Skip to main content

International Legitimacy

The International Legitimacy project is an interdisciplinary project examining various dimensions of legitimacy beyond the state.

London Brexit pro-EU protest March 25 2017

The International Legitimacy Seminar Programme is a two-year research project run by Edinburgh Law School and the School of Global Governance at the University of Hamburg. The project seeks to interrogate some of the conceptual and definitional issues involved in contemplating questions of legitimacy beyond the state whether at regional, transnational, international or global levels.

In these seminars we understand legitimacy as a set of discursive reasons for the right to rule of an authority and therefore distinct from subjection to authority based on coercion or self-interest. However considering legitimacy beyond the state, we are forced to problematise the different dimensions of this conventional understanding of legitimacy. Within the state context, the question of which authority, which subjects and which types of reasons count as legitimacy reasons are relatively settled. However, in the supra-state context such aspects of the legitimacy relationship are much more heavily contested and unsettled.

In this regard, then, following Thomas (Thomas: 2014) our approach to the question of international legitimacy looks at question of international legitimacy along three broad lines:

  • The Objects of International Legitimacy
  • The Subjects of International Legitimacy
  • The Grounds of International Legitimacy

Objects of International Legitimacy

Within the state context, the objects of legitimacy are fairly clear cut. It is the state, which must be deemed to be legitimate. Whereas there is some dispute as to what, precisely is included within the definition of the state (institutions, legal system, political community and so on), these are relatively contained within the reasonably capacious concept of the state. At the supra-state level things are more complex. It is not immediately clear what, precisely, the appropriate objects of international legitimacy claims and demands are. Various candidate entities present themselves as possibilities: International Organisations and particularly those labelled Global Governance institutions or ‘GGIs’ such as the United Nations and particularly its Security Council, the World Trade Organisation, the European Union; International Courts such as the ICJ, ICC or regional variations such as the ECJ and ECHR; even less formally institutional entities such as the G7 or other less formal policy-making groupings. Moreover, if we fan out to other possible objects of legitimacy we can think of other candidate objects of legitimate at this level, such as individual acts or the legal structures or political and economic forces which underpin formal institutions; which create legitimacy demands independently of the institutions themselves.

The Subjects of International Legitimacy

As with the objects of international legitimacy, the subjects of international legitimacy are more highly contested at the supra-state level than in the state setting. Orthodox understandings of agency in international relations – which still arguably have some purchase notwithstanding an increasing globalised world – would posit states, and particularly their executives, as both the authors and ‘consumers’ of suprastate law and policy, and therefore the sole and exclusive subjects of international legitimacy. However increasing global interdependence questions whether the dominance of states as the subjects of international legitimacy is still adequate and forces us to consider whether other entities such as an international community, transnational or global civil society or even humanity as a whole are more appropriate targets for legitimacy claims made beyond the state setting.

The Grounds of international Legitimacy

In this theme of the programme we examine whether the grounds of legitimacy – that is the reasons why an authority may be deemed to be legitimate – differ between the state and supra-state contexts. At the state level the grounds of legitimacy have, in modernity, tended to coalesce around a bundle of constitutional values such as democracy, respect for fundamental rights, the separation of powers, federalism or the rule of law. Here we examine whether and the extent to which these grounds of legitimacy are appropriate in respect of supra-state political relationships.

Each theme will be explored in specific detail in a number of seminars in the seminar series. The hope is that in parsing out the questions of international legitimacy in this way, we will contribute to the construction of a robust conceptual foundation upon which future inquiries into international legitimacy can be built whether at the micro level – involving the legitimacy of individual institutions, structures or regimes – or at the macro level – involving institutions and structures with international or global ambitions.

Thomas, C. (2014) ‘The Uses and Abuses of International Legitimacy’ 34(4) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 729 – 758 .

Past events


A Republican Europe of States (27 January 2020)
Speaker: Richard Bellamy (UCL, European University Institute)
View event

The Political Legitimacy of International Law: Sovereign States and their International Institutional Order: Carrying Dworkin’s Later Work on International Law Forward (18 November 2019)
Speaker: Samantha Besson (Collège de France & University of Fribourg)
View event

The Political Legitimacy of Global Governance and the Proper Role of Civil Society Actors (6 November 2019)
Speaker: Eva Erman (University of Stockholm)
View event

The LegGov Project: Recent Findings
Speaker: Jonas Tallberg (Stockholm University)
View event

Who’s in and who’s out: The international community as a (de)legitimization device (24 September 2019)
Speaker: Mor Mitrani (Bar-Ilan University)
View event

The Limit of Liberal Legalism (27 March 2019)
Speaker: Ian Hurd (Northwestern University) 

Legitimacy in the International Order: The Continuing Relevance of Sovereign States (13 March 2019)
Speaker: Brad Roth (Wayne State University)

The Contemporary Crisis of Constitutional Democracy (6 March 2019)
Speaker: Martin Loughlin (London School of Economics)
View event

Revolution, Collective Security and Nuclear Weapons: Some Ideas on the recent history of International Law (27 February 2019)
Speaker: Mattias Kumm, (New York University and Humbolt University Berlin)

MacCormick Lecture: ‘The Modernist Tradition in UK Public Law’ (26 February 2019)
Speaker: Martin Loughlin (London School of Economics)
View event and recordings

States and Patrimonial Kingdoms: Hugo Grotius’ account of sovereign entitites in 'The Rights of War and Peace' (25 January 2019)
Speaker: Emile Simpson (Harvard Society of Fellows)
View event

The Timeless Appeal of Technocracy in Global Governance (23 January 2019)
Speaker: Jens Steffek (Technical University, Darmstadt)

How Rule Produces Authority (16 November 2018)
Speaker: Ole Jacob Sending (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs)

Global Governance and the Problem of Second Best (14 November 2018)
Speaker: Karen Alter, (Northwestern University)


Perspectives on International Legitimacy (9 October 2018)

Brexit, the euro-crisis, Trump’s threats to NAFTA and the WTO, withdrawals from the International Criminal Court among a host of other events bring into sharp focus the issue of why the institutions, legal systems and structures of supra-state law and governance involving free trade, the Washington consensus on economic governance, human rights and global justice which evolved after the second world war suffer from legitimacy crises, whether they can be fixed and how. This roundtable, which will launch the International Legitimacy project, will explore these issues in general terms with contributions from law, philosophy and political science to help understand the ways in which we can conceptualise legitimacy in supra-state law and governance and its crises; whether crisis is an endemic feature of the post-war global governance and whether changes are inevitable if it is to survive in its current form.


  • Andrea Birdsall (SPSS, Edinburgh)
  • Nehal Bhuta (Edinburgh Law School)
  • Cormac Mac Amhlaigh (Edinburgh Law School)
  • Neil Walker (Edinburgh Law School).
  • Antje Wiener (Chair of Political Science esp. Global Governance, University of Hamburg & By-Fellow Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge

Professor Karen Alter

Professor Richard Bellamy

Professor Samantha Besson

Professor Eva Erman

Professor Ian Hurd

Dr Mor Mitrani

Professor Jens Steffek

Professor Jonas Tallberg

International Legitimacy - Elusive or Elastic? (Dagmar Topf Aguiar de Medeiros, 10 September 2019)

Image credit: Ilovetheeu / CC BY-SA