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Unpublished Paper
Toward an Identity Theory of International Organizations
ExpressO (2008)
  • Sungjoon Cho

Toward an Identity Theory of International Organizations


Today, we live in an era of international organizations (IOs). With more than two hundred IOs existing, they touch our everyday lives, ranging from air travel to flu shots. Such paramount significance notwithstanding, conventional international relations (IR) theories, such as realism, have failed to take IOs seriously. Conventional IR scholars view an IO as nothing but passive machinery created and controlled by states for their functional need. Under this position, while an IO may facilitate inter-state cooperation and reduce transaction costs, it would never have a life of its own. Conventional IR theories seldom offer a satisfactory explanation on a distinctive mode of institutional dynamics of an IO itself in which a specific IO, as a separate and autonomous organic entity, grows, evolves and eventually makes sense of its own existence. This is an unfortunate deficiency in light of ever-increasing significance of IOs in the contemporary world.

In this Essay, I offer a novel perspective which attempts to overcome the aforementioned deficiency. Drawing on the “identity theory” established by Erik Erikson, this new perspective captures an IO’s institutional development in which a dynamic process of the formation of its unique identity unfolds. Based on its autonomy qua organization, not merely as an instrument of states, an IO forms its organizational identity as it experiences an “identity crisis” in a similar way in which a human individual does. States create an IO to implement a certain function. Thus, an IO holds a default purpose which its creators (states) have programmed into it. However, an IO’s retention of such programmed purpose results from a mere identification with its creators, not from the formation of its genuine identity which is formed at a subsequent stage. An IO’s organizational identity is formed only after it achieves a necessary level of institutional maturity as a result of incessant interactions and communications with its environment (society).

This Essay also applies the theory of IOs’ identity formation to the World Trade Organization (WTO). It demonstrates how the old identification of the WTO’s predecessor, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), with a narrow meaning of trade confronted new external challenges involving non-trade values, such as protection of the environment and human health. It argues that the WTO’s identity formation is to strike an institutional equilibrium between traditional trade values and these non-trade values.

  • international organizations,
  • identity crisis,
  • identity formation
Publication Date
September 2, 2008
Citation Information
Sungjoon Cho. "Toward an Identity Theory of International Organizations" ExpressO (2008)
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