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An International Organization's Identity Crisis

45 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2007 Last revised: 10 Dec 2013

Sungjoon Cho

Chicago Kent College of Law

Date Written: October 7, 2013


Despite the contemporary prominence of international organizations (IOs), their ontological status largely remains nebulous. Traditional international relations (IR) theories tend to regard an IO mainly as an instrument created to serve powerful states’ interests (neorealism) or to facilitate interstate cooperation on certain regulatory areas (neoliberal institutionalism). Therefore, those theories hardly offer a satisfactory explanation of a distinctive mode of IOs’ identity-forming process, in which a particular IO, as a separate and autonomous organic entity, grows, evolves and eventually makes sense of its own existence. This Article offers a novel perspective that attempts to overcome the aforementioned theoretical deficiency. Drawing on the identity theory in psychology, this new perspective captures an IO’s internal normative development in which one can witness a dynamic process of identity formation. The Article argues that based on its autonomy qua organization, and not merely as an instrument of states, an IO forms its unique legal identity as it experiences a normative crisis in a similar way in which a human individual does. An IO discovers its genuine identity only after it achieves a necessary level of institutional maturity as a result of incessant legal interactions and communications with its environment. The Article tests this new framework by applying it to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Suggested Citation

Cho, Sungjoon, An International Organization's Identity Crisis (October 7, 2013). Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, Forthcoming; Chicago-Kent College of Law Research Paper No. 2013-46. Available at SSRN: or

Sungjoon Cho (Contact Author)

Chicago Kent College of Law ( email )

565 W. Adams St.
Chicago, IL 60661-3691
United States

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