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Colonies, semi-sovereigns, and great powers: IGO membership debates and the transition of the international system

  • Ellen J. Ravndal (a1)


How did the transition from a world of empire to a global international system organised around the sovereign state play out? This article traces the transition over the past two centuries through an examination of membership debates in two prominent intergovernmental organisations (IGOs). IGOs are sites of contestation that play a role in the constitution of the international system. Discussions within IGOs reflect and shape broader international norms, and are one mechanism through which the international system determines questions of membership and attendant rights and obligations. The article reveals that IGO membership policies during this period reflected different compromises between the three competing principles of great power privilege, the ‘standard of civilisation’, and universal sovereign equality. The article contributes to Global IR as it confirms that non-Western agency was crucial in bringing about this transition. States in Africa, Asia, and Latin America championed the adoption of the sovereignty criterion. In this, paradoxically, one of the core constitutional norms of the ‘European’ international system – the principle of sovereign equality – was realised at the hands of non-European actors.


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1 The English School and work inspired by it commonly distinguish between an international system, where states interact, and a society, where states also ‘conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions’. Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (4th edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 13. By this terminology we are currently living in an international society. In this article I have nonetheless settled for the term system, which is the more common concept across the discipline of IR. But in line with both English School and constructivist research, I understand this system as a social construction constituted by the norms and practices of the actors within it.

2 Although it mentions ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign states’ frequently, the article does not analyse changing meanings of sovereignty as such. As the later analysis shows, ‘sovereignty’ was one of several principles used to decide on membership in the international system.

3 For the traditional account, see Bull, Hedley and Watson, Adam (eds), The Expansion of International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). For an update and critique, see Dunne, Tim and Reus-Smit, Christian (eds), The Globalization of International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

4 For a discussion of the Global IR project, see Acharya, Amitav, ‘Global international relations (IR) and regional worlds: A new agenda for international studies’, International Studies Quarterly, 58:4 (2014), pp. 647‒59; Acharya, Amitav, ‘Advancing global IR: Challenges, contentions, and contributions’, International Studies Review, 18:1 (2016), pp. 415; Capan, Zeynep Gulsah, ‘Decolonising international relations?’, Third World Quarterly, 38:1 (2017), pp. 115.

5 See Murphy, Craig N., International Organization and Industrial Change: Global Governance since 1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

6 The analysis in the article is based on primary source material from the ITU and the UPU, supplemented by documents from the Postal Museum in London. The ITU has made all conventions, conference documents, and annual reports available online at: {} accessed 27 August 2019. The UPU does not have an archive, but I have collected copies of several UPU annual reports from the ITU archive in Geneva, copies of UPU conventions until 1947 from the United States Treaties collection, available at: {} accessed 27 August 2019, and UPU conventions from 1964 onwards from the UPU website, available at: {} accessed 27 August 2019.

7 Acharya, ‘Advancing global IR’, p. 5, argues that a central feature of Global IR is its ‘recognition of multiple forms of agency, including the agency of non-Western actors’.

8 Correlates of War Project, ‘State System Membership List, v2016’ (2017), available at: {} accessed 13 December 2018.

9 Gleditsch, Kristian S. and Ward, Michael D., ‘A revised list of independent states since the Congress of Vienna’, International Interactions, 25:4 (1999), pp. 393413; Bremer, Stuart A. and Ghosn, Faten, ‘Defining states: Reconsiderations and recommendations’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 20:1 (2003), pp. 2141; Fazal, Tanisha M., State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

10 Griffiths, Ryan D. and Butcher, Charles R., ‘Introducing the International System(s) Dataset (ISD), 1816–2011’, International Interactions, 39:5 (2013), pp. 752‒3.

11 Ibid., pp. 749‒50.

12 See fn. 3.

13 Christian Reus-Smit and Tim Dunne, ‘Introduction’, in Dunne and Reus-Smit (eds), The Globalization of International Society, pp. 3‒6. See also Kayaoglu, Turan, ‘Westphalian Eurocentrism in International Relations theory’, International Studies Review, 12:2 (2010), pp. 193217; Hobson, John M., The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 222‒6.

14 See various chapters in Bull and Watson (eds), Expansion of International Society.

15 See, for example, Keene, Edward, Beyond the Anarchical Society: Grotius, Colonialism and Order in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Anghie, Antony, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Suzuki, Shogo, Zhang, Yongjin, and Quirk, Joel (eds), International Orders in the Early Modern World: Before the Rise of the West (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

16 See, for example, Fawcett, Louise, ‘Between West and non-West: Latin American contributions to international thought’, The International History Review, 34:4 (2012), pp. 679704; Helleiner, Eric, ‘Southern pioneers of international development’, Global Governance, 20:3 (2014), pp. 375‒88.

17 Christian Reus-Smit and Tim Dunne, ‘The globalization of international society’, in Dunne and Reus-Smit (eds), The Globalization of International Society, pp. 18‒40; Keene, Edward, ‘The standard of “civilisation”, the expansion thesis and the 19th-century international social space’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 42:3 (2014), pp. 651‒73; Buzan, Barry and Lawson, George, The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

18 For a recent theoretical discussion of how contestation is a crucial part of (non-Western) agency, see Acharya, Amitav, Constructing Global Order: Agency and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 1417.

19 Duque, Marina G., ‘Recognizing international status: A relational approach’, International Studies Quarterly, 62:3 (2018), p. 578.

20 Some notable contributions to these debates are Bartelson, Jens, A Genealogy of Sovereignty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Krasner, Stephen D., Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). For a recent discussion on the emergence of sovereignty, see Lopez, Julia Costa, de Carvalho, Benjamin, Latham, Andrew A., Zarakol, Ayşe, Bartelson, Jens, and Holm, Minda, ‘Forum: In the beginning there was no word (for it): Terms, concepts, and early sovereignty’, International Studies Review, 20:3 (2018), pp. 489519.

21 For a good account of the practice of recognition and its role in the international system, see Fabry, Mikulas, Recognizing States: International Society and the Establishment of New States Since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

22 Wohlforth, William C., de Carvalho, Benjamin, Leira, Halvard, and Neumann, Iver B., ‘Moral authority and status in international relations: Good states and the social dimension of status seeking’, Review of International Studies, 44:3 (2017), p. 541.

23 Klabbers, Jan, An Introduction to International Institutional Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 91‒2; Ravndal, Ellen Jenny, ‘Acting like a state: Non-European membership of international organisations in the nineteenth century’, in Bartelson, Jens, Hall, Martin, and Teorell, Jan (eds), De-Centering State Making: Comparative and International Perspectives (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2018), pp. 175‒96.

24 Howland, Douglas, ‘Japan and the Universal Postal Union: An alternative internationalism in the 19th century’, Social Science Japan Journal, 17:1 (2014), pp. 2339.

25 Howland, Douglas, ‘An alternative mode of international order: The international administrative union in the nineteenth century’, Review of International Studies, 41:1 (2015), pp. 161‒83.

26 Howland, Douglas, International Law and Japanese Sovereignty: The Emerging Global Order in the 19th Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 73‒4.

27 Thomas, Daniel C., ‘Beyond identity: Membership norms and regional organization’, European Journal of International Relations, 23:1 (2017), pp. 217‒40.

28 This article only discusses IGOs. Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are even older. For a good treatment of the history of NGOs, see Davies, Thomas, NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society (London: Hurst & Company, 2013).

29 The information given by the IGOs themselves differs significantly from the widely used IGO membership data in COW, which only records IGO members if they are already recognised as sovereign states. Pevehouse, Jon, Nordstrom, Timothy, and Warnke, Kevin, ‘The Correlates of War 2 International Governmental Organizations Data Version 2.0’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 21:2 (2004), pp. 101‒19. One illustrative example: the COW IGO dataset reports 33 UPU members for the five-year period starting in 1905, but according to the UPU's annual report, it had 68 members in 1905. This represents more than a doubling of membership if we include all members as reported by the organisation itself as opposed to only those later recognised as sovereign states.

30 Griffiths and Butcher, ‘Introducing the ISD’.

31 The ISD, unlike COW, does not classify a state as sovereign based solely on its membership of the League of Nations or the UN. Instead it applies a population threshold of 100,000 uniformly across the dataset. Therefore, a number of states like Lichtenstein, Monaco, Nauru, and Palau, which are today commonly considered sovereign, fall outside the ISD's criteria for system membership. The dataset flags them as ‘microstates’. See discussion in Griffiths and Butcher, ‘Introducing the ISD’, pp. 756‒7. To avoid overestimating the number of non-sovereign members, I have included these microstates in the ‘sovereign’ category.

32 International Telegraph (Telecommunications) Union (ITU), International Telecommunication Convention, Atlantic City (1947), Art. 1.5.

33 Howland, ‘Alternative mode of international order’; Howland, International Law and Japanese Sovereignty; Acharya, Amitav and Buzan, Barry, The Making of Global International Relations: Origins and Evolution of IR at its Centenary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 13.

34 ITU, Documents Diplomatiques de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de Paris (1865), p. 33.

35 Howland, ‘Alternative mode of international order’, p. 169; Codding, George A., The Universal Postal Union: Coordinator of the International Mails (New York: New York University Press, 1964), pp. 37‒8.

36 Universal Postal Union (UPU), Convention and Final Protocol, Paris (1878), Art. 18.

37 Reinsch, Paul S., Public International Unions: Their Work and Organization (Boston and London: Ginn & Company, 1911), p. 149.

38 Bowden, Brett, ‘To rethink standards of civilisation, start with the end’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 42:3 (2014), p. 617.

39 Jacinta O'Hagan, ‘The role of civilization in the globalization of international society’, in Dunne and Reus-Smit (eds), The Globalization of International Society, p. 191.

40 UPU, Treaty and Final Protocol, Bern (1874), Art. 18.

41 Lyons, Francis S. L., Internationalism in Europe, 1815–1914 (Leyden: A. W. Sythoff, 1963), p. 23.

42 ITU, Documents de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de Rome (1871‒2), p. 87; Codding, Universal Postal Union, pp. 141‒2.

43 Lyons, Internationalism in Europe, pp. 25‒8.

44 Ravndal, ‘Acting like a state’.

45 ITU, Documents de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de Rome (1871‒2), pp. 228‒35.

46 Ibid., p. 231. This and following translations from French are by the author.

47 Ibid., p. 229.

48 Codding, George A. and Rutkowski, Anthony M., The International Telecommunication Union in a Changing World (Dedham, MA: Artech House, 1982), p. 11.

49 ITU, Documents de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de Rome (1871‒2), pp. 223‒5.

50 Ibid., p. 263.

51 Ibid., p. 307.

52 Ibid., p. 557.

53 ITU, Documents de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de St Pétersbourg (1875), pp. 280‒2.

54 UPU, Treaty and Final Protocol, Bern (1874), Art. 17.

55 Codding, Universal Postal Union, pp. 35‒6.

56 UPU, Convention and Final Protocol, Paris (1878), Art. 21.

57 UPU, Convention and Final Protocol, Madrid (1920), Art. 29.

58 Codding, Universal Postal Union, p. 80.

59 See also Keene, ‘Standard of “civilisation”’, for a discussion of how the ‘standard of civilisation’ served to protect the status of smaller European states in the nineteenth century.

60 See, for example, Learoyd, Arthur, ‘Configurations of semi-sovereignty in the long nineteenth century’, in Bartelson, Jens, Hall, Martin, and Teorell, Jan (eds), De-Centering State-Making: Comparative and International Perspectives (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2018), pp. 155‒74.

61 Haldén, Peter, ‘A non-sovereign modernity: Attempts to engineer stability in the Balkans 1820–90’, Review of International Studies, 39:2 (2013), pp. 337‒59.

62 Covenant of the League of Nations (1919), Art. 1.

63 The Postal Museum, London, UK, POST 33/4159, British Colonies and Dependencies: Status and Representation at Conventions, Conferences, of Universal Postal Union (hereafter POST 33/4159), ‘List of Colonies in UPU Conventions’.

64 Codding and Rutkowski, International Telecommunication Union, p. 11.

65 ITU, Documents de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de Madrid (1932), vol. 1, p. 844.

66 Ibid., vol. 2, pp. XLII‒XLIII.

67 POST 33/4159, Furrer to Williamson, 19 March 1933.

68 Ibid., Williamson to FO, 10 April 1933.

69 Ibid., FO memorandum, 9 October 1930.

70 Ibid., Smith to Phillips, 6 March 1933.

71 Ibid., Handwritten note on FO memorandum of 9 October 1930.

72 Ibid., FO to GPO, 24 October 1930.

73 Reinalda, Bob, Routledge History of International Organizations: From 1815 to the Present Day (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p. 89.

74 Ikenberry, G. John, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 163.

75 Russell, Ruth B., A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United States 1940–1945 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1958). The Soviet Union had also argued that all its constituent republics were eligible for individual membership of the ITU in the 1930s. See ITU, Documents de la Conférence Télégraphique Internationale de Madrid (1932), Vol. 1, p. 848.

76 See, for example, Bosco, David L., Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

77 ITU, Documents of the International Telecommunications Conference, Atlantic City (1947), Doc. 57 TR-E.

78 Ibid., Doc. 137 TR-E.

79 ITU, International Telecommunication Convention, Atlantic City (1947), Art. 1.

80 Ibid., Annex 1.

81 UPU, Convention, with Final Protocol and Annex, Paris (1947); Codding, Universal Postal Union, pp. 81‒4.

82 Codding, Universal Postal Union, p. 84.

83 UPU, Constitution of the Universal Postal Union, Vienna (1964).

84 ITU, Documents of the Plenipotentiary Conference, Malaga-Torremolinos (1973), Doc. 139-E.

85 Ibid., Doc. 442-E.

86 Ibid., Doc. 442-E.

87 Ibid., Docs 125-E, 139-E.

88 Ibid., Doc. 443-E.

89 Irwin, Ryan M., Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

90 For a discussion of the NIEO's place in the history of decolonisation, see Getachew, Adom, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 142‒75.

91 Irwin, Gordian Knot.

92 See Jackson, Robert H. and Rosberg, Carl G., ‘Why Africa's weak states persist: The empirical and the juridical in statehood’, World Politics, 35:1 (1982), pp. 124.

93 See, for example, Bexell, Magdalena, Tallberg, Jonas, and Uhlin, Anders, ‘Democracy in global governance: The promises and pitfalls of transnational actors’, Global Governance, 16:1 (2010), pp. 81101; Koppell, Jonathan G. S., World Rule: Accountability, Legitimacy, and the Design of Global Governance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Haack, Kirsten, ‘Breaking barriers? Women's representation and leadership at the United Nations’, Global Governance, 20:1 (2014), pp. 3754.

94 Hall, Rodney Bruce and Biersteker, Thomas J. (eds), Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).


Colonies, semi-sovereigns, and great powers: IGO membership debates and the transition of the international system

  • Ellen J. Ravndal (a1)


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