There are several different theoretical insights on and approaches to the emergence, nature and consequences of international organisations in the academic field. So, this essay on the topic of different theories, which focuses on international organisations, contain four main theories namely a liberal-, realist-, Marxist-, and functionalist perspective which describes the roles of international organisations in the international system. Each theory will be dealt with on a separate basis where there will be a discussion on each of their core principles and how they view the world’s political sphere.

Furthermore, there will also be a discussion on the theory which I think describes the role of international organisations the best as well as a brief discussion on the relationship which America has with international organisations and how this super power has the potential to influence, and in extreme circumstances, control international organisations – A Realist perspective.

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A Liberalist perspective on international organisations

The core principles of a liberalist view in this regard is that they see individuals as the main international actors and states only as cooperative actors not as single actors.

The reason for this is that Liberals see human beings as basically good creatures and those they can improve the moral and material conditions of their way of life because unequal, exploitative relationships are built by human beings and can be changed by the goodness of human beings. (Torres, 2002:365)

Injustice, aggression, and war are, according to liberals, products of inadequate or corrupt social institutions and of misunderstanding among leaders. The also believe that if there are collective or multilateral relationships between all nations, the problems of corrupt social institutions and quarrel among leaders will not end up in war. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:37)

‘The roots of liberalism are found in the seventeenth-century Grotian tradition, eighteenth-century Enlightenment, nineteenth-century political and economic liberalism, and twentieth-century Wilsonian idealism.’ (Karns and Mingst, 2004:36)

Hugo Grotius did not believe that states can do whatever they wanted to and that war is the end result of state-clashes and he also argued that states, like people, are basically reasonable and law abiding structures. Immanuel Kant gave an Enlightenment’s part to liberalism and believed that human beings are sensible people and contain the ability to develop their way of life by creating a honourable society and states that should work together to avoid war. Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham were of the opinion that free trade would create interdependencies amongst states and return fair cooperation and competition with peace, prosperity, and greater justice amongst all. President Woodrow Wilson saw that creating a system of cooperative security, supporting independence of peoples, and gets rid of power politics could put a stop to war. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:36). Thus, was the League of Nations an important symbol of international institutions’ collective problem solving. (Hannigan, 2000:1)

Liberals generally gives their support to international organizations and international law because according to them, International organizations add to the behaviour of cooperation and serves as grounds for talks and establishing new coalitions. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:37) According to them, the current capitalist system causes the state to loose its position as the dominant actor in the international domain and will be replaced by the strong and rapid emergence of non-state actors, such as international organizations, multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations. (Klein, 2001:5)

These organisations are the main way for justifying the dangers of war (Landmine Survivors Network), promoting the growth of shared standards (World Trade Organisation), and enhancing stability (United Nations). They also develop activities that would help tackle international problems and could form parts of international regimes to tackle their problems more effectively. They are frequently used as instruments of foreign policy by a state or used to keep another state on his toes. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:38)

International organisations also establish a pathway for social transformation. This transformation is not merely a technical reorganisation of traditional appearances of governance into a neo-liberal design, but a deeper change in the way a society performs and how people carry out interpersonal relations. (Seckinelgin, 2002:357)

A Realist perspective on international organisations

Realism is an ideology that highlights conflict as a regular threat for the international structure and the only source for order is the ‘balance of power,’ because states co-exist in a chaotic international sphere which is characterized by the lack of a solid chain of command. Furthermore, Realists core values are neatly summed up by the ‘Three S’s theory’ namely state-ism, survival, and self-help. State-ism is the ideologies that the state is the main player in global politics, and thus does it holds the power over its own boundaries and its sovereignty which symbolises its existence. Survival than becomes the primary concern of the state as it is the main national interest of the state. The leaders of the state should therefore have policies which will ensure the survival of their state. Self-help than become the main action of the state because its leaders provide for the people and the state without goodness or nobility; first, looking after themselves for what is needed for their continued existence. (Hannigan, 2000:3)

Realist has a very negative view of international organisations and consider them as a mere instrument with which states can use to enlarge or reduce their power in the international domain, but international organisations do not affect the essential characteristics of the international system. This is because they are a symbol of the basic spreading of power between states and therefore are no more than the sum of their member states. In fact, they are very vulnerable and can easy be manipulated by big powers. Thus, international organizations have no influence on a state’s conduct and will not be able to change the system itself, according to contemporary realists. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:46)

There are some realist theorists who believe that international cooperation is possible amongst states but there is not enough motivation for states to go into international arrangements. Thus, international arrangements hold no enforcement power and can be broken as easily as it was made. Furthermore, these arrangements hold no authority and power and have little impact on state actions or world politics in general. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:46)

Realists also do not recognize the significance or power of non-state actors such as NGOs and Multi-National Corporations in international politics and governance, and they do not agree to the idea of IGOs as independent actors. The balance of power has proven more successful in upholding peace than international institutions, according to realists. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:47)

A Marxist perspective on international organisations

According to the Marxist view, the development of the production procedure explaining how new models of social interactions progresses between those who have power over production (capitalist class) and those who carry out the tasks of invention (workers), explain the relationship between production, social relations, and power.

Therefore, a conflict shall certainly occur between these two social groups, according to Karl Marx (father of Marxism), which would bring forth a new social order.

In the context of international relations, the changes which occur in the organisation of production shall produce a new social power which would cause changes in the shape of the state. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:53)

Global governance can thus be seen as an obvious institutional reaction to the broader sense of industrial capitalism but not to the welfare of a fully formed group. That is why the ‘globalising elites’ are found in important financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF, private international relations counsels like the Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission and the finance ministries of G-7 countries to reorganize the global political economy and therefore global governance. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:54)

Marxists view international organisations as properties of a main group of states and as a means for the progression of the welfare of the capitalist division. International organisations become thus instruments of the capitalist class to force their control over the other classes of society and to get them to approve their authority through collective ideas. International organisations have also been actively involved in the improvement of the contemporary capitalist state by making industrial change and the improvement of liberal ideas easier. They concern themselves with questions on how to change the global structure and how they can help to shape that change in a direction that would be in their interest, according to Marxists. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:54)

Furthermore, Marxist in general sees capitalism as “bad,” and its construction and form of development as unfair. They have clear positions about what should be done to improve injustice. Therefore, they are against main structural transformation in international relations. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:55)

A Functionalist perspective on international organisations

Functionalist believes that governance arrangements happen out of the basic needs of people and states that are based on function, not territory, to solve basic social and economic problems. These functionalist assumptions represent a radical departure from the balance of power (Realism), collective security and most world-government thinking which assumes that military force is required to prevent war. Functionalists also believe that international economic and -social mutual aid is a condition for political teamwork and the elimination of conflict. (Alger, 1977:73)

They also believe that it is possible to evade the political conflict between states so that non-political economic and -social structures can be put together to deal with international support for social solutions. This cooperation will generate a strong base of common values amongst nations. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:55)

But, according to Karns and Mingst, the functionalism theory holds some flaws because it is unsuccessful in addressing a lot of important questions and dilemmas. If the final objective is the removal of conflict and war is not the reason of just economic deficiency, starvation, and illness, then how can it be possible to ease the other causes of war, they argue. Another basic error is the theory that political and non-political matters can easily be differentiated from one another – which can not always be the case. The fact that functionalist believes that behaviours of economic and social support will move to political areas causes another problem in this theory because the European integration process since 1950 has revealed the degree to which functionalists misjudged the power of state independence and national allegiances in world politics. But despite some of the flaws which this theory may have, it still has provided us with useful information to understand the development of an important part of global governance, international organisations and the support which many international governmental organisations promote in economic and social arenas. (Karns and Mingst, 2004:55)

My opinion – A Realist approach

The realist perspective in describing the role of international organisations are more accurate than the others’ approaches in today’s international system because although there are a degree of cooperation amongst states and international organisations, the problems of the world such as poverty, hunger and war – but to name a few – are still a huge part of human existence.

The United States of America plays a dominant role in the international system and are quickly becoming the world’s hegemonic super power on the basis of its strong economic- and military power. These powers enable the USA to use these organisations as instruments with which it can use to enlarge its power in the international domain, e.g. the USA are the biggest money contributor towards the World Bank, IMF and the UN. This factor makes these organisations very defenceless against America and therefore can the USA influence and try to control them to an enormous extent.

International organisation can make a huge impact in the case of war or conflict resolution by playing the role of the third party and working out a consensus between the two parties involved. But, this does not happen in every case where international organisations were present though. The consequences which 9/11 had on the structure of the international system prove this statement. Although the UN did everything possible to ensure that America would not attack Afghanistan and Iraq, e.g. sending UN representatives to Iraq to search for WOMD and facilitating talks between Afghanistan and the US to hand over Bin Laden to US authorities, America still attacked both sovereign nations. These actions of the US raised a lot of questions about the role of the UN and what power it has against a nation as strong as America.

So, this just shows that international organisations possess minimal power, usually associated with influence in international politics because they do not have ‘military or police forces like governments and they tend to have only limited economic resources, unlike governments and MNCs. They must rely on soft power as an alternative. For support groups, this means credible information, expertise, and moral authority that enable them to get governments, business leaders, and publics to listen, recalculate their interests, and act.’ (Karns and Mingst, 2004:23)


So, the realist perspective for explaining the role of international organisations seems exactly like the world of today – everyone doing all in their power to benefit themselves and the stronger you can get the better your chances is of survival no-matter on who or what you step.


Alger, CF. (1997). Functionalism and integration. International Social Science Journal, Vol. 29(1), p.73

Hanning, D. (2002). Is international interest dictated by national self-interest rather than morality? IXYL institute.

Karns, M.P. & Mingst, K.A. (2004). International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance. Boulder, Co: Lynne Rienner.

Klein, LR. (2001). The world economy in an uncertain environment. GIC’s International Monetary ; Trade Conference. University of Pennsylvania, p.4

Seckinelgin, H. (2002). Civil Society as a Metaphor for Western Liberalism. Global Society: Journal of Interdisciplinary, Vol. 16(4), p.357

Torres, CA. (2002). The State, Privatisation and Educational Policy: a critique of neo-liberalism in Latin America and some ethical and political implications. Comparative Education, Vol. 38(4), p.365


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