To Reform the World: International Organizations and the Making of Modern States – An Introduction

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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.

Central to our understanding of the legitimacy of international organizations’ activities is the notion that they are legal institutions, bound by the terms of their constituent instruments – usually treaties – which establish their purposes and limit their powers. Paradoxically, however, many of the everyday practices of international organizations are innovations, added to those organizations’ repertoires sometime after their establishment, and very often without any amendment to their constituent instruments.

One might reasonably expect that IO expansion would be seen as problematic under any system governed by the rule of law. Put bluntly, shouldn’t any activities carried out by an international organization without a legal mandate to do so be considered ultra vires, and thereby invalid? This question becomes especially pressing when we think about the remarkable extent to which such activities are carried out in the ‘developing’ states of the global South, across the full gamut of issues from peacekeeping to post-conflict peacebuilding, disaster recovery, development, human rights, rule of law and good governance, and more. Is this not evidence of a persistent ‘civilizing mission’ in international law and institutions, as so persuasively argued by scholars in the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) tradition?

The usual answers offered by international organizations law do not take us very far in getting to the root of these questions. To the extent that it concerns them at all, international organizations law scholars typically address the ultra vires question by elaborating the doctrines of attributed and implied powers, drawing on a limited set of materials such as the constituent instruments of international organizations, the judgments and advisory opinions of international courts and tribunals, and reports of the International Law Commission. Yet these elaborations say little about how international law works to enable and legitimize (or, conversely, limit and resist) IO expansion in the day-to-day practice and discourses of international organizations, rather than in the retrospective rationalizations of jurists. It is perhaps puzzling, then, that IO expansion has been so taken for granted by international lawyers – and political scientists, for that matter – that it has been subjected to very little systematic analysis.

My book attempts to answer the questions posed above through an innovative socio-legal approach. Carefully tracing the relationship of legal discourse and practice with the specific rationalities and techniques of power deployed by each organization, the book seeks to contribute to a critical history of the role of international law and institutions in shaping contemporary global governance. In doing so, I look beyond the pronouncements of practicing and academic international lawyers to examine the diverse uses of legal categories and techniques by international civil servants, economists, administrators, development experts, and other professionals and political actors working in and around international organizations. Following Michel Callon’s coinage of ‘economics at large’, we might call this the study of ‘international organizations law at large’.

Indeed, when we look closely at specific instances of IO expansion, we find a much messier, more complex and contingent picture than that depicted by international organizations law. IO expansion typically involves the interaction of diverse actors (including states, international organizations, NGOs, social movements, and individuals) all of which draw on multiple sources of authority to advance their respective projects of reform. In each case, moreover, IO expansion seems to be motivated by a complicated mix of progressive internationalist ideals, (neo)colonial attitudes and ambitions, and pragmatic statecraft. Given these intricacies, and the great differences that exist between international organizations, what kinds of general claims, if any, is it possible to assert?

The book argues that the twin processes of IO expansion and state formation are sustained by a dynamic of liberal reform that is at once external and internal to the law. Taking individual freedom as the principle and limit of governmental action, liberalism posits certain domains of liberty, such as the economy or the family, in which the state should interfere to the least extent possible. Yet, paradoxically, liberalism also endorses and legitimizes numerous interventions in society and the individual: through mechanisms of ‘social government’ or the welfare state, which are seen as necessary to guarantee and support individual freedom in the face of the risks of modern society; and through disciplinary practices that shape individual subjectivities and instill the self-mastery necessary for the responsible exercise of freedom. These contradictory pulls – don’t intervene, but intervene in the right ways – are internal to liberal government and create a dynamic of liberal reform in both international organizations and states.

Take, for example, the interwar activities of the ILO, which I examine in chapters 1 and 2 of the book. Established amidst the devastations wrought by the Great War, the ILO was initially designed as an instrument of social reform, offering an alternative to violent revolution. The quintessentially liberal principle of tripartism which defined the ILO’s structure and operations promised to bring worker, employer, and government representatives together to resolve their differences through dialogue and compromise. Endowed from the beginning with a powerful sense of mission to improve labor conditions internationally, ILO officials believed that individual liberty could not be sustained without social reforms that would guarantee individual and collective security. That sense of mission drove the new organization to expand continuously the range of its activities, quickly moving beyond a strict, textual reading of its constituent instrument, both in the range of issues it addressed and the kinds of powers it exercised. Within its first two decades, the ILO was transformed from an international standard-setting body to a provider of technical assistance, a leading promoter of the discourses and practices of government associated with the nascent welfare state, and a crucial incubator for theories concerning development in the non-Western, colonized world.

Consider, as another example, the invention of United Nations peacekeeping in the two decades following World War II, which are covered in chapters 3 and 4. Merely saying that peacekeeping operations is an ‘implied power’ of the UN tells us very little about how international law made peacekeeping seem possible and legitimate at the time. In contrast, these chapters investigate peacekeeping in the making as a complex assemblage of practices, emerging from a sequence of institutional innovations introduced in response to diverse problems, each of which was framed (and contested) partly in legal terms. Each peacekeeping operation received a legal mandate from either the General Assembly or the Security Council; a framework of rules and principles guided their conduct; and extensions of those mandates and departures from that framework were debated in a legal vocabulary. The Suez and Congo operations, in particular, provided occasions for the formulation of new rationales and techniques of international executive rule which have had a long-lasting influence. But peacekeeping also drew legitimacy and support from its use as an instrument of decolonization, from the prominent role it gave to ‘small states’, and from its association with the expert practices of modernization and development which sought to construct decolonized states in the image of Western welfare states.

Finally, chapters 5 and 6 trace the ‘governance’ activities of the World Bank, from its creation in 1944 to the end of the 20th century. From the beginning, the Bank’s self-understanding as a politi­cally neutral, expert body was combined with an internationalist, reformist sense of the moral underpinnings of its mission within the larger context of the Cold War and decolonization. Even while supporting the construction of state infrastruc­tures throughout the decolonized world in the 1950s and 1960s, the Bank was simultaneously working to cultivate more calculating, economic ways of thinking and behaving in borrower governments and their populations. Far from appearing ex nihilo at the century’s end, many of the ‘new’ managerial techniques adopted by the World Bank had their origins in earlier concepts of scientific management and economic planning. Indeed, many, if not all, state reforms associated with the resurgence of neoclassical economics in the last two decades of the century were a reconfiguration of older ideas and practices, retooled and put to solving new problems. The book thus highlights continuities in the interaction between notions of social welfare and the technical vocabularies and practices of management and economics which shaped the fin-de-siècle notion of the managerial or steering’ state.

More broadly, paying attention to the dynamic of liberal reform underlying IO expansion reveals commonalities, continuities and discontinuities in the evolution of international law and institutions across the 20th century. In each episode, the organization in question legitimized its expanding powers by reference to a complex combination of morality, expertise, and law. Whether understood as a process of ‘civilization’, ‘modernization’, or ‘development’, each organization’s reforming mission connected international law with a range of moral discourses and expert practices associated with economics, development, public administration, management science, and more. In the process, international law itself was reimagined and transformed through the incorporation of new concepts, doctrines, and techniques drawn from national traditions of public law. The book thus shows how international law has taken effect at the level of the imaginary – in the shape of constitutional and administrative analogies drawn from domestic legal systems – as well as through particular legal doctrines, rules, and principles. In all this, the book tries to keep in sight the compulsory, even coercive forms of power that pervade international relations, the agency of individuals within international organizations, and the real effects of IO expansion as they are experienced ‘on the ground’.

I’m very grateful to the editors at EJIL:Talk! for hosting this conversation with a group of scholars whose work I much admire. I look forward to reading their responses to the book.

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