Functionalism (international relations)

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Functionalism is a theory of international relations that arose during the inter-War period principally from the strong concern about the obsolescence of the State as a form of social organization. Rather than the self-interest of nation-states that realists see as a motivating factor, functionalists focus on common interests and needs shared by states (but also by non-state actors) in a process of global integration triggered by the erosion of state sovereignty and the increasing weight of knowledge and hence of scientists and experts in the process of policy-making (Rosamond, 2000). Its roots can be traced back to the liberal/idealist tradition that started with Kant and goes as far as Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" speech (Rosamond, 2000).

Functionalism is a pioneer in globalisation theory and strategy. States had built authority structures upon a principle of territorialism. State-theories were built upon assumptions that identified the scope of authority with territory (Held 1996, Scholte: 1993, 2000, 2001), aided by methodological territorialism (Scholte 1993). Functionalism proposed to build a form of authority based in functions and needs, which linked authority with needs, scientific knowledge, expertise and technology, i.e. it provided a supraterritorial concept of authority. The functionalist approach excludes and refutes the idea of state power and political influence (realist approach) in interpreting the cause for such proliferation of international organizations during the inter-war (which was characterized by nation-state conflict) and the subsequent years.[1]

According to functionalism, international integration – the collective governance and 'material interdependence' (Mitrany, 1933:101) between states – develops its own internal dynamic as states integrate in limited functional, technical, and/or economic areas. International agencies would meet human needs, aided by knowledge and expertise. The benefits rendered by the functional agencies would attract the loyalty of the populations and stimulate their participation and expand the area of integration. There are strong assumptions underpinning functionalism: 1) That the process of integration takes place within a framework of human freedom, 2) That knowledge and expertise are currently available to meet the needs for which the functional agencies are built. 3) That states will not sabotage the process.


Neofunctionalism reintroduced territorialism in the functional theory and downplayed its global dimension. Neofunctionalism is simultaneously a theory and a strategy of regional integration, building on the work of David Mitrany. Neofunctionalists focused their attention solely on the immediate process of integration among states, i.e. regional integration. Initially, states integrate in limited functional or economic areas. Thereafter, partially integrated states experience increasing momentum for further rounds of integration in related areas. This "invisible hand" of integration phenomenon was termed "spill-over." by the neofunctionalist school. This was most apparent in the study of euthanasia. Although integration can be resisted, it becomes harder to stop integration's reach as it progresses.[2]

According to neofunctionalists, there are two kinds of spillover: functional and political. Functional spillover is the interconnection of various economic sectors or issue-areas, and the integration in one policy-area spilling over into others. Political spillover is the creation of supranational governance models, as far-reaching as the European Union, or as voluntary as the United Nations.

One of its protagonists was Ernst B. Haas, a US political scientist. Jean Monnet's approach to European integration, which aimed at integrating individual sectors in hopes of achieving spill-over effects to further the process of integration, is said to have followed the neofunctional school's tack. Unlike previous theories of integration, neofunctionalism declared to be non-normative and tried to describe and explain the process of regional integration based on empirical data. Integration was regarded as an inevitable process, rather than a desirable state of affairs that could be introduced by the political or technocratic elites of the involved states' societies. Its strength however was also its weakness: While it understood that regional integration is only feasible as an incremental process, its conception of integration as a linear process made the explanation of setbacks impossible.

Comparing Functionalism to Realism[edit]

John McCormick compares functionalism's fundamental principles with realism's thus (comments added to emphasise key distinctions) :[3]

  Realism Functionalism Comments
Dominant goals of actors Military security Peace and prosperity security through: Power vs collaboration
Instruments of state policy Military force and economic instruments Economic instruments and political acts of will State policy of assertion vs negotiation
Forces behind agenda formation Potential shifts in the balance of power and security threats Initial emphasis on low politics, such as economic and social issues Agenda sought: maintenance of position vs reaching consensus
Role of international organizations Minor; limited by state power and the importance of military force Substantial; new, functional international organizations will formulate policy and become increasingly responsible for implementation International involvement: minimal vs substantial

Functional Cooperation and Functional International Organization[edit]

The objective of functionalism towards global peace is achieved through functional cooperation by the work of international organizations (including intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations). The activities of functional international organizations involve taking actions on practical and technical problems rather than those of military and political nature. They are also non-controversial politically and involve a common interest to solve international problems that could best be tackled in a transnational manner.[4] According to David Mitrany, dealing with functional matters provides the actors in the international community the opportunity to successfully cooperate in a non-political context, which might otherwise be harder to achieve in a political context. Further development would lead to a process called “autonomous development” towards multiplication, expansion, and deepening of functional international organizations.[5][6] Ideally, this would ultimately result in an international government.[7][8] Functionalists in this manner assume that cooperation in a non-political context would bring international peace.[9] Eradication of existent non-political, non-military global problems, which Functionalists consider to be the very origin of conflict within the global community, is what they aim to pursue.[10] However, critics point out some limitations of functionalist assumption: 1. In practice, dealing with functional matters does not nessarily and always facilitate cooperation. 2. Its simplified assumption overlooks different causes of state conflict.[11]

The proliferation of functional international organizations has occurred without adequate reorganization and coordination efforts due to a lack of central global governance to ensure accountability of such organizations.[12] As a result, a pattern of decentralization could be observed among functional international organizations to the present day.[13] For example, the League of Nations’ effort to coordinate functional international organizations in the field of social and economic cooperation through establishment of UN Economic and Social Council has been futile.[14] As a result, the idea of decentralization prevails to the present day except in cases of special cooperative relationships between Economic and Social Council and some functional organizations.[15] Subsequently, summits such as the World Summit for Social Development in 1995, The Millennium Summit in 2000 and World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 were held to address and coordinate functional cooperation, especially regarding the social and economic aspects.[16]

Substantive functions of functional international organizations include human rights, international communication, health, the law of the sea, the environment, education and information, international relief programs, refugee support, and economic development.[17]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Caporaso, James (March 1998). "Regional integration theory: understanding our past and anticipating our future". Journal of European Public Policy. Taylor and Francis. 5 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1080/13501768880000011.
  • Claude, Jr., Inis L. (1971), "The functional approach to peace", in Claude, Jr., Inis L. (ed.), Swords into plowshares; the problems and progress of international organization (4th ed.), New York: Random House, pp. 344–368, ISBN 9780394340531.
  • Groom, A.J.R.; Taylor, Paul (1975). Functionalism: theory and practice in international relations. New York: Crane, Russak. ISBN 9780844803050.
  • Haas, Ernst (1958). The uniting of Europe: political, social, and economic forces, 1950-1957. Library of World Affairs Series, no. 42. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. OCLC 964689.
  • Haas, Ernst (1964). Beyond the nation-state: functionalism and international organization. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804701860.
  • Held, David (1987). Models of democracy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804713597.
  • Imber, Mark (1989). The USA, ILO, UNESCO, and IAEA: politicization and withdrawal in the specialized agencies. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312032562.
  • Keohane, Robert O.; Hoffmann, Stanley (1991). The New European community: decisionmaking and institutional change. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813382715.
  • McCormick, John (1999). The European Union: politics and policies (2nd ed.). Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 9780813390321.
  • Mitrany, David (1933). The progress of international government. London: G. Allen & Unwin. OCLC 4701730.
  • Mitrany, David (July 1948). "The functional approach to world organization". International Relations. Wiley. 24 (3): 350–363. doi:10.2307/3018652. JSTOR 3018652. Pdf.
  • Mitrany, David (June 1965). "The prospect of European integration: federal or functional". Journal of Common Market Studies. Wiley. 4 (2): 119–149. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5965.1965.tb01124.x.
  • Mitrany, David (1966). A working peace system. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. OCLC 504885.
  • Mitrany, David (1976). The functional theory of politics. New York: St. Martin's Press. OCLC 2273808.
  • Piquet, Howard S. (July 1945). "Functional international organization". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Sage. 240 (1): 43–50. doi:10.1177/000271624524000108.
  • Rosamond, Ben (2000). Theories of European integration. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780333647172.
  • Scholte, Jan Aart (2000). Globalization: a critical introduction. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780333660225.
  • Scholte, Jan Aart (2001). "The globalization of world politics". In Baylis, John; Smith, Steve (eds.). The globalization of world politics: an introduction to international relations (2nd ed.). Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 13–34. ISBN 9780198782636.
  • Scholte, Jan Aart (1993). International relations of social change. Buckingham: Open University Press. ISBN 9780335093304.
  • Sewell, James (1966). Functionalism and world politics : a study on united nations programs financing economic development. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691075082.
  • Wallace, William, ed. (1990). The dynamics of European integration. London New York: Pinter Publishers for the Royal Institute of International Affairs. ISBN 9781855670877.
  • Wolf, Peter (Summer 1973). "International organization and attitude change: a re–examination of the functionalist approach". International Organization. Cambridge Journals. 27 (3): 347–371. doi:10.1017/S0020818300003544.
  • Ziring, Lawrence; Riggs, Robert E.; Piano, Jack C. (2005), "Social and technical cooperation", in Ziring, Lawrence; Riggs, Robert E.; Piano, Jack C. (eds.), The United Nations: international organization and world politics, Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, pp. 397–469, ISBN 9780534631864.


  1. ^ Wolf, Peter (Summer 1973). "International organization and attitude change: a re–examination of the functionalist approach". International Organization. Cambridge Journals. 27 (3): 347–371. doi:10.1017/S0020818300003544.
  2. ^ McCormick pp. 13.
  3. ^ McCormick pp. 14.
  4. ^ Mitrany, David (1966). A working peace system. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. OCLC 504885. pp. 35.
  5. ^ Wolf, Peter., "International organization and attitude change: a re–examination of the functionalist approach"
  6. ^ Mitrany, A Working Peace System. pp. 35.
  7. ^ Wolf, Peter., "International organization and attitude change: a re–examination of the functionalist approach"
  8. ^ Ziring, Lawrence; Riggs, Robert E.; Piano, Jack C. (2005), "Social and technical cooperation", in Ziring, Lawrence; Riggs, Robert E.; Piano, Jack C. (eds.), The United Nations: international organization and world politics, Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, pp. 397–469, ISBN 9780534631864.
  9. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 398.
  10. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 399.
  11. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 400.
  12. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 400.
  13. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 400.
  14. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 401.
  15. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 401–402.
  16. ^ Ziring, Riggs and Plano, pp. 403.

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