Barnett and Finnemore (2004) emphasize the bureaucratic attributes of international organizations (IOs). They suggest that like bureaucracies, IOs demonstrate a distinctive and impersonal “social form of authority with its own internal logic and behavioural proclivities” (3). They suggest that state-centric perspectives cannot account for autonomous IO behaviour and thus seek to reach beyond principal-agent conceptions of international relations (IR). Barnett and Finnemore (2004) also speak to the construction and implications of the authority of IOs. They argue that IOs can use their knowledge and authority not only to regulate but to constitute the world and how it should be governed. Furthermore, they suggest that IOs use their power to foster a social reality favourable to the extension of their mission or cause.
Throughout Chapters 1 and 2, Barnett and Finnemore (2004) refer to three case studies in the IMF, UNHCR and UN Secretariat. In their discussion on these three case studies, they emphasize that “authority is a social construction” (20). They suggest that in order to be powerful, IOs (as bureaucracies) must be perceived as serving a legitimate social purpose using impersonal rules. Here the authors emphasize that as social constructions, IOs are inherently subjective – both manifesting and influencing cultural values. Due in part to the ability of IOs to act autonomously from their principals, Barnett and Finnemore (2004) argue that IOs actually authorize their own expansion. While IOs are likely to use their autonomy to accumulate new tasks, the authors point to the ways in which their exercises of power – though perhaps founded upon ‘good intentions’ – can lead to “unfortunate and tragic outcomes” (44).
Vogler (2003) argues that a regime/institutional approach can have advantages in global governance and IR analyses, despite its past limits. He suggests that in order to maintain these advantages, a regime-based approach must recognize that international regimes are not restricted to “formal state authorities, organizations and international law” and that they are best treated as institutions (26). In support of his argument, Vogler (2003) argues that a regime-based approach to global environmental governance (GEG) can be re-invigorated through a social constructivist approach to institutions. In support of this notion, he evokes John Searle’s theory of institutions. He suggests that Searle’s theory conceptualizes institutions as existing at any social level. Such an approach may be more likely to provide ‘clues’ about how multi-level governance can be achieved in GEG compared to an approach that makes rigid distinctions between governance at international, national, regional and local levels (32).
In a World Bank publication, Saleth and Dinar (2004) argue that recognizing the significance of institutions in development (more specifically, development in the water sector) is important given the relative failure of past policy prescriptions to effectuate lasting solutions. They argue that “while institutions shape people’s cognition, views, vision, and action, they are also influenced by the same factors” (27). They maintain that although institutions can be thought of as subjective constructs, they are also objective in terms of their manifestations and impacts. They also suggest that conceptions of institutions remain incomplete so long as the relations between institutions and power structure, ontology and epistemology remain overlooked. As such, they argue in favour of a close examination of the role that ideology, historical specificity, power, and learning processes play in the process of institutional change.
I found the Barnett and Finnemore (2004) reading to be the most accessible in terms of their writing style and the presentation of their logic. I felt that their critique of the principal-agent approach was useful in clarifying the autonomy, authority and power of IOs. That said, their article seems to focus less on distinguishing between international organizations and institutions. I felt that both Vogler (2003) and Saleth and Dinar (2004) were more intentional about articulating this difference. While Vogler (2003) suggests that tackling climate change will require multi-level governance, this leads me to question whether international institutions – more informal in nature – have the teeth to tackle contemporary human-environment problems. Saleth and Dinar’s (2004) discussion on institutions was useful as it depicted the role that social and cultural factors play in the features of institutions in simple language. However, I felt that their descriptions about ‘what institutions are’ from an economics perspective may have been overemphasized. Granted, such an approach demonstrates the range of perspectives that can be used to describe international institutions in GEG and other governance arenas.
1) On p. 15, Barnett and Finnemore (2004) suggest that IOs are “emphatically not democratic organizations” which therefore raises the possibility that, at the global level, we experience an undemocratic liberalism. They say that they explore this later in the book, but I was wondering if we could speculate on this in class … perhaps thinking about what this says about the socially constructed authority of IOs.
2) Can international institutions actually address ‘global’ human-environment problems when they are dominated by Western-centric values? In follow up to that question, how can predominantly Western-centric and/or liberal international organizations and institutions themselves be influenced to change … to adopt non-Western values?