International organizations represent the most common form of multilateralism. More often criticized than applauded, they nevertheless show the ability to endure and adapt, even though other institutions for cooperation, such as clubs, are on the rise. Often considered the instruments of the most powerful states, international organizations are also bureaucracies with significant influence over the international scene.

An international organization (IO) is a “formal, continuous structure, established by agreement between members, whether governmental representatives or not, from at least two sovereign states with the aim of pursuing the common interest of the membership” (Clive Archer). This broad definition refers both to intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), and to international NGOs and, possibly, multinational companies as well. It enables interstate cooperation and transnational solidarity to be incorporated into their thinking, encouraged by the rapprochement between societies; it also allows convergences that have taken place between all these actors to be better appreciated. For example, non-governmental meteorology institutions, which were set up from 1872 onwards, became intergovernmental during the first half of the twentieth century, and then developed into the World Meteorological Organization in 1950.

According to a stricter and more common meaning, an IO understood as an IGO constitutes the most widespread form of multilateralism. The earliest organizations were created in the nineteenth century and were particularly focused on common technical problems; for example, the International Telegraph Union (1865) became the International Telecommunication Union, and the Universal Postal Union (1874). In 1919, the League of Nations (LoN) was the first IO with a universal vocation and broad jurisdiction. Its history of failure, although partly justified in terms of collective security and inability to attract the greatest number, does not do justice to the innovations, such as the creation of an international civil service, and the economic and social progress it brought about. (UN), an “LoN with teeth,” the Bretton Woods institutions (International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the World Bank [WB]), and GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which continues to exist since the statutes of an International Trade Organization negotiated in Havana (1948) have yet to be ratified – all formed the framework of the international liberal order after World War II, set up under the leadership of the United States. Unlike the LoN, these IOs succeeded in becoming universalized, and multi-membership then became the general rule for states. Since that time, regional, global, sectional, and general IOs cover most areas of international politics, though their mandates often overlap, giving rise to competition between them.

UN member state admissions, 1945-2018

Source: United Nations,

Comment: This document traces the chronology of the 193 current member states’ admission to the United Nations. From the 1960s, the new entrants largely reflected the independence of most African states (decolonization) but also the situation in Central Asia (collapse of the USSR) and the Balkans (the break-up of Yugoslavia). The “non-members” remain: on the one hand the observers (Vatican, Palestine), and on the other those territories whose status is still ill-defined (Western Sahara, Taiwan, Kosovo).

United Nations Security Council, 2018

Source: United Nations,

Comment: Unlike the UN General Assembly, where all have a seat and are able to vote, the number of seats at the UN Security Council is restricted (15) and powers are unequally divided. Five states are permanent members and have a right of veto (United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) and ten other states are elected according to a geographical distribution, some countries being appointed much more frequently (Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, Italy, India, and Colombia).

Resilience of International Organizations

More often criticized (for being outmoded, inefficient, undemocratic, technocratic, etc.) than praised, most IOs nevertheless demonstrate an ability to endure and adapt, whether it means ad hoc changes (developments in Security Council working methods) or reinventing roles (as in the example of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], the military alliance created during the Cold War, which changed its style when bipolarity came to an end). In addition to organizational reforms given wide media coverage, IOs change by adjusting and participating in the developments of international hierarchies and making both normative and cognitive innovations. Even though their number has increased by comparison with the early twentieth century, the growth of IOs has not been linear. It so happens that some of them disappear (LoN, Warsaw Pact) or else become obsolete. Furthermore, although IOs have represented the most traditional form of international cooperation, the multilateral configuration today is characterized by the proliferation of other institutions such as clubs, which are increasingly being set up independently of IOs (G7/G8, financial G20).

Intergovernmental organizations, 1909-2017

Source: Union of International Associations,

International Bureaucracies

Because of their intergovernmental nature, IOs are often thought to reflect interactions between states and to be the tools of those who are most powerful. However, they are also administrations, which leads us to shift the focus toward secretariats and study them as independent actors whose influence is exerted through the creation and diffusion of knowledge (researchers’ roles at the WB), as well as their place in negotiation processes (preparation of pilot studies) and in the implementation of agreements (role of the WB, the UND [United Nations Development Program] and UNE [United Nations Environment Program] in establishing National Ozone in national administrations). International bureaucracies, due to the spread of reforms within them inspired by new public management and the promotion of good practice, are also part of the increasingly technical nature of discussions and the depoliticization of IOs. The many studies which view IOs as public services are helping to renew thinking and analyses surrounding international civil servants, their sociological profiles, their relationship to their state of origin, their politicization, and the formation of bodies that are separate from international civil servants (the European civil service in particular).

Nationality of UN Secretariat staff, 2016

Source: United Nations, Secretariat Composition: Staff Demographics (A/7 2/123), 2017,

Comment: This map shows the nationalities of the UN Secretariat staff in 2016. There is no list compiled of the staff working on peace missions and in specialized agencies. Although the nationalities of UN personnel partly comply with quotas, with most coming from Central Africa (DRC, Sudan, Kenya), managerial staff are underrepresented; then come the United States, France, etc. The proportion of managerial staff is high among the citizens of small island states in Europe, Northeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, South America.


To quote this article

" International Organizations " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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