One-definition-a-day: International Organisations (p. 270, Ref. 1)
Formal institutional structures transcending national boundaries which are created by multilateral agreement among nation-states. Their purpose is to foster international cooperation in areas such as security, law, economic and social matters and diplomacy. They are a relatively recent phenomena although many commentators, from the Ancient Greeks onwards, have advocated their creation in one guise or another. In fact they began to emerge in the context of the nineteenth-century European state system where there were specific and self-conscious attempts to facilitate international intercourse and to provide a functional enabling procedure for common international endeavours.
The first of these was the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine in 1815 and the most well known was modern International Telecommunication Union (ITO). In the twentieth century these organisations have proliferated to such as extent that on almost every issue, over and above the traditional state-to-state diplomatic network there exists a more or less permanent framework of institutions through which collective measures can be realised.
Modern international organisations are of two basic types, the 'public' variety known as intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) and the 'private' variety, the international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). Foremost examples of the former would be the League of Nations and the United Nations and of the latter, the International Red Cross and Amnesty International. Common characteristics of both types are voluntary membership, permanent organisation, a constitutional structure, a permanent secretariat and a consultative conference.
IGOs are established by treaty thus their competence is initially limited to the specifics of the convention, but organisational task expansion to meet new contingencies will commonly follow if the IGO is to respond to change. In this way, although states retain ultimate authority, international organisations not only provide a means for cooperative action but also multiple channels of communication which on varying levels overlie traditional diplomatic structures. For example, it has been estimated that at present over 389 public and 4'700 private international organisations are operative on a day-to-day basis in world politics.
The theory of international organisation has evolved from developments in such areas as internationalism, trans-nationalism, complex interdependence, the study of regimes, functionalism, federalism and integration.
The central focus of all these concerns is an attempt to get beyond the political, social and economic fragmentation which has traditionally characterised the more parochial and individualistic views of classic realism. While it is not easy to access the extent to which international organisations have contributed to the growth of internationalism, two basic views can be identified.
On one hand, they are seen as early prototypes for an emerging global governance, and on the other they are regarded as ineffectual and largely symbolic subterfuges for unilateralism, which is the 'real' or 'proper' source of international behaviour. Neither extreme adequately captures the role of international organisations in contemporary world politics. Although doubts persist as to whether they are autonomous international actors with a defined legal personality, few deny that they have made an enormous contribution to the management of international relations.
(Source: Penguin Dictionary of IR)
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