Image: The UN Security Council Chamber, furnished by Norway, symbolizes the promise of future peace and individual freedom. Source: Interviewees.

Lucile Maertens is a lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. She is affiliated to the Centre of International History and Political Studies of Globalization.

Marieke Louis is Associate Professor in political science at Sciences Po Grenoble, affiliated to the PACTE laboratory. She is also co-editor at the French-speaking magazine La Vie des idées

Together, they have just published the book Why International Organizations Hate Politics (Routledge, London). In this interview, they grant us a preview of their exciting work.

What does your book deal with? What problems does it investigate?

In the world of international organizations, one often hears the phrase: “We don’t do politics.” We decided to take this apolitical claim seriously, to see where it comes from and how it translates into practice. It led us to a more general question: How do international organizations depoliticize the world’s most pressing issues? By international organizations, we mean both international bureaucracies and their vast networks of civil servants, as well as their member-countries.

We identify three categories of practices that lead to depoliticization: appealing to expert knowledge; using formats of interventions under the guise of neutrality; and, finally, employing a variety of tactics to gain time which eventually lead to a loss of political momentum. When it comes to the latter, one can even go as far as “burying” the possibility of debates that risk dividing international organizations.

We also looked at the logics of depoliticization. Why do international organizations depoliticize? What are the consequences of this depoliticization? On that front, we identified three main logics for depoliticizing issues. First off, there is a pragmatic logic based on the functionalist premise of the division of labor and specialization of international organizations. Then, there is a logic of legitimation that contributes to expand and monopolize one’s field of action. Lastly, there is a logic of blame-shifting and avoiding responsibility.

The bottom line is that international organizations are ultimately political and that for these institutions depoliticization is part of how they do politics. Sometimes it works, but it can be counterproductive and lead to resistance.

What makes your perspective original?

The book innovates through a systemic approach of real-world practices and logics of action at work in international organizations. We led several case studies at the heart of the multilateral order: from the reform of the United Nations (UN) Security Council to climate change-related negotiations, or the regulation of transnational corporations.

Through the lens of the sociology of international organizations, the book unveils the complexity of depoliticization by taking it seriously. At the same time, it strives to remain critical in the face of an international organization’s ability to depoliticize crucial issues of our time. For us, depoliticization is a political process. It can be employed strategically to serve one’s interests or to fulfill political objectives.

What is more, we wanted to report on practices that are common to international organizations. Too often, these institutions are seen as too singular, dealing with far-off issues such as security, health, work, development, the environment, and more. Here, we avoided distinguishing between “political” organizations (such as the UN) and “technical” ones (like the International Labor Organization, or ILO). As a result, our book sheds light on the banality of international organizations as political actors in their own right, even if they have their specificities.

What prompted you to look at depoliticization in international organizations?

The project was born out of a paradox we faced while working on our respective doctoral thesis. Lucile was conducting an ethnographic fieldwork at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). She was puzzled by how officials would constantly claim “not to do politics” despite the fact that the object of their mandate (to protect the environment) was eminently political. Besides, their work consisted of providing political guidance through expert reports.

On her side, Marieke went through a similar episode at the ILO. There, she would regularly hear member-State delegates declaring “not to deal with political matters” or “not to pick sides” regarding labor law.

Our combined empirical experiences led us to think about the processes through which international organizations pretend to be outside of politics. This question had already been taken up by a few scholars, notably in French-speaking academia. But a systematic study of depoliticization in international organizations had yet to see the light of day. Our book fills that gap and shows the effects of depoliticization on global governance and today’s biggest challenges.

Who is your audience?

Our book is freely available online thanks to the Swiss National Science Foundation and is relevant for a vast audience.

First off, we hope that students and researchers in international relations and other disciplines will find it particularly interesting. It introduces the complex world of international organizations (we looked at more than forty of these, operating in a wide variety of fields). It also sheds light on the workings of depoliticization at the global level.

The book also appeals to social scientists dealing with classic issues such as the framing of public policies, the uses of expertise, processes of legitimation, power dynamics within institutions, organizational cultures, and professional practices.

Finally, we address other professionals (journalists, teachers, elected officials, etc.) and amateurs of international politics. Not to mention the international civil servants themselves, who opened the doors of multilateralism to us, researchers. Our book is an attempt to capture the complexity of their world. After all, no international civil servant ever wakes up in the morning with the sole intention of depoliticizing poverty! Instead, we want to kick off a discussion on the political meanings and implications of their professional activities.


This interview has been translated from French by Murillo Salvador.