Self-Legitimation by International Organisations

This project examines how international organisations create and maintain internal legitimacy – a process that is known as ‘self-legitimation’. In particular, the research looks at how self-legitimation affects IO behaviour for organisations with multiple institutional identities that may conflict with each other. Many IOs are both operational actors that participate actively in combat, peacekeeping, development and aid work, and other global political and economic processes, and are also normative actors that develop and promote international norms. They are also both autonomous organisations with independent capacities and are instruments at the disposal of member states. These different identities are not only external projections, they are also powerful internal self-perceptions, defining how staff conceive of the rightness and appropriateness of their role.

However, these identities sometimes dictate contradictory goals and practices, forcing the institutions to violate the principles and activities considered appropriate to one of their identities, thus complicating legitimation. Accordingly, self-legitimation by international organisations often entails the use of discourse and symbolic acts to convey or ‘package’ actions a certain way in a bid to affirm a coherent institutional identity. However, this implies that IOs may ‘say one thing and do another’, and these contradictory discursive and operational practices have negative implications for internal and external perceptions of their legitimacy.

The project undertakes a comparative analysis of the self-legitimation practices of three international organisations – the UN (focusing on peacekeeping), the World Bank and NATO. It will make a two-fold contribution. First, it will add to existing theories of IO behaviour and of legitimacy in International Relations, which focus primarily on external assessments of IO legitimacy and neglect the multiple and at times contradictory identities of IOs. Second, it will lead to a greater understanding among policymakers of how and why such bodies take certain decisions, how they interact with other actors in the international system, and how they can be effective actors in international affairs.

While it is unlikely that the contradictions they face can be eliminated, a greater understanding of why these contradictory behaviours exist and how IOs seek to overcome them will enable more constructive and efficient cooperation, avoiding the inconsistency that has plagued recent interaction with IOs.


Funded by the ESRC Future Research Leaders Scheme (2016-18)

Lead researcher: Sarah van Billerbeck