Inside bureaucracy authority & autonomy. An exploration of international organizations in international relations theory and practice

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Over the last century, international organizations (IOs) have become increasingly important actors in world politics. In the international relations literature, neorealist and neoliberal institutionalist scholars cannot properly account for this, because their state-centric focus leaves little room for purposive IO action. Barnett and Finnemore offer a social constructivist theoretical approach that aims to overcome this failure by outlining how IOs are bureaucracies that can become authoritative and autonomous actors. However, their framework contains certain ambiguities which undermine its overall utility. This thesis aims to refine this framework on the basis of participant observation (PO) research on the inner workings of UNRWA, a major IO. Thereby, this thesis also demonstrates how PO can be employed for theoretical fine-tuning. My findings support Barnett and Finnemore’s claim that IOs are bureaucracies that can enjoy considerable authority and autonomy, but also suggest refinements for their framework. I find that temporary employees can erode IO bureaucracy; IOs inevitably exhibit intelligence, not expertise; Barnett and Finnemore’s discussion on IO authority can be simplified; IO autonomy can involve internal agenda-setting, policy making and policy implementation; and IO autonomy is related to the funding mechanisms of IOs and their ability to create opportunity costs for external actors.
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