The promise of new institutionalism: explaining the absence of a World or United Nations Environment Organisation

M.J. Vijge

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


In the past forty years, numerous proposals to improve the fragmented international environmental governance (IEG) system have been developed, many of which call for the establishment of an international environment organisation. Although governments and scholars agree that the system needs improvement, no such substantial reform has yet been undertaken. Based on the literature study and more than twenty interviews, this article explains the absence of an international environment organisation, using three theories of new institutionalism: historical, rational choice and discursive institutionalism. Through the notion of path dependency, historical institutionalism explains how the self-reinforcing cycle of a rather diffused development of the IEG system, characterised by incremental changes, has made the system more complicated and prevented substantial institutional change. Historical institutionalism also highlights power inequalities and lack of trust between nation-states, as well as turf wars between international organisations, as key explanatory factors hampering IEG reform. Rational choice institutionalism complements such explanations by showing how incremental institutional changes that do not add up to substantial reform are the result of the fact that neither nation-states nor international organisations are interested in establishing a powerful environment organisation that might encroach upon their sovereignty. Finally, discursive institutionalism suggests that the norm to do at least something to improve the IEG system has prompted nation-states to create ‘‘symbolic’’ institutions. The concept of socialisation helps to explain why incremental institutional developments within the UN system are more likely than substantial reform. The article shows that new institutionalism theories complement rather than contradict one another, resulting in a more holistic explanation of lack of IEG reform.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153-176
JournalInternational Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • governance
  • politics


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