Vol. 16 No. 6 (June, 2006) pp.442-444        


INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AS LAW-MAKERS, by José E. Alvarez.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.  720pp.  Hardcover. $150.00/£85.00.  ISBN 0198765622.  Paper (2006). $55.00/£29.99.  ISBN:  0198765630.


Reviewed by David Schultz, Graduate School of Management, Hamline University.  Dschultz [at] gw.hamline.edu


International organizations often pose problems for international relations theorists.  For realists who believe that nation-states are the only entities with ontological significance in international affairs, it is difficult to explain how or why international organizations such as the World Court affect regime behavior.  For those who believe in Austin’s command theory of law, it is not easy to describe the capacity of international organizations such as the World Trade Organization to make law and secure compliance.  Finally, for those who are committed democrats, it is hard to grasp the political legitimacy enjoyed by international organizations, such as the United Nations.  Yet despite the quandary their existence poses for many, international organizations represent a potent force on the international scene, necessitating serious scholarly study.


José Alvarez’s INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AS LAW-MAKERS is a formidable book.  Defining international organizations by way of their characteristics, Alvarez sees them as entities that are the product of agreements created by states, having at least one organ distinct from member states, and capable of acting under international law.   While these three characteristics capture many of the entities he wishes to study, he notes the complexity in classifying and describing exactly what an international organization is.  Seeing the rise of international organizations at the turn of the twentieth century, Alvarez states that there were 37 IOs in 1909, rising to a peak of 378 in 1985, only to settle back to 250 by 2000.  Given these numbers and over a century of existence, it is no surprise that one problem in analyzing international organizations is developing a taxonomy that captures their range of forms and functions.  This is the task of the opening chapter of the book.  It is also in this initial discussion that Alvarez sharply defines his object of inquiry:  He wishes to focus more specifically on public international organizations, seeking to ascertain their common traits, their role in international relations theory and practice, their capacity to make law and bind nation-states, and their overall impact upon regime and individual behavior. In addition, the book is written to assess these entities, with the hope that one can learn from their past failures to help improve their efficacy and performance.  Clearly, Alvarez does not bemoan their existence but embraces them as legitimate actors with independent legal  personalities in the international community.


One of the strongest and richest discussions in the book is an effort to reconcile international organizations with various theories.  Alvarez is correct to note a challenge.  If the nation-state theory of sovereignty, as indebted to the [*443] treaty of Westphalia and Metternich, enjoys hegemonic status among academics and international lawyers, international organizations are vexing.  How, if nation-states are the ontological prima causa of international politics, can we account for international organizations as having distinct personality and a capacity to affect behavior?  Realists might need to account for them as simply epiphenomena, epistemologically understandable only by way of reference to the states that created them.  Yet besides the challenges international organizations pose to realists, Alvarez also reviews other theoretical perspectives, such as critical theory and functionalism, in an effort to show how they have thus far failed to account for these organizations in their schemas.  Thus, while descriptive, INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AS LAW-MAKERS is also a theory-building enterprise, promising a sophisticated framework for international organizations.


The core of the book is a detailed examination of international law.  Article 38 of the International Court of Justice’s statute lists international agreements, treaties, customs, and general principles as the sources of international law.  Alvarez’s discussion of international organizations reveals how these entities create, enforce, enable, and adjudicate law across all of these sources.  In developing his discussion of international organizations, the author details the ways entities such as the Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, and other more specialized organizations operate as trans- or supranational bodies that affect both the behavior of states and individuals.  Of particular interest is the discussion of the various international tribunals which resolve disputes, adjudicate complaints, or facilitate negotiations.


What are the conclusions that Alvarez reaches about international organizations?  The grande conclusion is that international organizations have had a dramatic impact upon the institutionalization of public international law, and that these norms have definitely affected state power.  Thus, international organizations are a challenge to state-centric conceptualizations of the world community.  International organizations, accordingly, need to be added to Article 38 as a source of law.  Moreover, unlike more traditional international law that only affected states, the rules articulated by international organizations reach down to individuals, thereby blurring the lines between intra- and inter-state lawmaking.  Thus, what it means to be sovereign in an era when international organizations exist, must be rethought.


As with any book review, there is much more to INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AS LAW-MAKERS than what is described here.  While the book does fall short of developing a new fully elaborated theory on international affairs that accounts for international organizations within a state-dominated world, it nonetheless offers abundant examples and arguments regarding how contemporary theories are deficient in accounting for these [*444] organizations.  In sum, those interested in international relations theory, law, or behavior will find this book a significant effort to update current theory to the new reality of how international organizations affect the world.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, David Schultz.