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The Power of International Organizations


International organizations are an expression of society’s evolution from more primitive relations between states to more complex ones. Institutions such as the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and even EU were formed with one common goal – to contribute to order in international relations. There are no less than four fundamental approaches to understanding the reasons for the creation, functions, and limits of international organizations’ power – liberalism, realism, social constructivism, and Marxism (Park, 2020). This paper aims to argue why international organizations are powerful global actors.

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Four Theoretical Approaches

Although initially, when creating international organizations, they had the only visible goal – to regulate relations between these organizations’ member parties, their role, functions, and capabilities are interpreted in different ways. In the historical discourse considering the reasons for international organizations’ emergence and goals, there are at least four main directions of understanding the essence of their activities. Liberalism and its later theories of neo-functionalism and neoliberalism view international organizations as institutions created within the framework of the free will of member states to introduce international policies that will regulate relations between these countries for the common good (Park, 2020). At the same time, liberalism implies that the common good is achievable politically, economically, and even militarily.

Realists, on the contrary, believed that international organizations exist for the sole purpose of protecting the material and security interests of the states that are part of them. According to realists, liberals naively idealize the goals of international organizations. Realists believe that one of the natural expressions of international organizations’ activities is the policy of technocracy and the preservation of the world order in the form in which it is beneficial to the most powerful member states (Park, 2020).

Social constructivists give a broader interpretation of the competence and role of international organizations. They suggest that these institutions are more than an arena for the states that created them by signing an agreement. According to social constructivists, IOs can act independently and implement their policies, promoting independent values and the vision of international culture. Therefore, social constructivists study the way IOs function and the internal rules that can influence their decisions.

Marxist and Gramscian approaches imply that “material economic power is fundamental to the structure of all societies and to international relations” (Park, 2020, p. 324). According to this approach, organizations such as IMW, World Bank, and WTO pursue the goals of a thin layer of elites, represented by investors with large amounts of capital. Therefore, such international organizations’ functioning is reduced to the creation of a circle of states, whose membership in organizations guarantees that these states protect the interests of investors (Park, 2020). Simultaneously, the states themselves, especially developing countries, become dependent on IOs and subsequently are forced to obey their policies. For example, the WTO can decide on which goods a particular state will impose quotas or tariffs. Further, the IMF may require compliance with specific policies that affect citizens’ well-being in exchange for providing loans to states in times of crisis. The Gramscian approach mainly states that IOs operate in global elites’ interests and serve organized capitalism.

The latter approach is valid in many ways, especially given the United States’ role in organizations like the IMF. Scientists widely criticize the activities of IOs since, despite the declared political apathy and independence of judgment, they often express clearly defined positions of a group of stakeholders. Scientists note that the main factors that determine the power of IOs are their historical endurance, their determining role in how states respond to complex issues, like regional and international stability, and their technical expertise (Park, 2020). Another critical factor in the power of IOs is the broad range of the areas of life that are directly influenced by their decisions.

Examples of this impact could be the IMF’s decisions to invest in developing countries and introduce new policies that are economically beneficial to member states with a larger voting quota. It can also be the trade practices of the WTO, which also protect primarily the economic interests of the very first signatory countries. Developing countries are forced to join these organizations to not stand aside from international political and economic processes, including competitive participation in free trade (Park, 2020). But in practice, the main benefit from the entry of new developing states is provided for the most economically successful countries.

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Equally important are humanitarian policies, such as the UNHCR, which define the meanings of words such as refugee or internally displaced person and label humanitarian processes as “right” or “wrong.” It is noteworthy that UNHCR policies can run counter to member states’ opinions regarding the placement of refugees – for example, the creation of refugee camps, white by the UNHCR decision, and countries that did not agree with this decision had to obey (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). It is equally important that the organization did not consult with the refugees themselves, and their fates were decided, being put on the conveyor belt of the bureaucratic machine.

Two Factors of Power

Undoubtedly, international organizations have power, and this power sometimes goes beyond their budgets and competencies. Scientists note that the power of international organizations’ influence is determined by two aspects – “the legitimacy of the rational-legal authority they embody, and control over technical expertise and information” (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999, p. 707). The essence of the first factor is that organizations such as the UN usually deliberately act as a disinterested third party that operates in the cancers of common sense and the common good and whose norms, laws, and rules are aimed at ensuring neutrality. However, this is not always the case, given that the UN primarily represents the interests of the first 44 signatory countries.

The second factor implies that organizations like the World Bank attract graduates from the best universities and the most talented professionals. A high level of knowledge and expertise allows World Bank to successfully implement practices that are most consistent with technocracy ideas (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). The UN branches of the humanitarian orientation, which aim to disseminate knowledge and valuable information, may have a better bank of information than some member states, which puts the IO in a stronger position (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). According to scientists, international organizations’ strength would not be a problem if all other parties could be sure that their interests were completely neutral, but this is not the case.

IOs perform their functions using some practices that determine their more powerful position than individual states and even a set of states. First, IOs perform a classification of terms that have global social meaning, like in the case of the refugees’ term (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). Second, IOs fix meanings, endow social contexts with positive or negative implications and provide investment in positive contexts (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). Finally, IOs are responsible for the diffusion of norms globally, allowing them to cement their legacy. Therefore, these functions enable IOs to shape the international agenda by defining norms and patterns of “good” and “bad” political behavior.

Implications and Repercussions

Given the above, society, including scientists, journalists, and political experts, closely monitors international organizations’ activities and decisions. The most influential IOs, such as the UN, led by Security Council, usually deserve particular attention due to the significance of their influence. According to Acharya & Plesch (2020), the UN long had only nominal power since two main participants – the US and the USSR – had the right to veto in case of violation of their sovereign interests. Therefore, most organizations’ decisions were blocked from 1945 to 1990, which is also considered the Cold War period. Later, the UN became more active in the settlement of international conflicts. In particular, the concept of the UN armed forces’ behavior in the event of a military conflict that affects the interests of the participating countries appeared.

According to the general agreement, it was determined that the UN military contingent should be located on the border of hostilities, between the armies of two warring parties, on the territory of the state that invited the UN. UN troops are present to keep the peace but may commit military acts in self-defense. According to this principle, UN troops acted in the recent Syria conflict and during the Suez crisis, which became the first precedent for the UN to serve as an independent military force (Acharya & Plesch, 2020).

On the one hand, scientists criticize IOs for bureaucracy and other inherent pathologies (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). On the other hand, experts note that IOs changed significantly over time, as did their roles. In particular, Beeson, (2017) says that the changing world order now has many characteristics that arose in connection with the functioning of IOs. These are the end of unipolarity, the proliferation of consequential actors, the changing nature of interdependence, devolution, fragmentation and polarization of global governance, the persistence of cultural, ideological, and political diversity, and transnational imperilment (Beeson, 2017).

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Experts also say that the changing world order led to multipolarity when power is represented not by the three most potent superpowers but by a whole list of varying forces. Therefore, the responsibility for influencing global results today lies with “non-state actors such as institutions, corporations, extremists, and social movements using material (wealth and military) and nonmilitary (especially new technologies such as artificial intelligence and others that have at least a dual-use) and ideational resources” (Beeson, 2017, p. 229).

The idea of global governance becomes more feasible, considering the potential for balancing forces inherent in various agents (Broome et al., 2018). Still, diversity does not guarantee the emergence of a new super-power of global governance. In any case, the emergence of such a government would hardly benefit those countries for which it will probably be created – the countries of the “third world.” Indeed, even the relatively limited influence of IOs on many states’ political, economic, and military affairs is questioned by experts. For example, Curtis & Taylor (2020) note that the IMF and World Bank ratings have negative consequences for the analyzed countries since they present a too one-sided vision of “development” and consider only a narrowly defined range of indicators.


Thus, it was discussed why international organizations are powerful global actors. One of the main reasons for their power is their apparent independence, while in reality, these organizations protect the interests of the most influential players. Another factor that determines IOs’ strong position is the possession of knowledge and expertise, which surpasses that of many states’ governments. Finally, IOs perform the functions of classifying, fixing meaning, and global dissemination of socially, economically, culturally, and politically significant information, shaping the agenda of their positions. These factors make it possible to consider IOs as an external power, a state outside the state, where the strongest participants directly or indirectly influence the decision-making.


Acharya, A., & Plesch, D. (2020). The United Nations: Managing and Reshaping a Changing World Order. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 26(2), 221-235.

Barnett, M. N., & Finnemore, M. (1999). The politics, power, and pathologies of international organizations. International Organization, 53(4), 699-732.

Beeson, M. (2017). Globalization and governance, In Mark Beeson and Nick Bisley (eds.), Issues in 21st century world politics (3rd edn: Palgrave MacMillan), Ch. 6.

Broome, A., Homolar, A., & Kranke, M. (2018). Bad science: International organizations and the indirect power of global benchmarking. European Journal of International Relations, 24(3), 514-539.

Curtis, D., & Taylor, P. (2020). The United Nations, In John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens (eds.), The globalization of world politics: An introduction to international relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Ch. 21.

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Park, S. (2020). International organizations in world politics, In John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens (eds.), The globalization of world politics: an introduction to international relations (8th ed.: Oxford University Press), Ch. 20.

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