Sarah von Billerbeck | 2020

“Mirror, Mirror On the Wall:” Self-Legitimation by International Organizations

in: International Studies Quarterly 64:1, 207-219. [Winner of the Best Research Output Prize 2020, University of Reading]

Most analyses of legitimacy and legitimation in international organizations (IOs) focus on the perceptions of external audiences. In so doing, they fail to consider self-legitimation, where an IO undertakes legitimation internally, as a way of developing and reinforcing its identity. Moreover, most studies of IO legitimacy neglect the fact that IO identities are rarely uniform and instead are multiple and conflicting.

I address these omissions by examining self-legitimation in three IOs—the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the World Bank. These organizations are both operational and normative actors, and both institutions dependent on member states and autonomous bodies with independent expertise and capacities. These identities sometimes dictate contradictory goals and practices, forcing the organizations to violate the principles and activities considered appropriate to one of their identities, thus complicating legitimation.

Based on extensive fieldwork and drawing on a range of disciplines, this article proposes a novel theory of IO self-legitimation: I argue that the need for self-legitimation depends on the degree of identity cohesion and identity hierarchy of the organization. I identify two temporal dimensions of self-legitimation, three categories of self-legitimation practices, and three broader repercussions of self-legitimation, ultimately showing that self-legitimation is a necessary and constitutive activity for IOs.

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