How have international organizations been able to expand their governance powers so significantly over the past century? What has been the role of international law in making this extraordinary expansion of powers seem possible and legitimate? And what does this tell us about international law itself?
My book, To Reform the World: International Organizations and the Making of Modern States (Oxford University Press, 2017), explores these questions by examining the expansion of legal powers exercised by international organizations through informal processes of discourse, practice, and (re)interpretation (‘IO expansion’ for short), rather than by the formal amendment of an organization’s constituent instrument. The book argues that IO expansion has been imagined, understood, and carried out as necessary to a process of making and remaking modern states, based on a broadly Western model. It also argues that international law plays a central, protean role in that process. It would be overly simplistic, therefore, to contend that IO expansion has resulted only in a loss of sovereignty by states. To the contrary, my argument is that IO expansion is intimately bound up with the creation of states, the construction of state powers, and the very constitution of modern statehood.
The book develops these arguments through detailed accounts of three episodes of IO expansion. The first involves the beginnings of technical assistance in the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the interwar period. The second concerns the emergence of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping in the two decades following World War II. And the third encompasses the World Bank’s ‘turn to governance’, which reached a high point in the 1990s. By examining three very different international organizations, spanning different periods in the 20th century, the book is able to identify broad themes in how international law has evolved and works in the world.
The research that led to the book began from the commonplace observation that international organizations have become some of the most significant actors in global governance. Today, hundreds of these entities, both regional and global in scope, intervene in myriad areas of activity, including international peace and security, social and economic development, trade and finance, and environmental protection. The powers exercised by international organizations now impact directly and indirectly on the lives of millions of people around the world. Some of these activities involve relatively mundane (though far-reaching) matters of international standard-setting and coordination, while others are more spectacular, including military, financial, and other forms of intervention. Read the rest of this entry…