Theories of International Organization

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Univ.-Prof. Dr. Herm.-J. Blanke

International Organizations Winter 2008/09 W ORKING PAPER 02

Theories of International Organizations (The realist, institutionalist and idealist school)

The realist school Classical realism (Carr 1964; Morgenthau 1993) starts from the premise that the state is not only the major, decisive actor in international politics but also one that is unified and self-contained. Thus, in realist analyses of international politics societal actors are left out, as are differences between various states. Domestic and international politics are two different manifestations of the same phenomenon, which is the struggle for power. The efforts of states to seek security generate a permanent struggle of all against all, which always harbours the possibility of the use of force. And since this struggle follows objective laws, there is only one way of avoiding war, and that is to pursue a policy based on the balance of power (Morgenthau 1993). According to realist theory, IGOs are of little help in challenging this perpetual power struggle since they cannot change the anarchical structure of the international system. Rather, IGOs are simply used by powerful states to implement their power politics more effectively and to pursue their self-interest. The establishment and the success of IGOs are thereby dependent on the existence of a hegemony possessing overwhelming power resources, i.e., something like a legal monopoly of force. Neo-realism mostly adopts the premises of classical realism but attempts more differentiation (Gilpin 1981; Grieco 1988; Kennedy 1987; Waltz 1979). Since, in the neo-realist view, the anarchical structure of the international system dictates the maximization of relative power, IGOs are largely ineffective, and therefore meaningless. Thus, neo-realists argue, states must ensure that other states do not benefit more from cooperation in international organizations than they do themselves because absolute gains translate into loss of powers if international cooperation is linked to relatively superior gains for other states (Grieco 1988, 1990, 1993). IGOs can only contribute to international cooperation if there is a hegemonic state that is willing to bear an over proportionate percentage of the cooperation costs, i.e., that possesses such superior power, that it can afford to tolerate the relative gains of other states in order to achieve absolute gains for itself (hegemonic stability). The effectiveness of IGOs is closely linked to the rise and fall of major hegemonic states (a law of international politics).

The institutionalist school In contrast to realists, institutionalists view cooperation through IGOs as completely rational. The essential premise of institutionalism is that in international politics the interests of different states are neither mutually exclusive nor harmoniously in agreement. Instead, international politics is distinguished by interest constellations in which states have a common interest in reaping joint gains or avoiding joint losses (Keohane 1984). Liberal institutionalism traces these interest constellations back to ever more complex interdependent relations among states which often lead to problems that no state can master alone. Ever powerful states must depend on other states renouncing the principle of self-help in order to establish stable cooperative relationships within the context of IGOs. Neo-institutionalism, today’s dominant theory within the institutionalist school of thought, bases its premises on classical institutionalism, which it has, however, considerably extended (Keohane

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1984). While it acknowledges that complex interdependent relationships between states do not automatically result in the creation of IGOs, neo-institutionalism nevertheless emphasizes that international institutions in general, and IGOs in particular, are continuously gaining in importance due to the increasingly complex interdependent relationships in...
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