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Legitimating International Organizations$

Dominik Zaum

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199672097

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672097.001.0001

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(p.221) 11 Conclusion
Legitimating International Organizations

Dominik Zaum

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter summarises and evaluates the book’s findings about international organisations’ legitimation practices. It suggests that they can be grouped into three broad categories of legitimation practices: the creation of new institutions and structures, seeking external validation of legitimacy claims, and rhetorical affirmation of the importance and legitimacy of existing institutional arrangements. It then briefly evaluates the contribution of these practices to three objectives of legitimation: confirming the status quo against rival authority claims, re-categorising and extending authority relationships, and addressing the legitimacy gaps that have arisen from social and political change. It concludes with a brief discussion of two wider contributions that this analysis suggests a legitimation perspective can make to the understanding of international organisations and international order.

Keywords:   international organisations, regional organisations, legitimacy, legitimation, institutions, international order, social change

The central focus of the preceding chapters has been the legitimation practices of international and regional organizations—that is conscious efforts to enhance their legitimacy in the eyes of diverse audiences, both internal and external. While legitimation efforts are characterized by diversity, and each organization displays unique experiences, a range of common themes emerge from the chapters. This suggests that examining the practices of international and regional organizations from the perspective of legitimation adds to our understanding of these organizations and of international order more generally.1

This brief conclusion aims to summarize and evaluate the book’s findings about international organizations’ legitimation practices. To that end, it will first briefly summarize the key findings and identify similarities across the cases. Second, it will evaluate how different legitimation practices contribute to the three purposes of legitimation by international organizations identified in the first chapter: confirming the status quo against rival authority claims, re-categorizing and extending authority relationships, and addressing the legitimacy gaps that have arisen from social and political change. The chapter will conclude with a brief discussion of two wider contributions that this analysis suggests a legitimation perspective can make to the understanding of international organizations and international order.

An Overview of the Findings

Legitimacy Challenges

All international organizations examined here have faced challenges to their legitimacy claims. The underlying sources of these challenges tend to be quite (p.222) similar. In most of the cases, legitimacy challenges are rooted in either changes in the distribution of power in international society and the (re)emergence of powers like China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa, or in normative changes. Even challenges to organizations’ output legitimacy—their apparent inability to advance common desirable goals—are often rooted in social and normative change and a perceived need to advance additional—or different—shared norms. However, the specific character that legitimacy challenges have taken varies widely between organizations. Across the cases, one can identify four different legitimacy challenges.

The first are challenges to decision-making structures and practices. With regard to structures, challenges have focused in particular on the lack of representativeness (in the case of the UN Security Council), or on the dominance of hegemomic powers in an organization’s decision-making, as with regard to the US role in the UN Security Council after the cold war, or Nigeria’s hegemonic role in ECOWAS. Concerning decision-making practices, challenges often focus on a lack of transparency and openness across a wide range of the cases. Generally, challenges to the legitimacy of decision-making structures and practices are internal, coming from member states who feel excluded or marginalized. One important exception to this is the challenge to ASEAN’s decision-making structures and practices, which have been criticized for effectively being too inclusive and consensual, and seen as hindering effective decision-making and offering too many veto opportunities for obstructionist states.2 Importantly, though, such challenges have come from external actors—especially Western states and organizations—and the existing structures continue to enjoy strong legitimacy amongst ASEAN members. As Alice Ba notes in Chapter 7, changing them would threaten to undermine ASEAN’s internal legitimacy (see page 146).

The second challenge arises from non-compliance of member states with an international organization’s decisions, or unwillingness to enforce its decisions. The problem of non-compliance has been highlighted in particular in the discussions of the AU and the UN Security Council, and includes uses of force (as in Iraq or Kosovo) where the Council was divided and unable to authorize such action; or the pursuit by states of policies in contravention of those decided upon by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council—as (p.223) Nigeria and ECOWAS states did over Cote d’Ivoire in 2011. Non-compliance challenges can also be external, for example non-compliance of non-state actors such as rebel forces with the demands made in UN Security Council resolutions.3 With regard to legitimacy, however, non-compliance by member states, especially powerful member states with a strong voice in the organization, poses a much greater challenge to an organization’s legitimacy.

The third legitimacy challenge comes from member states who want to limit the existing authority and autonomy of international organizations. The cases examined here include two examples of this: debates about the balance between European supranational institutions and member states in the debates about the EU constitutional treaty, and the Russian efforts to reduce the autonomy of OSCE institutions such as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and its electoral observer missions who have been critical of practices by Russia and its allies. The changed Russian position very much reflects the (re)emergence of Russian power, and an attempt to roll back the liberal norms and institutions advanced by the OSCE in the wake of the end of the Cold War.

The final set of legitimacy challenges arises from institutions and practices conflicting with or failing to reflect, international norms. Most dramatically, this led to the replacement of the OAU with the AU when it was seen as increasingly irrelevant and unable to address the post-cold war realities on the African continent. Importantly, this challenge came from within the OAU’s membership. Another example is the SCO, whose legitimacy amongst some external (especially Western) audiences is compromised by its challenge to liberal norms, but where this challenge and the political and normative alternatives it opens up make it attractive and more legitimate to states who feel their interests threatened or marginalized by international organizations dominated by liberal Western states.

Legitimation Practices

The legitimation practices of international organizations identified in the earlier chapters, just like legitimation challenges, are quite varied. Given that organizations differ in their mandates, the degree of institutionalization, and the character of their membership, this is not surprising. Still, despite this variation, one can identify three broad categories of legitimation practices employed across the cases identified here.

(p.224) One of the most common forms of legitimation—practiced by almost all organizations discussed in this book—is the creation of new institutions and structures. The wholesale transformation of the OAU into the AU, with a whole new institutional architecture, is arguably the most dramatic instance of this practice. Other organizations, however have also reformed or expanded their institutions—ASEAN’s new charter and the creation of the Human Rights Commission, the expansion of the UN Security Council’s committee system, or the EU’s institutional changes under the Lisbon treaty are all cases in point. Even the most weakly institutionalized international organization examined here, the SCO, has sought to increase its internal legitimacy through strengthened issue-specific coordination mechanisms like the RATS.

Importantly, not all of these institutional changes are targeted at strengthening the internal legitimacy of international organizations, by strengthening the relevance of the organization to key members and their concerns. Especially in non-Western organizations that rely on the support or recognition of external actors and do not count great powers amongst their members—such as the AU, ECOWAS, or ASEAN—institutional change is targeted also at external audiences to sustain their recognition and support.

Second, almost all international organizations examined here seek external validation for their authority claims. This can take several forms. One is through links and partnerships with other organizations which bestow a stamp of approval and recognition of authority: the SCO’s desire to forge links with other international organizations like the UN and the Collective Security Treaty Organization is an example of this, as are the links between the AU and ECOWAS, and between both AU and ECOWAS and the UN. Another one is to seek the authorization of the UN for uses of force by organizations like ECOWAS, the EU, or NATO. A third form of seeking such external validation is through efforts to involve external actors, especially great powers or important organizations, in dialogue and in an institution’s processes, as ASEAN has tried with regard to the US in particular.

Third, international organizations and their member states have engaged in rhetorical affirmation of the importance and legitimacy of existing institutional arrangements and practices in light of specific challenges to these arrangements, or broader social and political change. The efforts by the US and Germany to defend the autonomy of the OSCE’s institutions against efforts to bring them under tighter member-state control, and their affirmation of the continued importance of their autonomy, is a key example of this practice.

The objectives of legitimation

Even when eschewing judgements on the legitimacy of different organizations, it is worth evaluating their legitimation practices and examining how (p.225) they contribute to the three key purposes of legitimation identified in the book’s introduction: confirming the status quo against rival authority claims, re-categorizing and extending authority relationships, and addressing the legitimacy gaps that have arisen from social and political change. It is worth noting that these different purposes are not mutually exclusive, but often inter-related: the desire to extend authority relationships into issue areas such as regional security, for example, can be informed by a need to address legitimacy gaps that have arisen from normative change. As a consequence, individual legitimation efforts might address several of these purposes, not just one.

Confirming the Status Quo

Asserting existing authority relationships against rival claims and challenges is an important purpose of the legitimation practices of almost all the organizations examined in this book. Such legitimation efforts have come in response to challenges from inside an organization—for example the American and German efforts in the OSCE to legitimate the existing scope of the mandates of the ODIHR and electoral monitoring missions, or UN Security Council members asserting the need for Council authorizations in the light of unilateral and unauthorized uses of force by key member states. More often, though, such legitimation occurs in response to claims from external actors and organizations, for example the AU and ECOWAS asserting their role as speaking for and coordinating their regional and sub-regional communities respectively, regional organization’s challenging the Security Council’s monopoly on the authorization of the use of force, or ASEAN’s admission of Myanmar despite Western pressure to not grant it membership.

The main practice associated with confirmations of the status quo is rhetorical affirmation. States or the bureaucracies of international organizations emphasize the continued utility for member states of the existing institutional arrangements and practices, and the potential negative consequences of any change. These efforts are also often conducted with reference to well-established normative frameworks. In addition to rhetorical affirmation, to defend the status quo international organizations and their member states often also seek external validation of their legitimacy claims. ECOWAS seeking an ex-post endorsement of its intervention in Liberia is an obvious example of this. Some organizations, such as the Security Council, have also used institutional change in pursuit of legitimating the status quo, for example through its efforts to strengthen its epistemic capacities, so that it could justify and defend its primacy with regards to addressing threats to international peace and security.

(p.226) Re-categorizing and Extending Authority Relationships

Legitimation efforts with the purpose of re-categorizing and extending authority relationships have been much more contested and have arguably been less successful than legitimation to counter authority challenges from other actors. Efforts have been aimed, on the one hand, at procedurally changing the relationship between an international organization and its member states, often focussing on greater accountability and transparency, re-balancing the relationship between the authority of an organization versus its member states, and on changing decision-making structures and practices to make them more inclusive or effective. Such issues were central to the legitimation efforts of France and the UK over the Lisbon treaty, and to Security Council reform efforts. On the other hand, such efforts have aimed at extending an organization’s authority into new issue areas (or in some cases seeking a retrenchment of an organization’s authority). Sometimes, such efforts are not particularly controversial—for example the UN Security Council’s pronouncements on the applicability of the laws of war to non-state actors.4 In other cases, such as the Council’s greater engagement in peacebuilding or the promotion of the responsibility to protect by some of its member states, or ECOWAS’ engagement in security issues and the use of force, such efforts have met with greater resistance.

The legitimation of re-categorizations and extensions of authority relationships has most frequently occurred through institutional changes to underpin such legitimacy claims. Examples include the establishment of the UN peacebuilding commission, the establishment of the RATS, and most dramatically the transformation of the OAU into the AU, and the later establishment of the APSA. It is worth noting that institutional changes that are poorly resourced, or insufficiently backed by great powers, have done little to support organizations’ legitimacy claims. The AU’s experience, with the persistent weakness of the APSA, and the lack of compliance by key member states during the crises in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, is a reflection of this.

Addressing Legitimacy Gaps in Light of Social and Political Change

All international organizations examined here have been challenged by social and political change, and they and their members have sought to sustain their (p.227) legitimacy vis-à-vis key audiences by responding to it either through institutional adaption, or through resistance. One reason for the emergence of legitimacy gaps has been changes in the balance of power and the composition of international society. Another reason for the emergence of legitimacy gaps has been normative change, with international and regional norms no longer reflected in the structures and practices of international organizations. Such changes affect different states in different ways, depending on their internal characteristics, their economic or military capacity, or their geopolitical position. They do not simply deprive an organization’s legitimacy of its normative underpinnings, rather, changes within international society open up spaces for contestation, either because of diverging expectations or because previously existing differences come into the open—as reflected in the vociferous debates in the UN over the use of force and the responsibility to protect, in the EU over the balance of power between member states and supranational institutions, or in the OSCE over human rights and democracy promotion. Such changes can create opportunities for states and international organizations to challenge existing contested normative frameworks, as highlighted by the SCO’s challenge to liberal norms.

Unsurprisingly, legitimation to address legitimacy gaps has occurred almost exclusively through institutional change. As legitimacy gaps have arisen because of changes in the political and normative underpinnings of previous legitimacy claims, rhetorical affirmations and external validations of unchanged claims are unlikely to resonate with relevant audiences. Most of the institutional changes sought or pursued in the cases examined in the previous chapters are responses to legitimacy gaps—from ASEAN’s new charter and the Lisbon treaty, to the transformation of the OAU into the AU and UN Security Council reforms. The record of such changes has generally been mixed, either because substantive change has remained largely elusive (as over UN Security Council reform), or because social change has undermined the emergence of a substantive normative consensus around which institutions could be reformed and an organization could be legitimized. As a result, institutional change has left the legitimacy of international organizations either internally contested—as with the UN Security Council, the African Union, or the EU—or has had divergent effect on the internal and external legitimacy of international organizations, as with ASEAN and the SCO.

The contribution of a legitimation perspective

What can an analysis of international organizations from the perspective of legitimation add to our understanding of international order and the politics (p.228) and practices of international organizations? From the preceding chapters, two wider themes emerge.

First, examining international organizations from a legitimation perspective sheds light on the normative fault lines of international and regional orders, as legitimacy claims and counter-claims are regularly structured around these divisions. The analysis in the preceding chapters suggests that the key normative divisions that international and regional organizations face are very similar across the cases—though they sometimes occur within an organization’s membership, and sometimes between an organization’s members and key external audiences.

While particular contestations over legitimacy are organizationally specific, and reflect the character of the organization’s membership, institutional structures, and unique political challenges, at the heart of many of the legitimation efforts examined is the tension between key aspects of the two global practices into which, as Mervyn Frost suggests in Chapter 2, all international organizations are embedded: global civil society, and the society of sovereign states. Across the cases examined here, divisions over human rights and responsibilities to uphold them on the one hand, and the rights to non-intervention associated with state sovereignty on the other, are at the heart of legitimacy debates. These divisions have shaped debates over the scope of UN Security Council authority and its authorizations of the use of force, are at the heart of the OSCE’s debates over the authority of electoral observer missions and democracy promotion institutions, and have defined the debates over the ‘non-indifference’ norm and its institutional and policy implications in the AU and ECOWAS. In the context of ASEAN, it has shaped the debate about membership of Myanmar, then governed by a highly illiberal military regime; and, finally, the SCO has to some extent styled itself as an institutional alternative to the ‘coercive solidarist’5 order associated especially by many developing countries with the practice of global civil society and Western-dominated international organizations.

That this particular normative fault line is central to contestations over legitimacy across the different organizations, and across different regions, is not necessarily surprising. It reflects an international order characterized on the one hand only by a shallow normative consensus, and on the other hand by substantial power inequalities, with power still—despite the less liberal character of emerging powers—disproportionately concentrated in liberal states. It is these liberal states and organizations dominated by them that have frequently been an important external audience for the legitimacy claims of non-Western organizations. For example, should ASEAN increasingly look towards China or India rather than the US, or were China and Russia, rather than (p.229) the European Union, a major financial contributor to AU peace and security operations, the character of their legitimation efforts would almost certainly be very different. While the mostly liberal norms associated with the practice of global civil society and promoted by Western powers have remained contested, the continued political and economic reach of these states nonetheless requires other states, and international and regional organizations they participate in, to engage with these norms—be it through adaption or resistance.

Second, a focus on legitimation as a practice, rather than on legitimacy as an institutional attribute, brings out the role of international organizations as institutional frameworks within which other actors—especially the organizations’ bureaucracies and individual member states—engage in legitimation, not only of the organization itself vis-à-vis different audiences, but importantly also of their particular understandings of regional or international order. There are three reasons for this. First, the structured character of interaction in the context of international organizations can constrain the exercise of coercion and power politics,6 creating a more permissive environment for norm-based discourses. This offers a platform to actors (especially states) who would otherwise find it more difficult to have their voices heard, and to advance their visions of order. Second, as Thomas Risse has argued, international organizations are characterized by a ‘repertoire of collective understandings’7 that structure their debates. Legitimation efforts that reflect these shared normative frameworks are more likely to resonate with an organization’s wider membership than those that do not reflect them, and are more persuasive than others.8 Consequently, international organizations offer a particularly conducive environment for norms-based discourses, and a structured yet permissive framework to contest competing norms. A third reason why international organizations act as frameworks for legitimation is their role in facilitating cooperation amongst member states vis-à-vis external audiences. As the chapters on the AU, ASEAN, and the SCO suggest, this function is particularly important for regional organizations advancing normative positions at odds with wider international norms, or norms advanced by powerful external actors. Advancing particular conceptions of order multilaterally through an international or regional organization weakens counter-claims that they merely reflect narrow national political interests, but allows them to be framed as principled normative commitments that have wider regional support.

(p.230) These brief conclusions provide only some selective reflections and perspectives on the legitimation practices of international and regional organizations. They highlight how their legitimacy relates both to the interactions between states and other actors within the organizations, and to the dynamics of the wider social and material dimensions of international order. Examining international organizations through the lens of legitimation practices highlights that while international organizations structure and constrain the behaviour and interactions of states, ultimately it is predominantly through the actions of states that their legitimacy is reproduced and recognized. It also points to an international order characterized by relatively shallow normative agreement, and by deep divisions between the key international practices of global civil society and the society of sovereign states. These divisions not only structure international organizations’ legitimation efforts, but importantly also tightly delineate the political and normative space within which they can successfully legitimate themselves. If nothing else, therefore, the analysis in this book underlines David Beetham’s observation that the maintenance and reproduction of legitimacy is not independent of the wider social and material structures of power,9 and that international organizations cannot transcend the wider order in which they are embedded.


(1) This concluding chapter draws on the analysis and insights of the preceding chapters. The views expressed here, however, are of the author and not necessarily of the other contributors.

(2) A similar criticism has been made by some commentators of the UN Security Council, where concerns about obstructionism through the use of the veto by non-liberal permanent members led to proposals for a League of Democracies. Interestingly, the proponents of such a league sought to address the problem posed by the veto not by abolishing it (the proposed decision-making mechanism was consensual), but by restricting membership to democratic states. The proposal gained very little traction. See John G. Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Final Report of the Princeton Project on National Security, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law: US National Security in the 21st Century (Princeton, NJ: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 2006).

(3) The International Peace Institute has compiled an extensive dataset on compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions, and has found that compliance with the Council’s demands by civil war parties is generally low. See www.ipacademy.org/coping-with-crisis/compliance-with-security-council-resolutions/programlist.html (accessed 29 January 2013).

(4) Georg Nolte, ‘The Different Functions of the Security Council With Respect to Humanitarian Law’, in Vaughan Lowe, Adam Roberts, Jennifer Welsh, and Dominik Zaum (eds.), The United Nations Security Council and War: The Evolution of Thought and Practice since 1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 519–34.

(5) Andrew Hurrell, On Global Order: Power, Values, and the Constitution of International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 63.

(6) Martha Finnemore, ‘Fights about rules: the role of efficacy and power in changing multilateralism’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 31/S1 (2005), 187–206.

(7) Thomas Risse, ‘Let’s Argue! Communicative Action in World Politics’, International Organization, Vol. 54/1 (2000), 11.

(8) Ian Johnstone, ‘Security Council Deliberations: The Power of the Better Argument’, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 14/3 (2003), 437–80.

(9) David Beetham, The Legitimation of Power (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), 104.