United Nations Headquarters in New York. Photo: Ognjen Stevanovic/Mostphotos.

One litmus test for such an assessment is legitimacy. Do people think that the UN has rightful authority and exercises it appropriately? Do audiences around the world have confidence and trust in the UN?

Recent research delivers a mixed verdict on this question. Certainly the UN enjoys strong legitimacy in some quarters; however, overall confidence in this global organization is decidedly qualified. Moreover, a striking gap exists between citizen and elite perceptions of the UN, with the public expressing substantially more skepticism than their leaders.

Legitimacy is highly significant to the operation of any ruling authority, including a global institution such as the UN. If people perceive the UN to be legitimate, then it could help the organization to get resources, to make policies, to gain compliance with its decisions, and to make an impact on global problems. In contrast, low or absent legitimacy would tend to make the UN a weaker force in world politics.

Legitimacy beliefs toward the UN rest with citizens as well as elites. Citizen views cover public opinion at large. To the degree that the UN attracts legitimacy from citizens, it has the confidence and trust of the general populations of its member countries. Elite perceptions cover people who hold responsible positions in organizations that strive to be politically influential. To the extent that the UN obtains legitimacy from elites, it has deep approval from policymakers, business leaders, media outlets, civil society organizers, and research institutes.

How is the UN doing for legitimacy today?

So how is the UN doing for legitimacy today? Survey evidence can contribute to an answer. Hence we have through the Legitimacy in Global Governance programme been collecting data about both citizen and elite confidence in the UN. What do we find?

For citizen opinion we can look to data from the seventh wave of the World Values Survey (WVS), conducted across 58 countries in 2017-19. Results show that 8.7 percent of respondents have ‘a great deal of confidence’ in the UN, while 32.6 percent have ‘quite a lot of confidence’. Yet a substantial majority of citizens have ‘not very much confidence’ (30 percent), ‘no confidence at all’ (15.6 percent), or do not have an answer (13.1 percent). In sum, this means that 41.3 percent of all citizens have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the UN, which falls short of a strong endorsement.

Yet these figures must be interpreted in comparison with those for other political institutions. Interestingly, only 38 percent of all citizens have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in national governments. Moreover, citizen opinion shows some variation between different parts of the UN system. For example, the percentage of citizens having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the World Health Organization (WHO) is 50.5 percent, while the percentage of citizens having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) comes in lower at 30.8 percent. Still, overall WVS evidence regarding citizen views toward the UN suggests that popular legitimacy for the UN is by no means secure.

Moreover, the long-term trend of citizen legitimacy beliefs toward the UN points downward. WVS results from the mid-1990s, covering some 50 countries, had around 50 percent of respondents say that they had ‘a great deal of confidence’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in the UN. That figure dropped to about 42 percent by the mid-2010s and has remained stable at this level until today. While the long-term trend thus is one of decline, these WVS data do not support the notion of eroding legitimacy beliefs in the face of recent populism in large parts of the world.

Shifting our attention to elites, the LegGov programme has also during 2017-19 put the same questions about confidence in the UN to 860 political and societal leaders in six countries (Brazil, Germany, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, USA), plus a global group of leaders in international and transnational organizations. In these elite circles, 17 percent had ‘a great deal of confidence’ in the UN, 53 percent had ‘quite a lot of confidence’, 26 percent had ‘not much confidence’, and 4 percent had ‘no confidence at all’. In sum, about 70 percent of elite respondents have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the UN., While not resoundingly positive, current elite legitimacy beliefs toward the UN are quite robust. No ‘crisis of multilateralism’ here.

A striking difference between citizen and elite views

The difference between these citizen and elite views of the UN is striking. A gap of almost 30 percentage points between citizens and elites having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence is most definitely significant. This citizen-elite gap also extends to other parts of the UN system. As in the case of citizens, the WHO obtains a higher confidence score among elites of 85 percent having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence, whereas the IMF attracts a lower score of 55 percent having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence. So the citizen-elite split for the IMF is at about 25 percent, i.e. lower as for the UN as a whole, and the gap grows still further to about 35 percent in respect of the WHO.

Overall, then, our legitimacy check gives the UN at 74 a mixed bill of health. Elite approval of this major global governance institution is reasonably firm, but citizen legitimacy beliefs are weaker, although stable over the past decade. Our studies also show that elites are generally aware that public confidence in the UN is lower than their own. Time will tell whether political leaders take action to address this gap and also raise legitimacy more generally for the UN in its next quarter-century.

Lisa Dellmuth, Jan Aart Scholte, Jonas Tallberg, Soetkin Verhaegen
Legitimacy in Global Governance Programme