The Union of International Associations (UIA), established in 1910 in Brussels, has ironically enjoyed both, attention and disregard from scholars of international organisation (IO) studies. Attention in so far, as most IO scholars have made frequent use of the publications and information collected by the UIA. However, research has long ignored the UIA as an international organisation in its own right. This volume, edited by Daniel Laqua, Wouter Van Acker and Christophe Verbruggen, addresses the “histories” of the UIA and thus contributes considerably to a better understanding of the UIA and internationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth (and a bit the twenty-first ( centuries).
The book is subdivided into an editors’ introduction, three thematic parts and an epilogue on today’s UIA. The editors introduce the volume with an essay on “reconstructing the identities of an international non-governmental intelligence agency” and explain the quite surprising use of the latter term with the UIA’s role for the Belgian government and (with a reference to Madeleine Herren’s work) attempts by Nazi Germany to use their information for their own interests (p. 3). The editors understandably feel the need to explain from scratch, what the UIA has been and why we haven’t paid much attention to it beyond using their collected data: “Strikingly, many scholars who discuss international organizations – whether governmental or non-governmental ones - rely on UIA data and its underlying typologies, without necessarily noting how the UIA’s internationalist agenda has shaped this material” (p. 2). Therefore, it is necessary to assess critically the information provided by the UIA also in light of underlying internationalist assumptions and implicit and explicit definitions – often shaped by beliefs in international cooperation, while accepting colonial systems and corresponding standards of civilisation. The book’s authors are from many different fields: history, political science, IR, architecture, digital humanities, library and information studies – this reflects the multiple perspectives researcher can and should have on the UIA (p. 10).
Part I analyses the development of the Union and analyses in the first two chapters the driving forces, personalities (Henri la Fontaine, Paul Otlet and Cyrille van Overbergh in particular) and internationalist tendencies. Chapter 3 tackles UIA’s International University and its legacy, and chapter 4 casts light on the Union’s own reinvention after the Second World War. Part II deals with the “UIA in a world of international organisations”. Despite this very general title, inspiring three chapters delve deeper into international women’s organisations, the International Union of Cities and the International Committee of Historical Sciences. The third part addresses publications and data collected by the Union and scrutinises the UIA’s role in establishing International Relations theory, the famous Yearbooks of International Organizations and related information on international secretariats, as well as world congresses and transnational institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The message that these three articles on the publications provide is that they only at first sight are a “feast for historians” (p. 238) (and others): in general, the information should be handled with care; especially the longer you go back in time, the more imprecise, incomplete and probably even unreliable the information of the UIA’s publications. However, combined with other material and with a critical approach to the data and some own work, it can be quite enriching. As regards the UIA’s publications, Pierre-Yves Saunier concludes that both the editors as all as scholars have tended to overestimate its value as objective and consistent (p. 194). Bob Reinalda, suggests to combine information from the famous Yearbook with the UIA’s periodicals to gather more reliable information – in this case on international secretariats, as the publications often mentioned age, gender, nationality of international civil servants.
The UIA as a research theme seems quite important and the volume provides interesting and necessary perspectives on this rather unknown institution. Even though the individual chapters give a good reading, the entire volume could have benefitted even more from a concluding chapter and common questions to tie the individual contributions better together (even though the epilogue to some extent attempts this). The very important chapter on international women’s organisations and the UIA provides a gender perspective, which could have been mainstreamed more in the volume. It is interesting to learn about the UIA as data and maybe “infrastructure” deliverer to the racist embryonic IR theorising of the Journal of Race Development (later renamed as Journal of International Relations and considered by some as the first IR journal, p. 158) in the early 20th century, but could it also provide input to non-western forms of IR? It is a refreshing argument that UIA’s own journal, La Vie Internationale mirrored much more the themes that came to be associated with IR than the previously mentioned journal, which initially focused more on racial hierarchies and standards of civilisation (p. 158): “Although most commonly recognized in the IR literature as a source of data on international governmental and non-governmental organizations, the UIA is equally notable for its role in the development of theory in IR” (p. 164). While there is mention of scholarship on alternative (and non-liberal) forms of internationalism, non-western complementary or alternative forms, especially the pan-movements are hardly (Pan-Africanism, Pan-African Congress, p. 58) mentioned such as Pan-Asianism or Pan-Americanism (which had a high time at the time of the UIA’s creation). In general, the role of the Americas and specifically the United States would have merited more attention, in particular after the transition of geopolitical and cultural power relations after the Second World War, but also in view of the shift from the European-shaped League in Geneva to the US-based United Nations. It is nevertheless remarkable, that the UIA – despite its initial difficulties – found a place in the years 1948-1952, also in light of its “herculean” task and very small staff (p. 85). It would have been interesting to learn (even) more the UIA’s relationships to other IOs, both intergovernmental and non-governmental (or hybrid/converting from NGO into INGO such as the International Standardisation Organisation, for instance) as well as more about institutional rivalries. These may be potential alleys for further or more systematic research.
In sum, the edited volume does a sublime job in casting some light to the data-collecting entity most IO scholars without much reflection have come to consult (now you have been warned!). The Union of International Associations appears to be the rather silent microcosm and seismograph of changing internationalist tendencies at least from 1910 until the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century. It certainly deserves more attention beyond this recommendable book.