Many of the readings on critical views of institutions for this class discuss the role of international organizations in the present and recent past. But what about the future? What will be the nature and role international organizations in the 21st century? Both liberals and realists agree that international organizations are extensions of major hegemons. Realists argue that they help hegemons promote their agenda. As power dynamics change then, one would assume a realist would expect one of two outcomes: either international organizations will grow weaker and less relevant, or they will change to fit the needs and wants of new world powers. Liberals argue that hegemons use international organizations to promote liberal ideals, so for liberals, the future and relevance of international organizations will depend on how supportive rising powers in Asia and elsewhere will be for liberal ideals.
The constructivist argument that international organizations facilitate cooperation among states is likely to be very relevant in the 21st century. In a world where there is no dominant super power and several competing hegemons, international organizations will likely play an important role in enabling hegemons to work together. In an article in The Huffington Post, Amitav Acharya argues that the power structure of the 21st century will involve multiple actors, including several hegemons, corporations, and international organizations. Acharya suggests that international organizations will function as independent actors, which is probably somewhat true. As the world becomes more globalized and states become more interconnected, international organizations will become more important in facilitating cooperation and can help fill the power vacuum resulting from the lack of one dominant state. Also, given that there will be no one dominant power, no one hegemon will ever be able to exert too much control over international organizations since their interests will be counter-balanced by the interests of other hegemons. This inability of any one hegemon to control international organizations will give them more autonomy.
Another important role for international organizations will be to enable weaker states to band together and exert greater power and influence. Over the past several decades, several regional international organizations have formed to facilitate cooperation among neighboring states in a common region, including the Central American Integration System, the African Union, and the Arab League. In addition to facilitating trade and cooperation, these types of organizations have the potential to enable member states to work together as a single hegemon, and supporters of such organizations would like to do just that. The best example of this has been with the European Union. Supporters of a stronger EU argue that it it will allow Europe to retain power and influence in the 21st century and will allow declining powers such as Britain and France, which are being eclipsed by the BRIC states and are finding it increasingly difficult to exhort power and influence on their own, to remain relevant by acting as part of a block.
It still waits to be seen if this can be accomplished, as efforts to strengthen the EU and other organizations like it have hit a major roadblock: a strong opposition who sees them as a threat to their national sovereignty. This will likely be the greatest debate about the role of international organizations in the 21st century, especially as they become more powerful: How much integration is too much integration? How much sovereignty are people willing to give up to facilitate cooperation among member states? Supporters of a stronger UN face the same obstacle. In this way, international organizations in the 21st century will likely be the biggest test for how well people can unite and work together.