Precedent and doctrine in organisational decision-making: the power of informal institutional rules in the United Nations Security Council’s activities on terrorism

  • Thomas GehringEmail author
  • Christian Dorsch
  • Thomas Dörfler


We examine how and under what conditions informal institutional constraints, such as precedent and doctrine, are likely to affect collective choice within international organisations even in the absence of powerful bureaucratic agents. With a particular focus on the United Nations Security Council, we first develop a theoretical account of why such informal constraints might affect collective decisions even of powerful and strategically behaving actors. We show that precedents provide focal points that allow adopting collective decisions in coordination situations despite diverging preferences. Reliance on previous cases creates tacitly evolving doctrine that may develop incrementally. Council decision-making is also likely to be facilitated by an institutional logic of escalation driven by institutional constraints following from the typically staged response to crisis situations. We explore the usefulness of our theoretical argument with evidence from the Council doctrine on terrorism that has evolved since 1985. The key decisions studied include the 1992 sanctions resolution against Libya and the 2001 Council response to the 9/11 attacks. We conclude that, even within intergovernmentally structured international organisations, member states do not operate on a clean slate, but in a highly institutionalised environment that shapes their opportunities for action.


decision-making doctrine international organisations precedent Security Council terrorism 



We thank the German Research Foundation (DFG) for its generous financial support for this study under Grant No. GE 1164/10-1. Further, Thomas Dörfler kindly acknowledges the financial support of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.


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List of interviews

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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas Gehring
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christian Dorsch
    • 2
  • Thomas Dörfler
    • 3
  1. 1.Otto-Friedrich-University BambergBambergGermany
  2. 2.University Koblenz-LandauMainzGermany
  3. 3.Center for Policy ResearchUnited Nations UniversityTokyoJapan

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