Early View Article - Are international organisations in decline? An absolute and relative perspective on institutional change

Are international organisations in decline? An absolute and relative perspective on institutional change

Many international organisations (IOs) are currently challenged, yet are they also in decline? Despite much debate on the crisis of liberal international order, contestation, loss of legitimacy, gridlock, pathologies and exiting member states, there is little research on IO decline. This article seeks to clarify this concept and argues that decline can be considered in absolute and relative terms. Absolute decline involves a decrease in the number of IOs and their authority, membership and output, whereas relative decline concerns a decrease in the centrality of IOs in international relations. Reviewing a wide range of indicators, this article argues that, whereas there is limited decline in absolute terms since 1945, there may well be important decline in relative terms. Relative decline is more difficult to measure, but to probe its significance this article presents data from speeches during the United Nations General Assembly General Debate. It shows that IOs were most often mentioned in 1996 and that there has been a decline since. These findings indicate that, whereas IOs might survive as institutions, they are decreasingly central to international relations.

Policy Implications

  • There is a lot of talk of international organisations and multilateralism being in crisis, but we do not know whether international organisations are actually in decline. Policymakers should be more careful in expressing pessimism about the prospect of international cooperation.
  • The absolute decline of international organisations involves a decrease in their number, authority, membership and output. The relative decline, on the other hand, concerns a decrease in the centrality of international organisations in international relations. This article demonstrates that international organisations can survive while becoming simultaneously less important.
  • Reviewing a wide range of indicators, this article demonstrates that, for all the crises that have occurred over the decades, few international organisations lose authority or member states or produce fewer policies. International organisations are well established and policymakers should therefore continue to consider international organisations as vital forums for international cooperation.
  • This article also provides some evidence that international organisations have become less central to international relations since 1996. This implies that, in addition to continuing to invest in international organisations, policymakers should be aware of the wider web of global governance institutions.

 

Photo by Wendelin Jacober