Document Type


Publication Date

June 2007


Conventional international relations (IR) theorists, such as realists, neo-functionalists or regime theorists, view international organizations (IOs) as passive tools with which to achieve certain goals. Although an IO may facilitate inter-state cooperation and reduce transaction costs, it does not have a life of its own. Therefore, conventional IR theorists focus mostly on the creation of an IO and inter-state cooperation leading up to the creation. As a result, an IO's institutional change remains rather an “under-studied” and “under-theorized” issue in the conventional international relations (IR) framework.

Granted, conventional IR theories may provide useful insights on an inter-national dynamic among creators (states) of an IO. Many scholars have attempted to explain, and justify, such a dynamic through varying theoretical lenses, such as neo-realism and neo-liberalism. Nonetheless, they seldom offer a satisfactory explanation on an institutional dynamic under which an IO, as a separate and autonomous organic entity, grows, evolves and eventually makes sense of its own existence. By focusing on an IO's autonomy, we can expect to capture the dynamic operation, or evolution, of a specific IO qua organization, predict its future trajectory and even launch various reform agenda through an identification of specific conditions under which specific IOs can perform effectively in specific stages of their institutional development.

Therefore, this paradigm shift in perceiving an IO from a passive, inorganic tool to an autonomous, organic entity provides us with a theoretical foundation under which we can delve into a unique and case-specific institutional development of an IO. We often label, classify and identify some international organizations as a “trade” organization and some others as an “environmental” organization. Then, what makes a certain organization a trade organization, and some other an environmental organization? Among other things, the “purpose” of an organization tends to determine its identity. A trade organization is so named because it pursues free trade, and an environmental organization is so labeled because it aims for environmental protection.

Yet the formation of an IO's purpose, and thus identity, is not a static event. Like a human individual, such a formation is subject to a certain developmental process over a period of time. In developmental psychology, a person's identity is formed (“identity formation”) after it suffers from a certain crisis (“identity crisis”). As one grows old, she experiences an ever-broadening horizon in her surroundings and face her “historical moments” in which she agonizes over what she lives for and what she should become. Only after such an identity crisis can her true identity be formed and the purpose of her life established.

This identity theory in developmental psychology enlightens the institutional development of an IO. As it evolves, it interacts with its environment, and continuously defines and redefines its institutional raison d'être. In this process, the organization often undergoes a daunting situation under which an old structure has become increasingly incapable of coping with new challenges from the new environment. Confronting this crisis, it may reconfigure its institutional setting by adjusting its teleology to the new environment. Only then can its institutional existence continue to hold relevance, and its genuine institutional identity be formed.

Against this background, this Article attempts to hypothesize an IO's institutional development qua organization from the standpoint of identity formation. The Article also tests the hypothesis by applying it to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Part II first discusses a theoretical foundation of the whole analysis, i.e., the autonomy of an IO. An IO's identity cannot be constructed without autonomy from its members (states). The Part adopts the views of organizational sociology, which focuses on autonomy of organizations, unlike the conventional IR theorists who regards IOs as a mere tool of states. Part III then constructs a theory of identity formation of IOs. The Part first delineates various parameters of identity formation, such as history, the environment, goals and technology. It then observes that the process of identity formation is a normative one which is operated by rules and legal discourse. Part IV applies this theory of identity formation to the WTO. The Part demonstrates how the GATT's old identification with a narrow meaning of trade embraced new external challenges on non-trade values, such as protection of the environment and human health. It argues that the WTO's identity formation is to strike an institutional equilibrium between traditional trade values and these non-trade values. Part V concludes.