How Ineffective Institutions Still Make Sense: International Organizations, Power, and Political Classification

47 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2013

Date Written: 2013


How do international institutions affect world politics? Since Keohane, a common answer has been informational accuracy: regimes gather and share information reassuring cautiously cooperating states. The Non-Intervention Committee (NIC), an institution created to police foreign involvement in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), represents a puzzle. Rather than clarify facts about the war, the NIC ritually overlooked or dismissed evidence of external intervention. Yet the institution was a hothouse of diplomacy and a media lightning rod throughout the war. Why was such an ineffective institution treated as so important? To answer this puzzle, I develop a theory of the role of international organizations in legitimizing how events are classified. When ambiguous or borderline events arise, international organizations often help states designate what the event is a case of and their verdict holds special legitimacy. Because classification often has serious legal, reputational, and domestic political consequences, accuracy is not always the goal. In fact, states can use institutions to bolster a politically convenient but misleading classification. I show powerful states, often in explicit or tacit coordination, are particularly guilty of this practice when three common features of institutions are present. I then analyze foreign involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the operations of the Non-Intervention Committee. I show how an ineffective institution still helped make sense of an ambiguous conflict in ways that were politically useful but ultimately misleading; I also show this reflected the tacit cooperation of powerful states. The theory suggests a political logic for ineffective but useful institutions that synthesizes insights from across theoretical paradigms. It also presents a more critical view of global governance by suggesting institutions that allow the “international community” to speak with one voice about ambiguous events may, in practice, allow some voices to speak louder than others.

Suggested Citation

Carson, Austin, How Ineffective Institutions Still Make Sense: International Organizations, Power, and Political Classification (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Austin Carson (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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