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The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011


We articulate a global public standard for the normative legitimacy of global governance institutions. This standard can provide the basis for principled criticism of global governance institutions and guide reform efforts in circumstances in which people disagree deeply about the demands of global justice and the role that global governance institutions should play in meeting them. We stake out a middle ground between an increasingly discredited conception of legitimacy that conflates legitimacy with international legality understood as state consent, on the one hand, and the unrealistic view that legitimacy for these institutions requires the same democratic standards that are now applied to states, on the other.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2006

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1 A thorough review of the sociological literature on organizational legitimacy can be found in Mark C. Suchman, “Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995), pp. 571–610.

2 For an excellent discussion of the inadequacy of existing standards of legitimacy for global governance institutions, see Daniel Bodansky, “The Legitimacy of International Governance: A Coming Challenge for International Environmental Law?” American Journal of International Law 93, no. 3 (1999), pp. 596–624. For an impressive earlier book on the subject, see Thomas Franck, The Power of Legitimacy Among Nations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). Franck's account focuses on the legitimacy of rules more than institutions and in our judgment does not distinguish clearly enough between the normative and sociological senses of legitimacy.

3 A large and growing literature exists on global governance. See, for example, Aseem Prakash and Jeffrey A. Hart, eds., Globalization and Governance (London: Routledge, 1999); Joseph S. Nye and John D. Donahue, eds., Governance in a Globalizing World (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2000); and David Held and Anthony McGrew, eds., Governing Globalization (London: Polity Press, 2002).

4 Erika de Wet, “The Security Council as Legislator/Executive in Its Fight against Terrorism and against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Question of Legitimacy” (presentation at the conference “Legitimacy and International Law,” Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg, Germany, June 14, 2006).

5 The emphasis here on the coordinating function should not be misunderstood: global governance institutions do not merely coordinate state actions in order to satisfy preexisting state preferences. As our analysis will make clear, they can also help shape state preferences and lead to the development of new norms and institutional goals.

6 Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984 [20th anniversary edition, 2005]).

7 James D. Fearon, “Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation,” International Organization 52, no. 2 (Spring 1998), pp. 269–306.

8 This is a major theme of Russell Hardin, Liberalism, Constitutionalism, and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

9 Andrew Hurrell, “Legitimacy and the Use of Force: Can the Circle Be Squared?” Review of International Studies 31, supp. S1 (2005), p. 16.

10 Legitimacy can also be seen as providing a “focal point” that helps strategic actors select one equilibrium solution among others. For the classic discussion of focal points, see Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), ch. 3. For a critique of theories of cooperation on the basis of focal point theory, and an application to the European Union, see Geoffrey Garrett and Barry Weingast, “Ideas, Interests, and Institutions: Constructing the European Community's Internal Market,” in Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions and Political Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), esp. pp. 178–85.

11 Most contemporary analytic philosophical literature on legitimacy tends to focus exclusively on the legitimacy of the state and typically assumes a very strong understanding of legitimacy. In particular, it is assumed that legitimacy entails (1) a content-independent moral obligation to comply with all institutional rules (not just content-independent moral reasons to comply and/or a content-independent moral obligation to not interfere with others' compliance), (2) being justified in using coercion to secure compliance with rules, and (3) being justified in using coercion to exclude other actors from operating in the institution's domain. (See, for example, Christopher Heath Wellman and A. John Simmons, Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? For and Against [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005]). It is far from obvious, however, that this very strong conception is even the only conception of legitimacy appropriate for the state, given what is sometimes referred to as the “unbundling” of sovereignty into various types of decentralized states and the existence of the European Union. Be that as it may, this state-centered conception is too strong for global governance institutions, which generally do not wield coercive power or claim such strong authority. For a more detailed development of this point, see Allen Buchanan, “The Legitimacy of International Law,” in Samantha Besson and John Tasioulas, eds., The Philosophy of International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

12 This view was forcefully expressed by Professor Yoram Dinstein of Tel Aviv University, in comments on a draft of this essay.

13 For a more detailed discussion, see Allen Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), esp. ch. 5.

14 For a perceptive discussion of how consent to new international trade rules in the Uruguay Round (1986–94) was merely nominal, since the alternatives for poor countries were so unattractive, see Richard H. Steinberg, “In the Shadow of Law or Power? Consensus-based Bargaining and Outcomes in the GATT/WTO,” International Organization 56, no. 2 (2002), pp. 339–74.

15 How the requirement of ongoing consent should be operationalized is a complex question we need not try to answer here; one possibility would be that the treaties creating the institution would have to be periodically reaffirmed.

16 Buchanan, “The Legitimacy of International Law.”

17 For a valuable discussion that employs a different conception of normative uncertainty, see Monica Hlavac, “A Developmental Approach to the Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions” (unpublished paper).

18 See Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), n. 17.

19 Allen Buchanan and Matthew DeCamp, “Responsibility for Global Health,” Transnational Medicine (forthcoming).

20 In March 2005, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the replacement of the Commission on Human Rights (fifty-three members elected from slates put forward by regional groups) with a smaller Human Rights Council elected by a two-thirds vote of members of the General Assembly (see his report “In Larger Freedom,” A/59/2005, para. 183).

21 For the report of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program (the Volcker Committee), dated October 27, 2005, see

22 Randall W. Stone, “The Political Economy of IMF Lending in Africa,” American Political Science Review 98, no. 4 (2004), pp. 577–91. See also Randall W. Stone, Lending Credibility: The International Monetary Fund and the Post-Communist Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

23 We are indebted to Andrew Hurrell for this example.

24 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

25 Ruth W. Grant and Robert O. Keohane, “Accountability and Abuses of Power in World Politics,” American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 (2005), pp. 29–44. See also Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, “Redefining Accountability for Global Governance,” in Miles Kahler and David A. Lake, eds., Governance in a Global Economy: Political Authority in Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 386–411.

26 For a discussion, see Ngaire Woods, “Holding Intergovernmental Institutions to Account,” Ethics & International Affairs 17, no. 1 (2003), pp. 69–80.

27 Ann Florini, The Coming Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003).

28 For a discussion of the role of critical revisability in practical reasoning, with parallels to theoretical reasoning, see Allen Buchanan, “Revisability and Rational Choice,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 3 (1975), pp. 395–408.

29 For an illuminating account of the legitimacy of health care institutions that emphasizes responsibility for justifications, see Norman Daniels and James Sabin, “Limits to Health Care: Fair Procedures, Democratic Deliberation, and the Legitimacy Problem for Insurers,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 26, no. 4 (1997), pp. 303–50.

30 See Richard B. Stewart, “Administrative Law in the Twenty-First Century,” New York University Law Review 78, no. 2 (2003), pp. 437–60; and Benedict Kingsbury, Nikon Kirsch, and Richard B. Stewart, “The Emergence of Global Administrative Law,” Law and Contemporary Problems 68, nos. 3 and 4 (2005). See also Daniel Esty, “Toward Good Global Governance: The Role of Administrative Law” (paper presented at a conference on global administrative law, New York University, April 21–23, 2005). See also John Wickham, “Toward a Green Multilateral Investment Framework: NAFTA and the Search for Models,” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 12, no. 3 (2000), pp. 617–46; James Salzman, “Labor Rights, Globalization, and Institutions: The Role and Influence of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,” Michigan Journal of International Law 21, no. 4 (2000), pp. 769–848; and OECD, Getting to Grips with Globalization: The OECD in a Changing World (Paris: OECD Publications, 2004).

31 The analogy in the economics of information is to the market for used cars. A potential buyer of a used car would be justified in inferring poor quality if the seller were unwilling to let him have the car thoroughly examined by a competent mechanic. See George A. Akerlof, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 84, no. 3 (1970), pp. 488–500.

32 David Stasavage, “Open-Door or Closed-Door? Transparency in Domestic and International Bargaining,” International Organization 58, no. 4 (2004), pp. 667–704.

33 On the role of legislatures with respect to the legitimacy of an international legal order, see Rudiger Wolfrum, “Legitimacy in International Law: Some Introductory Considerations” (paper prepared for the conference “Legitimacy in International Law” at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg, Germany, June 13–14, 2006).

34 We use the term “external epistemic actor” here broadly, to include individuals and groups outside the institution in question who gain knowledge about the institution, interpret and integrate such knowledge, and exchange it with others, in ways that are intended to influence institutional behavior, whether directly or indirectly (through the mediation of the activities of other individuals and groups).

35 On our view, the legitimacy of global governance institutions, at present at least, does not require participation in the critical evaluation of institutional goals and policies by all who are affected by them; but if the standard of legitimacy we recommend were accepted, opportunities for participation would expand.