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Old Monday, November 19, 2007
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Post International Organization

International Organization

International Organization, membership group that operates across national borders for specific purposes. Scholars of international relations consider international organizations to have growing importance in world politics. Examples of international organizations include the United Nations (UN), the World Bank (see International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Green peace.

Most international organizations operate as part of one or more international regimes. An international regime is a set of rules, standards, and procedures that govern national behavior in a particular area. Examples of international regimes include arms control, foreign trade, and Antarctic exploration. International organizations are often central to the functioning of an international regime, giving structure and procedures to the “rules of the game” by which nations must play. For example, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the European Union (EU) are key organizations that define the international trade regime.

International organizations fall into two main categories: intergovernmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have national governments as members. Hundreds of IGOs operate in all parts of the world. Member nations have created each of these organizations to serve a purpose that those nations find useful.

Membership can range from as few as two member nations to virtually all nations. The UN and its various agencies are IGOs. So are most of the world’s economic coordinating institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) seeks to coordinate the production and pricing policies of its 12 member states. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeks to regulate the flow of nuclear technology to developing nations. The WTO helps negotiate and monitor agreements among 128 nations to lower trade barriers. Military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and political groupings, such as the Arab League, and the Organization of African Unity are also IGOs. In general, regional IGOs have experienced more success than global ones, and those with specific purposes have worked better than those with broad aims.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are private organizations whose memberships and activities are international in scope. NGOs do not possess the legal status of national governments. However, the UN and other international forums recognize many NGOs as important political institutions. Examples of NGOs include the Roman Catholic Church, Green peace, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Although multinational corporations (MNCs) share many characteristics of NGOs, they are not international organizations because they do not coordinate the actions of members for mutual gain.

Historically, international organizations and regimes have reflected the interests of the world’s most powerful nations, or great powers. Many international organizations and regimes were established during times of global hegemony—that is, when one nation has predominated in international power. These periods have often followed a major war among the great powers. Today’s international organizations—such as the UN, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the World Bank—were created after World War II ended in 1945, when the United States was powerful enough to create rules and institutions that other countries would follow.

Although rooted in power, international organizations and regimes generally serve the interests of most participating nations and usually endure even when hegemony wanes. Most countries share mutual interests, yet find it hard to coordinate their actions for mutual benefit because of the lack of a central authority. Nations also face the temptation to bend the rules in their own favor. For example, it is in everyone’s interest to halt production of chemicals that damage the earth’s ozone layer. However, a country can save money by continuing to use those chemicals. The coordination of efforts to write new rules and monitor them requires an international organization.

For example, the United Nations Environment Program helped countries negotiate a treaty to stop producing ozone-destroying chemicals. Thus, nations find it useful to give international organizations some power to enforce rules. Most countries follow the rules most of the time.
In the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau broadly outlined the concept of a global federation of countries resembling today’s UN. Nations joined the first IGOs in the 19th century. These were practical organizations through which nations managed specific issues, such as international mail service and control of traffic on European rivers. Such organizations proliferated in the 20th century to cover a wide variety of specific issues. At the same time, the scope of international organizations expanded, culminating with the creation of the League of Nations in 1920.

The development of European regional organizations after World War II ended in 1945 mirrored the growth of IGOs historically, in that narrowly focused organizations preceded broader and more encompassing international institutions. The European Coal and Steel Community, predecessor of the European Union, coordinated coal and steel production. In the 1990s, the European Commission, executive agency of the European Union, enforces regulations concerning labor, the environment, and a host of other issues that affect the daily lives of virtually every citizen in Europe.

NGOs similarly developed from the need to coordinate specific, narrowly defined activities across national borders. Beginning in the 19th century, churches and professional and scientific occupational groups formed the first NGOs. Some political parties—notably Communist Parties in the early 20th century—organized internationally and began to function as NGOs. In the 20th century, specialized NGOs also sprang up in such areas as sports, business, tourism, and communication.

Between 1945 and 1995, the number of IOs increased fivefold, reaching about 500 IGOs and 5000 NGOs. On average, a new NGO is created somewhere in the world every few days. This trend reflects the growing importance of international coordination for both governmental and private institutions in an interdependent world.

One sign of the important role of international organizations is how they have endured as international power relations shift. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States ended. At this time, one might have expected the NATO military alliance to Russia and other formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe ceased to pose a threat to the capitalist democracies of Western Europe. One might have expected NATO, which defended Western European nations, to go out of business, but it did not. Similarly, the creation of the WTO did not cause smaller free-trade associations such as NAFTA to end. Instead, the mosaic of IOs continues to expand, particularly as new communications and information-processing technologies make international groups more practical and effective.

The interdependence of nations in the modern world means that no single nation can dictate the outcome of international conflicts. Nor can private groups and individuals rely on national governments to solve major world problems. Therefore, both governments and individuals will continue to turn to IOs as an important way to address these problems and to protect their own interests.
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