About the research project

Shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, one of the world’s leading International Relations (IR) theorists, Kenneth Waltz, made the infamously wrong prediction that “NATO’s days are not numbered, but its years are” (1993: 76). With the principal threat out of the way, NATO no longer had a purpose. Waltz rhetorically asked “[h]ow can an alliance endure in the absence of a worthy opponent?” (ibid.: 75). Against the odds, NATO survived the end of the Cold War. It adapted itself to the new security environment and its member states have sent military missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya under its authority. And yet NATO continuously needs to prove itself to sceptics. This includes notably President Trump who has continuously refused to endorse the cornerstone Article 5.

NATO is just one example of international organisations currently under pressure. The World Health Organization was heavily criticized over its handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The World Trade Organization seems incapable of mitigating an American-Chinese trade war. The United States stopped contributing to the UNESCO budget after Palestine was admitted as a member in 2011, thereby depriving the organisation of nearly a quarter of its resources. It decided to quit UNESCO in 2018. The United Kingdom will exit the EU in 2019 and Burundi left the International Criminal Court in 2017. The ultimate way for states to show that international organisations have outlived their purpose is to disband them (e.g. League of Nations, International Refugee Organisation, Warsaw Treaty Organization). This happens frequently: no less than a third of the international organisations created between 1905 and 2005 has formally ceased to exist (Pevehouse, Nordstrom & Warnke 2004).


Number of dead, integrated and replaced IOs based on Pevehouse et al. (2004)

This research project, funded by the European Research Council, seeks to complete the theory on the ‘life and death of international organisations’. We know how international organisations are designed. We also know how international organisations develop over time. Yet we know virtually nothing about decline and death. The project addresses therefore the question why do international organisations decline or die? The main hypothesis is that some international organisations live longer due to their institutional characteristics. Through a mixed-methods research approach, this project aims to develop an institutional theory on the final stage in the life of IOs.