Sovereignty and Delegation in International Organizations

By Epstein, David; O'Halloran, Sharyn | Law and Contemporary Problems, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Sovereignty and Delegation in International Organizations


Epstein, David, O'Halloran, Sharyn, Law and Contemporary Problems


I

INTRODUCTION

Established in 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations established to "contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture." (1) After a peaceful beginning, UNESCO became embroiled in controversy with the 1980 publication of the MacBride Report, which called for the democratization of communication and strengthening of national media. (2) The United States and the United Kingdom denounced the report as an attack on freedom of the press and criticized the organization in general as a platform for communist and Third World countries to attack the West. (3)

The United States withdrew its funding for and membership in UNESCO in 1984, followed by the United Kingdom the next year. (4) In the ensuing decade, UNESCO toned down its rhetoric and reorganized itself to be less top-heavy. The United Kingdom eventually rejoined UNESCO in 1997, (5) and the United States rejoined in 2003. (6) How can we explain the exit and reentry of these two crucial countries? Why were they willing to be associated with UNESCO for one period of time but not another, and how did their behavior affect the organization's policies?

The UNESCO case highlights a key feature of delegation relationships within international organizations (IOs)--namely, that membership in such organizations is voluntary. What sets IOs apart from countries' internal delegation regimes is the fact that if a country is not satisfied with the results it is obtaining via membership in the organization, it can simply exit, as the United States and the United Kingdom did from UNESCO, or simply decline to join the organization in the first place. (7) This stands in contrast to, for instance, interbranch delegation; if Congress is unhappy with the executive's use of delegated authority, it cannot simply leave and declare itself to be the national legislature of Bolivia instead. More to the point, any change in the delegation regime would itself be subject to a presidential veto, so each Congress is to some degree locked into the delegation arrangements inherited from previous Congresses.

If IO membership is voluntary, why would countries delegate in the first place? We argue that international organizations are held together by network externalities, such as free trade, safety via nuclear nonproliferation, and so on. Specifically, a defining feature of international organizations is that the more countries that belong to them, the more benefits accrue to all members. In this sense, IOs display increasing returns to scale, similar to many social or Internet-based resources. Conversely, the departure of key countries can do significant harm to an international organization, sometimes triggering a wave of defections. (8)

This article provides a theory of delegation to IOs that incorporates free exit and network externalities into the standard delegation-modeling framework. What issues should such a theory to be able to address?

1. It should predict an IN's membership, including states' decisions to enter and exit.

2. It should predict the policy goals pursued by the IN; moreover, these policy goals should themselves affect membership. Formal models of IOs to date take either the policy choices or the member states as given, but the UNESCO example above makes clear that changes in policy can lead to changes in membership as well.

3. It should allow for differences among states; in particular, some states might be in a position to confer more benefits on their fellow member states than others, such as large countries offering access to their markets by lowering trade barriers. These differences are, in turn, the source of differential power among member countries within the IN.

4. Consistent with the themes of this symposium, it should logically define and incorporate the notions of delegation and sovereignty costs. …

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