International regulation without international government: Improving IO performance through orchestration


International organizations (IOs) have been widely criticized as ineffective. Yet scholars and practitioners assessing IO performance frequently focus on traditional modes of governance such as treaties and inter-state dispute-resolution mechanisms. When they observe poor performance, moreover, they often prescribe a strengthening of those same activities. We call this reliance on traditional state-based mechanisms “International Old Governance” (IOG). A better way to understand and improve IO performance is to consider the full range of ways in which IOs can and do operate—including, increasingly, by reaching out to private actors and institutions, collaborating with them, and supporting and shaping their activities. Such actions are helping to develop an intricate global network of public, private and mixed institutions and norms, partially orchestrated by IOs, that we call “Transnational New Governance” (TNG). With proper orchestration by IOs, TNG can ameliorate both “state failure”—the inadequacies of IOG—and “market failure”—the problems that result when the creation and evolution of norm-setting institutions is highly decentralized. Orchestration thus provides a significant way for IOs to improve their regulatory performance. Some IOs already engage actively with private actors and institutions—we provide a range of illustrations, highlighting the activities of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Yet there remains a significant “orchestration deficit” that provides real opportunities for IOs. We draw on the lessons of existing IO activities to suggest additional possibilities for improving IO performance.

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  1. 1.

    “TNG” parallels domestic “New Governance” (NG): we draw on the growing NG literature in developing our arguments (Abbott and Snidal 2009a, b; Cashore et al. 2004; Salamon 2002; de Burca and Scott 2006; Trubek and Trubek 2007; Lobel 2004; Ayres and Braithwaite 1992).

  2. 2.

    Economic globalization was also strong in the pre-1914 period, yet on most measures the late 20th century surge in globalization reached or exceeded previous levels, especially as developing countries and the former Soviet bloc embraced more open economic policies. Information flows are significantly more globalized in the current period, supporting new methods of organizing global production, “whether integrated vertically in global factories or through looser cross-border production networks.” Combined with a reduction in the globalization and mobility of labor, these factors led to the appearance of numerous labor rights, human rights and environmental RSS schemes. Kahler and Lake (2003).

  3. 3.

    For a full discussion of the Governance Triangle, its nuances and its implicit assumptions, see Abbott and Snidal (2009a, b). Note that RSS schemes range widely in scope and scale. For example, Rugmark organizes the certification of child-labor-free rug production in South Asia, whereas UNGC promotes human rights, labor, environmental and corruption standards across many sectors on a global basis.

  4. 4.

    The vertex Zones (1, 2 and 3) are dominated by a single actor, the quadrilateral Zones (4, 5 and 6) involve two dominant actors, while Zone 7 involves significant involvement of all three actors.

  5. 5.

    For examples of domestic New Governance, see Freeman (1997–98); Trubek and Trubek (2007); Holzinger et al. (2006); Coglianese et al. (2003).

  6. 6.

    The tripartite structure of Zone 7 arrangements such as EITI is reminiscent of—but different from—the tripartite state-worker-employer structure of the ILO. Among other differences, a broader range of stakeholders typically participates in the new institutions, their governance arrangements are more fluid, and as in most RSS schemes, their norms are voluntary and address firms directly.

  7. 7.

    Adapted from Abbott and Snidal (2009a).

  8. 8.

    See Mattli and Woods (2009) on the importance of demonstration effects, and Abbott and Snidal (2005) for a discussion for demonstration effects significant to RSS.

  9. 9.

    Abbott and Snidal (2009a) discusses the difficulty of summarizing these changes, given that RSS schemes involve a range of activities, from the negotiation of standards through their enforcement.

  10. 10.

    For a fuller analysis of the “competencies” of different actors and RSS schemes, see Abbott and Snidal (2009a).

  11. 11.

    When IOs are motivated by policy aims, our analysis of orchestration can be viewed as a positive statement regarding what IOs will do (given the right information about policy alternatives); when IOs have alternative goals or do not understand the potential of orchestration, then our analysis is necessarily more normative, suggesting what IOs should do (if they had the “right” goals and information).

  12. 12.;

  13. 13.

  14. 14.

    For this reason, Arnold and Whitford (2006) suggests that states should mandate the types of internal management systems that IFC, EMAS and ECO call for, rather than leaving them to be imposed as conditions on voluntary programs.

  15. 15.

    Abbott and Snidal (2009b) applies New Governance theory to the international context.

  16. 16.

  17. 17.; Dingwerth 2007: 111

  18. 18.;

  19. 19.

    The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, especially Agenda 21, called for engagement with “major groups” in society to achieve sustainable development; they include business, NGOs and labor unions.

  20. 20.

  21. 21. UNEP expanded its civil society and private sector engagement activities in 2002. See

  22. 22. UNEP has also described its role in helping to create GRI as that of international catalyst (Dingwerth 2007: 110).

  23. 23.

  24. 24.;;;; A notable capacity-building success was UNEP support for multi-stakeholder development of the East African Organic Products Standard.

  25. 25. The program grew out of the ILO’s role in monitoring labor standards in Cambodian apparel factories under a bilateral trade agreement with the US.

  26. 26.

    Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2005/69, 20 April 2005.

  27. 27.

    “Protect, Respect and Remedy: A Framework for Business and Human Rights,” 7 April 2008,; Human Rights Council Resolution 8/7, 18 June 2008.

  28. 28.

    Summit Declaration: Growth and Responsibility in the World Economy, Para. 84, 7 June 2007,,templateId=raw,property=publicationFile.pdf/2007-06-07-gipfeldokument-wirtschaft-eng.pdf.

  29. 29.

    Endorsements cannot, of course, overcome capacity deficits or structural weaknesses in private schemes. For example, GRI largely limits its activities to promulgating reporting standards; it does not monitor, certify or enforce their use by firms and other actors.

  30. 30.; GRI Sustainability Report 2007-08 at 32,

  31. 31.;

  32. 32.

  33. 33.;

  34. 34.;;

  35. 35.;

  36. 36.;;

  37. 37.;

  38. 38.

  39. 39.;

  40. 40.

    Of course, UNEP has played an active role in developing and implementing treaties and other instruments directed at states.

  41. 41.

  42. 42.

    Bauer and Biermann cite many of the leading sources from these periods.

  43. 43.

    Under the ILO model, firms and environmental NGOs would play significant roles in a WEO.

  44. 44.

    Under some of these proposals, private actors would be allowed significant input into decision-making. See, e.g., Frank Biermann, “The Rationale for a World Environment Organization,” in Bauer and Biermann (2005).

  45. 45.

    The same decision requested the Executive Director to identify incremental options that could be implemented immediately or in the next UNEP work program.

  46. 46.

    Another suggestion is a new treaty on sustainable development to set out general objectives, principles, rights and obligations, and establish its own implementing institutions, which would apply across multiple treaty regimes.

  47. 47.; FAO and MSC are even more deeply interrelated: the MSC standard was a partial model for the Guidelines, while MSC originally based its standard partially on the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, a voluntary instrument that addresses both states and private fisheries stakeholders. See

  48. 48.

    These programs provide very modest reputational benefits by promoting their standards to labor organizations, NGOs and other stakeholders who can directly observe firm compliance.

  49. 49.;

  50. 50.

    Michael Lipson (2010), in this volume, emphasizes the parallel problem of ambiguity, where actors disagree over how to interpret IO actions.


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We thank the editors, Tamar Gutner and Alexander Thompson, and the anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on this paper.

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Abbott, K.W., Snidal, D. International regulation without international government: Improving IO performance through orchestration. Rev Int Organ 5, 315–344 (2010).

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  • Regulation
  • International organizations
  • New governance
  • Non-state actors
  • Transnational relations
  • Public-private partnerships
  • Standard setting
  • UNEP
  • Transnational new governance
  • Regulatory standard setting
  • Governance Triangle

JEL codes

  • F53
  • F55
  • F50
  • F23
  • K2