Agents, Audiences, and Peers: why international organizations diversify their legitimation discourse

Publikation: Beiträge in ZeitschriftenZeitschriftenaufsätzeForschungbegutachtet


In the face of public contestation, international organizations (IOs) invoke norms in their public communication to enhance relevant audiences’ legitimacy beliefs. This paper offers the first comprehensive analysis of what we term normative diversity in IOs’ discursive legitimation by drawing on a novel dataset on norm-based justifications in more than 32,000 paragraphs of text published by 28 regional IOs from 1980 to 2019. We show that IOs vary strikingly in this respect: whereas some IOs invoke a narrow set of norms, often focused on economic welfare and functional capability, others engage a wide variety that includes security, national sovereignty, democracy, or human rights. To explain this variance, we specify and test an explanatory framework that emphasizes IO audiences, agents, and peer organizations as distinct origins. Our statistical analysis reveals that IOs diversify their discursive legitimation to (1) address heterogeneous audiences, (2) reconcile competing beliefs amongst agents themselves, and (3) integrate the legitimation of peer IOs. These findings indicate that IOs respond to the growing complexity of international cooperation in their discursive legitimation and may raise policymakers’ awareness of the difficulties in contemporary legitimation efforts.
ZeitschriftInternational Affairs
Seiten (von - bis)921-940
Anzahl der Seiten20
PublikationsstatusErschienen - 01.05.2023

Bibliographische Notiz

Funding Information:
This article is part of a special section in the May 2023 issue of International Affairs on ‘Legitimizing international organizations’, guest-edited by Tobias Lenz and Fredrik Söderbaum. Author names are ordered alphabetically; each author contributed equally to the article. Previous versions of this article were presented at the International Relations Section (virtual) of the conference of the German Political Science Association in October 2020, the virtual workshop ‘(Self-)legitimation of international organizations in disruptive times’ in December 2020, the International Studies Association annual convention in April 2021, the European Consortium of Political Research virtual joint sessions in May 2021, the annual convention of the German Political Science Association in September 2021 (virtual), and the workshop ‘Linking IO authority and overlap: theoretical perspectives and empirical considerations’ in May 2022 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We thank the participants at these events, and especially Magdalena Bexell, Christina Davis, Anna Geis, Alex Grigorescu, Tim Heinkelmann-Wild, Christian Kreuder-Sonnen, Philip Liste, Dan Maliniak, Wolfgang Minatti, Michal Parízek, Christian Rauh, Fredrik Söderbaum and Kate Weaver for useful feedback. We are indebted to Swantje Schirmer and Niklas Krösche who contributed enormously to the core concepts and data presented in this article. Tobias Lenz gratefully acknowledges funding from the Leibniz Association (grant number J31/2017).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs.