Authority of IOs and IPAs in IR Scholarship

Students interested in the authority of IPAs have to draw on relatively new academic debates in the field of IOs which has been and still is largely dominated by IR scholarship. For a long time within IR, IOs, and consequentially IPAs had been treated as epiphenomena of governmental interaction (Trondal et al. 2010, 21). The roots for this perspective are seen in the ontological assumptions of dominant theories about international relations, which typically regard states as the main actors in international politics (Bauer and Weinlich 2011, 253). Likewise, authority had only been discussed as a phenomenon that international relations are devoid of (Lake 2010, 587). The absence of authority was even conceived of as defining feature of the structure of the international system. Lake argues that conceptions of order in IR in fact have precluded the very existence of authority by definition (Lake 2007, 49). At least, the concept of authority ‘has been effectively marginalized in mainstream international relations theory’ (Cronin and Hurd 2008, 4).

These dominant perspectives were however increasingly contested. In the late 1990s did not only the conceptualization of IOs as actors gain importance, also IPAs attracted increasing attention from IR scholars and became recognized as important elements of world politics (cf. Liese and Weinlich 2006, 492 and 498-500). Already in the early 1990s, the concept of authority gained momentum, too, among others triggered by studies on roles of private actors in international politics or—as it is often labeled—on ‘private authority’ (Cutler et al. 1999).

Yet, research on IOs and IPAs on the one hand and on authority on the other hand have only recently been joined. The seminal and often-cited book by Barnett and Finnemore (2004) eventually brought them together. In fact, Barnett and Finnemore proposed that ‘[a] uthority provides the substance of which IOs are made’ (2004, 21). Since then, concepts of authority have flourished in the study of IOs and a steadily increasing, but still limited number of empirical studies were published. Yet, and possibly a heritage of the long-lasting neglect of IOs, IPAs, and authority in IR scholarship, this emerging research strand still struggles with some challenges and complexities, of which two stand out.

First of all and as Bauer and Weinlich (2011, 251) asserted: ‘It often remains unclear whether scholars are referring to the thickly institutionalized interaction of states within a given IGO [intergovernmental organization] or whether they are referring to the activities of that organization as executed by the international civil servants working for it.’ The terms IPA, IO, and/or international bureaucracy are often used interchangeably (Biermann et al. 2009, 39-40). The frequent use of metonymies in the literature, in politics, and in the media, that is, the use of the term ‘World Bank’ or ‘European Union’ for a range of different entities within these IOs, reinforces this problem. Yet, if we want to analyze (and compare) the authority of IPAs (and/or other bodies of IOs), we have to disentangle IOs as social actors. We firmly believe that one cannot study the authority of (the main entities within) IOs without an ontological clarification of IOs.

Second, the literature on authority in IR is ‘characterized by a lack of clarity in the definition of the basic concept’ (Hurd 2008, 23). This lack of clarity persists in the few studies that have devoted their attention to conceptualizing authority in international relations or authority of IOs, IPAs, and/or international bureaucracies and that we reviewed, namely, Avant et al. (2010), Barnett and Finnemore (2004), Ecker-Ehrhardt (2007, 2012, 2009), Hooghe and Marks (2015), Hurd (2008, 1999), Lake (2013, 2010, 2007), Zurn et al. (2012), and Zurn (2015). This is not to say that the individual studies lack a clear conception of authority. Yet, a common understanding and conception of (different types and forms of) authority has not emerged yet. Instead, many different notions have been introduced, such as political, expert, moral, institutional, principled, delegated, or rational-legal authority, to name just a few and the most prominent. This diversity is not too surprising, though. It can also be observed in sociology, political science more broadly, and (political) philosophy, in which authority has been one of the core concepts. Here, competing, sometimes even contradictory and mutually exclusive conceptions of authority continue to exist, each emphasizing different aspects and dimensions, while ignoring or rejecting others (cf. Strafienberger 2013; Lukes 1990). If we want however to advance and accumulate knowledge on (different types and forms of) authority that different bodies of IOs may enjoy, we need to arrive at a conception of authority that reduces this diversity and establishes a common ground. Only then scholars who are essentially interested in the same subject will be able to systematize research, to identify research gaps, to effectively communicate with each other, and to engage in fertile discussions.

Against this background, we specify in the next section, first of all, who the potential holders of authority may be in IOs and, second, introduce our classification of different types and forms of authority. Only then will we be able to provide (more) clear-cut answers to the question what authority IPAs enjoy and move on to the other questions.

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