International Organizations History

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International Organizations History

International Organization: Historical Development of International Organizations

Introduction to International Organizations History

Historically, international organizations and regimes have reflected the interests of the world’s most powerful nations, or great powers. Many international organizations and regimes were established during times of global hegemony-that is, when one nation has predominated in international power. These periods have often followed a major war among the great powers. Today’s international organizations-such as the UN, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the World Bank-were created after World War II ended in 1945, when the United States was powerful enough to create rules and institutions that other countries would follow.

Although rooted in power, international organizations and regimes generally serve the interests of most participating nations and usually endure even when hegemony wanes. Most countries share mutual interests, yet find it hard to coordinate their actions for mutual benefit because of the lack of a central authority. Nations also face the temptation to bend the rules in their own favor. For example, it is in everyone’s interest to halt production of chemicals that damage the earth’s ozone layer. However, a country can save money by continuing to use those chemicals.

The coordination of efforts to write new rules and monitor them requires an international organization. For example, the United Nations Environment Program helped countries negotiate a treaty to stop producing ozone-destroying chemicals. Thus, nations find it useful to give international organizations some power to enforce rules. Most countries follow the rules most of the time.

International organizations are also able to make countries aware of the need to act on emerging issues. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations were instrumental in focusing attention on acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) as a global crisis.

In the 18th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau broadly outlined the concept of a global federation of countries resembling today’s UN. Nations joined the first IGOs in the 19th century. These were practical organizations through which nations managed specific issues, such as international mail service and control of traffic on European rivers. Such organizations proliferated in the 20th century to cover a wide variety of specific issues. At the same time, the scope of international organizations expanded, culminating with the creation of the League of Nations in 1920.

The development of European regional organizations after World War II ended in 1945 mirrored the growth of IGOs historically, in that narrowly focused organizations preceded broader and more encompassing international institutions. The European Coal and Steel Community, predecessor of the European Union, coordinated coal and steel production. Today, the European Commission, executive agency of the European Union, enforces regulations concerning labor, the environment, agriculture, and a host of other issues that affect the daily lives of virtually every citizen in Europe.

NGOs similarly developed from the need to coordinate specific, narrowly defined activities across national borders. Beginning in the 19th century, churches and professional and scientific occupational groups formed the first NGOs. The Red Cross was organized in 1863 to establish and monitor the laws of warfare. It was one of the first NGOs to actively work to change the behavior of states. Some political parties-notably communist parties in the early 20th century-organized internationally and began to function as NGOs. In the 20th century, specialized NGOs also sprang up in such areas as sports, business, tourism, and communication.

Between 1945 and 1995, the number of international organizations increased fivefold, reaching about 500 IGOs and 5,000 NGOs. By 2003, the number of international organizations increased fivefold again, to nearly 25,000-mostly due to the proliferation of NGOs made possible by new technologies such as the Internet. On average, a new NGO is created somewhere in the world every few days. This trend reflects the growing importance of international coordination for both governmental and private institutions in an interdependent world.” (1)


Notes and References

Further Reading

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