Do we have confidence in global institutions?

Over the course of six years, researchers have completed the most comprehensive study to date of the legitimacy of global institutions. The focus has been on investigating citizens’ confidence in these institutions and this has been the first study ever to investigate the differences between the views of citizens and of the elite on international collaboration.

Bild innefrån FN:s generalförsamling i New York.
UN General Assembly in New York. Photo: Felix Lipov/Mostphotos.

Climate change, pandemics and migration crises are all examples of how today’s societal problems are no longer national but demand cross-border collaboration. Since the mid-20th century, a large number of global institutions have been established, which has meant a shift of power and policy from national to international level. But how are these institutions perceived by citizens? Are they considered to be legitimate? These are some of the things the research programme Legitimacy of Global Institutions has investigated over the last six years. The programme, which has been financed by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, has involved sixteen researchers at Stockholm, Lund and Gothenburg universities, under the leadership of Jonas Tallberg.

“Previous research has primarily focused on normative and philosophical criteria to decide whether a global institution can be considered to be democratic or legitimate. Instead, we have focused on whether citizens perceive these institutions to be legitimate. What does the man in the street think? Do people have confidence in the UN or WHO, for example, and what driving forces lie behind this confidence,” says Jonas Tallberg.


Legitimacy is important for global institutions

For a global institution to be able to exercise any power, it is essential that it is seen as legitimate by both decision makers and citizens.

Bild på Jonas Tallberg. Foto: Niklas Björling.
Jonas Tallberg, Professor in Political Science. Photo: Niklas Björling.

“Legitimacy is important for political institutions at national level but it is even more important for global institutions because these do not have the means of sanction that national institutions have. If they are not seen to be legitimate, member states and citizens will not follow their rules,” says Tallberg.

The research programme has focused on three aspects. The first is sources of legitimacy: that is to say the extent to which citizens and the elite perceive global institutions to be legitimate and why. The second is about legitimisation and delegitimisation and focuses on how different stakeholders attempt to strengthen or weaken the image of global institutions. The final aspect is about the effects of legitimacy and the consequences for the work of global institutions of having more or less legitimacy.


Unique empirical material

To investigate global institutions’ legitimacy in the eyes of citizens, an opinion poll has been carried out in about 80 countries, with the assistance of World Values Survey. While it is common to survey citizens’ opinions about national political institutions, this is the first time that attitudes to global institutions have been surveyed in this way. The project’s empirical material has therefore drawn great attention and this is the most comprehensive study of the legitimacy of global institutions ever performed.


The elite have more confidence in global institutions than other citizens

“We also carried out an opinion poll in five countries in which we investigated the views of the elite on the legitimacy of global institutions. This has meant that, for the first time ever, we could investigate the differences between the views of citizens and the elite on global institutions and international collaboration,” says Tallberg.

The study has shown that citizens and the elite generally have different views on the institutions’ legitimacy. While leaders in politics and society tend to have quite a high level of confidence in global institutions, citizens generally have significantly less confidence in these institutions. The gulf is greatest in Brazil, followed by Russia, Germany and the USA. On the other hand, the picture is very different in the Philippines, where citizens have more confidence in global institutions than the elite do.


No general legitimacy crisis

Political developments in recent years, with the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU and the Trump-led growth of anti-globalist populism, have been seen as a sign of dissatisfaction with international collaboration. But the research shows that this is not the case.

“We cannot see from our investigations that global institutions are subject to a general legitimacy crisis; on the contrary the level of citizens’ confidence has remained stable. And if we compare the legitimacy of global institutions with that of national political institutions, we see that overall global institutions have somewhat greater support,” says Tallberg.


The future of international collaboration

So what significance do the research programme’s conclusions have for future international collaboration? Among other things, they indicate that today’s legitimacy levels represent an uncertain basis for the future.

“We can see that effective international collaboration will be even more important in the future for being able to handle cross-border problems. Although we do not see any major legitimacy crisis for global institutions, they do not have the strong support from citizens that would probably be needed for more far-reaching collaboration. The divide between the views on the legitimacy of global institutions of the elite and citizens is a particular cause for concern. If the populations of countries have a negative mindset when it comes to international collaboration, it becomes harder for the leaders of states to push through ambitious international objectives,” says Tallberg.

It can also be seen from the research that global institutions have limited capabilities to reinforce their legitimacy themselves. Instead, legitimacy is largely formed by stakeholders, processes and conditions outside these institutions – often at national level.

“Our research shows that institutions that are perceived as being more democratic, effective and fair are also those with greater legitimacy. But the reforms that are needed to achieve this often depend on member states being willing to relinquish national control. Nor do global institutions’ own attempts to communicate their strengths have any effect. What is needed is for other supporters of global collaboration – such as national governments, political parties and organisations in civil society – to come forward and defend the value of joint global institutions in handling cross-border problems," says Tallberg.

Learn more about the research programme