The legitimacy of international organizations (IOs) has become a crucial issue in world politics. Legitimacy is required for IOs, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, to handle major policy problems; however, since the 1990s, IOs have been substantially contested. While most existing research focuses on the normative legitimacy of IOs, that is, whether IOs live up to follow normative principles such as democracy and justice, this project examines the social legitimacy of IOs, that is, the extent to which citizens accept that IOs make appropriate use of their power. Social legitimacy is vital to effective IO policy-making since it facilitates gaining state support for ambitious policy goals, securing national ratification of negotiated agreements, and achieving compliance with rules and norms. Despite growing interest in the social legitimacy of IOs in recent years among scholars and practitioners, the sources of the social legitimacy of IOs have so far received limited systematic attention. ​The overarching question of this project is: Why and how do IOs gain and lose social legitimacy? 

Given that citizens rarely have complete knowledge about IOs and are therefore unlikely to have stable opinions about IOs, the project focuses on whether elite rhetoric influences citizen support for IOs. Both domestic and international elites, such as civil society organizations, political parties, and IOs' representatives, employ a wide range of communication strategies, such as press releases and emphatic speeches, to convince citizens of their views. Elites often compete with each other in trying to influence the public's support for IOs, thereby either legitimising or de-legitimising IOs. Using original data from a survey-embedded experiment in six large democracies central in global governance, this project examines the direct linkages from elite communication to citizen acceptance of IOs. Substantively, it focuses on the legitimacy of nine regional and global IOs involved in economic governance, sustainable development governance, human security governance, and regional governance. 

The project offers the first systematic analysis of the effects of elite communication on the degree to which citizens think that IOs make appropriate use of their power. It will generate a unique survey dataset on the social legitimacy of IOs that will be of extensive value to the research community. In all, the project will provide domestic and international policy-makers with evidence on how they can enhance IOs’ legitimacy, and by extension, the effectiveness of IOs in achieving government support for policy goals and achieving compliance with internationally prescribed policy and reforms.​

Contact: Lisa Dellmuth