Multilevel Legitimacy
of International Institutions

Evaluating Relational and Purposive Legitimacy Across Borders

Why should states comply with judgements from the International Criminal Court or decisions of the United Nations Security Council? Is it normatively justifiable for the USA to block appointments to the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body? Such international institutions – and multilateralism in general – face severe legitimacy challenges from nationalist and populist movements as well as non-Western states. We must ask: Are international institutions legitimate?


Political philosophy has traditionally focused on the legitimacy of states and is often at a loss when familiar democratic standards are difficult to apply internationally. And attempts at legitimacy assessments of international instituitons often focus on a single institution, ignoring why and how standards should be set across institutions. MultiLegit holds that international institutions raise particular challenges: Vertically, the legitimacy of international institutions requires multilevel assessments since they impact both states and individuals. Horizontally, the international realm includes an immense variety of institutions with different purposes and competences – e.g., human rights, global trade, or international peace.


The aim of this project is to address these challenges by developing a systematic normative theory of multilevel legitimacy able to grasp vastly different institutional settings and to prescribe legitimacy standards for them.
By developing a systematic account of multilevel legitimacy, the project will make a valuable contribution to the theory of normative legitimacy in general, and the assessment of international institutions in particular. It will open an innovative and decidedly non-ideal but overarching perspective on international political philosophy and therefore provides an alternative to both democratic approaches and specific legitimacy assessments of singular institutions.

Work Packages

MultiLegit will proceed via four intersecting Work Packages: First, it proposes an autonomy-based conception of legitimacy as the theoretical foundation. This conception is capable of grasping the vertical dimension by attributing importance to both individual and collective autonomy and will include post-colonial theory. Second, MultiLegit addresses the main horizontal differentiation, purposive legitimacy, namely how different institutional purposes are relevant for international institutions’ legitimacy. Third, it develops relational legitimacy, i.e., how the legitimacy of international institutions depends on their relation to other institutions, such as member states and international partner institutions. Forth, MultiLegit prescribes specific legitimacy standards for different international institutions.

Project Team

Principal Investigator
Antoinette Scherz
University of Graz

Lukas Meyer
Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy
University of Graz

Scientific Advisory Board

Samantha Besson
Professor of International Institutions’ Law
Collège de France and University of Fribourg

Andreas Føllesdal
Professor of Political Philosophy and Co-Director of PluriCourts
University of Oslo

Rainer Forst
Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy and Co-Director of Normative Orders
Goethe University Frankfurt

Catherine Lu
Professor of Political Science and Coordinator of the Research Group on Global Justice
McGill University


2023 – 2026

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