By Rizwan Asghar

As the world finds itself in a phase of transition from the post-cold war, US-led unipolar international order to a multi-polar or non-polar global power structure, there is a widespread consensus that the role of international organisations (IOs) is crucial for global governance.

The global political arena is surrounded by international organisations, which have different roles and varying degrees of influence. They help in managing many key areas from international monetary policies to global health concerns.

IOs works as the channels through which state actors manage their everyday interactions and express policy preferences. Even though states remain the principal actors in world politics, their ability to act independently has been limited by their obligations to many international regimes, agreements and international institutions.

Institutionalist scholars consider IOs to be a key force that can help avoid military conflicts in the future. Foreign policymakers have sought to build security arrangements based on the idea of formal IOs. Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, during his millennium commencement speech, said that the challenges of the 21st century will not be resolved without appreciating the importance of IOs. On the other hand, realist scholars believe that IOs are the only channels for states to play power politics because these institutional norms largely reflect state assessments of self-interests. In their view, institutions have limited power as their role depends on the interests of major powers.

A more balanced approach is that while IOs sometimes act as channels within which states express and act upon their preferences, they also enjoy a certain level of autonomy in certain areas where they influence policy outcomes and also alter state behaviour. While some institutions, like the UN Security Council, are a reflection of power politics developed in the post-World War II era, many regional institutions, such as the European Union, have altered the behaviour of strong states. The power of international organisations varies in different areas. While IOs have an essential role to play in socio-economic areas, their influence declines when it comes to the security interests of the great powers.

States seeking to guarantee their long-term security tend to develop IOs to legitimise their efforts. Due to the anarchical nature of the world, cooperation is difficult to achieve. States do not trust each other because they are always concerned about the relative gains considerations. Despite the increasingly important role of international institutions, states rely on no one but themselves for security. Global politics remains a self-help arena. States in the international system are always paranoid, finding themselves in a permanent state of the prisoner’s dilemma paradox.

Mearsheimer, an American political scientist, argues that states always anticipate danger and there is a little room for trust. Historical evidence also supports the realist argument that international institutions have repeatedly failed to prevent conflicts in several regions of the world. Despite all the rhetoric of international cooperation, the UN and other international organisations failed to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1990 genocide of Muslims by the Serbian Army.

Liberal and institutionalist scholars counter the realist self-serving reality and argue that countries respond to opportunities and constraints set by institutional norms. Many states choose to comply with that because it helps to decrease the costs of engaging in direct conflicts. In a world where states have to make transnational coalitions to deal with global challenges, such as climate change, the extent of the role that IOs can play becomes extremely important. Once cooperation among states is institutionalised, many other regional states would also want to join the club owing to the fear of being left out. In addition, states feel more comfortable in a non-hegemonic, cooperative environment designed to determine the conditions of constructive role-playing.

Despite many structural constraints, international institutions play a significant role in many areas of European Security (OSCE and Nato), the global health arena (WHO) and global economic integration (the IMF). What makes the role of IOs more relevant in international politics is that they reduce the likelihood of conflict in interstate relations. International institutions, like the World Bank, have the ability to lend billions of dollars to economically weak states and therefore play a significant role in global economic development. It would not be wrong to say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct interstate relations in certain areas without the support of IOs.

The importance of international institutions also becomes evident from the fact that even the most powerful states prefer to act through IOs when it comes to the use of force. With the exception of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US has always sought the approval of the UN Security Council before resorting to the use of force. International institutions have emerged as vehicles of cooperation as they provide a stable organisational structure and administrative support to states in the fight against global challenges. IOs facilitate the conduct of negotiations among states, resolve disputes, and carry out operational activities in technical areas. Even rational state actors create and work through IOs, delegating to them a considerable amount of authority. International cooperation is possible under certain conditions because the benefits of cooperation far outweigh the costs.

IOs not only operate in the international arena, but they also affect the interests of states in areas such as micro-financial policies, the electoral process and other domestic issues. International organisations, such as the IMF, play an instrumental role in transforming financial and economic systems of countries. The relevance of international institutions further increases when different states have both compatible and conflicting interests.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is one of those international institutions that have considerable authority over international legal issues. The prosecution of individuals – including senior state officials – is one of the main functions of the ICC. Despite the fact that it is wrongly considered a breach of sovereignty, more than a hundred states have given the ICC complete authority to prosecute if their citizens are found to be involved in human rights violations. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has grabbed a lot of power since the Pinochet case. States also create international criminal tribunals from time to time to prosecute war criminals. These legal mechanisms provide legitimacy to different efforts by various states to promote peace.

In a nutshell, it can be argued that international institutions are certainly not more powerful than state actors. However, they still manage to exert great influence on the conduct of states. The level of economic integration developed over the past few decades has only become possible due to the sustained role of international organisations. It is also true that the sharp decline in inter-state wars – along with the rise of trade-related interdependence – is the product of the role played by IOs. Indeed, the future belongs to international institutions.