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Are Functionalism’s Flaws Fatal?

Published on August 20, 2015        Author: 

Jan Klabbers’ two decades of “obsession” with functionalism as a theory of international organizations law (IOL) pays off in this article. It is a highly perceptive analysis of the evolution of functionalism, arguing that it made sense when created more than a century ago, but its explanatory and prescriptive power began to erode almost immediately as the nature and impact of international organizations (IOs) changed. He argues that functionalism helps to understand the relationship between IOs and member states, but not relations within an organization or between the organization and third parties. More radically, Klabbers challenges the functionalist assumption that all activities of IOs are beneficial or benign. Not only is this factually wrong, but it also serves to obfuscate the impact of IOs by presenting them as “neutral” “apolitical” and “purely technical” creatures (p. 18). This makes it difficult to hold them accountable for they wrongs they commit, like the cholera outbreak in Haiti, let alone for perpetuation and propping up “an unfair global structure” (blog).

Like much of his work, Klabbers turns a critical eye on the “problem-solving” approach to the study of international law and organizations, without losing sight of real world challenges the law and IOs struggle with and the pragmatic solutions they are struggling to find. His analysis of functionalism is an exercise in “reconstruction” (p. 22). In the hands of a lesser scholar, this can be a risky strategy because it can tempt one to (re)construct a straw man for the purpose of debunking it. Klabbers avoids that trap by a careful reading of seminal texts and a persuasive interpretation of how functionalist theory has informed the actual practice of IOL in the past and today.

In this comment, I will: a) extend Klabbers’ critique in one area (the weaknesses of principal-agent theory); b) elaborate on it in another (IO accountability and responsibility); and c) based on the above, conclude with some thoughts about the question he asks at the end: must functionalism be discarded or can it adapt?

I agree that principal-agent (PA) theory only takes us so far in trying to understand IOL. As Klabbers points out, it does not capture inter-organizational dynamics well, nor does it have much to say about an organization’s relationships with outsiders, like non-members (consider the AU’s relations with western powers), non-state actors (such as relations between UN peacekeepers and rebel forces), or individuals. Even more damning – and this is where Klabbers critique does not go far enough – PA theory does not adequately explain or prescribe for what it purports to cover: namely the organization’s relationship with its members. Read the rest of this entry…

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