International Organization

Inis L. Claude, Jr., and

Klaus Larres

International organizations (IOs) serve as crucial forces of coordination and cooperation on many political, economic, social, military and cultural issues. Aside from the traditional domination of international politics by established or recently codified nation-states, IOs are important participants of the international system. The growth of transnational IOs was greatly facilitated by the rise of an increasing number of tenuous networks of nation-states in political, economic, and financial affairs in early modern Europe. They began to proliferate in the course of the nineteenth century. As will be seen, the United States first participated in the development of IOs in a relatively minor way in the first two decades after the Civil War and in a more important way when American statesmen attended the Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907. For much of the twentieth century the United States remained a leading proponent of the formation and development of IOs. Washington was even instrumental in the creation of two of the most important IOs ever: the League of Nations founded in 1919 after World War I and the United Nations established in 1945 at the end of World War II.

The breakdown of the international system in the 1910s and late 1930s and the global bloodshed, devastation, and unsurpassed misery brought about by two world wars convinced the international community, led by the United States and Britain, of the urgency for the establishment of a new universal and cooperative order. In the course of World War II traditional American political isolationism was marginalized to a considerable degree. Beginning with the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and continuing with the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods conferences, the establishment of the United Nations in 1945 and the formation of many other international political and economic institutions, the pillars for a new multilateral order were created. The Cold War soon added another dimension to this, which led to the shelving of the dream of a new cooperative world order for more than four decades: the politics and culture of bipolar containment. Genuine multilateralism was sidelined during much of the second half of the twentieth century. Instead international institutions, in particular the General Assembly of the United Nations, were frequently exploited as a mere talking shop and a forum for ventilating hostile rhetoric.

From the mid-1970s, however, a cautious revival of multilateralism, in the form of the Helsinki process inaugurated in 1975, may even have contributed to hastening the end of the Cold War in 1989–1991. The dangers of an everincreasing nuclear arms race, as well as economic and financial globalization and, paradoxically, the simultaneous development of a politically and culturally ever more fragmented world, once again gave IOs a crucial role as a forum for consultation, mediation, and arbitration. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries not only globalization and fragmentation but also the influence of more sophisticated means of transportation and communication and the increasingly transnational character of military, political, and environmental conflicts posed entirely new challenges. Despite recurrent bouts of political isolationism, the United States—like most other countries—recognized the impossibility of addressing contemporary problems merely on a nation-state basis. After the end of the East-West conflict and the gradual realignment of eastern and western Europe, this led to the formation of a host of new international organizations and institutions. Yet in the post–Cold War era the policies of the United States toward international organizations remained ambiguous; a widespread revival of both isolationism and unilateralism could be observed. However, the unprecedented terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 had a fundamental impact on American political strategy. In the immediate wake of the attack no one could say whether it would result in the abandonment of unilateralism, but many policy analysts believed that it might well lead to a much greater American reengagement with international organizations to fight global terrorism.

Intellectually the development of IOs was rooted in Immanuel Kant's eighteenth-century insight that only the "pacific federation" of liberal democratic, interdependent, and lawful republics could overcome the inherent anarchy of the international system, as described by Thomas Hobbes, and therefore the permanent danger of the outbreak of war. While Hobbes believed that a strong authoritarian state and the balance of power among the world's greatest powers could rectify this situation and provide lasting international security, Kant was not convinced. He was in favor of the establishment of peace-creating confederations and thus, in effect, of bringing about the interdependence of nation-states. Over time these insights developed into the contemporary conviction that interdependent democratic states will hardly ever embark on military action against one another. Democracy and cooperative multilateralism within (but also outside) international organizations were thus seen as the best vehicles for the creation of a more stable and peaceful world.


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See also Collective Security ; International Monetary Fund and World Bank ; North Atlantic Treaty Organization ; Summit Conferences .

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