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The social legitimacy of international organisations: Interest representation, institutional performance, and confidence extrapolation in the United Nations


Social legitimacy is central to the effectiveness of international organisations (IOs). Yet, so far, we have little systematic knowledge about what drives citizens to support or oppose IOs. In this article, we isolate and assess three alternative explanations of social legitimacy in global governance, privileging interest representation, institutional performance, and confidence extrapolation. We test these theories in a multilevel analysis of citizen confidence in the United Nations (UN) using World Values Survey and European Values Study data, supplemented by contextual measures. The results grant support to the arguments that institutional performance and confidence extrapolation shape popular confidence in the UN, while offering little support for the explanation of interest representation. These findings challenge the predominant understanding that more democratic procedures lead to greater social legitimacy for IOs. Instead, the UN case suggests that the social legitimacy of IOs is based primarily on the organisations' capacity to deliver, as well as on citizens' general confidence in political institutions, which IOs may have little to do with and can do little to change.

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1 Zürn Michael, Binder Martin, and Ecker-Erhardt Matthias, ‘International Political Authority and Its Politicization’, International Theory, 4:1 (2012), pp. 69106 .

2 O'Brien Robert, Goetz Anne M., Scholte Jan A., and Williams Michael, Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

3 Hobolt Sara B., Europe in Question. Referendums on European Integration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

4 Clark John, Globalizing Civic Engagement. Civil Society and Transnational Action (London: Earthscan, 2003).

5 See, for example, Held David and Koenig-Archibugi Mathias (eds), Global Governance and Public Accountability (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); Zürn Michael, ‘Democratic Governance beyond the Nation-State: The EU and Other International Organizations’, European Journal of International Relations, 6:2 (2000), pp. 183221 ; Scholte Jan A. (ed.), Building Global Democracy? Civil Society and Accountable Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

6 See, for example, Moravcsik Andrew, ‘Is There a “Democratic Deficit” in World Politics? A Framework for Analysis’, Government and Opposition, 39:2 (2004), pp. 336–63; Keohane Robert O., Macedo Stephen, and Moravcsik Andrew, ‘Democracy-Enhancing Multilateralism’, International Organization, 63:1 (2009), pp. 131 .

7 See, for example, Gabel Matthew, ‘Public Support for European Integration: An Empirical Test of Five Theories’, Journal of Politics, 60:2 (1998), pp. 333–54; Hooghe Liesbet and Marks Gary, ‘Calculation, Community and Cues. Public Opinion on European Integration’, European Union Politics, 6:4 (2005), pp. 419–43; Boomgaarden Hajo G., Schuck Andreas R. T., Elenbaas Matthijs, and de Vreese Claes H., ‘Mapping EU Attitudes: Conceptual and Empirical Dimensions of Euroscepticism and EU Support’, European Union Politics, 12:2 (2011), pp. 241–66.

8 See, for example, Norris Pippa, ‘Global Governance and Cosmopolitan Citizens’, in Nye Joseph S.Jr. and Kamarck Elaine (eds), Governance in a Globalizing World (Washington DC: Brookings, 2000), pp. 155–77; Ecker-Erhardt Matthias, ‘Cosmopolitan Politicization: How Perceptions of Interdependence Foster Citizens Expectations in International Institutions’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:3 (2012), pp. 481508 .

9 See, for example, Nullmeier Frank, Biegon Dominika, Nonhoff Martin, Schmidtke Henning, and Schneider Steffen (eds), Prekäre Legitimitäten: Rechtfertigung von Herrschaft in der post-nationalen Konstellation (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2010); Bernstein Steven, ‘Legitimacy in Intergovernmental and Non-State Global Governance’, Review of International Political Economy, 18:1 (2011), pp. 1751 ; Zaum Dominik (ed.), Legitimating International Organizations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

10 Hurd Ian, After Anarchy: Power and Legitimacy in the United Nations Security Council (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Martin Binder and Monika Heupel, ‘The Legitimacy of the UN Security Council: Evidence from Recent General Assembly Debates’, International Studies Quarterly, article first published online on 13 May 2014.

11 Edwards Martin S., ‘Public Support for the International Economic Organizations: Evidence from Developing Countries’, Review of International Organizations, 4:2 (2009), pp. 185209 .

12 Johnson Tana, ‘Guilt by Association: The Link between States' Influence and Legitimacy of Intergovernmental Organizations’, Review of International Organizations, 6:1 (2011), pp. 5784 .

13 Weber Max, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978 [orig. pub. 1922]); Suchman Mark C., ‘Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches’, Academy of Management Review, 20:3 (1995), pp. 571610 .

14 Hurd Ian, ‘Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics’, International Organization, 53:2 (1999), pp. 379408 .

15 Buchanan Allen and Keohane Robert O., ‘The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions’, Ethics and International Affairs, 20:4 (2006), p. 407 .

16 See, for example, Fallon Richard H., ‘Legitimacy and the Constitution’, Harvard Law Review, 118:6 (2005), pp. 1787–853; Buchanan and Keohane, ‘The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions’.

17 This is not the exclusive way of conceptualising the relevant public of an IO. For a study of IO legitimacy that uses member states as the relevant public, see Hurd, After Anarchy.

18 Scharpf Fritz, Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Hobolt Sara B., ‘Citizen Satisfaction with Democracy in the European Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 50:S1 (2012), pp. 88105 ; Schmidt Vivien. A., ‘Democracy and Legitimacy in the European Union Revisited: Input, Output, and “Throughput”’, Political Studies, 61:1 (2012), pp. 222 .

19 See, for example, Nullmeier, Biegon, Nonhoff, Schmidtke, and Schneider, Prekäre Legitimitäten; Boomgaarden, Schuck, Elenbaas, and de Vreese, ‘Mapping EU Attitudes’.

20 Hurd, After Anarchy, pp. 66–9.

21 See, for example, Armingeon Klaus and Ceka Besir, ‘The Loss of Trust in the European Union during the Great Recession since 2007: The Role of Heuristics from the National Political System’, European Union Politics, 15:1 (2014), pp. 82107 ; Harteveld Eelco, van der Meer Tom, and de Vries Catherine E., ‘In Europe we Trust? Exploring three Logics of Trust in the European Union’, European Union Politics, 14:4 (2013), pp. 542–65.

22 Scharpf, Governing in Europe; Held David, Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995); Bernstein, ‘Legitimacy in Intergovernmental and Non-State Global Governance’.

23 O'Brien, Goetz, Scholte, and Williams, Contesting Global Governance; Tarrow Sidney, The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

24 Lindberg Leon N. and Scheingold Stuart A., Europe's Would-Be Polity: Patterns of Change in the European Community (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970); see also Hooghe Liesbet and Marks Gary, ‘A Postfunctionalist Theory of European Integration: From Permissive Consensus to Constraining Dissensus’, British Journal of Political Science, 39:1 (2009), pp. 123 ; Zürn, Binder, and Ecker-Erhardt, ‘International Political Authority’.

25 Hobolt, ‘Citizen Satisfaction with Democracy’.

26 Keohane Robert O. and Nye Joseph S., ‘The Club Model of Multilateral Cooperation and Problems of Democratic Legitimacy’, in Porter Roger B., Sauvé Pierre, Subramanian Arvind, and Zampetti Americo Beviglia (eds), Efficiency, Equity, and Legitimacy: The Multilateral Trading System at the Millennium (Washington DC: Brookings, 2001), pp. 264–94; Stone, Controlling Institutions.

27 Note that citizens who are well represented may also recognise that these favours come at someone else's expense. However, we find it more likely that disadvantaged citizens are dissatisfied with differentiated representation than advantaged citizens, and therefore formulate the hypothesis in positive terms.

28 Bernauer Thomas and Gampfer Robert, ‘Effects of Civil Society Involvement on Popular Legitimacy of Global Environmental Governance’, Global Environmental Change, 23:2 (2013), pp. 439–49.

29 See, for example, Bäckstrand Karin, ‘Democratizing Global Environmental Governance? Stakeholder Democracy after the World Summit on Sustainable Development’, European Journal of International Relations, 12:4 (2006), pp. 467–98; Saurugger Sabine, ‘The Social Construction of the Participatory Turn: The Emergence of a Norm in the European Union’, European Journal of Political Research, 49:4 (2010), pp. 471–95.

30 Boutros-Ghali Boutros, ‘Keynote Address to the 47th DPI/NGO Conference’, Transnational Associations, 47:6 (1995), p. 345 .

31 Steffek Jens, Kissling Claudia, and Nanz Patrizia (eds), Civil Society Participation in European and Global Governance: A Cure for the Democratic Deficit? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008); Tallberg Jonas, Sommerer Thomas, Squatrito Theresa, and Jönsson Christer, The Opening Up of International Organizations: Transnational Access in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

32 Steffek, Kissling, and Nanz, Civil Society Participation.

33 Sweet Alec Stone and Thatcher Mark, ‘Theory and Practice of Delegation to Non-Majoritarian Institutions’, West European Politics, 25:1 (2002), pp. 122 ; Hawkins Darren G., Lake David A., Nielson Daniel L., and Tierney Michael J. (eds), Delegation and Agency in International Organizations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

34 Zürn, Binder and Ecker-Erhardt, ‘International Political Authority’.

35 Newton Kenneth and Norris Pippa, ‘Confidence in Public Institutions: Faith, Culture or Performance?’, in Pharr Susan J. and Putnam Robert D. (eds), Disaffected Democracies: What's Troubling the Trilateral Countries? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 61 ; see also Gibson James L., Caldeira Gregory A., and Spence Lester Kenyatta, ‘Measuring Attitudes Toward the United States Supreme Court’, American Journal of Political Science, 47:2 (2003), pp. 354–67.

36 See, for example, Gabel, ‘Public Support for European Integration’; Harteveld, van der Meer, and de Vries, ‘In Europe we Trust?’.

37 Ecker-Erhardt, ‘Cosmopolitan Politicization’.

38 Hooghe and Marks, ‘A Postfunctionalist Theory of European Integration’; Zürn, Binder, and Ecker-Erhardt, ‘International Political Authority’.

39 Hurd, After Anarchy, p. 67.

40 Hooghe and Marks, ‘Calculation, Community and Cues’, pp. 421–2; Hurd, After Anarchy, p. 68.

41 Stone Randall, Controlling Institutions: International Organizations and the Global Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

42 Putnam Robert, Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Uslaner Eric M., The Moral Foundations of Trust (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

43 Rothstein Bo, Social Traps and the Problem of Trust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

44 Torgler Benno, ‘Trust in International Organizations: An Empirical Investigation Focusing on the United Nations’, Review of International Organizations, 3:1 (2008), 6593 .

45 Anderson Christopher J., ‘When in Doubt, Use Proxies: Attitudes Toward Domestic Politics and Support for European Integration’, Comparative Political Studies, 31:5 (1998), pp. 569601 ; Rohrschneider Robert, ‘The Democracy Deficit and Mass Support for an EU-Wide Government’, American Journal of Political Science, 46:2 (2002), pp. 462–75; Muñoz Jordi, Torcal Mariano, and Bonet Eduard, ‘Institutional Trust and Multilevel Government in the European Union: Congruence or Compensation?’, European Union Politics, 12:4 (2011), pp. 551–74; Harteveld, van der Meer and de Vries, ‘In Europe we Trust?’; Armingeon and Ceka, ‘The Loss of Trust in the European Union’.

46 Harteveld, van der Meer and de Vries, ‘In Europe we Trust?’, p. 561.

47 Armingeon and Ceka, ‘The Loss of Trust in the European Union’. Other research in this tradition refines or reverses the logic of this basic argument. Several contributions find that more knowledgeable or cognitively mobilised people rely less on heuristics from domestic politics (for example, Hobolt, ‘Citizen Satisfaction with Democracy’). Others hypothesise and find support for the reverse logic: low levels of support for national political institutions feed into greater support for the EU, which appears as a saviour from malfunctioning domestic politics ( Sánches-Cuenca Ignacio, ‘The Political Basis of Support for European Integration’, European Union Politics, 1:2 (2000), pp. 147–71).

48 Schmidtke Henning and Schneider Steffen, ‘Methoden der empirischen Legitimationsforschung: Legitimität als mehrdimensionales Konzept’, in Geis Anna, Nullmeier Frank, and Daase Christopher (eds), Der Aufstieg der Legitimitätspolitik: Rechtfertigung und Kritik politisch-ökonomischer Ordnungen (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2012), pp. 225–44.

49 Gallup International Association, Voice of the People. ICPSR04636-v1 (Zürich: Gallup International Association, 2005).

50 See Table A1 in Appendix A. Tables A2 and A3 in Appendix A provide summary statistics of and correlations between these variables. All material necessary to replicate the analyses in this article are published on the authors' homepages.

51 Appendix B gives an overview of the question wordings for all questions used to code the individual-level variables, as well as the coding of the answer categories.

52 See Caldeira Gregory A. and Gibson James L., ‘The Etiology of Public Support for the Supreme Court’, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3 (1992), pp. 635–64; Bühlmann Marc and Kunz Ruth, ‘Confidence in the Judiciary: Comparing the Independence and Legitimacy of Judicial Systems’, West European Politics, 34:2 (2011), pp. 317–45.

53 Norris Pippa (ed.), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Norris Pippa, ‘Confidence in the United Nations: Cosmopolitan and Nationalistic Attitudes’, in Esmer Yilmaz and Petterson Thorleif (eds), The International System, Democracy and Values (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2009), pp. 1749 .

54 United Nations, ‘UN Security Council Members’ (2012), available at: {}.

55 Hurd Ian, ‘Legitimacy, Power, and the Symbolic Life of the U.N. Security Council’, Global Governance, 8:1 (2002), pp. 41–4.

56 United Nations, ‘Integrated Civil Society Organizations System’ (2011), available at: {}.

57 See, for example, Jamal Amaney and Nooruddin Irfan, ‘The Democratic Utility of Trust: A Cross-national Analysis’, Journal of Politics, 72:1 (2010), pp. 4559 .

58 The correlation between Perceived UN problem-solving and UN confidence is low (r=.08), indicating that these two variables capture distinct phenomena.

59 United Nations, ‘Regular Budget and Working Capital Fund. U.N. Committee on Contributions’ (2012), {available at}.

60 Cf. United Nations, ‘Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly (A/RES/64/248)’ (2010), available at: {}.

61 See Pippa Norris, ‘Global Governance and Cosmopolitan Citizens’.

62 In contrast, see Jung Jai K., ‘Growing Supranational Identities in a Globalising World? A Multilevel Analysis of the World Values Surveys’, European Journal of Political Research, 47:5 (2008), pp. 578609 .

63 Solt Frederick, ‘Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement’, American Journal of Political Science, 52:1 (2008), pp. 4860 .

64 Cf. Caldeira Gregory A. and Gibson James L., ‘The Legitimacy of the Court of Justice in the European Union: Models of Institutional Support’, American Journal of Political Science, 89:2 (1995), pp. 356–76.

65 Torgler, ‘Trust in International Organizations’.

66 This measure captures the extent to which people rely on each other, also on those that they do not personally know, and is distinct from Government confidence, which taps confidence in specific actors and institutions, such as politicians, officials, and organisations. Cf. Brehm John and Rahn Wendy, ‘Individual-Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital’, American Journal of Political Science, 41:3 (1997), pp. 9991023 .

67 Gleditsch Kristian S., ‘Expanded Trade and GDP Data’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 46:5 (2002), pp. 712–24. Data are derived from Jan Teorell, Marcus Samanni, Sören Holmberg, and Bo Rothstein, ‘The Quality of Government Dataset, Version 6 April 2011’, University of Gothenburg: The Quality of Government Institute, (2011), available at: { dataset/}.

68 Teorell, Samanni, Holmberg, and Rothstein, ‘The Quality of Government Dataset’.

69 Torgler, ‘Trust in International Organizations’.

70 Puchala Donald, ‘World Hegemony and the United Nations’, International Studies Review, 7:1 (2005), pp. 571–84.

71 Goldstein Harvey, Multilevel Models in Educational and Social Research (London: Charles Griffin, 1987).

72 The model is estimated using gllamm in Stata. Using this model requires testing whether the covariate effects are constant across categories. A test of this ‘parallel regression’ assumption suggests that this assumption is reasonable given the data at hand. Rabe-Hesketh Sophia and Skrondal Anders, Multilevel and Longitudinal Modeling Using Stata (Texas: Stata Press, 2008).

73 Cf. Rabe-Hesketh and Skrondal, Multilevel and Longitudinal Modeling.

74 We calculate the intra-class correlation as follows: inline-graphic $\rho=Var(\zeta_{1j})/(Var(\zeta_{1j})+\pi^{2}/3)=0.265/(0.265+\pi^{2}/3)=0.076$ .

75 Norris, ‘Global Governance and Cosmopolitan Citizens’; Furia Peter A., ‘Global Citizenship, Anyone? Cosmopolitanism, Privilege and Public Opinion’, Global Society, 19:4 (2005), pp. 331–59.

76 See Table A1 in Appendix A.

77 See, for example, Gabel Matthew and Scheve Kenneth, ‘Estimating the Effect of Elite Communications on Public Opinion Using Instrumental Variables’, American Journal of Political Science, 51:4 (2007), pp. 1013–28.

78 Cf. Ai Chunrong and Norton Edward C., ‘Interaction Terms in Logit and Probit Models’, Economic Letters, 80:1 (2003), pp. 123–29; Berry William D., DeMeritt Jacqueline H. R. and Esarey Justin, ‘Testing for Interaction in Binary Logit and Probit Models: Is a Product Term Essential?’, American Journal of Political Science, 54:1 (2010), pp. 248–66. The response probabilities for the interaction plots are calculated following Wooldridge Jeffrey M., Econometric Analysis of Cross Section and Panel Data (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), p. 505 , equation 15.88, and implemented in Stata by revising the code suggested by Brambor Thomas, Clark William R., and Golder Matt, ‘Understanding Interaction Models: Improving Empirical Analyses’, Political Analysis, 14:1 (2006), pp. 6382 .

79 See, for example, Norris, ‘Global Governance and Cosmopolitan Citizens’; Hooghe and Marks, ‘Calculation, Community and Cues’.

80 Heckman James J., ‘Sample Selection Bias as a Specification Error’, Econometrica, 47:1 (1979), pp. 153–61.

81 Bernstein, ‘Legitimacy in Intergovernmental and Non-State Global Governance’, p. 61.

82 Zürn, Binder, and Ecker-Erhardt, ‘International Political Authority’.

83 Tallberg, Sommerer, Squatrito, and Jönsson, The Opening Up of International Organizations.

84 Cf. Hurd, After Anarchy.

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