International Organizations and the Expansion of the International System

The present version of the international system – organized around the sovereign state – emerged after waves of decolonization in the latter half of the twentieth century. But how did this transition from a world of empire to a global international system organized around the sovereign state play out? This talk traces this transition through an examination of membership debates in two prominent intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). IGOs are sites of contestation over what the international system is and should become. Discussions within IGOs reflect broader norms of the international system and also shape those norms, and are therefore one mechanism through which the international system determines who its members are and the attendant rights and obligations of system membership. IGOs thus play a role in the constitution of the international system. The talk examines the simultaneous expansion and homogenization of the international system over the past two centuries, and argues that non-Western agency was crucial in bringing about this transition. Postcolonial states in Latin America, Africa, and Asia championed the adoption of the sovereignty criterion. In this, paradoxically, one of the core constitutional norms of the “European” international system―the principle of sovereign equality―was realized at the hands of non-European states.

Ellen Ravndal is a Research Fellow / Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. Her main research interests include international organisations, the UN Secretary-General, and international relations in the nineteenth century. Her research examines international organisations from a historical perspective and addresses the questions of what the emergence and development of international organisations can tell us about broader developments of global order, and what kind of actors international organisations are and how they gain autonomy. Ellen holds a DPhil in International Relations from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Prior to joining the ANU she was a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Political Science, Lund University.