International organizations (IOs) are perceived as increasingly important, yet also severely challenged actors in world politics. How authoritative are IOs, how do they exercise authority, and how has their authority evolved over time? The International Authority Database (IAD) offers a novel measure of IO authority built from several aspects of an IO’s institutional design. We provide systematic data on how IOs exercise authority across seven policy functions, using a representative sample of 34 IOs, based on coding over 200 IO bodies, and covering the period 1920–2013. Empirical applications illustrate how the IAD advances our understanding of IOs in novel and important ways.
- Whereas international organizations (IOs) are frequently criticized for not having enough bite, our data reveals that their authority has grown over time. This development might spark strong resistance against global governance, unless IO authority is sufficiently legitimated. Policy makers should therefore work towards increasing their legitimacy by establishing sufficiently robust mechanisms of accountability and transparency. Moreover, our data point policy makers to identify institutional features of IOs that are in particular need of legitimation.
- Our data further reveals that authority is unevenly distributed across IOs. Some organizations, such as the European Union, wield substantial influence over states; whereas others, such as the Bank for International Settlements, barely constrain state sovereignty. Policy makers should consider such varying levels of authority when determining which IO can effectively solve problems and which cannot. Policy makers should equally pay attention to the distribution of IO authority within a given issue area. If the IOs tasked to tackle an important issue such as climate change lack significant authority, the policy maker should work towards strengthening their institutional framework and policy mandate.
- We also find that IOs are less authoritative than their critics often suggest. The average IO exercises substantial authority only across a limited number of policy functions. IOs have the highest authority when they set policy agendas and settle disputes between states but, in most IOs, states remain largely in control over the organization and policy making. Policy makers that defend IOs should use this insight when confronted with exaggerated claims about the loss of popular sovereignty.
- To strengthen the implementation capacity of IOs, policy makers should strengthen the monitoring and enforcement authority of IOs. Among the functions we consider in our data, the monitoring and enforcement authority of IOs are relatively weakly institutionalized. However, both functions are important to ensure that adopted decisions are implemented by member states. Our data allow policy makers to identify IOs in which monitoring and enforcement provisions are weak.