Cross-posting from the global norms blog

In early September, we had the pleasure to welcome a number of international researchers in Bremen for the Global Norms Conference on the Legitimation and Delegitimation of Global Governance Organizations (click to see the whole program)In the following paragraphs, I will discuss some highlights of a very interesting conference which had excellent papers, great discussions and a very warm and inspiring atmosphere.

Day 1: Opening plenary and a first set of panels

On the first day, the conference kicked off with an opening lecture by Steven Bernstein (U Toronto), discussing dynamics of legitimation in global governance. In his talk, Steven looked especially into the legitimation of private global governance institutions. He argues that the classic public/private distinction is losing its analytical value when looking at the provision of governance in the global sphere. Instead of looking at the nature of the actors that are involved, authority is to be understood as public authority when the goods that the institutions are trying to provide are (i) public in nature, when there is (ii) publicity involved, and (iii) when they have some political legitimacy. Further, private governance institutions increasingly mimic processes and institutional forms of traditional public governance to gain legitimacy. This is especially important for them as non-state public global governance institutions tend to face greater challenges of legitimacy. Partially, this is due to their more diverse community of legitimation. For instance, institutions made up of business groups and national governments need to meet the legitimacy standards of both constituencies. On the other hand, non-state governance instituions are often held to higher legitimacy standards than traditional IGOs.

After the lecture, Catia Gregoratti (U Lund) offered some critical remarks, reminding the audience that “the public” is a contested concept and that the lens of “practice” on which the opening lecture had rightly focused enables its deeper analysis. Further, she highlighted that the legitimation communities that Steven refers to need to be studied in their thick social and material structures (e.g. class, economy, gender, race) to understand what is at stake when they legitimise or delegitimise global governance institutions.

After the opening plenary, the conference continued with a first set of panels where researchers presented their work. In the first panel, Thomas Müller (U Bielefeld), Maximilian Terhalle (FU Berlin) and Catia Gregoratti (U Lund) discussed how international orders (e.g. the social stratification of states, big power politics, global democracy) as such are legitimated. In the parallel panel session, Ellen Reichel (U Bremen), Antonia Witt (U Bremen) and Dominik Zaum (U Reading) discussed how a selection of IGOs (UNHCR, AU, UNSC) are reacting to challenges of their legitimacy and how they try to legitimize themselves. The participants had the chance to deepen their discussions at the conference dinner, later that evening.

Day 2: Two plenaries and rich discussions during intensive panel sessions

The second day started with another great plenary. Here, Alex Grigorescu (Loyola) and Thomas Sommerer (U Stockholm) presented their current research on the rise of democratic principles in the legitimation of international organizations. Alex shared some findings from his current book project which analyzes how democratic pressures influence decision-making rules in international organizations. He argues that normative pressure on IOs needs to be understood as a combination of the strength of the relevant norm and the depart from the norm by the IO. When under pressure, IOs have a variety of ways to react to normative pressure without necessarily yielding to it. One of these strategies e.g. involves broadening the meaning of the norm in question. In general, in his empirical studies, Alex finds that all IOs react to strong normative pressure and that simply ignoring the challenge is not chosen as a strategy. It is especially a broadening strategy that is used. However, this particular strategy is, so far, not too well understood.

Thomas presented the current book of his research team, “The Opening Up of International Organizations. Transnational Access in Global Governance“. Thomas and his colleagues looked at patterns of non-state access to a selection of 50 IOs and their bodies and asked what has driven and constrained access to IOs. First, the patterns show increased access to UN bodies since the 1970s and a general increase of access to all IOs since the 1990s. Second, there is variation in the timing and level of access to IO bodies. Further, there is variation across issue areas, but IOs in all areas have increasingly opened up in the last decade. In their quantitiative and qualitative search for explanations, they find that functional demands for access, domestic democracy of the IO member states and the sovereignty costs of increased access best explain the patterns they have found.

After the plenary, four more panel sessions were held. A first panel took up the question of non-state access to IOs. Here, Rainer Baumann (Käte Hamburger Kolleg) and Tobias Weise (U Bremen) applied qualitative comparative analysis to look for explanations of NGO access. In a parallel session, Pawel P. Pustelnik (U Cardiff) and Ian Hutchinson (York U) discussed how different IGOs compete for legitimacy in their organizational fields (e.g. emission trading and accounting standards). After lunch, another panel session commenced. Here, in the first session, Matthias Ecker-Ehrhardt, (U Leipzig), Bernd Schlipphak (U Münster), and Henning Schmidtke (U Bremen) discussed how attitudes towards international organizations have changed over time and what they tell us about the legitimacy of these organizations. In the parallel session, the focus was put on legitimation dynamics in global governance. Here, Berenike Prem (U Bremen) looked at the framing of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) and Ina Lehmann (U Bremen) discussed her study on the legitimation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The second day finished with another highlight of the conference: a roundtable discussion on practices of legitimation where invited scholars and practitioners discussed IO strategies, challenges and dilemmas of legitimation. The short talks by Jan Aart Scholte (U Gothenburg), Inge Kaul (Hertie School of Governance), Michael Hammer (INTRAC) and María Pérez-Esteve (WTO) provided rich insights into the daily “legitimation business” of IOs.

Day 3: More papers and an exciting concluding plenary

On day 3, more papers were presented. A first panel investigated possible sources and effects of legitimacy. Here, Maxi Ussar (LSE), Gisela Hirschmann (WZB) and Marie Sudreau (UNCTAD) presented their studies on the legitimation of development organizations, the UNSC and UNCTAD. In another panel, Sophie Eisentraut (WZB) and Clara Brandi (German Development Institute) further looked into the contested nature of legitimation norms by analyzing state debates on democracy in the UN and media debates on global economic governance. After a short coffee break, we had a final round of panels and papers. First, Tobias Lenz (U Amsterdam) and Gustavo G. Müller (U Warwick) looked at the symbolism and legitimation effects of parliamentary assemblies of regional integration organizations. In parallel, J. Benton Heath (NYU / Curtis, Mallet-Prevost) discussed legitimacy and legitimation from the perspective of international law and Anders Uhlin (U Lund) presented thoughts on a new research project on the legitimation of global governance.

We had the privilege to conclude the conference with another plenary. During this concluding session, we invited Bob Reinalda (U Nijmegen) and Sebastian Botzem (WZB) to comment on the procedings of the conference. Both applauded the conference papers and the discussion, but they also highlighted some blind spots in the endeavour of researching IO legitimation. Sebastian particularly emphasized that in the field of global governance, we see lots of blurring between private and public forms of governance, often in connection with an explosion of legitimation practices relating to values like transparency and participation. From his perspective of organization studies, Sebastian reminded the participants that looking at IO audiences and IO networks may be crucial for understanding legitimation. Further, there are three particular gaps in the research agenda that need to be addressed: (i) is legitimacy an object or a concept, (ii) where is the process of legitimation, and (iii) where is the connection with democratic norms? In a similar vein, Bob argued that, when looking at IO legitimacy, legitimation and organizational change need to be thought together. Here, a look at the history of IOs may help understanding particluar legitimation practices and patterns. Also, he underlined that the role of individuals in IOs (e.g. the Secretary General) should not be underestimated when looking at legitimation strategies.

So, thank you to everyone who contributed to this conference. We hope that we have started some long-lasting contacts and debates. Please feel free to leave a comment below to share your impressions, ask questions, … (c) photos: Jonas Wodarz

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Tobias Weise



Tobias Weise

political scientist, university administration specialist

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