This book review considers two books on international organizations: (1) Margaret P. Karns & Karen A. Mingst, International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance, and (2) Dan Sarooshi, International Organizations and Their Exercise of Sovereign Powers.

The review notes several features that set the Karns & Mingst book apart from other treatments of international organizations. First is a thoroughgoing commitment to an integrated view of international organizations. The book insists (and demonstrates) that knowledge of politics, theory, and history are all indispensable to a rich understanding of the problems and processes of global governance. Second, Karns and Mingst refuse to ignore or avoid the continuing tensions in the thorny, contentious arenas of global governance. The book is bracingly free of simplistic normative frameworks. However, the review's most serious complaint about the Karns and Mingst book is the lack of any substantial consideration of international law. International organizations’ substantive measures to enhance equality and development are incomplete if they do not attend to the problems mentioned in Part Four of the book: global actors’ need for greater legitimacy, accountability, and effectiveness. These are problems that law can help address. Legal approaches provide basic means of enhancing the legitimacy, accountability, and quality of international organizations’ action. Of course, empty legal formalities serve the interests of none. But just as importantly, substantive measures taken by actors unconstrained by established rules, even if the measures are considered to be fair, set dangerous and often counterproductive precedents. In addition to legitimacy and accountability, which are often noted as benefits of legality, effectiveness too can be improved by law. Redundant or conflicting exercises of control are more easily avoided if appropriate decisionmaking channels for different types of decisions are specified in advance.

The second book, by Sarooshi, makes two major contributions. The first is a taxonomy or “typology” of conferrals of sovereign powers. The second is an exploration of the circumstances in which an organization’s exercise of power pursuant to these conferrals is most likely to be contested by domestic actors. In pursuing the first task, Sarooshi outlines three types of conferrals of states’ sovereign powers to international organizations: (1) those creating an “agency relationship,” (2) those which he calls “delegations of powers,” and (3) those which he calls “transfers of powers.” While this doctrinal analysis may seem overly abstract at first, Sarooshi effectively uses them to set up his crucial Chapter Six, which amounts to over a third of his book. In that chapter, Sarooshi demonstrates how the abstract doctrine can be help out in real world situations with a subtle but compelling normative approach. He suggests that well-specified legal rules, by providing an appropriately nuanced framework for actors to use in structuring their relations and designing their agreements, can help to guarantee and increase the predictability and consistency of international interactions. Such a framework will also, Sarooshi asserts, include significant means for states to challenge the actions taken by international organizations wielding transferred powers. Building on work by Joseph Weiler, Sarooshi contends that a state’s interest in protecting those values it considers central to its sovereignty, values which are consistently implicated in state decisionmaking of every sort (executive, legislative, administrative, judicial), is not totally relinquished when some of these powers are being exercised by international organizations. Thus as both a political and a normative matter, the international order would be superior if more effective means of “contestation” were available. While Sarooshi does not elaborate at length what sorts of contestation mechanisms he has in mind, he considers the “contestability deficit” to represent a superior way of framing concerns with legitimacy and accountability than the usual ways of framing these concerns (e.g., as resulting from a “democracy deficit”). This is an intriguing insight that one hopes he will address more fully in future work, as it is consonant with what seems to be an increasingly strong intuition among international legal thinkers that the “democracy deficit” is something of a red herring, and is a stand-in for a more broad and pressing - but as yet not clearly defined - crisis of legitimacy. It bears mentioning that this insight also provides a needed rejoinder to Mingst and Karns’s skepticism toward international law.

Document Type

Book Review

Publication Date

Fall 2006


Notes/Citation Information

Christopher G. Bradley, Book Review, 39 N.Y.U. J. Int'l L. & Pol. 155 (2006) (reviewing Dan Sarooshi, International Organizations and Their Exercise of Sovereign Powers (2005) & Margaret P. Karns & Karen A. Mingst, International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance (2004)).


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