Course work of IPS – 204: Theories and Concepts in International Relations
Professor: Nikolay Marinov

1. Introduction

In September 2003, Mongolia hosted the U.N. supported international conference entitled “The Fifth Conference of New or Restored Democracies” on the topic of “Democracy, Good Governance and Civil Society”. A parallel international conference called the “International Civil Society Forum” was held days before on a similar topic.

Together, both events were the first world-scale conferences organized by the Mongolian government and Mongolian non-governmental organizations. As Mongolia had no similar experience in its history, the two conferences and their organizational processes enabled one to observe a pattern of an adaptation of external institutional values over a short period of time.

Hosting an international conference on global issues is one of the more common forms of adoption of international institutional culture and practices for a host nation state. Especially if the nation state is inexperienced, it will oblige the state to engage in an “electric adoption” of all the conflicting principles related to the organizational process inherent in staging such an event.

In this paper, I will analyze prediction of institutionalism theories that state “the logic of copying externally defined identities promotes profound decoupling” (J.Meyer, J.Boli etc., 1997). The theory further implies that such copying policy is not a favorable one for the receiving country. Question then arise as to ‘why isomorphism does not stop as a process? Where does it start? And in which direction does it cause the most significant decoupling?’ I look for answers for these questions in two ways: 1) by raising questions from current studies on isomorphism; and 2) from a case study on international conferences of new or restored democracies.

In the initial section, while talking about isomorphism, I will not assume that “externally defined identities” take their origin only from western countries or international organizations. Instead, my assumption is that isomorphism, as a process of diffusing external ideas, cultures and organizational elements, and is not necessarily a one-way or one-direction process.

Its direction could be either from the west to developing countries or from one international organization to another, or from international organizations to countries and vise versa. This assumption facilitates the search for deeper problems behind a seemingly simple example of diffusion of “democracy agenda” with support of the U.N. via international democracy conferences of new or restored democracies when I will look at the case study.

The case of democracy conferences enables us to compare adoption processes by government and non-governmental actors both dealing with the same international organization – the U.N., as well as an adoption of democracy idea by the U.N. itself. And from my analysis and observation, I will try to find supportive positions and data for my main argument that isomorphism as a process can not stop because an adoption of new practices and norms by more than one actor simultaneously intensifies internal pressure on the future institutional changes which reduces the degree of decoupling in general, and which, in turn, promises continuation of the future isomorphic process encouraged by less decoupling actors.

1. Origin and Direction of Isomorphism

From institutional theorists’ view, isomorphism is defined as something characteristic to nation states. John W. Meyer and other scholars made four key observations about contemporary nation-states:

“First, nation-states exhibit a great deal of isomorphism in their structures and policies.

Second, they make valiant efforts to live up to the model of rational actorhood.

Third, and partly as a result of the second observation, they are marked by considerable, and sometimes extraordinary, decoupling between purposes and structure, intentions and results.

Fourth, they undergo expansive structurization in largely standardized ways.

The generality of these observations makes sense only if nation –states are understood as, in part, constructions of a common wider culture, rather than as self-directed actors responding rationally to internal and external contingencies” (John Meyer and John Boli etc., 1997). However, institutionalists while noting the origin of the “common wider culture” tend to limit their search with western originated norms and cultures.

Furthermore, many followers of institutionalism theory, while mentioning ‘decoupling’ and ‘copying’, take examples of a copying developing country and the origin of ideas are taken as international organizations’ or of developed part of the world.

So, the term “isomorphism and decoupling” seemed to be consumed more in analyzing reasons of differences between the developed west and developing countries rather than studying whole trajectory of directions of isomorphic process. However, some scholars have studied new origins of modern international agendas.

Transnational advocacy groups and International NGOs, which include a wide network in all parts of the world, can originate new ideas and push new norms by persuasion, according to Paul Wapner. Wapner called such an origin as “civic power” and explained how it changes the norms: “By contrast [to government powers], civic power has no legally sanctioned status and cannot be enforced through the legitimate use of violence.

It rests on persuasion and more constitutive employment of power in which people change their practices because they have come to understand the world in a way that promotes certain actions over others because they operate in an environment that induces them to do so. Put differently, civic power is the forging of voluntary and customary practices into mechanisms that govern public affairs.” (Paul Wapner, 1995)

Even though there are concerns about “marketization of many IO and INGO activities” (Alexander Cooley and James Ron, 1993) the role of transnational groups should not be underestimated in international relations because they rely much on local voluntarism which suggests that their new ideas come from within the societies.

Samuel P. Huntington’s concern of “clash of civilizations” (Samuel P.Huntington, 1993) is conflicted when it comes to voluntarism for the same value and idea in different countries. In my view, voluntarism and transnational advocacy practice are based upon a few core values which are remarkably similar in every civilization and country.

Therefore, it is impossible to talk about isomorphism without mentioning diffusion of ideas and values. Diffusion of ideas and values occur at different levels and by different actors from that of adopting structure and legislation.

For example, when states join in an international agreement, they can easily copy legislations to protect certain rights. However, it will take a much longer time for the values and cultures behind the international norm to be accepted and adopted by the society.

Until such time as society incorporates the underlying values, the states’ actions will be marked by strong decoupling. However, adopting international norms by the state will give a chance for the society to introduce new values and allow the longer process of adopting a new culture to commence. I suggest that the same process is true for the diffusion of ideas to international organizations. The reason is simple.

As Meyer’s “model of rational actorhood’ suggest, nation states copy externally defined identities with rational goals, for example to have economic gain or international prestige. The similar rational goal can be defined by international organizations, for example by the U.N. to establish democratic peace, or by a transnational advocacy group to reduce power of governments over elections etc.

For example, members of the international organization will pursue different values and it will take time to adapt the core values behind the idea or norm brought to the international organization. Just voting positively for a certain norms do not express full consensus over the values, but it launches a longer process of adapting a new value among members.

In today’s globalizing world any actor can play a rational actorhood to achieve its goal and it is becoming complicated to recognize which ideas can be called as external and which ones as internal. As some scholars correctly notice “Increasing levels of transboundary movements and their associated effects, what has come to be termed globalization, encourage a more intimate analytic relationship between international and domestic politics.” (Peter J.Katzenstein, Robert O.Keohane and Stephan D.Krasner, 1998).

In short, my analysis leads to the argument that isomorphism as a process, can originate from states, international organizations, transnational groups, and its trajectory does not necessarily be limited to that of between nation-states. And the reason for decoupling might be a two-level adapting process.

As long as there is an actor with rational interest, it is prone to adapt new norms and structure suggested from “outside”, which, in turn, carry values and cultures behind. The level where those values and cultures to be adapted are not states but societies, and not international organizations but their members.

Outside part offers that new idea can be any actor of globalized world: international organization, transnational advocacy group or nation-state. But from institutional theories and their opponents’ articles, I could not find an argument as to whether there were similar “considerable, and sometimes extraordinary, decoupling” (John Meyer and John Boli etc., 1997) when international organization or “civic power” adapts an idea identified from outside. I turn next to what I see as isomorphic process among real institutions – the U.N. and nation states and what this implies about complexity of defining the decoupling process.

2. Democracy Conference and the United Nations

Research Design

This paper covers international conferences on new or restored democracies in chronological order. Information on the conferences is taken both from online resources and printed sources.

Ideally, it could have covered behaviors of all actors of five conferences in detail, but due to restricted time and resource, it was limited to covering the outcomes of five conferences and the U.N. role. More detailed observation on the actors’ behavior is made only from the latest conference of new or restored democracies.

My observation focuses on four elements: 1) time and scope of participation in democracy dialogue, especially thanks to the U.N. involvement; 2) content issues; 3) structural changes in the UN and signs of decoupling. 4) Observation of “electric adapting” in Mongolia.

These four elements allow us to see the diffusion of the democracy idea through an institutional network that involved governments and the intergovernmental organization as well as civil society. As the diffusion of democracy idea is different from the diffusion of an international treaty or any other legal act, it has its own specific trajectory in shaping changes in structures and practices.

Time and scope of participation in democracy dialogue means the participation by states in international conferences of new or restored democracies and parallel civil society meetings. However, it did not aim to count all other democracy conferences that had been held all over the world.

Contents of declarations are not compared in detail but changes of main goals and consistence of values have been compared. In doing so, the main focus is given to the decisions and reasons of other international conferences held on democracy.

As to the Mongolian example of ‘electric adapting”, time, players, and technology of organizing an international conference is compared to that of between government and NGOSs. At the end of the observation, the level of decoupling is compared between the UN, the Mongolian government, and the civil society group involved.

Time and scope of participation in democracy conferences

It is interesting to note that democracy is not the core value on which the United Nations was built. Democracy was not the United Nations agenda for many years. For the first three years of UN activity, democracy was not mentioned in its agenda at all.

(YUN, 1945-1947: This information is based on Agenda list of United Nations general assembly and other UN organizations that are listed in Yearbooks of the UN. Subject Index of the Yearbooks was taken as sources of this information as well.)

Then democracy was discussed at the UNESCO level. A UNESCO sponsored “meeting of experts was held to complete a survey made in 1948 on the different meanings of the idea of democracy and the practical influence of this idea today” (YUN 1948-49, p.1017).

Soon after this survey, democracy was included in an agenda of the UN general assembly in 1950 that mentioned that “strengthening of democratic principles as means of contributing to the maintenance of universal peace” (YUN 1950, p.29).

However, the word “democracy” then disappeared from the UN yearbook Subject Index for another 43 years. Some democracy initiatives conclude that it was inevitable to bring ‘democracy’ into the U.N. agenda from outside. “When the victors in WWII drafted the Charter, they could not lay down in it anything like democracy as such, although the issue of human rights was central in the whole construction of the post-war era.

As the United Nations system developed simultaneously with its use as an arena for the Cold War type of ideological confrontation, there was no way to bring democracy on its agenda, implicitly or explicitly. That is why a clear movement in the promotion of democratic values started outside the United Nations” (Romania Mission).

The outside initiative to bring democracy to the UN agenda was articulated on November 22, 1994 by Nicaragua submitting to the Secretary-General the Managua declaration and Plan of action adopted at the Second International Conference of New or Restored Democracies.

Sixty-five nations sponsored the draft of the General assembly resolution 49/30 “Support by the United Nations system of the efforts by Governments to promote and consolidate new or restored democracies” which proposed to include the draft into the UN General Assembly agenda was adopted by consensus.

Beginning from this decision the United Nations began supporting the following international conferences of new or restored democracies (ICNRD). Table 1. shows dates, places and scope of participation in the ICNRDs.


As Table 1. shows, participation in democracy conferences has significantly increased in last decade. One should notice that beginning from the Third conference, i.e. the U.N. involvement, civil society groups began convening in parallel and separately from the government oriented ICNRDs.

Its form of convening developed from a separate meeting of some ICNRD participants till separate forums with independent financing and organization. Relatively similar consequence of the Third ICNRD was that a group of countries initiated the Conference of Community of Democracies.

Its first meeting was in Warsaw, Poland in June 26, 2000 (before Benin’s ICNRD) gathering high level government officials of 107 countries. The second conference of the Community of Democracies was held in 2002 in Seoul, Korea with participation of 118 countries.

But the conferences of the Community of Democracies (CD) were not held under auspices of the UN organizations which suggest increased participation in ICNRDs was the result of increased interest in democracy rather than thanks to the UN involvement.

Content issues

When the United Nations accepted a role to support democracies, it did not identify its position regarding the content of new agenda “democracy” immediately. However, the Managua declaration proposed a clear idea. It stated, along with other provisions that “democracy was the best way to achieve human and social development” (YUN, 1994, p.250) and that it should be “the highest priority to the implementation of the Secretary-General’s agenda for peace and the agenda for development.”

However, the UN General Assembly preferred not to give any opinion on democracy values. All its resolutions in support of democracies are directed to taking organizational and collaborative actions to foster democracy dialogues among member states.

So, the main content – dialogue about core values of democracy—avoids the UN decision making rooms. Reactions to “democracy agenda” were different inside the UN. The Secretary-General states in his 1995 report that democracy was “not a model to be copied from certain States, but a goal to be attained by all peoples and assimilated by all cultures. It may take any forms, depending on the characteristics and circumstances of societies” (Romania Missions, p.2).

Then, conflicting to each other resolutions were adopted at different levels of the UN organizations. While adoption of the resolution “Respect for the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of States in their electoral processes” (YUN 1999, p.632) by the General Assembly served to the principle of sovereignty on which the United Nations was founded in 1945, the UN High Commission on Human Rights has approved “landmark resolution [Right to Democracy,1999] that affirms the right to democratic governance as a universal value”(Albright, 2000) declaring recognition by one of UN organizations the new universal principle.

However, the UN was consistent in its commitment to technically support international conferences of new or restored democracies, i.e. democracy dialogues although it did not demand much reconsideration of the Organization’s core principles.

Some content issues were characteristic of democracy conferences outside the UN. This became evident beginning with the Third Conference of new or restored democracies where participants of the conference offered a “new look” at democracy, asserting that it was not a model to copy from the West but a goal to achieve by every country in their own way.

However, this look faced strong opposition and prompted the launch of the Community of Democracies that openly states that universal values are essential. Civil society forums that were held independently from but parallel with the fourth and fifth Innards focused more on core universal values of democracy rather than the goals and historic methods employed by the original democracies. The Worldwide Movement for Democracy (New Delhi, India, February 1999), and the Forum on Emerging Democracies (Sana’a Declaration relating to democratic rights and principles) were also outside the UN initiatives to declare universal principles and values of democracy.

Structural changes in the UN and signs of decoupling

According to the Yearbooks of the United Nations (1995-2000) the following structural changes followed the appearance of “democracy agenda” at each year’s General Assembly sessions:

1. The Secretary general was authorized to improve the capacity of the Organization to respond effectively to the requests of Member States through coherent , adequate support of their efforts to achieve the goal of democratization

2. The Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) established three task forces to support countries’ implementations of commitments made at global conferences and a sub-group on capacity-building for governance chaired by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

3. Human rights treaty bodies, OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of for Human Rights) and Commission and Sub-commission mechanisms were asked to pay attention to elements of democratic governance.

4. The development focused bodies of the UN system were advised to coordinate their activities with the work of the departments and offices concerned with the peace and democratization agendas of the Organization

5. Since 1995, individual UN agencies, programmes, funds and offices had strengthened their governance programmes. UNDP, for example, had taken steps to support new or restored democracies, primarily in three areas: improvement of UNDP’s internal capacity to respond to requests to support the strengthening of democratization; leadership of components of UN-system-wide special initiatives on governance; and an expanded number of programmes and projects in governance and areas related to democratization.

6. Measures to improve UNDP’s internal capacity included training programmes for UNDP staff and national counterparts; support for international workshops to exchange experience and increase awareness about democratic governance programmes; preparation of a UNDP management development and governance home page on the world wide web that included a management and governance network (MAGNET) to exchange knowledge, information and experience about democratic governance within UNDP and among its development partners.

7. The United Nations established a Focal Point for Electoral Assistance Requests within the UN Department of Political Affairs, along with an Electoral Assistance division; establishing various trust funds for electoral assistance; creating a global Electoral Assistance Information Network; and refining procedures and designing new approaches to electoral assistance.

Above list of structural changes within the UN shows that the UN focuses more on institutional capacity building to make it competent enough to react to the democracy related requests from its Member states. We can observe its undergoing “expansive structurization” after accepting a new agenda from outside which also shows some existence of decoupling.

For example, the UNDP has much more expansive structural change out of democracy agenda while this Programme does not offer principal changes in visions or practices for the Member states. But the HCHR, which adopts the declaration of universal value “right to democracy” offering new values and practices, has no structural expansion [or maybe expanded funding] to introduce those norms to Member states or to bring it to the General Assembly’s agenda.

Another sign of decoupling in the UN practice of “democracy agenda” is that the UN general assembly resolutions of “Support by the United Nations system of the efforts by Governments to promote and consolidate new or restored democracies” are all heavily standardized and repeat iden‎tical notations, so that sometimes only dates and the names of the conference host countries distinguish one from the other.

Although there is nothing wrong with standardized texts of resolutions, the fact that the General Assembly does not take responsibility to advocate certain democracy values suggests that it is providing “support for conferences” but not support for democracies. This is especially evident when observing at a host country level.

“Electric adapting” in Mongolia and its players

Following March 2002 resolution of the UN General Assembly, Mongolian Government established a structure to host the Fifth ICNRD by June 2002.

This structure consisted of two levels: national committee (government appointed 12 government officials and one NGO representative) and the committee staff (3-5 officers and experts). The committee lead by the Prime Minister N.Enkhbayar was so inexperienced in organizing a world scale conference that its operation did not particularly start till December 2002 if not count few meetings preceding the December’s.

The biggest headache for the Committee was funding as the Committee was “blessed” to have the UNDP’s direct assistance in content development part including agenda development, drafting outcome documents and starting up a website.

The Committee started recruiting a staff to develop a host nation’s input in agenda and outcome documents only by late May 2003. Up until then, Mongolian Government had sent to other countries the drafts prepared by the UNDP staff. In short, copying organizational structure of previous conferences did not work without evident decoupling in the first ten months of the ICNRD committee operation.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Mongolia who is the Chairman of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, and who is the head of the Committee on organizing a Democracy conference had been keeping to control the national TV and radio since his victory in election-2000 particularly thanks to the law amendment using his Party’s overwhelming majority in the Parliament.

The critics about censorship before and during the preparation of the democracy conference did not change his and his government’s practice and attitude. The UNDP and the UN’s country officials have been urging Mongolian community “not to politicize” the democracy conference as the ICNRD and the UN did not put any criteria to participate in democracy conferences as it was done for the Conferences of the Community of Democracies.

So the deep decoupling between talking about principles of democracy and practicing its value also took place at the Mongolia’s ICNRD committee. However, ICNRD committee work has been re-energized beginning from May 2003 not only the deadline was approaching soon, but also there was an internal model of running an international scale discussion which actually pushed the national committee into active position in content development. It was the national core group for organizing a parallel Civil Society forum with the Fifth ICNRD.

The national core group for the international civil society forum (ISCF-2003) was formed in late December 2003. On December 2, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia and the Country office of the UNDP invited 30 representatives of NGOs whose mission is to support democracy.

The NGOs were asked to form a national core group within two weeks and hand the agenda of the ICSF-2003 to the UNDP and the Ministry within three weeks. NGO representatives then convened independently and outlined the criteria of selecting NGO representatives for the national core group.

The thirty NGOs then authorized five activists as a selection committee which, in turn, calculated that the forming of the civil society core group itself shall take at least a month in order to ensure announcements to be spread out and readers to have some room in application deadline.

So, by the early January 2003, as a result of selection from 50 applicants, the national core group was formed of twelve organizations which later have reduced to ten, and agenda was not handed to the Ministry and the UNDP on “due time”. The ISCF national core group began operating independently under its own identified deadline and Mrs. Zanaa Jurmed, the national core group leader had her reasons legitimate: “civil society has to pursue the democratic participatory values and principles although it is time consuming”.

The National core group of the civil society meeting launched it s website and online call for papers by late January through which it started receiving application for participation and submission of papers as well as direct discussion on the agenda development.

The Core group, with help of UNDP, UNESCO and some other international NGOs did search for international activists who could participate in international core group for the ICSF. It successfully brought together ten experts from different regions of the world.

In his mission report to the WFM Council, Fergus Watt, a member of the international core group, wrote “WFM participated in an International Core Group, a sort of steering committee that was formed to assist the local NGO Secretariat. I attended a planning meeting in June… Lenore, Bill Pace and I were responsible for North American participant recruitment and other planning organizing activities over the summer months” (Fergus Watt, 2003).

There was one main difference between the work of the National committee of ICNRD and the Core group for the ICSF. The first one had to copy from outside and was under strong influence of the UNDP’s standards.

The latter one was more creative and free in designing the whole process of the ICSF-2003 although it received financial and technical assistance from five major sources including UNDP. Several delegates attended both conferences during September 8-9 and September 10-12 expressed that where values were important, discussions were lively and productive meaning.

“The ICSF was a very successful meeting. It was attended by over 200 persons and was representative of the key regions and sectors of civil society, including many senior NGO players from the various regions…The ICNRD completed a moderately successful meeting as well. The discussion was, understandably, not as rich as at the ICSF” (Fergus Watt, 2003). However, a paradox is that Mongolian viewers and listeners received opposite information.

Almost 95% of the national TV and radio broadcasts (the only TV and radio transmitting all over the country) on democracy conferences that had been aired during September 5-15 were about ICNRD success and the important government role in it. ICSF was poorly covered and even prepared by the Core group reportages were censored. This case shows that the UN’s effort to foster democracy dialogue through ICNRD gives chance to a ruling force use or misuse “democracy agenda” in its propaganda with no diplomacy cost.

Why does this case matter?

Because our discipline has little proportion of authors from developing world, the case I am raising could contain some new information. But the main concern behind the case is not a new one.

Scholars wrote that “A major task before our discipline is how to connect rational strategic action with beliefs and values.” (Robert O.Keohane, 2000) which I can’t agree more and would propose the idea to the institutions struggling to put democracy agenda separately from the values behind them.

The current case also interesting in analysis of policymaker’s behavior. It shows that Robert D.Putnam, Axelrod, Keohane and others are too optimistic about prospects for international cooperation in changing behaviors of policy makers and that their prediction “the temptation to defect can be dramatically reduced among players who expect to meet again” (Robert D.Putnam, 1988) was not true in Mongolia case.

In the ICNRD case, international cooperation was not a leverage to discuss domestic political behavior of Mongolian policy makers at the concrete period of time, but was a symbolic confirmation of continued commitment to democracy to be achieved or not achieved in some future time.

But not many scholars have paid attention the levels where values and structures are received from outside. To my opinion, regardless from whether it was a nation-state and international organization, there are always two levels of acceptance when it comes a new norm which carries at least one new value behind it.

As I mentioned in earlier part of this paper, nation states adopts international norms in form of passing legislation while the society needs more time to accept the value behind that law. Due to my restricted search, limited time and experience, I was not able to collect more data on this argument, but I propose scholars to pay more attention on to the process, time (or duration) and key players of each level of adapting process.


Isomorphic process of adapting “democracy agenda” in the U.N. practice and attempt to foster democracy dialogue through the international conferences of new or restored democracies brought about many changes in the UN structures, and behaviors of international cooperation on democracy dialogue.

The current case study shows that there were following three major players inside the UN and three major players outside the UN who had most democracy related dialogues since the UN began supporting the international conferences of new or restored democracies:

Inside the United Nations:

1) the General Assembly- where there is no consensus on democracy values yet;

2) UNDP – where main structural changes took place out of new agenda and where major standardization of the conferences took its origin;

3) UNHCHR- where major changes occurred in declaring new universal value.

Outside the United Nations:

1) Nation States separating democratic values from current practice and viewing at democracy as a goal;

2) Nation States openly declaring universal values to be practiced in present and future;

3) Civil Society groups openly declaring universality of democratic values to be practiced in present and future.

Because there are different players with different levels of adapting of new agenda the UN, despite its decoupling, continues its isomorphic process toward its structures as well as toward the countries.

At the United Nation’s level, there is at least one body to push the values even though the main message from the highest organization is not advocating a certain model through international conference of new or restored democracies.

A nation state when receiving conflicted ideas of “support of democracy” and “lack of model to advocate” seeks for an absolute gain from this game which in turn leads to deeper decoupling at the nation-state’s end. Policymakers do not risk any diplomatic cost for talking about democracy because it is not criteria, but a goal.

The goal can be achieved after next election or never, and talk about goals with international community only increases domestic reputation of policy makers. In the end, democratic practice, in particular, free and fair election can never be achieved.

However, the nation state has to continue adapting “democracy agenda” in depth or in its institutions in further, mainly because the civil society groups, i.e. civil power inside the nation state is still awake and pushes the policy makers to change their practice and norms. There are also new, outside diplomatic cost like criteria of the Community of Democracies.

In conclusion, the case shows that there are different levels of decoupling between the international organization and nation state and civil society when it comes to adapt new agenda. The nation states, especially policymakers of the nation states are prone to have greatest decoupling as they seek for absolute political gain from an international agenda.

International organizations have also a high degree of decoupling because it has a position to transfer problems while keep using the ideas. The civil society, in contrast, has the least degree of decoupling between their practices and promises because their main power is persuasion success of which is impossible without an idea with sound values.


Author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Zanaa Jurmed, Marinov Nikolay Vladimirov and Jeffrey Falt.


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