Jens Steffek (2021). International Organization as Technocratic Utopia. Oxford University Press.
In this monograph Jens Steffek, Professor for Transnational Governance at the Technical University of Darmstadt and an Alumni Fellow of the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, deals with the evolution of an idea, namely that violent and unpredictable international politics could be transformed into rational, orderly, and competent public administration, managed by experts, bureaucrats, and lawyers, rather than by politicians or diplomats. Steffek at first wants to deliver a comprehensive intellectual history of this 'technocratic internationalism', covering two centuries and diverse ideological contexts. But ultimately, by delving into history, Steffek wants to uncover roots of a current tension: the ambivalence in the present discourse about international organizations (IOs), perceived as powerless and yet too powerful at the same time.
Realizing parallels with historic developments will, as Steffek underlines, contextualize current debates over IOs more broadly in social and political theory. This shall help to overcome the disciplinary isolation of International Relations (IR) and foster dialogue with the neighbouring disciplines of public administration, sociology, history, and law. Steffek - following Max Weber - sees bureaucratization as part of an encompassing process of societal rationalization, and notes Weber's ambivalent judgement of this process regarding the efficiency and flexibility of bureaucracies during social change. An expert's culture and technocratic elite 'did not exist in ancient Greece' and developed under specific historic circumstances. Steffek divides the modern development into four phases: Pioneering 1815‒1914, Utopian 1914‒30s, Paradigmatic 1940s‒60s and Disintegrating, since the 1970s. Steffeks detailed scrutiny of this intellectual history of technocratic internationalism delivers fresh insight, much appreciated context. Many findings are highly significant, if you're looking for background and roots of current debates, narratives and judgements on IOs. It seems to make sense to restrict the study to 'blueprints for public institutions with political authority to make rules'.
Steffek's historic tour de force starts with philosophers like Saint-Simon, Comte and Hegel and a first practitioner, American political scientist Paul S. Reinsch, who had a background in colonial administration. Steffek observes that the idea of technocratic administration seems to be flexible when it comes to political ideologies. In the heydays of the technocratic utopia between the wars, liberal and non-liberal conceptions flourished side by side. Ideals of a planned economy continued to influence visions of international order during the Second World War and developed after the war into a great move towards the foundation of IOs, mainly 'designed along functional lines'. This optimistic phase ended with an increasing dissatisfaction with IOs in the 70ies and 80ies. Steffek prominently refers to Thomas G. Weiss, an acclaimed critique of the UN system. The existence of IOs makes sense to Weiss, but how they work and how efficient they are, gives reason for critique and dissatisfaction. IO critique of the leftist and liberal camp was followed by a return of the state and intergovernmentalism in international theory. At the time, Steffek identifies two conceptual shifts: one from administration (rules-based) to management (goal-oriented) and the new concept of an 'international regime', where formal IOs could play a role as facilitators, supervisors, and guarantors of interstate cooperation. This gave way to a new role also for scientific experts advising politicians from the sidelines, legitimated - and controlled - also by their horizontal organization in peer networks across borders.
Steffek hints at the special role of jurists as guardians of cooperation, since compliance with contractual obligations becomes crucial. He also tells the - telling - story of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) movement, which was established to provide distributive justice with revenues from the exploration and exploitation of the seabed, and - by all means - failed.
Whereas the legitimacy of IOs was not questioned by orthodox IR scholars, who merely conceived them as instruments of states, a new generation began to treat them as 'living bureaucracies' (Alastair Ian Johnson). A 'social constructivist' approach used the lens of organizational sociology to ask questions like how actors perceive those IOs and subsequently, how they acquire legitimation to influence opinions and decisions in public. Steffek asks the question they failed to ask so far: how it happened that people came to believe (again) in the virtues of global bureaucracies in the first place? But ambiguity persists. While comprehensive technocratic world order utopias have disappeared, creating expert bureaucracies remains the standard answer whenever a new problem enters the political agenda. The history of a technocratic utopia provides reason, not to be surprised about this. Disenchantment of IOs does not lead to their abolition. New approaches show that IOs can be conceived as fields of deliberation, motivated by contested rationalization processes with a history behind them.
Steffek's monograph provides lucid insight in this context, bringing also perspectives from history, organizational sociology and IR closer together. His conclusion serves as an outlook at the same time. Steffek briefly outlines a taxonomic approach as an alternative to the chronological ordering of his study and finally reflects on a result of his writing: that the core of technocratic internationalism is less a specific object, an international organisation, but a generative grammar for the production of those objects.
Review: Martin Wolf