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date: 24 September 2017

International Organizations and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

The interplay between states and international organizations has received a lot of scholarly attention, largely because the number of international organizations has increased considerably within the last century. State-of-the-art scholarship on the foreign policies of international organizations and states is presented here, as are rationalist and constructivist accounts of how the foreign policies of states impact international organizations (bottom-up perspective), as well as how, in turn, international organizations impact member-state foreign policies (top-down perspective). Thereby, the polity, politics, and policy dimensions of both states and international organizations are examined in order to explain the changes states’ foreign policies can induce, under what scope conditions, in the international organizations’ structure (polity), procedures (politics), and policy outcomes. Vice versa, also explained are the changes international organizations can induce, under what scope conditions, in the foreign policy apparatus of states (polity), foreign policy decision-making procedures (politics), and states’ foreign policies. As is illustrated, the theme “International Organizations and Foreign Policy” is not an established foreign policy subfield per se but is covered here in multiple approaches and theories. In line with the development of international relations, the bottom-up perspective has received much more scholarly attention than the top-down perspective. Furthermore, bottom-up research evidences a tendency toward the strong influence of states’ foreign policies on the policy and polity of international organizations, while the top-down influence of international organizations on states’ foreign policy apparatus, procedures, and policies is usually much more limited. Finally, an outlook into fruitful future avenues for research is outlined.

Keywords: international organizations, foreign policy, states in international organizations, negotiation, diffusion, socialization, learning, legalization, sanctions, compliance, policymaking


This chapter sheds light on how states and International Organizations (IO) interact. The number of IOs has increased considerably within the last century. Today states cooperate with one another in numerous IOs, broadly defined as institutionalized forms of cooperation among at least three states, across a broad array of policy fields, and they do so in order to collectively tackle problems and formulate international soft and hard law.1 How does the foreign policy of states impact international organizations, and how do international organizations influence states and their foreign policy? To examine this interplay, foreign policy is defined as the external policies of a state that relate to other countries or international actors, such as international organizations. Hence, foreign policy relates to high politics (e.g., peace and security, disarmament) as well as low politics (e.g., cultural or environmental policies).

The interplay between states’ foreign policies and international organizations is empirically rich and has therefore attracted much scholarly attention from a broad variety of theoretical perspectives. There is not the one field that studies how international organizations and state foreign policies are linked, but the phenomena of how states and their foreign policy preferences shape international organizations and of how international organizations exert influence over state foreign policies are studied in approaches on international cooperation, negotiation research, institutional design approaches, legalization theory, compliance approaches, Europeanization theory, international organizations as actor approaches as well as approaches on intervention and state-building. In order to systematically review the relevant state-of-the-art research, it is necessary to distinguish between a bottom-up and a top-down perspective as well as between polity (structure), politics (procedure), and policy (outcome) in this respect (see Figure 1).

International Organizations and Foreign PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 1: Interplay between state foreign policies and international organizations—analytical dimensions.

As illustrated in Figure 1, in order to examine which variables are important and in which respect the interplay between states and IOs is the most pronounced, it is important to further distinguish between rationalist and constructivist ontologies, both of which are prominent in the discipline of international relations. Rationalist approaches assume that actors follow a strategic rationality, according to which they seek to minimize the costs and maximize the benefits when pursuing their exogenously given interests (Landwehr, 2010; Levy, 1997; Martin, 1993; Müller, 2004; 2009; Shepsle, 1989). Actors are the ontological prior to structure, as actors can create and change institutions, which when in existence reduce transaction costs for state-state interactions and can alter states’ cost-benefit calculations by rewarding some and penalizing other courses of action (Levy, 1997; Martin, 1993; Müller, 2004; Shepsle, 1989). By contrast, constructivism assumes that actors and institutions are mutually constitutive (Adler, 2002; Berger & Luckman, 1967; Checkel, 1998; Risse, 2002; Searle, 1995; Wendt, 1992). Instead of maximizing exogenously given interests, actors’ interests are endogenous and can therefore change during interaction with other actors, as well as when acting in an institution with specific norms, rules, and identities. Accordingly, the logic of action is not strategically rational in character, but actors are assumed to follow a logic of either appropriateness or communicative action. The former assumes that actors seek to act in accordance with the norms and identities that they regard as relevant in a given context (March & Olsen, 1998) and the latter assumes that actors are foremost oriented towards creating common constructions of the social world, in achieving mutual understanding of the situation and the viable options for action (Müller, 2004; Risse, 2000, 2004).

The section Top-Down Perspective: International Organizations and States adopts a bottom-up perspective and examines how states’ foreign policies impact not only international organizations with respect to policy outcomes, but also political processes and the institutional design of international organizations. In the following section, Bottom-Up Perspective: States and International Organizations, the perspective is reversed to a top-down approach, which focuses on an assessment of how international organizations impact states with respect to their foreign policy apparatuses, their foreign policy decision-making procedures, and the foreign policies themselves. As is shown, rather than one dominating approach to the interplay between international organizations and state FPs, a multitude of theoretical and empirical work exists in regard to this theme. In general, the bottom-up perspective has received much more scholarly attention than the top-down perspective. This is in line with the evolution of the field of international relations, which has traditionally adopted a state-as-actor perspective (for instance, in regard to questions of war and peace) as well as cooperation under anarchy.

Bottom-up Perspective: States and International Organizations

The discipline of international relations has a long tradition in studies of the cooperation (and discord) between states. Early approaches primarily addressed the puzzle of how, why, and under what conditions interstate cooperation under conditions of anarchy was likely to emerge in the first place (Grieco, 1988; Oye, 1986; Powell, 1994). Research has demonstrated that state interests, together with interdependencies and iterated interaction, have led to a rise of cooperation beyond the nation-state, although an overarching hierarchy to enforce cooperation and compliance with its outcomes is lacking (Axelrod, 1984; Keohane, 1984; Oye, 1986). By contrast, the current literature on state cooperation takes as a given that states can overcome possible obstacles of anarchy. The literature also reports that international cooperation has become heavily institutionalized and is thus taking place in a vast number of different international organizations, ranging from global international organizations (e.g., the United Nations or the World Trade Organization) to continental ones (e.g., the African Union [AU]) to regional ones (e.g., the Andean Community). Given the numerous outlets of institutionalized cooperation between states, the more recent wave of scholarship zooms more closely into the dynamics and outcomes of multilateral cooperation as well as the institutional arenas in which the bulk of cooperation between states takes place.

Multilateral diplomacy often occurs in international organization negotiation venues. Recent research examines such multilateral negotiation processes, which form an integral part of state–state cooperation (Berton, Kimura, & Zartman, 1999; Habeeb, 1988; Kremenyuk, 1991; Panke, 2013; Plantey, 2007; Zartman & Rubin, 2009), and focuses on the broad array of negotiation strategies, such as bargaining, arguing, or framing (Dür & Mateo, 2010b; Odell, 2002; Panke, 2015; Pruitt, 1991). In addition, it studies how negotiation outcomes are achieved (Druckman, 1997; Odell, 2002; Scanzoni & Godwin, 1990), and it examines the variety of institutional arenas in which states cooperate and the institutional design choices that states face in creating or changing international organizations (Abbott, Keohane, Moravcsik, Slaughter, & Snidal, 2000; J. Goldstein et al., 2000; Goodin, 1995; Koremons et al. 2001; Panke, 2010). This research offers important empirical insights into how and under what scope conditions states create and change international organization structures (polity), international organization procedures (politics) as well as the policy outcomes of international organizations. In order to explore the bottom-up perspective of how the foreign policies of states influence international organizations in greater detail, the following questions are posed: How and under what conditions can states and their foreign policies impact international organizations? And more specifically: What is known about changes in the institutional designs (polity) of international organizations, the political processes in international organizations (politics), and the policy outcomes of international organizations (policy)?

States and International Organization Polity

How do states’ foreign policy preferences impact the institutional design of international organizations? The literature on the states–international organizations polity features rationalist and constructivist approaches. It is basically agreed that states face varying degrees of the free-rider problem and have varying incentives and strategies to tackle free-riding institutionally. According to the free-rider problem, the value of a foreign policy oriented toward cooperation is diminished, if today’s cooperation partners exhibit noncompliance behavior tomorrow with respect to the outcomes of cooperation (i.e., international norms and rules, such as the rules and norms on imports or the brokering of arms and light weapons in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) of 2013; Axelrod, 1984; Axelrod & Keohane, 1986; Kindleberger, 1981). Thus, states whose foreign policy preferences are to commonly tackle specific issues at the international level or to create a specific international norm or rule have incentives to design the international organization in a manner that will minimize future noncompliance. For instance, the ATT includes Article 19 on dispute settlement.

The rational design of international institutions endogenizes states’ foreign policy preferences with respect to the polity of international organizations. The approach analyzes the conditions under which states in their foreign policy preferences opt for a particular option when creating and changing international organizations with respect to international organization membership rules, the policy scope covered by the international organizations, the level to which decision-making tasks are centralized, the centralization of control tasks, as well as the flexibility of the institution as such (Goodin, 1995; Pierson, 2000). In general, they assume that states’ foreign policies are risk averse as states are strategic rational actors sensitive to the transaction costs involved in cooperation (Koremons et al., 2001). Thus, states exhibit different institutional design preferences when faced with different underlying problem structures with respect to rule enforcement and distribution of gains, variation in the number and composition of actors, and variation in the level of uncertainty about the future (Koremons et al., 2001).

According to the rational institutional design approach, international organizations tend to be small in size and have restrictive membership rules, when distributional problems are likely to emerge, when the enforcement problem is severe, and when the future is highly uncertain (Kydd, 2001; Pahre, 2001; Richards, 2001; Koremons et al., 2001: 783–784). For instance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) only has 15 member states and is active in policy areas with distributional effects (market building) and therefore faces uncertainty (for instance, due to civil wars in member states, such as Mali) and a severe enforcement problem (as the extent of overlapping regionalism is high) (Panke & Stapel, 2016. Moreover, international organizations are highly centralized in decision making. When uncertainty about behavior of states is high, the number of member states increases, and the enforcement problem is severe (Mattli, 2001; Koremons et al., 2001). International organizations are also highly centralized with respect to control when the number of members is high and the uncertainty about the future is low (Mitchell & Keilbach, 2001; Richards, 2001). Finally, the institutional design provisions of international organizations are expected to be increasingly flexible the higher the level of uncertainty of the future, the more severe the distribution problem, and the fewer member states an international organization has (Rosendorff & Milner, 2001; Koremons et al., 2001).

The legalization approach examines why states develop foreign policy preferences, pointing toward different levels of obligation, delegation, and precision in international organizations’ institutional design (Abbott et al., 2000; Finnemore & Toope, 2001; J. Goldstein et al., 2000; J. L. Goldstein et al., 2000; Kahler, 2000). Obligation refers to the extent to which the policies and rules passed by an international organization are legally binding (Abbott et al., 2000; J. Goldstein et al., 2000). States opt for international organization institutional designs that allow for the development of policies with a high level of obligation when the autonomy costs for states involved are lower than the discounted gains that can be achieved in the future (Abbott & Snidal, 2000). An international organization’s institutional design exhibits a high level of delegation when third parties have the competence to rule on dispute resolution and engage in the making and implementation of binding rules (Abbott et al., 2000; J. Goldstein et al., 2000). States delegate a high level of competencies to independent third parties with respect to dispute resolution, when civil societies push their governments to adjust their FP accordingly (Keohane, Moravcsik, & Slaughter, 2000). The third characteristic, precision, does not relate to institutional design as such, but to the rules, and it distinguishes according to the extent to which the rules passed in an international organization are precise rather than leaving large margins for interpretation (Abbott et al., 2000; J. Goldstein et al., 2000). The level of precision that international organization rules reflect depends on the strategic rationales of governments involved (Kahler, 2000) and their autonomy cost-based calculation of future gains (Abbott & Snidal, 2000).

Constructivist international relations do not explicitly deal with how governments’ national interests influence the design of international organizations and how this helps to tackle the free-riding problem and does not endogenize states’ foreign policy interests as such. Instead, this strand of research has pointed out that states with foreign policy interests to do so can improve the deliberative quality of international institutions in allowing transnational actors (TNA) access (Tallberg, Sommerer, Squatrito, & Jönsson, 2013) and creating pathways for nongovernmental organizations to have a say (Steffek, 2003; Steffek, Kissling, & Nanz, 2008; Steffek & Nanz, 2004). In general, the more democratic international organization member states are, the more likely it is that they will open international organizations for TNA access (Tallberg et al., 2013). Also, states tend to design the institutional structure of international organizations as more open to nonstate actors when they expect that these actors can make valuable contributions to international organizations’ policies and when TNA involvement increases international organizations’ legitimacy and reduces public protest against the international organizations’ policies (Tallberg et al., 2013). With respect to the last-named point, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is in great need of becoming more open to TNAs.

In addition, the constructivist institutional design literature has examined the conditions under whichthe exchange of reasoned arguments (instead of strategic bargaining) and diplomatic discourse is most likely to emerge (Checkel, 2001; Elster, 1992; Landwehr & Holzinger, 2010; Müller, 2004; Panke, 2010). Discourse and reason-giving are induced if the international organization permits negotiations behind closed doors (Checkel, 2001) and if the membership composition of the international organization is broad, including not just governments (Bellamy & Schönlau, 2004). For instance, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) can operate in closed-door settings that induce deliberation, while its membership is limited to 15 states and does not give nongovernmental actors a say, which delimits the overall extent of deliberation.

States and International Organization Politics

Compared to the state international organization polity and the state international organization policy literatures, there is less research on how states shape international organization politics, largely since institutional design approaches usually assume that international organization polity influences international organization politics. The most important rationalist approach on political processes is incomplete contracting, and the most important constructivist body of scholarship on processes is the practice turn.

Incomplete contracting approaches contend that, while states agree on a framework for cooperation, including rules on membership as well as aims and procedures to achieve them, institutional designs cannot cover all eventualities (Panke, 2016). Regardless of how detailed an international organization’s founding treaty is, states cannot predict the future with absolute certainty and can therefore, not create rules and norms for all contingencies that might arise. Accordingly, the legal basis or contracts of international organizations is by its very nature necessarily incomplete (Aghion & Bolton, 2003; Hart & Moore, 1999; Maskin & Tirole, 1999; Williamson, 1979, 1985). Hence, institutional design leaves varying degrees of interpretation of the basic principles and rules that the states can use to modify political processes and adapt them to their immediate and long-term foreign policy needs and even to short-term negotiation strategies (Hurd, 2011; Zartman & Berman, 1982). For instance, while the International Labour Organization (ILO) prohibits and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) allows for multiple statements of a country in a negotiation, the WTO does not regulate how many times a state can speak up during a debate. Thus, states in the WTO can flexibly adjust their practices to situational needs.

Constructivism has now undergone a “practice turn,” according to which scholars have increasingly directed their attention to discursive practices (Beste, 2013; Cetina, Schatzki, & Von Savigny, 2000; Wiener, 2012). Since discursive practices take place in institutional contexts and have the potential to convey and change the meaning of norms, meaning is only constituted in use and remains subject to interpretation. Accordingly, when looking at states’ foreign policies and international organization politics, this strand of research suggests that one should not primarily examine how states create or change rules for political processes in international organizations but rather should shed light on how states, through their foreign policy interactions, create patterns of foreign policy practices that constitutively convey meaning and structure in the policymaking process in international organizations.

States and International Organization Policies

How do states upload their foreign policy interests to the international organization level and influence international organization policies, and under what scope conditions are they successful in leaving imprints on international organization secondary law, rules, or norms? The negotiation literature sheds light on this question.

Rationalist negotiation approaches assume that negotiations between states are primarily bargaining exercises in which each party has a given foreign policy interest and seeks to achieve a negotiation outcome that is as close as possible to its national interest (Bailer, 2004; Slapin, 2008; Tallberg, 2008; Thomson, Stokman, Achen, & Koenig, 2006). To this end, states use bargaining strategies in which they link a demand to a threat (such as leaving the negotiation table altogether or registering a no vote) or to an offer (such as a compromise in the form of a concession or an issue linkage; Odell, 2000; Zartman & Rubin, 2009). Research shows that states are increasingly successful in pursuing their foreign policy interests in shaping international organization policies through bargaining strategies; the closer their position to the other actors (Habeeb, 1988; Moravcsik, 1998; Putnam, 1988), the more powerful they are (Bailer, 2004; Dür & Mateo, 2010a; Kremenyuk, 1991; Plantey, 2007; Zartman & Rubin, 2009) and the more credible their bargaining threats and offers (Panke, 2013; Zartman & Berman, 1982). For instance, in the negotiations on the South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary (SAWS) in the International Whaling Commission , Japan exercised its bargaining threat effectively and used vote-buying as well in order to prevent the SAWS from being passed (Strand & Tuman, 2012).

Constructivist negotiation approaches assume that processes of argumentation and discourse between the state actors are an integral part of international negotiation dynamics (Checkel, 1998; Deitelhoff, 2009; Deitelhoff & Müller, 2005; Müller, 2004; Reinhard, Biesenbender, & Holzinger, 2014; Risse, 2000). Accordingly, it is essential to study how states’ foreign policies make use of argumentative strategies (such as arguing and reason-giving or framing) in order to understand how international organization policies come about (Deitelhoff, 2009; Kleine & Risse, 2005; Payne, 2001; Perloff, 1993). In general, the more expertise states can rely on in order to construct good and compelling legal, technical, factual, political, and normative reasons for their foreign policy preferences, the better their position is to influence negotiation outcomes on the basis of argumentative strategies (Johnstone, 2003; Layman & Saxon, 1998; Müller, 2004; Risse, 2000). Moreover, the greater the novelty of the issue on the negotiation table and the better the novel information a state conveys (Druckman, 1977; Panke, 2013; Zartman & Berman, 1982), the easier it is to exert influence. For example, Mexico used its technical and legal expertise to negotiate a compromise concerning the Latin American Nuclear Weapons Free Zone resolution (Panke, 2013).

In sum, international relations scholarship focuses on the bottom-up interplay between states’ foreign policies on the one hand and international organizations on the other hand in order to address the issue of how and under what conditions states and their foreign policies can impact international organizations. Yet, while much work has been done on how states shape international organization policy and polity, the third dimension, international organization politics, has received less scholarly attention (see also Figure 2).

The rationalist literature that focuses on international organizations’ institutional design endogenizes states’ foreign policy interests and explains under what conditions states will pursue which option for the design of an international organization. States as rational actors should develop foreign policy preferences for limiting the size of international organizations (restrictive membership rules) when the uncertainty of the future is high in the issue area at stake, when the issue area brings about distributional effects, and when the potential noncompliance costs are great. The constructivist literature points out that states are especially inclined to open international organizations to TNA access, when the international organization in question is in need of improved legitimacy.

Thus, state foreign policy preferences matter considerably for the design and policy outcomes of international organizations, and they do so via processes of international negotiations. Thereby states engage in numerous strategies, ranging from bargaining, over framing, to arguing, in order to upload their preferences to the IO level. While states FPs are shaping IO polity in intergovernmental conferences, in which they create or change the primary law basis of IOs, IO policies are shaped in the day-to-day operation of the IO. While in both types of negotiation arenas, bargaining and argumentative strategies do often coexist, the conditions under which each of the strategies is effective differ. Diplomatic arguing is the more effective, the more expertise actors can bring to the table to persuade other states to take a position on board. By contrast, bargaining is the more effective, the more powerful states are, the higher the credibility of executing a bargaining threat, and the closer the preferences of other states are to their own position.

International Organizations and Foreign PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 2: The bottom-up perspective.

While some theories, such as the legalization or the rational institutional design approaches, discuss mainly the content of what states seek to upload (e.g., their specific foreign policy preferences), other theories, such as the negotiation literature, do not endogenize national foreign policy interests, but rather shed light on the negotiation strategies by they succeed in shaping international organization (mostly international organization policy). Thus, one promising avenue for future research is to bring preferences and strategies together in explaining choices concerning international organization polity, policies, and politics.

Top-Down Perspective: International Organizations and States

In comparison to the states-in-international organization perspective, the question of how international organizations affect states’ foreign policies has received less attention. The latter states’ foreign policies become of interest to international relations scholarship—namely, once international organizations became more active and were recognized as independent actors in international politics. The main emphasis here is on the relationship between international organizations and their members and on how international organizations shape the foreign policy apparatus of states. In general, the more the international organization is institutionalized and the broader its instrumental toolkit, the more it affects the member states’ foreign policy structures, procedures, and policies. As in other forms of cooperation, states hesitate to transfer competence in the field of high politics more than in less important low-politics areas. Accordingly, the chance to influence states’ behavior usually decreases when it comes to a state’s core national interests. As international organizations are increasingly interacting with their neighboring states, in international fora and in regional international organizations even beyond their region (Gehring, 2013; Nguitragool & Rüland, 2015; Panke, Lang, & Wiedemann, 2015; Sanchez Bajo, 1999; Söderbaum & Van Langenhove, 2005), international organizations also influence nonmember states and their respective foreign policies.

In order to explore the top-down perspective of how international organizations’ foreign policies influence states’ foreign policies, the following questions are explored: How and under what conditions can international organizations affect states’ foreign policy? What do we know about changes in states’ internal foreign policy structures (polity), their political processes (politics), and policy outcomes (policy)?

International Organizations and State Polity

International organizations usually have no formal legal influence on state polities, their constitutions, or internal governance structures (Alvarez, 2005; Barnett & Finnemore, 1999; Hurd, 2011). State sovereignty and nonintervention into the internal affairs of states are basic principles of international law and an integral part of nearly all international organizations’ founding treaties (e.g., Art. 2, No. 1 & 7, UN Charter).

Yet, as the rationalist and constructivist Europeanization literature has illustrated with respect to the European Union (EU), international organizations can also indirectly influence the polity of member states, especially when the effective operation of the states within the international organization would otherwise be limited (Börzel, 2002; Börzel & Panke, 2010; Risse, Cowles, & Caporaso, 2001; Wong, 2007). This also applies to other international organizations. The presence of international organizations could create incentives for states to change their foreign policy apparatus as member states adapt their internal governance structures to optimize communication with international organizations and maximize foreign policy impact within important international organizations. This is especially true as international organizations are becoming more and more important actors in international relations. For example, Ministries of Foreign Affairs have created departments that focus on the United Nations (UN; e.g., Germany, Norway), and the ambassador to the United Nations has been ranked as a cabinet member (such as the United States in the Eisenhower, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama administrations), although the UN does not demand such changes in state polity in any way. Similarly, states have created special international organization departments or divisions within their line ministries (such as ministries of economy, trade, or industry), with a focus on the WTO or the EU (Hocking, 1999; Hocking & Spence, 2005), and states such as Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda have a “Ministry of East African Community Affairs” focusing on the East African Community. Also, all national parliaments of the EU’s member states have created committees for EU affairs, although the EU itself does not require it (Bergman, 1997).

As rationalist enlargement and accession research has demonstrated, international organizations can influence the polity of respective member states in setting out criteria that they need to comply with prior to joining the international organization in question (Allee & Scalera, 2012; Brazys, 2014; Glenn, 2004; Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier, 2002; Schneider & Urpelainen, 2012). For instance, the EU’s Copenhagen criteria require that prospective members are democratic in character and respect the rule of law; thus, states need to change their polity accordingly if they want membership (Böhmelt & Freyburg, 2013; Schimmelfennig & Sedelmeier, 2005).

Furthermore, the rationalist literature on intervention and state building sheds light on how international organizations contribute to the restructuring of state polities (e.g., Cilliers & Sturman, 2002; Fukuyama, 2004; Hehir & Robinson, 2007). For instance, the UN (under chapter VII) is actively engaged in restoring peace and security and in changing the government structures of affected states, such as in Somalia or Kosovo, where a new state was created under direct UN administration (Boya, 2009).

International Organizations and State Politics

Diffusion and socialization approaches have pointed out that international organizations influence state politics in different, often indirect, ways (e.g., Finnemore, 1993; Martens & Jakobi, 2010; Simmons, Dobbin, & Garrett, 2006).

Constructivist approaches show that global norms such as democracy or human rights diffuse into national politics (Risse, Ropp, & Sikkink, 1999, 2013), not only changing the discourse (even in authoritarian countries) but also inducing the processes of holding elections in nearly all countries of the world or inducing diplomatic foreign policy practices such as congratulating elected leaders for winning elections (Hyde, 2011; Lindberg, 2006). Similarly, the socialization literature explores how international organization norms influence states’ politics (Bearce & Bondanella, 2007; Greenhill, 2010) and how international organizations could function as “teacher” in this respect (Finnemore, 1993).

Rationalist approaches emphasize how international organizations manipulate the cost–benefit calculations of their member states, for instance, in naming and shaming (Ausderan, 2014; Pawson, 2002) or in having arbitration panels of dispute settlement bodies that can induce changes in foreign policy-related politics (Keohane et al., 2000; Smith, 2000; Stone Sweet, 1997). For example, international organizations have used such channels to prevent states from unfair external trade practices (Garrett & Smith, 2002; Petersmann, 1997) or from human rights abuses or government killings within and outside their own territory (DeMeritt, 2012).

Politics as a broad category includes not only formal political processes but also streams of political communication and interaction. In this respect, through their various channels of communication, international organizations can impact states’ foreign policy discourses and thereby set political agendas. To this end, international organizations need to find resonance in the member states’ public realm, which is more easily done if the international organization has communication capacities, such as staff and budgets, to print brochures, organize workshops, and broadcast their ideas (Davis Cross & Melissen, 2013; Snow & Taylor, 2009). On this basis, international organizations can create awareness for specific issues, such as economic liberalization, and bring attention to problems, such as human rights violations or wildlife protection (Majone, 2008). In turn, these issues are incorporated into states’ domestic and foreign policy discourses and practices, and might eventually turn into policy changes, especially if the states concerned are not democratic (Mowlana, 1998; Stone, 2008). Furthermore, multiple languages between or within the member states raise the cost of communication and make it, in general, more difficult for international organizations to turn into communicative powers vis-à-vis their member states.

International Organizations and State Policies

The most prevalent effect of international organizations on states’ foreign policies takes place within the policy dimension. International organizations can and do exert influence on states’ foreign policies as well as on domestic policies and can do so in the realm of high politics (e.g., security) and low politics (e.g., education; e.g., Teichman, 2004; Avdeyeva, 2007; Farkas, 1998).

Rationalist and constructivist scholarship alike has pointed out that policymaking is a core function of most international organizations, which pass hard and soft laws (Fearon, 1998; Keohane, 1984, 1989; Martens & Jakobi, 2010; Milner, 1992; Panke, 2013; Peterson, 2008; Wallace, Pollack, & Young, 2010). In doing so, international organizations impact their member states’ foreign policies and—in some instances—their domestic policies as well (Goldstein & Martin, 2000; J. Goldstein et al., 2000; Keohane, 1989; Liese, 1999; Mitchell, 1994; Simmons, 2000). For instance, although the resolutions of the UN General Assembly are not binding in character, they have an effect on the UN member states. The resolution on “the situation of human rights in Myanmar,” for example, was a response to the military junta and the corresponding human rights violations. It helped to foster public awareness of the situation in Myanmar, thereby supporting Aung San Suu Kyi in her struggle for political leadership, which was finally achieved in 2015 when her party came into power.

In addition to using soft and hard laws as a means of exercising influence over member states’ policies, international organizations can also use the carrots and stick approach to induce a specific behavior. This approach is prevalent in international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD; Teichman, 2004), as well as in international organizations involved in giving official developmental aid (Alesina & Dollar, 2000; Lebovic & Voeten, 2009). For instance, the IMF played an important role in Argentina and many African countries with its structural adjustment programs (Riddell, 1992). Also, the EU and its member states are the biggest provider of official developmental aid in Africa (OECD, 2016) and use this in order to exert influence over third-party states in the event of unconstitutional changes of government, conflicts, or policies that violate human rights norms (Carbone, 2007).

As the legalization and compliance literature points out (Abbott, Keohane, Moravcsik, Slaughter, & Snidal, 2000; Goldstein, Kahler, Keohane, & Slaughter, 2000; Sikkink, 2005), international organizations frequently create courts and bodies of arbitration. Their decisions interpret and develop international law in multiple policy areas, which affect states’ scope of action in both internal and foreign affairs (Alter, 2014). Examples are the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, or the Court of Justice of the Andean Community (e.g., Alter, 2003; Crawford & Grant, 2008; Keener, 1987). As within states, powerful courts sometimes expand the scope of international norms by their judgment and therefore reduce the leeway of states’ activities beyond the original agreement. Even in the absence of international courts or disputed settlement bodies, international organizations can punish member states’ violations of international organization rules or common values in suspending some or all membership rights (Magliveras, 1999). For example, the AU regularly suspends membership rights in the event a member state changes government unconstitutionally (Engel, 2010; Souaré, 2014). Finally, in some instances, international organizations can even become active with respect to nonmember states and induce policy changes on the basis of political and economic sanctions, such as the UN or EU issued sanctions against Iran (Blockmans & Waizer, 2013; Hellquist, 2014; Klein, 1992). On the low-politics side, international organizations could use public diplomacy as a soft power instrument that attracts and coopts rather than coerces (Nye, 2004, 5). In this way, international organizations can influence domestic societies and activate respected international personalities or nongovernmental institutions to set political agendas (e.g., rights of children, protection of animals).

Apart from passing soft and hard laws and from using international organization instruments to foster compliance, international organizations can also impact state foreign policies through a different mechanism: framing perceptions. Constructivist research illustrates how international organizations frame the foreign policy debates of member states (e.g., Ausderan, 2014). For instance, international disputes such as those over the Arctic (Young, 2011) or the South China Sea (Beckman, 2013) took place in the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its provisions. Irrespective of whether a state rejects the international jurisdiction of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, conflicting parties refer to the principles and standards of UNCLOS (e.g., 12, 24, and 200 nautical mile zones).

International Organizations and Foreign PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 3: The top-down perspective.

To sum up, international organizations can affect states’ foreign policies in multiple, often indirect ways. The degree of influence is often limited and usually depends on the policy scope of the international organization and the international organizations’ degree of institutionalization. The more international organizations are equipped to become active and the higher their degree of legalization, the more they can potentially shape states’ foreign policy aid. As Figure 3 illustrates, the international organization can influence member states’ politics and policy but can seldom change their basic polity.

Conclusions and Outlook for Future Research

States’ foreign policies and international organizations are linked in a multitude of ways. States pursue their foreign policy interests with respect to international organization polity, politics, and policies, and they do so mainly through multilateral diplomacy taking place in the negotiation arenas of international organizations. As Figure 4 illustrates, the channels of influence are more nuanced with respect to international organization influence over states’ political structures, processes, and policies. International organizations can impact states’ foreign policies through hard and soft laws, mechanisms of diffusion, social learning, and framing, as well as compliance instruments (e.g., sanctions, naming, and shaming). However, the number of shaping mechanisms in the limelight of research does by no means indicate the extent to which one side influences the other. While international organizations’ institutional designs, structures, and policies reflect the strong imprint of states’ foreign policy preferences, international organizations have no such predominant influence over the foreign policy of states, as the states’ polity, politics, and policy are shaped by their people and political leaders (cf. Figure 4).

International Organizations and Foreign PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 4: Findings—Interplay between international organizations and state foreign policies.

Research on the interplay between states’ foreign policies and international organizations is rich and opens promising avenues for future research. The global governance architecture of today is a fragmented one in the sense that many international organizations have universal membership and broad policy scopes, which, however, coexist with issue-specific international organizations and international organizations with exclusive or regional memberships. This has created a situation in which states are members of several international organizations at a time, and these international organizations often overlap with respect to their policy competencies. The “overlapping international organization” phenomenon creates new challenges and opportunities for all involved, which are not yet fully explored in international relations research. For instance, being a member of several international organizations with similar policy mandates creates incentives for states to engage in forum-shopping (Busch, 2007; Davis, 2009; Murphy & Kellow, 2013; Panke, Lang, & Wiedemann, 2017; Sykes, 2008). This, in turn, can reduce the problem-solving effectiveness of the affected international organization and can provoke severe compliance problems whenever the negotiation outcomes of international organizations are incompatible (Panke & Stapel, (2016); Weiffen, Wehner, & Nolte, 2013). Although the problems of overlapping international organization, forum-shopping, and policy incompatibilities are of great importance, we currently lack comparative empirical research that maps out the phenomenon on a global scale and explains observed patterns. The multitude of international organizations that are engaged in a certain policy field or are addressing the same issues raise the question of (a better) interorganizational cooperation (Cropper, Ebers, Huxham, & Ring, 2010; Koops & Biermann, 2016), which is especially important when international organizations try to change the foreign policies of states that threaten international norms or order.

Linked to the fragmentation of global governance is another important phenomenon, which is rarely explored as of yet, namely authoritarian international organizations and cooperation among them. We do not yet know how prevalent this phenomenon is and whether, and under what conditions, it negatively impacts the freedom or democratization processes in their member states. We also do not know whether, and if so, how authoritarian international organizations challenge liberal values as universal standards for human and civil rights.


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(1) Hard law refers to actual binding legal instruments (international treaties, etc.) of international law. In contrast, soft law describes quasi-legal instruments that show a political position and legal opinion but do not have legally binding force (e.g., most resolutions and declarations of the United Nations General Assembly [UNGA] or most summit outcome documents of different international organizations).