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International Organizations 101: Introduction and Early Examples


With growing interdependence and globalization, the international arena started to evolve and international organizations (IOs) became significant actors in world politics. In this sense, understanding the functioning of International Organizations reveals the privileges and limits they create while providing insight into a part of contemporary world politics. This 101 series is dedicated to discussing the evolution and basics of intergovernmental organizations.

International Organizations 101 series is divided into 6 sections:

  1. International Organizations 101: Introduction and Early Examples

  2. International Organizations 101: Taxonomy

  3. International Organizations 101: Managing Public and Private Partnerships

  4. International Organizations 101: Internal Governance

  5. International Organizations 101: UN, NATO, EU

  6. International Organizations 101: Measuring the Influence

International Organizations 101: Introduction and Early Examples

International organizations (IOs) are independent entities that create obligations for their members to deal with issues of mutual concern in good faith. These entities that have members from more than one nation, can be large focusing on various issues, or small with a particular purpose. The number of IOs depends on the criteria and methods used to count them, yet according to the data of the Union of International Associations, there are over 68.000 IOs active and inactive (Union of International Associations, n.d). As legal entities, they are created, operated and governed by the rule of law. IOs can be classified into three categories which will be discussed later in this series: inter-governmental organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and multinational enterprises. This article discusses the evolution of three types of international organizations throughout history.

The Vienna Congress (1)

The history of intergovernmental organizations goes back to the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). Napoleon Bonaparte disrupted the balance of power in Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. After his defeat, ambassadors of European States gathered at Vienna with the aim of restoring the balance of power and peace by creating a new international order. Similar failed attempts were made during the 17th and 18th centuries, yet it was the setting of the Congress of Vienna that created the initial environment where IOs can operate. Since 1815, the world has never been without some form of international organization, therefore it was a crucial turning point (Langhorne, 1986, p. 314). Because there was no precedent, the operation of the Congress was not quite smooth. Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain were the major powers that defeated Napoleon thus, they intended to retain control of the decisions of the Congress. After a series of conflicts and frictions, the new boundaries of Europe were eventually determined. The Congress is being criticized for neglecting the idea of nationalism and wishes of the people, yet the ambassadors work hard to achieve a balance of power. In this sense, this is one of the early examples of states cooperating to reach a common goal. As a part of the Concert of Europe which served as a consultation mechanism for major European powers, the Congress of Vienna provided the first platform where different nations discuss common problems.

The Vienna Settlement departed from earlier postwar settlements in the way the leading state, Great Britain, attempted to use institutions to manage relations by establishing formal processes of consultation and accommodation with the aim of binding potentially rival states together (Ikenberry, 2019, p. 81). Independent states realizing mutual problems that need to be addressed collectively, facilitated the creation of a platform where the members can discuss, communicate and gather information effectively. During the 1860s, permanent institutions increased. International Telegraph Union (1865) and the Universal Postal Union (1874) were some of the early examples. With the advance of capitalism, these unions consisting of various states were encouraged to establish common markets and regulations without considering borders. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 in which different countries reached an agreement on issues such as peaceful resolution of conflict, the treatment of prisoners of war, and the rights of neutral governments, is accepted as the ancestor of founding treaties of IGOs. The number of conferences organized by IOs began to overtake conferences convened at the invitation of heads of state and government by 1910 (Murphy, 2010, p. 112). Throughout time, these organizations evolved into legal personalities with a permanent secretariat and specific organs that carry out ongoing tasks such as the League of Nations and the UN, which is the most significant IO.

A meeting of the Quakers/Religious Society of Friends (2)

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) exist on an international level for many centuries. In fact, their roots go back to the border crossing forms of association that existed among Jews and Christians in the classical world two millennia ago (Davies, 2014, p. 20). Academia Secretorum Naturae (1560), Religious Society of Friends (1647) and Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1698) were some of the ancestors. Religious orders are notable not only for their long history, wide geographical reach, and, in many cases, continued existence into the modern era, but also for the critical role they played in the development of horizontal relationships between people in various contexts prior to the emergence of the public sphere (Davies, 2014, p. 20). For instance, providing education was one of the important goals of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The organization built libraries and schools for the poor. Nevertheless, the number of NGOs was small and they were almost entirely religious organizations. It was after the 18th century that the diversity and sphere of influence of the organizations' increased. This time span corresponds to the first Industrial Revolution as well as the political revolutions of the 1770s-1790s, 1830, and 1848. Society started to evolve by the changing political climate, industrialization and decreasing influence of religion, resulting in the occurrence of contemporary NGOs. The 1930s and the 1990s saw the highest levels of NGO involvement. Interestingly, sectors of transnational civil society played a part in the deterioration of international relations culminating in the Cold War (Davies, 2014, p. 178). This was due to the increasing division between East and West, as well as North and South, however, the number of NGOs continued to grow much faster than before.

Ships of the Dutch East India Company (3)

The emergence of contemporary multinational enterprises (MNEs), also known as multinational corporations (MNCs), started in the 19th century, yet the roots of their ancestors trace back centuries ago. There is a strong argument that banks were the first MNEs in the 13th century, the trading outposts of the Hanseatic League in the 13th and 14th centuries may also fall under the category of multinational enterprise behavior (Kozul-Wright et al., 1998, p. 96). The big commercial companies of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries have a lot in common with today's MNEs as well. Enterprises like The British East India Company (1600) and Dutch East India Company (1602), grew in political influence and were often involved in colonization. The ability of these enterprises was limited due to the deficiencies regarding logistics. With and after the transportation and communications revolutions of that century, such as the spread of railroads, steamships, and cables, there was the rise of the modern MNEs (Kozul-Wright et al., 1998, p. 96). These enterprises increased connectivity, integration and division of labor among countries they operate in. Despite the criticisms, MNEs maintain their status as one of the major powers.

International organizations became important non-state actors that affect the contemporary world politics. IGOs have a strong influence on state behavior and policy preferences, NGOs effectively shape national and regional perspectives and MNEs obtain political and economic resources that overshadow national interests. In addition to their individual influence, these IOs are effective mechanisms to foster cooperation with various actors including governments.

As globalization and interdependence grows, so does the role of international organizations in world politics. Since joint problems require joint action, from internet governance to peace-keeping missions, IOs have influence over various fields. IGOs, NGOs MNEs have been a part of human history for a long time. All receive many criticisms as well as praises. Nevertheless, the key to understanding an important part of international politics is to understand IOs in today's world.

Bibliographical References

Davies, T. R. (2014). NGOs: A new history of transnational civil society. Oxford University Press.

Ikenberry, G. John (2019). Chapter Four. THE SETTLEMENT OF 1815. In After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, New Edition - New Edition (pp. 80-116). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kozul-Wright, R., Rowthorn, R., & Wilkins, M. (1998). Transnational Corporations and the Global Economy. In Transnational Corporations and the global economy (pp. 95–133). essay, Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Langhorne, R. (1986). Reflections on the Significance of the Congress of Vienna. Review of International Studies, 12(4), 313–324.

Murphy, C. N. (2010). International Organization and Industrial Change: Global Governance since 1850. Polity Press.

Union of International Associations. How many international organizations are there? | Union of International Associations. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2022, from

Image References

Figure 1: Anonymous. (1815). Le gâteaux des rois/ Tiré au Congrès de Vienne en 1815. [Satirical Print]. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

Figure 2: Anonymous. (1725). A meeting of the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends. [Painting] Retrieved from

Figure 3: Bakhuizen, L. (1675). Dutch Fleet of the West India Company. [Painting]. British Museum, London, United Kingdom.


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Deniz Aktunç

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