The Liquid Powers of International Institutions

International institutions operate in radically changing contexts and constantly face calls for adaptation to new circumstances, yet their legal structure is traditionally dominated by the notion of attributed powers and member state control. How do they navigate these contradictory demands? In this paper I argue that international organizations generate flexibility in two major ways. They turn to instruments too informal to generate many legal concerns, and they use political opportunities, especially crises and discursive openings, to expand their powers with the support, or in the absence of substantial opposition, from states. The result is not necessarily a consolidated new legal framework, and the authority institutions generate in these ways is often not solid but instead ‘liquid’, subject to further fluctuation and contestation. Yet such authority is often sufficient to ground a far broader scope of action than envisaged in organizations’ constituent instruments.