The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Why do States Consult International Organizations?

Fri, April 22, 2011

Imagine being approached by a salesperson pitching a new investment opportunity. The pitch seemed convincing, but you weren’t certain how you felt. To persuade you, the salesperson presents you with a list of other investors. But you know these other investors, and you know they have a track record of risky and failed decision making. The salesperson leaves, but returns the following day. This time, a second list is produced and it includes investors you are confident would never risk their money in a speculative gambit. Given this new information, you are sold and become enthusiastic about investing.

A new book by Terry Chapman, assistant professor of government, applies a similar logic to his analysis of international security. In “Securing Approval: Domestic Politics and Multilateral Authorization for War,” Chapman argues that states seek the approval of international organizations before engaging in military action because of the information such approval transmits to crucial audiences. But, the value of the information depends on who is providing it.

When members of an international organization support or oppose a policy, and these outcomes do not surprise anyone, the value of the information provided is negligible. However, when an organization supports or opposes a policy, and these outcomes run counter to popular expectations, the value of the information provided is significant and people update their opinions accordingly. Therefore, states consult international organizations because it helps them build public support for their policies.

The book provides a novel answer to an enduring riddle in international relations. Organizations such as the United Nations Security Council lack enforcement power and there is thus no compelling reason for a state to invest in securing Security Council approval before launching military action. Some have argued that states do it because approval establishes a policy’s legitimacy. But leaders do not always seek authorization. Rather, they seek approval strategically. Also, multilateral authorization does not always increase support for military action and the lack of authorization does not always decrease support, another element complicating the puzzle of state interaction with international organizations.

Through rich theoretical exposition and empirical testing, Chapman demonstrates that states have incentives to seek the approval of organizations that grant their approval conservatively and where opposition to the state’s preferences will not radically decrease public support. Pursuing Security Council approval in 2003 before taking military action in Iraq is a case in point. France’s opposition was common knowledge, and the perception was widespread that this was a matter internal to French politics and French ideas about the international system. Gaining French approval could have sent strong signals to the U.S. public about the appropriateness of military action, but French disapproval would provide no new information of consequence one way or another. The risk of not gaining approval was further lowered by the fact that the U.S. did not at the time need to generate domestic support for military action.

Following this logic, international organizations could moderate state behavior in the international arena. Because of the need to garner public support, especially in liberal democracies, the incentives are strong for a state to consult international organizations whose members hold conservative policy preferences and convince them to support the state’s policy. Since the state will value multilateral approval, it may moderate its proposals and behavior as a tradeoff for gaining approval. This also suggests that international organizations with institutional rules complicating the approval process may force greater moderation in how states approach the use of military force. The flipside of this is that, once multilateral approval is granted states may be alleviated from domestic constraints and become emboldened in their actions.

Considering the most recent Security Council action sanctioning military action in Libya, Chapman’s theory seems to hold quite well. With Obama’s popularity tenuous and the U.S. public already primed to be sensitive to additional foreign engagements, the incentive to generate public support through gaining multilateral approval was high. Gaining multilateral approval was also an important signal to the international community and audiences in other countries that there was broad support for the policy, not something to be feared because of yet another Western intervention in an oil-rich Arab state. Empirically, some evidence points to the strategy having worked. For example, a CNN poll taken March 11-13, before the Security Council granted approval, found 56% of the U.S. public favoring establishment of a no-fly zone. That same poll taken March 18-20, following Security Council approval, registered a marked uptick in public opinion, to 70% in favor.

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