Legitimacy of Global Institutions? J.A. Scholte and the LegGov Elite Survey

There seems to be a trend in IR institutionalist research that scholars should focus less on governments and much more on governance. At the same time global governance institutions appear increasingly contested by state and non-state actors alike. An interesting symposium, published at the turn of the year by International Theory, used Michael Zürns A Theory of Global Governance: Authority, Legitimacy & Contestation (2018) for a critical discussion about the state of research. A research programme at the University of Stockholm meanwhile publishes findings on elite perceptions and attitudes towards International Organizations (IO), thereby enriching the debate. The Centre's co-director Jan Aart Scholte is prominently involved in this development.

While acknowledging its merits, Scholte sees institutionalism still entrenched in a state-centrist approach and his contribution to the symposium makes a plea to transcending intergovernmentalism. But if global governance research is focusing on 'bodies with transplanetary remits', another pitfall is looming:

Underlining the relative autonomy of global regulatory organizations also risks reifying ‘the global level’. Thereby the global comes to be constructed as a sphere unto itself, ontologically separate from other arenas of governance. Such isolation of discrete spaces of regulation patently does not exist in practice. For example, global governance conferences today normally include involvement from regional, national, and local agencies as well as constitutionally global institutions. Hence, the global in global governance never stands on its own. (182)

Turning to the legitimacy question Scholte makes the argument that 'IR institutionalist studies root the sources of legitimacy mainly in the purpose, procedure, and performance of the global governance organizations.' He is not overly opposed to the relevance of institutional features and the conceptualization of sociological legitimacy since Max Weber. But a wider context comes into play when 'beliefs in the (il)legitimacy of global rules' are to be understood properly. Public perceptions are such a factor, as Scholte exemplifies with the case of ICANN:

the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) long suffered major legitimacy difficulties because it was widely viewed as a tool of United States hegemony, even though the institutional workings of the regime were generally regarded as participatory and effective. (185)

Scholte hints at the powerful legitimating consequences of discursive structures (language, mindset) for a global governance institution. With public perceptions, the individual perception 'of the perceiving subject' matters again.

Concurrently with a macro turn toward social structure, institutionalist investigations of legitimacy could fruitfully also take a micro turn to incorporate individual sources of confidence in global governance arrangements.

You could, for example ask a selection of individuals, how they perceive certain international organizations. You would measure confidence levels and compare perceptions across borders. The LegGov Elite Survey does exactly this. LegGov is a six-year research programme carried out by researchers from the Departments of Political Science at Lund and Stockholm University, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg. Jan Aart Scholte is part of the research team. The programme is funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation). Among others, the project asks this question:

How are these legitimacy dynamics in global governance similar to or different from the dynamics of legitimacy in the nation-state and other forms of governance?

The LegGov Elite Survey concept clearly applies an understanding of ‘governance’ beyond the ‘government’. Legitimacy is conceptualized as kind of a deeper endorsement:

Legitimacy goes deeper than mere support for a particular ruler or a particular policy. Legitimacy involves foundational endorsement of the regime itself. With legitimacy, subjects willingly obey an authority, even when they dislike the leader of the day or when a given policy disadvantages them. Thus, for example, people pay taxes or even go to war for a state that they regard to be legitimate, even when they might oppose the government of the day. (10)

The LegGov Elite Survey

Conducted: 2017–19

Surveyed (N): 860 political and societal leaders

Six countries: Brazil, Germany, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, USA, plus a global group

Six elite sectors: business, civil society, government bureaucracy, media, political parties, research

14 Global Governance Institutions: Respondents were asked to evaluate 14 global governance bodies: International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Group of Twenty (G20), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), International Criminal Court (ICC), International, Monetary Fund (IMF), Kimberley Process (KP), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), United Nations (UN), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nations Security Council (UNSC), World Health Organization (WHO), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO).


In addition to the LegGov Elite Survey, co-authored by Lisa Dellmuth, Jan Aart Scholte, Jonas Tallberg and Soetkin Verhaegen, three articles by the same authors in peer reviewed journals focus on specific findings and expose the project to academic scrutiny and discussion.

Dellmuth, Lisa, Scholte, Jan Aart, Tallberg, Jonas, Verhaegen, Soetkin (2021). The Elite-Citizen Gap in International Organization Legitimacy, American Political Science Review, online first

Verhaegen, Soetkin, Scholte, Jan Aart, Tallberg, Jonas (2021). Explaining Elite Perceptions of Legitimacy in Global Governance, European Journal of International Relations 27(2): 622–650. doi.org/10.1177/1354066121994320

Scholte, Jan Aart, Verhaegen, Soetkin, Tallberg, Jonas (2021). Elite Attitudes and the Future of Global Governance, International Affairs 97(3), May, 861–886. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiab034


'Explaining elite perceptions of legitimacy in global governance' maps and explains elite legitimacy beliefs toward three key IOs in different issue-areas: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This article introduces the category of 'elites’ satisfaction' and the authors hypothesize that 'when elites are more satisfied with democracy, effectiveness and fairness in IOs, they also regard these IOs as more legitimate'. Elite satisfaction, it is claimed, enhances or complements a prevailing – yet limited –debate focused on the influence of utilitarian calculation, global identity orientation and domestic cues (attitudes towards domestic institutions).

In another article, the authors focus on elite attitudes more broadly. They find 'a considerable readiness to pursue global-scale governance' among those individuals. 'Today's elites are not generally in a nationalist-protectionist-sovereigntist mood.' Confidence levels seem to be medium, no excitement but also no aversion. Interestingly, the authors find a correlation between confidence in institutions and a perception of those institutions as democratic/transparent and efficient. In a self-critical assessment the authors find some notable variations in their results with respect of geographical locations, elite types and individual global governance institutions. They also reflect on time, since data always also reflect the moment of their collection. In the end, a special binary is recommended for further scrutiny and research:  an exploration of the relationship between elite and general public perspectives on global governance.

This novel approach beyond IR institutionalist research fits well into the current research at the Centre. It is especially the accord between research foci on Legitimation and Delegitimation and different Conceptions of World Order that motivates a debate about underlying structures and mechanisms that shape the afore mentioned perspectives - differently. It will come as no surprise, when in the Legitimation and Delegitimation Group readers will meet Jan Aart Scholte again.