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Can Transparency Strengthen the Legitimacy of International Institutions? Evidence from the UN Security Council

Abstract: Can transparency enhance the legitimacy of international institutions? As transparency has become a widely applied procedural standard in international politics, a range of institutions have implemented transparency reforms under the presumption that increased transparency can elicit support among relevant audiences. In theory, transparency can generate institutional legitimacy by providing stakeholders with enhanced indirect control over procedures. Yet, existing literature offers little systematic evidence on the empirical effects of implementing transparency reforms in the context of international institutions. 

This paper evaluates whether increased transparency in the UN Security Council leads to enhanced legitimacy perceptions among UN member states. The paper first traces the history of Security Council reform since 1990 and draws on interviews with diplomats and observers to describe how a reform enacted in 2006 enhanced the transparency of the institution. Next, the paper uses longitudinal content analysis to empirically probe the legitimation effects of that transparency reform. The empirical analysis is based on an original dataset of 4303 legitimacy statements made by UN member states in annual UN General Assembly debates over the periods 1990-2006 and 2006-2018. Contrary to expectations, the data from these debates show that UN member states’ perceptions of legitimacy decrease in the post-reform period. While the reform successfully diminishes transparency criticism, the increased salience of other procedural legitimacy issues in the post-reform period add up to a negative legitimacy effect overall. The findings cast doubt over the potential of transparency reform to improve the Council’s legitimacy; and instead suggest that increasing the direct participation of the wider UN membership may be a more viable legitimation strategy. This article contributes to extant international legitimacy literature by providing empirical evidence on the relationship between transparency and legitimacy; and by demonstrating which institutional features that affect the perceived legitimacy of the Council.

Impartiality and Legitimacy in the International Judiciary: The case of GATT/WTO Dispute Settlement Reform

Abstract: Impartiality is a principal procedural standard for adjudicatory institutions that potentially can elicit empirical legitimacy among relevant audiences. In international courts, legitimation through impartiality can manifest when courts help states overcome collective action problems by providing disinterested interpretation of international law. Judicial independence cushions courts from political bias. I hence hypothesize that more judicialized international courts should elicit overall higher degrees of legitimacy. Leveraging a judicialization reform that was implemented in the shift from GATT to WTO dispute settlement, I empirically test whether higher judicial impartiality is associated with enhanced legitimacy perceptions among states in the international free trade regime. By analyzing 4283 legitimacy statements made by GATT/WTO member states over the periods 1979-1995 and 1995-2018, I find that states perceive the more judicialized WTO Dispute Settlement System as more procedurally legitimate than its GATT predecessor. Yet, my findings also suggest that the increased delegation of authority to the WTO has generated a competence-control tradeoff resulting in new forms of contestation among states. Overall, this paper provides evidence on the relationship between impartiality and legitimacy and advances research on the benefits and tradeoffs of judicialization in international relations. 

Commitment Ambiguity and Prudence in Climate Pledges

(joint work with V. Wiborg)

Abstract: Review mechanisms can induce reciprocal cooperation and compliance in international institutions by revealing information about states’ commitments and cooperative performance. However, under self reporting regimes, the effectiveness of review mechanisms depends on the precision and credibility of information that states provide. While previous literature has argued that reliable information provision matters for compliance, we examine how ambiguity affects the ambition level of states’ commitments under the Paris Agreement’s pledge-and-review system. We formulate a general theory that shows how exogenous ambiguity incentivizes states to exercise prudence when setting the ambition level of commitments under self-reporting review systems. If states are unable to perfectly gauge their commitment potential, the risk of domestic and international audience costs that result from non-compliance induces states to set less ambitious targets than states that are capable of precise pledging. Our empirical analysis of states’ climate pledges under the Paris Agreement demonstrates that ambiguous pledges are less ambitious than precise pledges and that compliance concern is a driver of prudence.

The Effects of Mitigation Uncertainty under Pledge-and-Review: Evidence from the Lab

(joint work with V. Wiborg)

Abstract: The Paris Agreement sets up a system of repeated pledge-and-review under which states are supposed to undertake progressively ambitious climate policies. Precise reporting of mitigation achievements is presumably important for the system’s success. However, states’ reporting of emissions differs widely in levels of precision and accuracy. How will uncertainty in emissions reporting affect cooperation under the pledge-and-review system? 

We argue that mitigation uncertainty stems from two distinct sources: Investment Uncertainty appears in the nexus between mitigation efforts and realized mitigation, while Reporting Uncertainty is imprecise reporting that states can control. This paper employs lab experiments to test how these two uncertainty sources affect efforts to contribute to a public good. We implement five uncertainty treatments in one-shot and multi-period Threshold Public Goods games that resemble the Paris Agreement’s pledge-and-review system. In line with our theoretical model, our experiments show that Investment Uncertainty negatively impacts cooperation while Reporting Uncertainty has no detrimental effect. Our paper contributes to the literatures on transparency and compliance in international institutions; and offers policy implications for international climate cooperation.

The Relative Effectiveness of Overlapping International Institutions: EU versus UN Regulations of Air Pollution

(joint work with A.K. Tveit)

Abstract: Which types of international institutions display higher ability to change states’ behavior? Although international institutions often target the same problems, few studies have considered the relative effectiveness of overlapping institutions. Leveraging an institutional overlap in efforts to limit Nitrogen Oxide emissions, this article tests the relative effectiveness of EU law and the UN’s Sofia Protocol. Using difference-in-differences analysis, we find that an EU directive targeting large combustion plants is more effective in inducing emissions reductions than the UN’s Sofia Protocol. We propose that the EU’s enforcement capacity is a likely driver of the directive’s effectiveness. Our methodological approach illustrates how the relative effectiveness of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ law in international institutions can be compared, and the findings corroborate that enforcement can be an effective factor in inducing behavioral change on states. Finally, in line with existing theoretical enforcement literature, we show that the EU’s ability to induce cooperation among both reluctant and enthusiastic states contributes toward its relative effectiveness vis-à-vis the Sofia Protocol.