An International Organization’s Identity Crisis

Sungjoon Cho | January 1, 2014

The ontological status of international organizations remains largely nebulous despite their contemporary prominence. Traditional international relations theories regard international organizations (IOs) as instruments primarily created to serve powerful states’ interests (neorealism) or to facilitate interstate cooperation on certain regulatory areas (neoliberal institutionalism). These 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 sine qua non 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 that a human individual would. 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.