Dr Terry Macdonald

Melbourne University


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Legitimacy is one of the most fundamental values in contemporary political analysis, but also one of the most contested. Controversies surrounding the meaning and content of the value of legitimacy are especially pervasive in the domain of global politics, where familiar democratic and liberal institutional standards are commonly challenged as lacking adequate justification or workability. In this paper I respond to these concerns by sketching a new theoretical account of global political legitimacy, understood as a normative standard of acceptability or ‘support-worthiness’ for global institutions. I first outline what I take to be the major difficulties encountered by influential democratic and liberal conceptions of political legitimacy, when applied within global governance contexts. I then sketch an alternative conception drawing on insights from pragmatist thought, which links legitimacy to a broader value of collective political empowerment, achieved through supporting institutions’ collective problem-solving functions. I further show how this conception can account convincingly for some widely held intuitions about global political legitimacy that are not captured adequately by established democratic or liberal theories. More specifically, it can: explain the special role of human rights in fostering legitimacy in global politics; explain when and why democracy is, and is not, a condition for legitimacy; and account for wide variability in standards of legitimacy for different institutional types and contexts.

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