International Organizations as Policy Actors: An Ideational Approach

Global Social Policy, Forthcoming

35 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2012

See all articles by Daniel Beland

Daniel Beland

University of Saskatchewan

Mitchell A. Orenstein

University of Pennsylvania - School of Arts & Sciences

Date Written: October 22, 2012


One of the core beliefs in the global social policy literature is that some international organizations and coalitions are more liberal — or more socialist — than others, reflecting the political biases of leading states. Taking seriously O’Brien’s (2002: 145) notion that “international organizations are both a tool for implementing policy of powerful actors and an arena for contesting the content of that policy,” we argue that this characterization of international actors as politically aligned along predictable axes is problematic. Ideas matter much more — and international organizations are far more flexible — than most structuralist accounts would predict. In fact, the policies of international organizations are highly and continually contested (Deacon and Stubbs 2011). International organizations frequently have shown themselves to be open to new ideas and approaches espoused by well-positioned policy entrepreneurs. They commonly reverse course on policy. This makes it difficult to characterize the policy approach of international organizations as stable, except during relatively short periods of time. Intense contestation differentiates international organizations from those think tanks (Rich, 2004; Stone and Denham, 2004) that are tied to a particular interest group or ideology. To illustrate this theoretical claim, the following analysis shows how international organizations approached pension privatization from 1994 to 2011, with an emphasis on the World Bank and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, to show that international organizations changed their positions over time in response to changing circumstances and perceptions within transnational pension policy networks. This made them far more flexible than many domestic think tanks actively involved in the same policy area.

Suggested Citation

Beland, Daniel and Orenstein, Mitchell A., International Organizations as Policy Actors: An Ideational Approach (October 22, 2012). Global Social Policy, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Daniel Beland (Contact Author)

University of Saskatchewan ( email )

College of Education
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 5A7

Mitchell A. Orenstein

University of Pennsylvania - School of Arts & Sciences ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States


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