Depoliticization of International Organizations: between functional necessity and pragmatism with Marieke Louis and Lucile Maertens
Prof. Marieke Louis, Sciences Po Grenoble, and Prof. Lucile Maertens, University of Lausanne, discuss the depoliticization of international organizations on International Horizons.
International organizations, whose activities unavoidably have political consequences, nonetheless have a well-earned reputation for being apolitical or depoliticized. Why, when so much of what they do seems intrinsically political? Is that reputation for being apolitical a good thing? What are the consequences of the de-politicization of such organizations?
Marieke Louis, Associate Professor of political science at the Institute for Political Studies in Grenoble, France (Sciences Po Grenoble), and Lucile Maertens, Senior Lecturer in political science and international relations, University of Lausanne, talks to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the trending depoliticization of international organizations and its effects for achieving results and enhancing cooperation. The discussion covers the causes of depoliticization, its framing in comparison to past years, the dangers of politicizing certain issues and not informing policy on science, and how depoliticization may end up protecting the status quo.
John Torpey 00:06
International organizations, whose activities unavoidably have political consequences, nonetheless have a well earned reputation for being apolitical or depoliticized. Why when so much of what they do seems intrinsically political? Is that reputation for being apolitical a good thing? What are the consequences of the de-politicization of such organizations?
John Torpey 00:32
Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Marieke Louis and Lucile Maertens (whose names I'm afraid I may be butchering. I'm sorry about that). They're authors of the recently published book Why International Organizations Hate Politics: De-politicizing the World.
John Torpey 01:10
Marieke Louis is Associate Professor of political science at Sciences Po Grenoble (that is the Institute for Political Studies in Grenoble). Her research focuses on international organizations in particular the International Labour Organization or ILO, and she currently works on transnational business actors and the role of employers' federations as diplomatic actors. Lucile Maertens is Senior Lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her current work focuses on how the United Nations intended to keep the environment on the agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for being with us today, Marieke Louis and Lucile Maertens.
Marieke Louis 02:00
Lucile Maertens 02:01
John Torpey 02:02
Great to have you with us. So you've just got this book out, Why International Organizations Hate Politics Depoliticizing the World? Why don't we start there, and have you just say a little bit about the main themes of the book, and what people should look forward to when they read it.
Lucile Maertens 02:20
So the idea for the book emerged from unexpected similarities between our two and rather different fieldwork experiences. I was conducting ethnographic research at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). And when I was there, I was always puzzled by our unit staff who claim not to do politics, even though their mandate, which is to protect the environment, is quite political. And I could hear on a daily basis that they would insist on saying that the apolitical, neutral nature of the assessment that they were doing, even though this publication very often includes political recommendations.
Lucile Maertens 03:02
When we go on the side of Marieke's work, she went through a similar episode at the International Labor Organization, the ILO. There, she would regularly hear member states saying that they do not deal with political matters, and the delegates saying that they do not pick sides regarding labor law. What's interesting is that they insisted that the technical dimension of the negotiations as the most important part instead of the political implication of their work on international labor rights.
Lucile Maertens 03:32
And so when we combined our empirical experiences, we started to think about these processes through which international organizations pretend to be outside of politics. And when we look at academic work on international organizations, this is kind of an elephant in the room; lots of people, lots of scholars, have observed similar patterns. And in the book, we decided to take this apolitical claim seriously, to see where it comes from and how it translates into practice. And we do that in a variety of of cases: we look at international progresses as much as Member States, and we investigate different thematic field we look at international labor rights, protection of the environment, but also humanitarian action, development, global health, security, peacekeeping or even international trade. And when we analyze these different cases together, what we see is that IOs [International Organizations] cannot be reduced to apolitical mechanisms. They are not just apolitical processes established to facilitate international cooperation. What we see though, is that there is a general process of depoliticization that is taking place, and I will let Marieke explain a bit more what we mean by depoliticization.
John Torpey 04:45
Marieke Louis 04:47
Thank you for the introduction. And yes, of course, talking about depoliticization and politics, we need a little bit of definition here. So depoliticization, as we use it in the book, is a process: a process in which, or through which, a situation is considered to be outside of politics or framed as apolitical. But of course, because international organizations are political creatures addressing very political questions, like Lucile said, we talk about security, development, environment, migration, labor, depoliticization, for us remains a political process. But it consists in minimizing, concealing, and even sometimes trying to eliminate politics within international organizations. So politics here, we define it in a rather inclusive way, as every kind of activity performed by a variety of actors, it can be diplomats, international, civil servants, experts, NGOs, any kind of activity, which has to do with, broadly speaking, the detention of authority, the exercise of power, the activity of negotiations, agenda setting, and the delivery of just policies, or policy that are perceived as being just and going in the right direction. So it entails, of course, both conflictual dynamics, but also cooperative ones.
Marieke Louis 06:03
And this is important for us to insist also on the comparative aspects, because sometimes politics is defined very much in terms of conflicts and differentiation. And we also wanted to insist that politics is also about elaborating similar interests and worldviews.
Marieke Louis 06:18
So to be clear, the question we raise is not whether IOs are apolitical, or if IO is actually successfully depoliticized, but rather how do they perform depoliticization, and what are the consequences of that? And to do that we explore practices, which are related to claiming expertise, to formatting neutrality, looking at very routinized practices, such as producing reports or guidelines, but also managing time -and I'm sure we'll have time to expand on this temporal dimension and for the logics- so why do they depoliticize and to what end? We show that depoliticization is meant to perform a rather functional and pragmatic logic of action based on fulfilling needs and necessity, but also in order to acquire some legitimacy, and sometimes even to monopolize the legitimacy on certain topics. And finally, we show that depoliticization also enables international organizations not to be held responsible for their activities.
John Torpey 07:19
Well, that's an interesting point, that there is a kind of escape hatch for the international organization. So if they say, their depolitical, or unpolitical, apolitical, whatever their exact term ought to be, they can always say, "well, you know, we couldn't really get involved in the politics. So therefore, we're not responsible for the outcome."
John Torpey 07:39
But I mean, I think this is an interesting insight that an apolitical stance, or depoliticization, is something that, as you say, sort of has to be performed. At some level, everybody understands that this is a fiction, but it can't be entirely a fiction, because particularly in conflict zones, conflict situations, where people's lives are kind of immediately at stake, you know, you're not going to be allowed in as an international actor, unless the relevant parties with guns say, "okay, you know, we don't expect them to help the other side in a way that is going to be deleterious to our interests", right?. So at some level it seems to me, international organizations are sort of compelled to adopt this fiction that everybody understands is a fiction, but everybody has to kind of be on board for the fiction. Is that kind of essentially what you're arguing?
Lucile Maertens 08:39
It's part of what we were showing, I mean, indeed, international organizations do have to comply with what their members and most often states want, or at least accept, for them to do. And for sure, depoliticization is very appealing for that, because it's the idea that being neutral means being more acceptable. And in a way international bureaucrats may be kind of forced to depoliticize to accomplish their job. But what's interesting in the book is that we show that they can also do it in a more proactive way. They bypass states' opposition, and we see that in multiple examples.
Lucile Maertens 09:15
Going back to the case of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). What's interesting is that staff justify depoliticization for pragmatic reasons, especially in the intergovernmental context. So UNEP has been involved in activities related to environmental protection in conflict and post-conflict settings. And so in those situations for sure, staff prefer a technical approach, because that's a way to obtain the necessary approval of states to conduct the operational task at the state level. For them, UNEP is more accepted because it is precisely less political. And its apparent neutrality is like a precondition to intervene in a very politicized, post-conflict contexts. It's also often a condition for them to secure the funding for these activities.
Lucile Maertens 10:05
And so depoliticization follows like a form of functional necessity. But it also has a dimension of pragmatic decision behind it. What we've seen in different cases is that international organization leadership and personnel use a practical or even technical agenda to promote cooperation between parties in conflict. So it's not only about obtaining the permission, but it's also to facilitate cooperation. Here, again, the work of UNEP on what they call environmental peacebuilding is a good illustration; they use the environment as a platform for cooperation, to foster dialogue between opposing parties. And so they use the environment as being a less controversial issue. Like, for example, natural resources management, to be able to bring together on the same table, parties in conflict that otherwise wouldn't want to talk to each other. Another example is the case of the peacekeeping mission in Haiti, at the Ministry.
Lucile Maertens 11:08
The Minister set up an environmental rehabilitation project as part of their community violence reduction. And in this project, they included members from different gangs that had to work together on this supposedly apolitical project of renovation of the environment. And so on a daily basis, the gang members were useful for the community, but there was also some kind of socialization effects because they had to work together even though they were in gangs that usually were in conflict. And so here, the environment was really used, and I quote, "as a tool for pacification that was used pragmatically by the mission." And so depoliticization follows like a form of practical rationality. And it is perceived as a pragmatic tool for international organizations to act as like neutral facilitators in a way.
John Torpey 12:04
Absolutely. I don't know if you wanted to add anything to that, Marieke, but, I'm sort of curious, are there occasions that you could point to where this fiction that everybody in some ways is conspiring to sustain falls apart? And, what happens when that fiction becomes revealed as a fiction?
Marieke Louis 12:29
Maybe, yeah. I would just say that I like your term of fiction in the sense that we do not think that depoliticization for instance, is necessarily always a rational choice or a strategic tactic. It can be but it is also something that professional, international civil servants or diplomats do, because it's also part of the institutional dynamic. I think that one of the cases that I will address also, if you want, in more detail, is the case of all those debates on representativeness and legitimacy within international organizations that diplomats try to depoliticize, because it's so linked, related to the legitimacy of the organization and power relation. And they try to do that. And sometimes it seems that they succeed in doing that. But in the end, it might be counterproductive, because then those who are frustrated with the reform not going on will come back with more, I would say, anger some time or criticism toward the lack of legitimacy of these organizations. So it can be really counterproductive, and in the conclusion we explore these kinds of resistance to this fiction of depoliticization.
John Torpey 13:52
Well, maybe you could say a little bit more about those cases now. What happens?
Marieke Louis 13:59
So if I take the example of the third chapter, which is dedicated to the time-related depoliticization practices, where we point out a phenomenon of institutional amnesia. So, we look at the way international organizations both at the institutional level but also individual level of play on time as a strategic resource to depoliticize, and we show that in a variety of cases like the reform of the UN Security Council, the reform of the IMF quota system, or the ILO governing body, which I'm most familiar because it was my doctoral research. If I had to sum up the argument, I would say that, basically, the more time passes, the more negotiations last in time, the more discussions are delayed and diluted through complexification of the issue at stake, the more deadlines are postponed, then the the more likely it is to have depoliticization because then actors become less and less mobilized by the issue at stake. And then this is why you can have a depoliticization because on the other hand, mobilization of actors is key to politicize certain issue.
Marieke Louis 15:20
And what we observe in that chapters is that sometimes it even leads to what we call institutional amnesia or memory loss as a powerful tool to depoliticize an issue. So what we show is that through institutional amnesia, we show that in some cases, even in the most sensitive one, some delegates and diplomats can forget what the issue that was at stake. And they are more likely to do that, because unlike civil servants, usually they have a higher turnover rate. So if I give you an example, and this is where the intuition for the idea came, it's when I was studying the reform of the ILO governing body, which had been extremely sensitive and divisive for the organization for almost a century, because it raised the issue of representativeness and power relations between different states. And this issue had been very sensitive until the beginning of the 1990s. And then it kind of disappeared.
Marieke Louis 16:25
And when I was leading my research and conducting interviews with delegates in 2011, I was astonished by the fact that most of the delegates I was interviewing couldn't remember exactly what the reform was about. They knew that representativeness was an important issue, but they were completely unable to tell me in more detail what was really the issue at stake. Or for those who knew about that, they were completely discouraged to reactivate the debate, because it was associated to so many divisions and past failure.
Marieke Louis 17:01
So in that case, you have a process of both institutional fatigue, and even that can lead to institutional amnesia. And you can see that even in the case of the UN Security Council, even if you still have a lot of mediatic and political attention, but if you come to the specificity of the process, there are only a few specialists or maybe rather old diplomats who know very much really what the reform process is about, and the different steps of this process. And the reason for that is because it has been engaged in the 1960s and then in the 1990s. And the strategy to delay and postpone negotiation has proved effective in terms of depoliticization.
John Torpey 17:44
Interesting, I mean, one of the things that really intrigued me in the book was your sort of argument that politics is a kind of multifaceted thing and can mean different things at different times, and that in general, kind of anything under the right circumstances can be political. And so, obviously, you were focused on how that plays out in the context of international organizations. But I'm sort of curious, you know, as political scientists, what would you say about that? What kind of period do we live in now? What is political in the current period that maybe wasn't political in 100 years ago, or something like that? I mean, I'm inclined to think a lot more is political now than would have been the case 100 years ago. But you know, that nationalism took every day perceptions of people and sort of turned them into political matters. Feminism had a lot to do with saying that the personal is political. And in that sense, broadening the realm of what constituted politics. I mean, how would you sort of characterize the situation today?
Marieke Louis 19:01
Maybe I could start by saying that you're completely right, in the sense that you have waves in a way of politicization and depoliticization; it's really the two aspects of the problems. You've mentioned that I'm working on transnational business actors now, and clearly, for instance, the issue of multinational corporations, although it started to be politicized in the 1970s, clearly seems to me way more politicized now, with what we say about the power of multinational corporations becoming more and more rival of states, you can see that ordinary citizens have something to say about multinational corporation. I'm not sure it was always really the case or with that kind of intensity maybe 40 or 50 years ago. So I think I could say the same with labor. I think labor was way more politicized in the past than it is today. So we really should really pay attention to context. What we really mean by that is that it's not that we live in a more political or less political era. I think it really depends on what issues are at stake. And this is always a process of a higher intensity of politicization of lesser intensity, if I could sum it up that way. I don't know if you still want to add something on that.
Lucile Maertens 20:24
Yes, maybe I can also bring the example of the environment, because there is also quite different phases of politicization in global governance in terms of environmental issues. And of course, all of that depends on what you mean by political and politicization. If we consider that politicization is a way to open debate to lose for contradiction here we can see that there is a risk in the politicization of issues like the reality of climate change, like the fact that climate change is happening that is scientifically proven shouldn't be debated in a way.
Lucile Maertens 20:57
So we could say that, here, politicization is dangerous to the cause of fighting climate change. But if we also consider politicization as a healthy way to question not the reality of climate change, but how we produce knowledge on climate change, how we frame the problem, here we can see why it's important also to consider the political dimension of the climate problem, because it opens a discussion to understand which scientific disciplines are involved, whose expertise is seen as legitimate, which actors are supposed to be responsible? What type of solution can we implement? And so I think, in this example, we see that one of the biggest challenges for international organizations is that they have to promote science and scientific findings, but without maintaining a form of technocratic monopoly, because this is precisely one of the main criticisms in the legitimacy crisis of international organizations today, that it reinforces some kind of backlash against this organization. And it feeds discourses, like populist discourses, against multilateralism. And so international organizations have to defend scientific facts that should not be politicized. But they also have to promote reflexivity and the pluralization of knowledge production. So I think in a way, we could say that the depoliticization cards should not be played too often because it does come with unproductive effects.
Marieke Louis 22:27
If I can add something on that because your question entails a little bit of normative aspect on what should be or should not be political. I think that it also depends on the kind of regimes and contexts we're living in. I think that this phrase, "the personal is political," or "everything is political," it can have very different consequences, whether you live in democratic states, where you still have a respect for your personal and individual freedom. And in that case, if saying that is saying, "let's open a debate, let's have contradiction, let's have a discussion," then it's fine and it's very valuable. Then if you live in more authoritarian states, or regimes, where the personal is political means that you have no longer any freedom for your private life, then it can also become dangerous and it can become a path for controlling every aspect of life. So if we take that also into the normative sense, I think we really have to make a difference, depending on what kind of political regimes we have.
John Torpey 23:29
Right. I mean, I think that's absolutely right. And that there's, in my experience, no question that East Europeans before 1989, or 1990, when they heard the idea that "the personal was political," they panicked, because they were familiar with the idea that the personal and everything else was political, and didn't find that very appealing, because it often meant you landed in jail. So obviously, totally mattered in what kind of political context you said such a thing.
John Torpey 23:57
But in any case, I wanted to just move on a little bit to a sort of contemporary practical question of what the framework that you develop in the book, you know, what kind of consequences is going to have sort of in understanding and changing the real world, so to speak. I mean, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there's been a lot of discussion about we're entering a new sort of New World Order of some sort, that the security infrastructure that was created after World War Two is now dead, basically. And we're going to move to Huntingtonian world finally, for sure, or we're going to be in a world of all constant culture wars and, you know, arguments like this, but how would you see your work kind of fitting into an understanding of what seems to be coming down the pike, although that's still quite unclear I would say.
Marieke Louis 25:02
Yes, it's a very difficult question, because with the Russian invasion and the war still going on, I think we can say that it can be both, in fact, it can affect the question of politicization or depoliticization in two ways. You can say that this is going to be a turning point forcing international organizations to become definitely more politicized. But we can also see that as a continuity in the sense that it will reinforce depoliticization practice. So, but if I go with the first hypothesis, this idea that war, and the fact that also it's not just a war but an invasion, it will re-politicize some issue arenas. We've seen that actually with regard to the debate on issues like economic sanctions, which are likely to be depoliticized, because it can often be considered as a very expert issue, where you first need expert economic knowledge, but also very political and strategic advice, because we know that the effects of economic sanctions can be very hazardous. So you will be inclined to say "let's have the expert view first."
Marieke Louis 26:18
But at the same time, what we've seen is that, for instance, civil society, but also political leaders, at the domestic level, have used the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to re-politicize our economic choices, both at the individual and collective levels. We have seen practices of naming and shaming certain corporations for instance for doing business in Russia, we have seen political leaders challenging also the threats of economic interdependence and ties with Russia. So I think this is one example of re-politicization of economics, which is quite interesting, but it can also re-politicize areas, which we could easily understood as traditional depoliticized arenas, like the International Labor Organization. I thought it was very interesting to see that the ILO governing body in April has adopted a resolution against the war in Ukraine, condemning the aggression -and they used that word aggression of Russia against Ukraine- they have decided to suspend any technical assistance in Russia, except for those programs who had a humanitarian purpose. And they have stressed the devastating effects of war on labor, thereby also challenging this idea that the ILO was not about politics or thereby challenging the idea that you could talk about labor without talking about the political context at large. And I will let Lucile explain also how it could also lead to more depoliticization.
Lucile Maertens 27:54
Yes, it's true that politicization may also appear as almost the obvious way forward, because everything is political, politicized at the moment with this major event, and the way that the conflict is moving a bit the boundaries of the political. But I think another way forward would be to see that it could be a revival of the politicization within multilateralism, because many international organizations were created after World War Two precisely with the idea to foster peace through technical assistance to technical cooperation. And this was a functionalist project basically with functional arrangements that would bypass political divisions. And so the current situation could therefore push international organizations and actors wishing to promote multilateralism to prefer a depoliticized approach.
Lucile Maertens 28:48
And the key argument is made by a humanitarian organization already today saying that neutrality is also a tool for action. It gives access to assist population in need, it gives access to document what is happening, and so depoliticization is seen as a very useful tool in times of war actually. And the war in Ukraine could revive a functionalist approach that is oriented towards the core function that international organizations are supposed to accomplish. The fact that they, despite the conflict, they still have the objective to promote peace, and that they should still do their work.
Lucile Maertens 29:26
And maybe to conclude, there is this one, there is a problem in that tension between the fact that depoliticization as a tool to act also tends to reproduce existing power relationships. It protects the status quo. And so the challenge here is to find a balance between avoiding those divisive politics, and at the same time, embracing the complexity and the political nature of all those problems that international organizations are supposed to solve. And so the future research on international organizations, there's still way a lot of stuff analyze in the future.
John Torpey 30:10
So I know you're IR [international relations] people, as we say, but I, you know, the fact that I think you're both French nationals raises for me a question related to French politics, and you know, your framework about depoliticization. I mean, it seems to me that in a certain sense, Emmanuel Macron, has just been reelected, because he's sort of unpolitical or apolitical and the person who's political is Marine LePen. She's kind of out there, and she has her supporters. The left in France, like in other countries, seems to have been largely decimated; the Socialist Party is more or less gone. The French left has a certain vibrancy, but is a relatively marginal phenomenon, I think. So you end up with this general election between somebody who's seen as not especially likable but sane, against somebody who's seen as maybe more likable to the ordinary person, but a little bit too authoritarian, a little too nationalist, etc. And so Macron wins, because he's apolitical or depoliticized, or something like that. Is that a reasonable interpretation of what's been going on in French politics? I mean, you know, what's happened there in the last five years or so it's just incredibly striking. As I say, in particular, one of the dominant parties for decades is essentially gone: the Socialist Party. So is that a reasonable characterization of what's going on? Or is that a mistake?
Marieke Louis 31:55
It's a difficult question. But since I'm living in France, and Lucile is living in Switzerland, I will try to answer. I think it refers really to the different meanings of politics, because what you talked about when talking about the positioning of the far right, or the far left, is that their understanding of politics is really ideology and also really trying to show that you have confrontation and divisions, and this is one of one understanding of politics. If you take the position of Emmanuel Macron, I would definitely not say that it's depoliticized. Or at least or maybe we could say that he plays on depoliticization in the sense that he tried to go beyond this idea that you have a fight or, or a division or strong division between left and right. But to me, it's not depoliticized or it's not apolitical in the sense that he definitely has political ideas. And, for instance, the fact that he really claims to be liberal, even if sometimes it's more some kind of social liberalism with more state regulation. He's also been very clear on his pro-European stance, for instance.
Marieke Louis 33:17
So to me, I would not go as far as saying that he’s depoliticized, clearly not. But maybe we could say that he played on some of these depoliticization practices that we identified, saying that maybe and we've seen with the COVID crisis, we should rely more on expertise, for instance, or we should stop seeing everything through ideological lenses, that we should focus on that we should be pragmatic. Those are definitely some practices and logic that we've identified in the book, although it not deals very much with the domestic politics.
John Torpey 33:55
I think it does have relevance to this kind of case. And when I say depoliticized, I mean, basically, he's a technocrat, it's ruled by experts, essentially. And in the end that trumps, you know, more visceral appeal for many people of a kind of nationalist politics and a nationalist outlook that seems to be more populist, more for the people, so to speak. And so, he strikes me as a very smart and of course, very ambitious sort of guy who isn't easy to like. I mean, you may recall that people used to say that George W. Bush seemed like a guy you'd want to have a beer with. Macron does not seem like a guy you'd want to have a glass of wine with, necessarily. I mean, unless you were part of his class of sort of highly educated experts. So he's not necessarily the kind of politician who can win in those kinds of shaking hands with people and rubbing elbows with the people. He doesn't seem like that sort of character. But he in the end seems preferable to the far-right alternative.
Marieke Louis 35:12
Yes. Because in the end, what the elections have shown is then, despite what we could see in terms of hate, because really, if you look at the polls, you have this kind of hate feeling that has been expressed. But still, there is a majority, which still remains in favor. I don't know, I'm not a specialist on that. That maybe here personal attributes have maybe played less a role than the position he has as an alternative between far left or far right choice or position. Maybe.
Lucile Maertens 35:51
But in a way, what's also interesting is that he won with less voices than the first time, so it's a technocratic term that also took place during the COVID crisis. And all of what you were saying about the fact that he's a technocrat, we see the backlash. That's a big example of the fact that it doesn't always work, and that there is criticism against this type of positioning. And so we'll see what's going to be happening in five years, but this was not also clear, like a very big win, compared to the first election.
John Torpey 36:28
Right. Well, thank you very much. On that note, and we're going to conclude today's episode. Very interesting discussion of politics and depoliticization in international organizations. I want to thank Marieke Louis and Lucile Maertens for sharing their insights about politics and deep politicization in international organizations.
John Torpey 36:51
Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as always, as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.