Cross-posting from global norms blog

Klaus Dingwerth & Tobias Weise

In a recent article (full text) published in a Leviathan special issue on ‘The Rise of Legitimation Politics’ (Der Aufstieg der Legitimitätspolitik, edited by Anna Geis, Frank Nullmeier and Christopher Daase), we take issue with the idea of an ‘authority-politicization nexus’ according to which the enhanced authority of international institutions has more or less automatically led to their politicization, often in the form of an alleged ‘democratic deficit’.1

In contrast to the notion of an automatic nexus between authority and politicization, we argue that traditional legitimation norms for international institutions have been complemented by new legitimation norms that are frequently couched in democratic language, for instance as they refer to values such as participation, inclusiveness, transparency or accountability. Yet, normative change does not result from structural change itself, but from the conscious contributions of a whole range of non-state actors that support and push for democratically connoted legitimation norms.

More precisely, we show how three types of non-state actors – namely the academic community, social movement organizations and the business sector – have interacted to delegitimize traditional legitimation norms and to legitimize an alternative conception of ‘good’ international institutions. First, the academic community has played a vital role in providing the intellectual foundations of public discourses about a democratic deficit of global governance. These foundations have found their way into policy advice and reform proposals and thus had considerable influence on political discourses in the European Union and beyond. A good example is the ongoing campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) whose campaign materials frequently refer to the works of cosmopolitan scholars. Moreover, academic studies provide models for ‘better’ global institutions. Often focusing on issues such as stakeholder consultations or greater transparency and accountability, these models are transported to the relevant organizational actors through policy advice or benchmark studies.

Second, social movements have publicly delegitimized the traditional forms of global governance and their institutions for some years. Here, the Battle of Seattle or the ‘50 Years are Enough’ campaign against the Bretton Woods institutions are archetypical examples. In a classical division of labor within transnational civil society, the fight against international (economic and financial) institutions is commonly complemented by a broad range of professionalized NGOs that offer their own participation in international institutions as a remedy for the legitimacy gaps generated by public protests of social movements. While the alter-globalization movement acts to de-legitimize the traditional legitimacy norms on which international institutions are based, the rhetoric and activities of professionalized NGOs contributes to the rise of new legitimation norms.

Finally, business actors have long engaged in state bashing and hence contributed their fair share to the delegitimation of state-based international institutions, and also to the legitimation of new forms of regulation like private (or public-private) transnational governance. Overall, we therefore argue that the shift towards new legitimation norms that broaden the range of legitimate rule-makers (from state-based organizations to any organizations that can claim to be representative in some way) and specify the procedures for legitimate rule-making (from the absence of coercion to values such as inclusiveness, transparency and accountability) is not so much the result of the enhanced authority of (some) international institutions itself, but rather the result of political contestation in the context of changing authority structures.

As indicated, our piece is part of a whole volume on the politics of legitimation. The volume includes an introduction from the editors plus a total of 22 essays and research papers. Contributions deal with the legitimation of international institutions in general and the European Union in particular, with the legitimation of the capitalist economic order, and with broader questions about legitimation theory as well as the role of procedures and institutions in the politics of legitimation.

As a starting point for the entire volume, the editors note a rise of legitimation politics in many areas in which the legitimacy of political or social institutions has traditionally either been taken for granted or in which notions of legitimacy have traditionally been less central, combined with a pluralization of the normative grounds on which legitimacy is (successfully) claimed. Of the contributions focusing on international institutions, Michael Zürn’s contribution lays the conceptual foundations for examining authority and legitimacy in a postnational constellation. Subsequently, Nicole Deitelhoff’s discussion of opposition and legitimacy develops the argument, broadly in line with John Dryzek’s work on discursive democracy, that radical opposition may challenge the empirical legitimacy of international institutions, but is central to their democratic legitimacy as it opens up discursive space for political positions that otherwise tend to go unnoticed.

Jens Steffek’s essay reconstructs the notion of output legitimacy in early writings on international institutions by August Reinsch and others and shows that, in contrast to contemporary notions that equal output legitimacy to mere efficiency, performance-based conceptions of the legitimacy of international institutions have traditionally been included a broad range of legitimacy criteria, of which the public good was usually a central element. Given the current academic focus on input-related aspects of the legitimacy of international institutions, Steffek calls for a revitalization of this tradition and argues for empirical legitimation research that takes the plurality of performance-based criteria more seriously.

The contribution from Thomas Rixen and Bernhard Zangl investigates how adherence to rule of law principles affects the extent to which international institutions are politicized. The authors compare US media responses to two GATT and WTO judgments and to decision-making processes on international information exchange regarding taxation, one of which took place within the OECD, the other in the more inclusive Global Forum on Taxation (GFT). The result is as expected for the latter case where media responses contain less evaluations overall as well as a lower share of negative evaluations. Yet the result for the GATT/WTO cases contradicts the author’s expectations as the panel judgment of a more legalized WTO resulted in a more politicized media discourse – a puzzle that the authors seek to explain away with the ad hoc assumption that the sovereignty-based consensus norms that characterize the GATT and GFT case but not the WTO and OECD cases, appear to trump other legitimation norms.

Further contributions include Sebastian Schindler’s intriguing analysis of two speeches from the Director Generals of the FAO and the World Food Programme in which the author shows how a legitimation discourse that at first glance seems to be based very much on moral principles such as fairness or accountability is, at a deeper level, inherently intertwined with political power. Stephan Stetter analyzes  the ways in which the norms that govern international conflicts and their resolution have increasingly shifted towards legalization, towards the institutionalization of external mediation, and towards inclusiveness and respect for human rights – shifts that Stetter links in part to the proliferation of world society norms through academics, consultants, philanthropic foundations and think tanks. Finally, Dominika Biegoń and Jennifer Gronau take an inside-out perspective when they examine the efforts of the G8 and the EU to legitimate themselves vis-à-vis their constituencies. The authors go beyond the prevailing focus on verbal efforts and also include a very interesting discussion of nonverbal efforts as they are expressed in photographs of G8 summits or the use of valued-laden symbols by international institutions.

For those interested in the (international) politics of legitimation and with a solid command of the German language, this special issue should provide a wealth of ideas and information. The full citation of the volume is as follows: Der Aufstieg der Legitimitätspolitik: Rechtfertigung und Kritik Politisch-Ökonomischer Ordnungen (Leviathan Sonderband 27), edited by Anna Geis, Frank Nullmeier and Christopher (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag, 2012).

  1. Zürn, Michael/Binder, Martin/Ecker-Ehrhardt, Matthias, 2012: International authority and its politicization, in: International Theory 4: 1, 69–106. go to text

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Tobias Weise



Tobias Weise

political scientist, university administration specialist

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