraw.
32
The end result is the death of IOs, either as a result of formal
dissolution or desuetude.
33
24
Young 1982; Kennedy 1987; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Boin, Kuipers, and Steenbergen 2010a; Leeds and
Savun 2007.
25
Pevehouse, Nordstrom, and Warnke 2020; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020.
26
Barnett and Finnemore 2004; Hale, Held, and Young 2013; Tallberg and Zürn 2019.
27
von Borzyskowski and Vabulas 2019; Gray 2018; Goetz and Patz 2017.
28
Oxford Dictionary n.d.
29
Trahms, Ndofor, and Sirmon 2013, 1278.
30
Pevehouse, Nordstrom, and Warnke 2020.
31
Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019; Lundgren, Squatrito, and Tallberg 2018; Davis and Wilf 2017;
Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier 2002.
32
von Borzyskowski and Vabulas 2019.
33
Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2020; Debre and Dijkstra 2021b; Eilstrup-Sangiovanni 2021.
5
Figure 1: Four ideal-type lifecycles of international organizations: gradual change (top-left, 1a), punctuated equilibriums (top-
right, 1b), alternating periods of development and decline (lower-left, 1c), and sudden death (lower-right, 1d).
While Figure 1a serves as one ideal-type model, and conforms to a gradual transformation logic
of institutional change,
34
it is clear that institutions often evolve differently. After all, the logic
of punctuated equilibriums notes that institutional change comes in short-term shocks after
periods of stability.
35
In a variation on the theme, scholars argue that choices made at critical
junctures are path dependent over time.
36
Figure 1b presents an ideal-type lifecycle in line with
the punctuated equilibrium logic and shows that IO decline is perhaps less obvious than
assumed. After all, in line with the definition above, short-term shocks are not necessarily
instances of decline as they are not continuous and equilibriums between shocks do not point
downward. There need to be multiple shocks before a downward trend can be identified.
Alternatively, if a shock puts IOs on a downward trajectory, it can be characterized as an
instance of IO decline.
Gradual transformation and the logic of short-term shocks provide the two standard accounts
of institutional change.
37
Figures 1a and 1b can, in this respect, be used to think about, for
example, the decline of the League of Nations throughout the 1930s.
38
Yet life of course takes
many twists and turns, and decline is not necessarily the mirror image of development. Periods
of development may alternate with periods of decline (Figure 1c). After all, IOs may go through
a deep crisis but recover. IOs may be on standby to be used when a global problem hits, such
as a financial crisis or pandemic. Or states might find new purpose in zombie IOs and activate
34
Streeck and Thelen 2005; e.g. Mahoney and Thelen 2010.
35
Krasner 1984; Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Baumgartner, Green-Pedersen, and Jones 2006; see for IOs:
Colgan, Keohane, and van de Graaf 2012; Lundgren, Squatrito, and Tallberg 2018.
36
Pierson 2004; Capoccia and Kelemen 2007.
37
Gerschewski 2020.
38
Walters 1952. classically divides his book in five sections: the making of the League, the years of growth, the
years of stability, the years of conflict, and the years of defeat. Scott 1973. distinguishes between the rise (part
one) and fall (part two). Decline of the League normally starts with the Manchurian conflict of 1931, as a result
of which Japan leaves the League, and runs until 1939, when Russia gets expelled, ahead of the formal transfer
of responsibilities and assets to the United Nations in 1946.
6
them.
39
This raises once more questions about how long and deep decline should be before we
call it decline. Yet another ideal-type concerns sudden death (Figure 1d) 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
lifecycle of IOs.
40
The purpose here is to underline that IO decline is multifaceted and cannot
simply be assumed to be the mirror image of IO development.
So far, the discussion has implicitly been about the absolute decline about a loss of authority,
resources, members, or output.
41
Yet just as we consider the absolute and relative power of
states,
42
we should also consider the relative position of IOs in international relations. If the
centrality of an individual IO decreases, it is facing relative decline. This relative, or even
relational, perspective on decline ties into network approaches to global governance
43
that
consider IOs as part of a network structure defined by social and material relationships between
participating agents. Instead of focusing on individual properties of IOs and their growth or
decline, network theories allow us to map how interdependencies between member states and
IOs change over time and how this affects the status of individual IOs within the field.
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. The absolute authority of the
Universal Postal Union, for instance, has notably increased over time,
44
but does it still matter
as much in a world where most communication is digital? Relative decline might also capture
stagnation or not keeping pace with developments in a policy field. For instance, the WTO
membership has been steadily increasing (absolute development) even though bilateral trade
agreements have proliferated since the breakdown of the Doha Development Round (relative
decline). Relative decline thus captures instances of contested multilateralism
45
and the
competition for attention and resources between IOs. The centrality of IOs over their lifecycle
follows the same ideal-types proposed above, as IOs can also relatively develop and decline,
but it differs on the indicators to measure IO decline (see further below).
Decline of IOs at the population level
In addition to thinking about decline as a stage within the lifecycle of IOs, we can also consider
the decline of IOs as vehicles for international cooperation at the population-level. Unlike
international treaties, which have existed for thousands of years, IOs are relatively recent
institutions founded since 1815 and very prominent in the postwar period, which raises key
questions why states act through IOs across time and space.
46
The utility of formal
governmental IOs has, in this respect, also been questioned for contemporary problems, such
as climate change or cyber governance, for which the involvement of non-governmental actors
39
Gray 2018.
40
This also includes whether IOs eventually die, are replaced, or develop some other form of afterlife e.g.
Cottrell 2009; Debre and Dijkstra 2021b; Wessel 2011.. There is also considerable variation in this respect.
Some IOs are at their summit when they are replaced by others (e.g. GATT by WTO). Other IOs repurposed
after they have reached their objectives (e.g. OEEC by OECD), and while others are replaced after they have
previously died (e.g. International Institute of Agriculture by FAO). The overall point is that there is
considerable variation in the life-cycles of IOs.
41
cf. the definition of Zürn 2018 provided above.
42
e.g. Baldwin 1979.
43
e.g. Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery 2009; Kinne 2013b; Kinne 2013a.
44
Hooghe et al. 2017.
45
Morse and Keohane 2014.
46
Abbott and Snidal 1998.
7
is required.
47
Empirically, we have also witnessed the emergence of a whole range of
alternative institutions.
48
It is therefore important to also consider the decline of IOs as
cooperation mechanisms at the population-level.
Drawing on population ecology approaches in organizational theory,
49
Abbott, Green and
Keohane have started to study international institutions at the population level.
50
Important in
this analysis is the density of a population, but also how density develops over time. They note
that “new [organizational] forms initially grow rapidly, with little resource competition and
increasing legitimacy; eventually, however, competition causes growth to level off and decline,
perhaps even turning negative as organizations exit.
51
In traditional population ecology
approaches, the concept of carrying capacity is explaining density: The savannah can only host
so many animals. For populations of international institutions, the situation is more
complicated. First, it is not fully clear ex ante what resource limits constrain the growth of
international institutions; for most states, financial contributions to IOs remain rounding errors
in their domestic budgets. Second, as organisational forms develop over time, different
organizations may adopt consolidation or niche strategies to survive.
52
These insights are helpful to think of IO decline at the population level. At the very minimum,
the total number of IOs or the density of IOs across policy areas can tell us something where
we are in the lifecycle of IOs as an organizational form. Hannan and Freeman, for instance,
show that the number of craft unions declined significantly between 1955 and 1985.
53
If we
empirically see something similar with IOs, we can speak of absolute IO decline as a form of
international cooperation. Beyond the total number of IOs, we might additionally consider the
cumulative sum of governance functions IOs execute in a given policy field. While total
numbers of IOs might level off due to dense fields, their mandates and authority can still expand
due to “mission creep.”
54
At the same time, IO formation may grow but overlapping mandates
and increased regime complexity impairs their ability to effectively fulfil functions, leading to
declining performance.
55
Additionally, states may reign in their agents to reassert their
sovereignty,
56
thereby causing absolute decline of global governance by IOs.
We can furthermore also compare IOs as a specific organization form of cooperation with other
less formal types of international institutions,
57
thereby assessing the relative decline of IOs at
the population-level. This goes both for numbers of formal versus informal institutions but
should also take into account their functions and reach. As Abbott et al. note, the increase of
informal forms of cooperation is not necessarily consequential if they remain marginal for
global governance.
58
Where we find that informal institutions are increasingly taking over
autonomous regulatory functions, we can indeed conclude that IOs are declining. As with
individual IOs, there are therefore different ways to think about IO decline at the population-
47
e.g. Slaughter 2004.
48
Vabulas and Snidal 2013a; Westerwinter, Abbott, and Biersteker 2020; Vabulas and Snidal 2020; Reinsberg
and Westerwinter 2019; Haufler 2009; Verdier and Voeten 2015.
49
e.g. Hannan and Freeman 1977; Hannan and Freeman 1989.
50
Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016.
51
Ibid., 259260; see also Figure 1.
52
Ibid., 262ff.
53
Hannan and Freeman 1989: Figure 3.
54
e.g. Kahler 2009; Littoz-Monnet 2017; Reinalda and Verbeek 1998; Barnett and Finnemore 2004.
55
e.g. Raustiala and Victor 2004; Alter and Meunier 2006; Gutner 2005.
56
Heldt 2017; Hirschmann 2020.
57
Vabulas and Snidal 2013a; Vabulas and Snidal 2020; Westerwinter, Abbott, and Biersteker 2021.
58
Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016, 255f.
8
level. The question, however, remains whether these different approaches to the concept of IO
decline also make sense from an empirical point. The next section addresses this on the basis
of a wide range of indicators.
Operationalizing the absolute and relative decline of international organizations
The concept of IO decline is abstract and complex, and so is its measurement. Quantification
of social constructs necessarily requires reduction, and we must therefore pay particular
attention to what extent measurements and indictors are valid representations of the
phenomenon under analysis.
59
It is thus imperative to develop a systematized concept that
clearly defines the phenomenon and its sub-dimensions and delineates it from background
concepts to arrive at suitable operationalizations and measurement.
60
We have conceptualized
decline, in this respect, as a continuous downward process which can be observed both at the
level of individual IOs as well as at the population-level. IO decline entails both decline of
absolute properties (resources, activities, authority, members) and relative decline in terms of
centrality vis-à-vis other entities. As such, this research note suggests four dimensions for IO
decline (see Table 1). The concept of decline can be understood as a specific stage in the
lifecycle of IOs and an overarching umbrella for related concepts used in the literature (e.g.
legitimacy, gridlock, pathologies).
Table 1: Four dimensions of IO decline and indicators used in this article.
On the other hand, concept validity also requires developing clear operational definitions that
can be translated into measurable indicators. The central challenge in this endeavor is context
specificity: To what extent can indicators meaningfully be applied to different contexts without
ridding the concept of its meaning?
61
In the next sections, we therefore discuss and evaluate
potential operationalizations and indicators for the four dimensions, review existing empirical
evidence, and complement the review with newly gathered data where appropriate. The
purpose is not to assess whether IOs are currently in decline, but rather to uncover which
indicators can help us to systematically identify instances of IO decline in the period since
1945. This is important, because only when we are clear about what we talk about, and when
we have a better grasp how decline looks like historically, we can meaningfully judge what is
59
Adcock and Collier 2001; Gerring 2012; King, Keohane, and Verba 1994, 25.
60
Adcock and Collier 2001, 532; see also: Hooghe et al. 2017, 6ff.
61
Adcock and Collier 2001, 534; Gerring 2012, 160ff.; Goertz 2006.
Absolute decline
Individual level
Decreasing functions and activity
of individual IOs
Indicators of decline
Numbers of permanent staff,
delegated & pooled authority,
policy output, number of member
states
Population level
Decreasing number of IOs and
their cumulative global
governance functions
Indicators of decline
Global IO numbers, authority,
resources, legitimacy, activity of
global governance
9
happening to IOs right now and in the future. The empirical evidence shows considerable
stability across IOs on most indicators. We do find some instances of relative decline of IOs at
the population and individual levels. If we want to understand IO decline, we should thus focus
on the relative position of IOs in international relations.
Absolute decline of individual IOs
The most conventional way of thinking about IO decline is in absolute numbers at the level of
individual IOs. This goes back to the very definitions of IOs. After all, IOs are often defined
as minimally having three or more member states, regular meetings, and a secretariat and
correspondence address.
62
They may furthermore have formal authority as a result of formal
treaties.
63
As a result, we can measure the development and also the decline of IOs in terms of
their member states, their activities and output, their (secretariat) resources, and also their
authority. If any of these numbers go down gradually and continuously, it can be considered
absolute decline.
64
So to what extent do these indicators vary over time and what would be
reasonable thresholds for the absolute decline of an individual IO?
Recent years have seen a number of relevant datasets that provide us with appropriate measures
to map absolute decline at the individual IO level (see Figure 2). Starting with membership,
von Borzykowski and Vabulas show that withdrawal is a relatively rare event: Only 20 out of
534 IOs have experienced more than three withdrawals over the course of their lifespan, and
most exits cluster in a handful of IOs like the International Whaling Commission and
UNESCO.
65
Additionally, only 23 IOs out of the full COW dataset of 534 IOs end up with
fewer members at their death (or by the end of the study period in 2014) compared to their
numbers at foundation.
66
As such, IO decline in terms of withdrawal does not seem to happen
often, since it is only applicable to a very small number of IOs. While (the threat of) exit seems
to have perpetuated under the Trump administration and with rising numbers of populist
governments globally, von Borzykowski and Vabulas show that nationalist tendencies cannot
explain patterns of withdrawal over time.
67
Other indicators of the absolute decline of individual IOs show similar results. Delegated and
pooled authority of IOs does vary over time (Figure 2b), but mostly grows or remains constant
with few instances of decline according to the MIA dataset by Hooghe et al.
68
Importantly,
only a handful of IOs end up with lower levels of authority at the end of the study period in
2014.
69
With regard to bureaucratic capacity (Figure 2c), most IO staff numbers have grown
steadily and then remain relatively constant over time once IOs have reached a stable point of
maturation.
70
Additionally, Debre and Dijkstra also show that most IOs are either founded with
large (>50 staff) or small (<50 staff) secretariats, and very rarely switch category in either
direction.
71
However, some more studies also find that IOs increasingly seem to rely on
62
Pevehouse, Nordstrom, and Warnke 2020; Volgy et al. 2008.
63
Hooghe et al. 2017; Zürn 2018.
64
We do not address the interaction between these indicators to avoid too much complexity, but output may
well increase if a difficult member state withdraws (e.g. the EU after Brexit).
65
von Borzykowski and Vabulas 2019.
66
Pevehouse, Nordstrom, and Warnke 2020.
67
von Borzyskowski and Vabulas 2019.
68
Hooghe, Lenz, and Marks 2019.
69
Ibid.: table 3.1.
70
Debre and Dijkstra 2021b; Heldt and Schmidtke 2017.
71
Debre and Dijkstra 2021b.
10
consultants to perform governance functions in lieu of further expanding permanent staff.
72
In
contrast, operational budgets of some major IOs have been somewhat in decline due to
earmarking practices,
73
although most IOs only really suffer financially when one of the big
contributing member states exit the institution.
74
When considering the activity of IOs, scholars have increasingly argued that gridlock due to
global power dispersion and preference heterogeneity has left IOs unable to produce relevant
output.
75
However, measures of policy output do not find a significant downward trend for all
IOs in recent years. Indeed, Lundgren et al. find that policy output of IOs rather conforms to
punctuated equilibrium theory (Figure 2d), whereby change in attention to certain policy
agendas only changes dramatically after exogenous political shocks and output remains stable
over most of the IO lifespan.
76
In conclusion, while state withdrawal, authority, secretariat
resources, and policy output do vary over time, the review of empirical data does not show
significant instances of IO decline (Figure 2). When institutional change does happen, often as
a result of the negotiation of a new treaty resulting in a short-term equilibrium change, the trend
is upward and not downward. GATT turned into the WTO, OEEC into the OECD, and the
OAS into the AU.
72
Seabrooke and Sending 2020.
73
Goetz and Patz 2017.
74
Eckhard, Patz, and Schmidt 2019.
75
e.g. Hale, Held, and Young 2013.
76
Lundgren et al. 2018.
11
(2a) Membership and Withdrawals
(2b) Authority
12
(2c) Permanent Staff
(2d) Policy Output
Figure 2: Membership (2a), Authority (2b), Secretariat staff (2c), and Output (2d) over time for select IOs.
77
77
Sources: Pevehouse et al. 2020; von Borzykowski and Vabulas 2019 (membership); Hooghe et al. 2017
(authority); Debre and Dijkstra 2020b (secretariat staff); Lundgren et al. 2018 (output).
13
Relative decline of individual IOs
Relative decline concerns the gradual and continuous reduction of the centrality of individual
IOs in international relations. This can be the result of increased competition in a specific policy
area, because the density in the policy area has increased (see further below), or because general
purpose and task specific IOs have overlapping competences, or because different forms of
institutions challenge multilateral IOs. In addition, IOs may lose centrality in international
relations as other policy areas grow more important over time. When it comes to measuring
centrality, network analysis is obviously promising and many scholars have recognized a key
role of IOs in this respect.
78
However, most studies focus on member states as the central node
in question.
79
Membership of IOs is, in this respect, used to measures the strength of ties
between states in the international system.
80
Yet we are not aware of existing or easily available
data that can be used for network analysis to measure the changing centrality of IOs themselves
over time. This section therefore discusses potential non-dyadic indicators of relative decline.
The purpose, in this respect, is to make a case considering the relative dimension of IO decline.
We can measure the attention accorded to major IOs over time by states. To this end, we coded
the number of mentions of select IOs during United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)
debates over the years.
81
Figure 3 depict the number of different speeches that mention select
economic and security IOs as a percentage of the overall number of speeches in a given session
to account for the rise in UN member states over the years.
82
There are several advantages to
using UNGA speeches: They have taken place once every year since 1946, they are time-
limited so speakers need to prioritize their political attention, and they are high-level so what
is in the speeches in a good reflection of actual foreign policy priorities of states. Consequently,
if speakers pay political attention to an individual IO in their speech, this IO must be important
to them.
83
In other words, all the speeches together at the UNGA include a scarce pool of
political attention and how this is allocated over IOs tells us something about the centrality of
individual IOs for states.
Figure 3a and 3b provide data on the number of mentions of several IOs during UNGA
speeches over time. While it is not necessarily straightforward to compare different IOs due to
variation in the number of member states, as IOs with more states are more likely to get
mentions, the patterns for individual IOs do seem in line with what we know about them.
Political attention paid to the GATT/WTO neatly mirrors the conclusion of the Uruguay Round
and establishment of the WTO until the breakdown of the Doha Development Round in the
late-2000s. The OSCE received increased attention in the early 1990s when it was transformed
from the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and it also started to
deploy field missions in Central and Eastern Europe.
84
Its gradual decline since the late-1990s,
also due to the EU developing competing activities, is well-captured in the data. Other notable
examples include the attention paid to the IMF because of the financial crisis in 2009 and the
increased attention to NATO in the mid-1990s due to its military deployment to Bosnia.
85
78
Nye and Keohane 1971: Figures 1-2.
79
Kinne 2013b; Maoz 2010.
80
Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery 2009: Figure 1.
81
Baturo, Dasandi, and Mikhaylov 2017; See also Kentikelenis and Voeten 2020 who use these data to study
legitimacy challenges over time.
82
We conducted a keyword search for each IO, both its full name and abbreviation and counted the number of
different speeches that mentioned each IO.
83
Baturo, Dasandi, and Mikhaylov 2017, 23; Kentikelenis and Voeten 2020, 57.
84
Galbreath n.d.
85
Webber, Sperling, and Smith 2012.
14
(3a) Attention to Economic IOs, UNGA Speeches
(3b) Attention to Political/Security IOs, UNGA Speeches
Figure 3: Attention attributed to economic IOs (3a) and security IOs (3b) during UNGA speeches over number of speeches and
to economic IOs.
86
86
Source: Own calculations on the basis of UNGA Annual Session Speeches by Baturo, Dasandi, and
Mikhaylov 2017.
15
Political attention paid to IOs, as measured by UNGA speeches is an indicator that seems close
to how other scholars study politicization and contestation. Yet for those scholars it is critical
that actors (such as the general public) not only have awareness of IOs but also have developed
competing political preferences.
87
Logically, their work mostly focuses on content of attention.
In this respect, challenges for reform or threats of exit voiced by member states are viable
proxies to indicated decreasing legitimacy perceptions. Our suggestion to look at quantity of
attention, in contrast, rather captures the importance of certain IOs to solve global governance
issues in a given policy field at different points in time, but does not necessarily indicate that
those IOs are losing legitimacy. Nevertheless, the ideal way to study process of relative decline
would, indeed, be through network approaches that allow us to truly capture the status of IOs
and their importance to perform major global governance functions in a relational manner.
Absolute decline at the IO population level
In addition to measuring the decline of individual IOs, we can also assess decline at the level
of the IO population.
88
As a first indicator, we can think of the decline of IOs in terms of the
absolute numbers of IOs (Figure 4a). If the total number of IOs increases, this is evidence of
an increased demand for this specific form of global governance. If the number of IOs decrease,
their relevance declines, or we see at least a process of consolidation in the absence of sufficient
carrying capacity. The data presented in Figure 4a is familiar to most scholars of international
organization. Since the mid-1990s, the number of IOs no longer growths, and particularly
economic IOs have experienced a slight decline since the mid-1990s.
89
While this is a sign of
stagnation, or perhaps a maturing organizational form, there is no sign of sustained absolute
decline across policy fields. Indeed, compared to other organizational forms that have declined,
such as the craft unions studied by Hannan and Freeman,
90
the IO population seems in
equilibrium rather than in decline.
Beyond simply the density of IOs, we can also think about measuring other facets of IOs as a
cumulative sum on the whole IO population level. Zürn
91
for instance, presents us with the
cumulative sum of IO authority and Börzel and Zürn
92
with the sum of liberal authority and
liberal intrusiveness (see Figure 4b), which we can understand as the total reach of global
governance. When assessing such data, historically, there are also no signs of absolute decline
in other population level indicators; only periods of statis.
87
Zürn, Binder, and Ecker-Ehrhardt 2012, 71.
88
Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016; Lake 2020.
89
Pevehouse, Nordstrom, and Warnke 2020.
90
Hannan and Freeman 1989.
91
Zürn 2018: Figure 5.2.
92
Börzel and Zürn 2020, 12.
16
(4a) Development IO Population
(4b) (Liberal) Authority and Intrusiveness
Figure 4: Development of absolute number of IOs by policy field (4a) and of (liberal) authority (4b).
93
93
Sources: IGOs per Policy Field (Pevehouse et al. 2020, Debre & Dijkstra 2020b), (Liberal) Authority of IOs
Börzel and Zürn 2020.
17
Relative decline at the IO population level
The final set of indicators focus on the relative decline of IOs as institutions for international
cooperation. The recent population ecology studies of international institutions as well as the
scholars detailing the rise of alternative institutions take this perspective. Abbott et al., for
instance, “analyze the proliferation of [private transnational regulatory organizations]
compared with the relative stasis of intergovernmental organizations
94
and a recent special
issue by Westerwinter et al. similarly makes the case for studying alternative forms of global
governance by pointing to the statis of IOs (as detailed in Figure 4a above).
95
Some of the most recent work on informal forms of global governance indeed shows that states
increasingly turn to less formalized forms of cooperation such as the various G groupings or
transnational public-private governance initiatives (TGIs) (see also Figure 5).
96
While the mere
numbers indeed suggest that states increasingly choose alternative informal venues to
cooperate, and formal IOs might therefore be in decline as venue for multilateral cooperation,
it remains of course unclear to what extent essential governance functions are actually
performed by informal institutions. Abbott et al.
97
and Lake
98
see, in this respect, more of a
niche function for TGIs. Both the financial crisis and more recently the global Covid-19
pandemic have for instance revealed that in times of turmoil, states do indeed rely heavily on
traditional formal IOs to save the day. While the G-20 has been a venue for state leaders to
meet and discuss strategies to fight the novel Coronavirus, formal IOs like the IMF, the World
Bank, the World Health Organization, and UN Agencies were largely responsible for
coordinating and rolling out the global response.
99
There also appear to be important distinctions between the challenge from informal
governmental organizations and TGIs to IOs when specifying developments per policy field.
In line with the high sovereignty costs normally involved in security issues, the number of
informal security organizations is higher than other informal governmental organizations, and
much higher compared to formal security IOs. In contrast, economic, environmental, and social
organizations seem to dominate TGIs. On a related point, the challenge from TGIs also seems
to be higher compared to informal IGOs if just comparing the sheer number of TGIs and IIGOs.
This points again to the role of different costs involved in forming TGIs versus informal
organizations, potentially because of the lower threshold of cooperation between non-state and
market actors and lower numbers of states. The relative decline of IOs compared to other
institutions thus seems uneven. Since 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 governance.
94
Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016: abstract.
95
Westerwinter, Abbott, and Biersteker 2021.
96
Vabulas and Snidal 2013b; Vabulas and Snidal 2020; Westerwinter, Abbott, and Biersteker 2021; Reinsberg
and Westerwinter 2019.
97
Abbott, Green, and Keohane 2016.
98
Lake 2020.
99
Debre and Dijkstra 2021a.
18
Figure 5: Development of informal IOs relative to formal IOs (top-left), transnational public-private governance initiatives (TGIs) relative to formal IOs (top-right), informal IOs (bottom-left) and
TGIS (bottom-right) by policy field (note adjusted y-scales for better visibility); Sources: Formal IGOs (Pevehouse et al. 2020); Informal IGOs (Vabulas & Snidal 2020); TGIs (Westerwinter 2020)
19
Conclusion
Many IOs are currently challenged, yet are they also in decline? The aim of this research note
is to take a step back from current discussions on the crises of IOs and to conceptualize and
operationalize IO decline. This is relevant for at least two reasons. First, it brings us closer to
understanding the full lifecycle of IOs, which includes stages of birth, development, decline,
and death. While decline is often simply seen as the mirror image of growth, a closer look at
institutional developments and IO lifecycles reveals that this is not necessarily the case.
Second, without a clear understanding of IO decline, it is difficult to say meaningful things
about the possible consequences of IO contestation. The research note has addressed this topic
by situating decline in the lifecycle of IOs, proposing to consider both absolute and relative
decline at the individual IO level and the population level, and to empirically provide data on
a range of indicators. The research note has not tried to assess the current crisis of
multilateralism, explain IO decline, provide causal pathways from contestation to decline, or
theorize about the consequences of IO decline for survival or failure.
Across the four dimensions of IO decline proposed, we can find empirical instances of relative
IO decline at the population level. It is regularly observed that the IO population is in statis,
whereas other forms of international cooperation still develop.
100
In addition, for some
individual IOs, it seems that their decline can be measured in relative terms. For instance,
political attention paid to the GATT/WTO in UNGA speeches seems to capture quite well the
relative centrality of this IO in international relations and the importance that is accorded to
IOs to solve global cooperation problems over time. Finding valid indicators for IO decline is,
however, not just important for measurement. Adcock and Collier also note that once indicators
have been found, we can reconsider the underlying concepts.
101
These findings therefore
suggest that we should think more carefully about formal IOs in relative terms, both at the
individual and population level. Furthermore, given that IOs rarely feature as the central node
of analysis but rather as vessels to operationalize ties between member states, future
scholarship should find ways to also include IOs themselves as nodes of interest to map
variation in centrality over time on a large-N scale.
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