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Identifying Formal Intergovernmental Organizations

Within the international relations scholarship community, there have been three major efforts to determine how many intergovernmental organizations exist within the international system. Volgy et al argued that previous efforts were insufficient. In 1970, Wallace & Singer posted four 'empirical criteria' to identify one: it must have at least two qualified members of the international system, hold plenary sessions at least once every ten years, a permanent headquarters, and some arrangement of permanent headquarters. It also must be independent of other IGOs. A group of theorists in the 1980s agreed with these standards and defined an 'emanation' as second-order IGOs created through the actions of primary IGOs. However, as of 1998, one critic had pointed out that most of the research involving IGOs delineated the reasons why they matter rather than institutional design considerations. Volgy et al looked into the design configurations of independently operating IGOs and had identified three dimensions that are common to all of them.

1. Institutionalization of state decision-making and oversight in governance.
2. Bureaucratic organization resulting in a stable management hierarchy.
3. Evidence of autonomy in organizational operation and in carrying out the 'collective will of the membership.'

Nevertheless, Volgy et al do concede that on a smaller scale, formal IGOs are different in many ways "from the issues they address and the functions they perform to the nature of their institutional designs."

Why States Act Through Formal International Organizations

Intergovernmental Organization

The primary duty of a state is to act in its own interests. Many use International Organizations to accomplish these ends to lend their enterprises a sense of legitimacy that they may otherwise lack when acting alone. When the United States launched an attack on Iraq for its occupation of Kuwait, it did not act unilaterally, but instead received authorization for the attack form the United Nations Security Council. U.S. forces were not on the ground searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq; instead, the UN Security Council dispatched inspectors from the IAEA. Peacekeeping forces in Bosnia were deployed by NATO and the UN and not by any independent national actor. Uses of IOs to resolve international disputes has risen sharply after World War II, especially because national challenges led to such massive loss of life. Today, if there is a dispute, IOs remain neutral in adjudicating the conflict and try to ensure that both parties walk away with something they want-even if it does not always work out that way in practice. According to realist theory, legal and regime scholarship are naïve because they treat IOs as serious political participants. "Realists believe states would never cede to supranational institutions the strong enforcement capacities necessary to overcome international anarchy." They also bring up the argument that constructivist theory (intensive focus on knowledge, beliefs, social norms, etc.) can explain the purpose of formal international organizations. These IOs are expected to encourage specific activities, grant a sense of legitimacy (or illegitimacy) to particular ideas, and reduce transaction costs. In addition, there are two characteristics that distinguish formal international organizations from other international institutions: centralization and independence. In order to carry out its proper function, it cannot be seen as a puppet organization under the control of any particular government thus independence is of the greatest importance. In addition, a stable, concrete organizational structure with clearly defined rules and procedures would lend a greater sense of legitimacy to the organization, enhance efficiency and facilitate state interactions.

Is WTO Dispute Settlement Effective?

Iida notes that the World Trade Organization has been one of the most controversial international institutions since the Seattle Protests of 1999, even though both supporters and detractors believe that it is quite effective in accomplishing its mission of drafting and mediating trade disputes. However, in order to define its effectiveness, one must first define an organization's function. In the case of the WTO, it has two major ones: legislative and judicial. "The legislative function refers to the role of the WTO as a forum in which to reach trade agreements. The judicial function is performed by the dispute settlement system, one of the new major features of the multilateral trade settlement." Iida focuses on the effectiveness of the judicial function in mediating trade disputes. He argues that this would add significantly to the body of international politics because there has been precious little said about the resolution of trade disputes as the focus has always been on the act of drafting trade agreements, which is by and large an onerous process, but entirely theoretical until it is implemented in the global marketplace.

Before embarking on the analytical section, Iida does acknowledge that political scientists have begun to critically examine the judicial aspect, but it has been mostly limited to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) regime, which was the institution that monitored trade agreements before the formation of the WTO. One major way that the WTO had distinguished itself from the GATT was its adaptation of 'negative consensus', where the rulings of the panel and the appellate body are automatically adopted unless the Dispute Settlement Body chooses to overturn them. There is also an assumption that the Appellate Body arrives at rulings free from government pressure and that winning a dispute depends not on country of origin, but the merits of the case.

Governments and internationally operating businesses are less likely to bring a case forward unless it is quite solid because of the sheer uncertainty of the ruling. In addition, the dispute resolution is much faster than under the former GATT regime, as there are strict timetables and the opposition can no longer use delaying tactics. To those who believe that the decision was unfair, there is an appellate process by which their cases can be heard again. Iida then discusses if the WTO had been effective on different indices such as: preventing unilateralism, assuring a level playing field, reconciling trade concerns with non-trade concerns. Iida found that the WTO has been effective in preventing unilateralism by reducing the number of cases the United States files under Section 301, and in the early years has been very effective in resolving disputes. Nevertheless, the WTO is not as affective when it comes with reconciling trade with non-trade concerns and creating a level playing field where developing countries are on equal footing with wealthier nations.


Abbott, K.W. & D. Snidal. "Why States Act Through International Organizations." The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 42, No. 1 pp. 3-32

Iida, K. "Is WTO Dispute Settlement Effective?" Global Governance, Vol. 10 pp. 207-225

Volgy, T.J. et al "Identifying Formal International Organizations." Working Papers Series in International Politics. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona) pp. 1-48