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International relations scholars have rarely tackled the subject of international organizations outside of the paradigmatic question imposed by the neo-neo debate about the nature and possibility of cooperation among states. In this regard, Michael Barnett’s and Martha Finnemore’s book Rules for the World may be viewed as an attempt to break away from these preset research questions of the disciplinary debate. The book successfully manages to unpack the black box of international organisations by going beyond the input of states’ interests and attempting to offer a set of coherent theoretical accounts for analysis of the behavioural autonomy of these organisations. The authors posit that ‘we can better understand what IOs do if we better understand what IOs are’ (p. 9). This reasoning leads them to suggest that IOs are nothing more than bureaucracies, like all other organisations. The rest of their theorising is directed by this supposition, but before paying more attention to it, it is important to highlight that this type of analysis is hardly novel; there exists a well-developed body of scholarship in sociology, organisational theory and political science that examines the role of bureaucracies and Barnett and Finnemore are not shy to borrow heavily from it. Nonetheless, it would be a great injustice to regard Rules for the World as lacking a valuable contribution. Accordingly, this book represents one of the first theoretically developed attempts to view IOs as polities whose behaviour is steered by bureaucracies.  

Barnett and Finnemore reject explanations that regard the behaviour of IOs as a mere function of the member states’ interests and make the case for their behavioural autonomy and authority in the international arena. As suggested, the concept of bureaucracy assumes central stage in their argument. Bureaucracy is regarded as a unique social form which develops a distinct organizational culture. Drawing considerably on Max Weber’s explorations, the authors posit that the autonomy, authority and power of bureaucracy is derived from claims to rationality, or in other words, from their tendency to structure action in terms of means and ends (p.116). Furthermore, their autonomy is exercised through the production and diffusion of impersonal rules and norms that, in turn, frame the problems in particular way and as such play a significant part in constructing the reality of world politics.1 More importantly, bureaucracies construct the social world in such a manner as to make it amenable to their intervention. 

From this short summary of Finnemore and Barnett’s main arguments, it is clear that they largely subscribe to a constructivist theoretical paradigm. Even though, the labelling is hardly ever fruitful for the development of the theories and science in general, some minor weakness regarding this issue should be pointed out. Although the argument about the construction of social reality is par excellence a constructivist argument, Barnett and Finnemore conceive it in a highly instrumental manner. This is because they see particular ways of constructing reality as a process aimed at maintaining the authority and power of IOs in the realm of world politics and can almost be conceived of as the rational choice behaviour on the part of these organisations. In this regard, their accounts are better conceived of as a theoretical framework rather than a developed theory, which opens up possibilities for further theoretical specifications and development.  

The third, fourth and fifth chapters of the book are dedicated to case studies of the developments in the International Monetary Fund, UNHCR and the UN Secretariat in the case of Rwanda’s genocide. In a truly gripping manner Barnett and Finnemore depict the process of development and change of these organisations. They show how their organisational cultures and procedural routines affect the way they frame the problems they deal with which, determines the character of their actions. As an illustration, how the UN Secretariat’s decision to define conflicts in Rwanda as a reciprocal civil war due to the culture of ‘institutional ideology of impartiality’ (p. 123), rather than an on-going genocide prevented them from prompting fast, or for that matter, any substantial action. Similarly, they demonstrate how the emergence and the insistence on ‘repatriation culture’ (p. 74) led the UNHCR to put people in danger by returning them to their not yet safe homes. In general, however, these case studies should not be viewed as hypothesis testing. In the spirit of the interpretative method of those theorists that adopt a constructivist theoretical paradigm, Barnett and Finnemore prefer to provide a ‘thick description’ of the historical developments of these organisations. That said, even though this method is very useful in allowing the reader to track down the change, which was one of the aims of the authors, at certain moments if falls short of fully capturing the previously made arguments about autonomy, authority and power of the IOs. 

In the concluding chapter, Barnett and Finnemore take up a normative question on the subject of legitimacy of an expanding global bureaucracy. They ask if we should regard an all-encompassing bureaucratic expansion as a generally good thing. Liberated from the normative pressure that liberal institutionalists have when demonstrating the usefulness of international organisations in encouraging cooperation among states, they offer as set of balanced normative propositions. Therefore, they acknowledge that these organisations are important international players that undertake useful tasks and goals that transform the character of global politics, but their cost and problem of legitimacy should by no means be overlooked.

Rules for the World is a short but indispensable book for all those studying international organisations and for those who wish to know more about global governance without adopting a dominant state-centric approach. In it Barnett and Finnemore open up space for reshaping and enlarging the research agenda for the study of these significant international relations’ entities by managing to break away from the same old drama of the neo-neo debate. While the book tells us a few new things about bureaucracies per se, the deployment of this concept in the study of IOs sheds light on certain aspects of their behaviours which would otherwise be hard to spot. Also it is important to note that the authors manage to demonstrate that IOs are more than mere tools of their member states, but also that they are not simply servants for the global common good. 

1 See: Michael N. Barnett and Martha Finnemore (2004), Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics, Cornell UP and Michael N. Barnett and Martha Finnemore (1999), ‘The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations,’ International Organization, 53, pp. 699-732.