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READ: International Institutions

After World War II, many nations around the world thought, “Okay, enough is enough!” International institutions with long-term plans to create a healthier, fairer, more stable and peaceful world.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is an “institution,” and why did leaders want to create them on a global scale after WWII?
  2. Why was the United Nations created, and what does it do?
  3. What were the two crucial economic institutions that formed after 1945, and what were their original goals?
  4. What is “economic liberalization,” and how did it differ from the original goals of global economic institutions?
  5. How do non-governmental institutions promote change on a global level?
  6. What are some the positive and negative impacts global institutions have had on societies and human communities?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied. Since this is the first reading assignment of the course, you may not connect it to much other than the knowledge you already have.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. According to the author, the distinction between political, economic, and non-governmental institutions “isn’t always very neat.” What are some of the ways in which these institutions overlap?
  2. How have international institutions changed our world? Do you think these differences are the same everywhere, or do they vary across communities? Why might this be?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

International Institutions

Inside an auditorium, a man stands at a podium on a stage, with several others seated next to him. Behind them, on the stage, are several others standing in front of flags representing the United Nations. The auditorium seats are filled with people watching the presenters.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
After World War II, many nations around the world thought, “Okay, enough is enough!” International institutions with long-term plans were created with the goal of making a healthier, fairer, more stable and peaceful world.


After the destruction of the Second World War and the hardships caused by the Great Depression (1929-1939), many nations of the world faced challenges. Leaders looked for solutions to global conflict, poverty, injustice and instability. Intergovernmental groups like the League of Nations (1920-1946) had tried and failed to promote peace and economic security. So, world leaders came together to think of a new approach.
Their ideas led to the creation of several new institutions. An institution is an organized social structure that tends to be complex and long-lasting. Institutions affect how communities are organized by influencing behavior, customs, and laws. In this case, leaders wanted to create institutions that would help communities or networks of people. These institutions would work toward particular social, political, or economic goals.
The new institutions formed at the end of the Second World War were political, economic, and even non- governmental. But as you'll see, the distinction between these isn't always very neat. As we discuss these world institutions, we'll consider how effective they were at influencing people's lives. How did the world change as a result of these new institutions?

A world government? The development of political institutions

The League of Nations, formed in 1918, had been intended to prevent another world war. But in 1943, at the height of World War II, it had obviously failed. Global leaders knew they needed a new institution that could carry out similar goals but in a different way. So in 1945 they formed the United Nations (UN).
The emblem of the UN is an image of a global map inside a rounded circle, which is bordered by an image of a wreath.
Emblem of the United Nations. By Spiffenwiki, Public Domain.
Headquartered in New York, the United Nations was designed to provide what the League of Nations had not: collective security. This basically means that all members (meaning nations, not individuals) have a duty to come together as an international community and resist aggression. Ideally, this means preventing aggression in the first place. But the United Nations does have some tools for dealing with aggression and conflict if they occur. One of these tools is the United Nation's judicial arm, which deals with legal issues. This judicial arm is called the International Court of Justice (ICJ) headquartered in the Hague, a city in the Netherlands. The Court's role is to resolve disputes between member statesstart superscript, 1, end superscript and to advise the United Nations' various agencies.
The United Nations has also created measures for protecting global health and human rights. Perhaps the best example of this is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is a set of standards for human rights, the treatment of women and children, and labor. Another example was the UN's creation, in 1984, of a special agency called the World Health Organization (WHO). This agency's goal is to ensure public health globally.
A world map shows the UN founding members and their territories in 1945. Most of the areas on the map are in light blue, showing them to be founding members, and nearly the entire continent of Africa is dark blue, showing them to be territories of the founding areas.
The UN in 1945: founding members in light blue, protectorates and territories of the founding members in dark blue. Public Domain.
So, the UN clearly serves many different functions, all aimed at a better, healthier, fairer, and more peaceful world. This has led some to describe the UN as a "world government" that controls an international community. But it functions quite differently from a government. The United Nations is not like a sovereign nation that can punish its citizens. Instead, it must influence its member states through treaties, monitoring, special procedures, and commissions.
These are definitely impressive aims, but has the United Nations met these goals? The language of rights that it sponsored has certainly been influential, shifting how people think about individuals, citizens, and states. Though the United Nations isn't always able to enforce humanitarian standards, these standards seem to have affected people's beliefs and behaviors.
Image of the WHO flag: the flag features the emblem of the UN, an image of a global map inside a rounded circle, bordered by an image of a wreath. In the center of the emblem is a snake wrapped around a pole. The background of the flag is blue.
The World Health Organization flag. By WHO, Public Domain.
Has the United Nations eliminated conflict and human rights abuses? Absolutely not. Over half a century after the United Nations was formed, there are still many violent conflicts and human rights abuses. But we have to look at the evidence and think about the scale of the conflicts. Does the evidence show an overall reduction of violence? Have human rights abuses increased or decreased over the decades? And for whom have these measures been most effective? To answer these questions, we can consider evidence like human rights reports, changes in population, and mortality rates. We know the shifts are occurring, but it's a lot trickier to figure out what's causing them.
A photograph of a woman holding up a very large document, the Spanish Language translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By Franklin D Roosevelt Library, Public Domain.

Globalizing trade: The economic institutions

The simple fact that the United Nation was formed shows that countries were really concerned about reducing violent conflict after the end of World War II. But the violence of war wasn't the only concern. Many leaders were also worried about economic instability and poverty. After the Great Depression, most world economies were still struggling. Even before the war ended in 1944, some leaders met in the United States to address this problem. Their goal was to think of policies for regulating the global economy. They wanted to prevent the ups and downs of the interwar period and ensure stable currencies.
Out of these discussions, two crucial institutions were formed. The first was the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The second was the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which later became the World Bank. The original goals of these institutions were to help control the destructive ups and downs of global markets. They were created to ensure that the world economy was growing in a balanced way.
The original goals of the IMF and the World Bank were protecting employment and standards of living. They also wanted to make sure trade was balanced and not dominated by specific countries. Both institutions therefore invested in helping member countries develop their resources and productive powers. The IMF's written mission reflected this, with its emphasis on international cooperation, balanced growth of international trade, and stability. Its initial goals were largely focused on regulation. The World Bank had a slightly different focus: reconstruction and development.
Working together, the idea was that they would help member states share risk, resources, and information. This was meant to be non-political. Each state's voting power was aligned to its economic contribution. This non- political style was important, because member states wanted to avoid the nationalist policies that had made the Great Depression so devastating. Instead, these institutions worked by creating more cooperation. The IMF, for example, gave loans to developing countries to cover trade deficits (shortages). The World Bank made massive investments in the form of debt relief and reconstruction projects, particularly in Europe.
Those were the original goals of these two organizations. But over time, this changed. The goal became opening up markets around the world, which is called economic liberalization. The idea is that markets would be less regulated, allowing networks of exchange to operate more freely. The international institution that most pushed for economic liberalization is the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was founded in 1995.
How did these institutions change the world? Over several decades, the global markets did in fact become increasingly connected into broad networks. This allowed money and investment to move a lot more easily. These institutions also played crucial roles in managing financial crises and economic transitions. For example, they encouraged centrally-planned economies from the former Soviet Union to move toward open markets.

Non-governmental institutions

Another type of institution that attempts to make change at the global level are international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). From as early as the nineteenth century, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Oxfam International have worked to tackle global health problems and poverty. More recently, human rights advocacy organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have had a major effect on how people understand their role in the world. These organizations have allowed many more people see themselves as global citizens participating in an international community. Environmental activist organizations like Greenpeace have had a similar effect. That's because these groups have increasingly used media campaigns to raise awareness. These campaigns promote a feeling of global responsibility.
This belief in the importance of common action highlights the ways these institutions shape people's communities. When you think about it, this is a powerful—and effective—belief. INGOssquared like Amnesty International have been effective by building upon the United Nations' human rights efforts. They've called attention to abuses and pushed for violent acts like rape to be defined as war crimes. They also helped mobilize world opinion against things like nuclear testing and the racist system of Apartheid in South Africa.
How did they accomplish this? By changing world opinion. And that's no small thing. It creates a powerful feeling of connectedness and shared responsibility. It's so powerful that American President Dwight Eisenhower once said, when asked to continue nuclear testing, "the new thermo-nuclear weapons are tremendously powerful; however, they are not… as powerful as is world opinion today in obliging the United States to follow certain lines of policy."

Some conclusions

The world is now connected in unprecedented ways because of international political and economic institutions and global NGOs. They've created broader, more fluid networks. And they've also created greater, more encompassing senses of community.
But these connections have not always been even. The effects have been partial, inconsistent, short-lived, or even negative in some cases. They haven't always managed to prevent crises. Many people get left behind. Also, in pushing economic liberalization, these institutions have resulted in fewer social protections. In many cases, in order to receive debt relief, loans, or other investment, countries have been forced to reduce social protections like healthcare. Collectively, these changes have created more uniformity on a global scale—for better or for worse.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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