The G20: Meetings and Other Docoments
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G-20: Meetings and Other Documents

The G-7, the Financial Stability Forum, the G-20,
and the Politics of International Financial Regulation

Tony Porter
Department of Political Science
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON L8S 4M4, Canada
905-525-9140 x23899
Email: tporter@mcmaster.ca

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Legitimacy and the Governance of the Global Political Economy

The study of legitimacy at the international level has lagged far behind its study in national polities. As Franck (1990: 5-6) has commented,

while there is a literature on the formal sources of international law--treaties, custom, etc.--this is not the same as an examination into the reasons why rules do, or do not obligate. The latter question is largely shunned...Many modern social scientists, moreover, quite simply do not even see any international system, let alone an international pattern of deference to systemic norms worth bothering about. Who would bother to inquire as to why a system of rules is obeyed when there is little evidence either of a system or of obedience?

Debate over legitimacy at the international level, then, could be seen as closely related to the larger ongoing debate in the discipline of international relations regarding the relative importance of norms as compared to self-interest. This debate in many respects is the most fundamental in the discipline, motiving vast literatures, such as the idealism-realism debate; inquiries into the relevance of regimes, or the more contemporary constructivist-rationalist debate. Since there is no evidence that this fundamental debate will be resolved, in large part because of deep-seated differences in philosophical assumptions, it is not possible to provide decisive support for legitimacy's relevance or irrelevance by pointing to a universally recognized track record of compliance or non-compliance with international norms. Any single contribution to clarifying the debate can hope, at the most, to be incremental.

One recent important contribution to clarifying the normative effect of legitimacy is Hurd's analysis of sovereignty. Hurd identifies two alternative mechanisms of social control to legitimacy, coercion and self-interest, and convincingly argues that neither explain the persistence of sovereignty and of borders. There is no evidence that states have sufficient military capacity to always defend their borders by force nor is there evidence that diplomats and policy makers even consider challenging sovereignty and borders to any significant degree as one would expect if they were operating out of self-interest. That exceptions are labelled "rogue states" and regarded as reprehensible deviants indicates the normative significance of sovereignty's legitimacy.

Hurd demonstrates convincingly the relevance of legitimacy to sovereignty, but, as he notes, the "process by which a particular norm, rule or norm comes to be seen as legitimate" and "the role of power (material and ideological) in making an institution legitimate" are questions that remain to be further researched. Two other approaches to understanding legitimacy in international politics are worth considering before trying to move our understanding of the issues raised by these questions into new territory. These two existing approaches, which I will address in turn, are Franck's and the Gramscian approach.

Franck (1990: 24) focuses on "generally accepted principles of right process" as the foundation of international legitimacy and identifies four: determinacy, symbolic validation, coherence and adherence. Determinacy refers to the clarity, transparency, and specificity of a legal text or of the findings of a process which has been agreed to interpret such a text. Symbolic validation involves elements such as ritual and pedigree which reinforce a rule's link to longstanding common culturally-enhanced commitments. Coherence means that "distinctions in the treatment of 'likes' be justifiable in principled terms" (Franck, 1990: 144). Such principled terms indicate that rules in one area can be made consistent with different rules in another area. This begins to bear on the fourth foundation of legitimacy, adherence, which refers to the embedding of rules in a set of rules about rules.

Franck's approach is very useful in identifying the way in which legitimacy operates among states. However, like Beetham's approach, its abstract focus on process is too general to capture important contemporary developments. For instance, it is difficult to think of explaining compliance with trade and financial liberalization rules or with environmental agreements simply because they meet Franck's conditions for the legitimacy of international law. Rather it is necessary to consider the legitimizing role of economics and science which were discussed in the previous section. Relatedly, Franck excludes explicitly questions of justice from his analysis which he is careful to distinguish from legitimacy. This is because he thinks that it is meaningless to talk of justice, which must relate to individuals, when talking about relations among states. This distinction, which is problematic to begin with (since one simply needs principles which specify an appropriate relationship between states and their citizens) is doubly so now as states seek to jointly regulate the conduct of actors other than states.

The Gramscian approach moves well beyond Franck's in addressing habits of obedience in the global political economy. While only occasionally using the term legitimacy the Gramscian approach, in its use of the concept of hegemony, nevertheless develops an extensive and insightful analysis of the types of normative relations to which legitimacy refers. While starting from a materialist perspective Gramscian analysis stresses the role of ideas in constituting and reproducing social structures: "the social organization of production, as aspect of the social world, is thus necessarily constitute partly by intersubjective meanings, which can be identified nd understood, however imperfectly." (Gill, 1993a: 27).

A key Gramscian principle is that domination involves a mixture of coercion and consent. As Cox comments, "to be meaningful, the notion of the state would also have to include the underpinnings of the political structure in civil society. Gramsci thought of these in concrete historical terms -- the church, the educational system, the press, all the institutions which helped to create in people certain modes of behaviour and expectations consistent with the hegemonic social order" (Cox, 1993: 51). Hegemony, then, "brings the interests of the leading class into harmony with those of subordinate classes and incorporates these other interests into an ideology expressed in universal terms" (Cox, 1993: 57).

Successful hegemonies can be projected out from national societies to create world hegemonies: "the dominant state takes care to secure the acquiescence of other states according to a hierarchy of powers within the inter-state structure of hegemony. Some second-rank countries are consulted first and their support is secured. The consent of at least some of the more peripheral countries is solicited" (Cox, 1993: 63). This general observation can be linked to more specific initiatives: one can situate "discussion of inter-state forums, international organizations and informal councils like the Trilateral Commission, in the context of the development and application of hegemonic strategies on an increasingly transnational basis" (Gill, 1993a: 34). These serve to "generate strategic consensus in order to configure what might be called the 'pyramids of privilege' in the world order structures that the G7 rulers seek to bestride." (Gill, 1993b: 7). Gill's discussion of the relationship between ontology and economics, and Gill and Cox's emphasis on rules, whether in the form of a "new constitutionalism" or an "internationalization of the state" is consistent with the stress on rules in analyses of legitimacy.

Despite the insights generated by the Gramscian approach there are four shortcomings of it for analyzing the role of legitimacy in the creation of the FSF and the G-20. First, it tends to be too broad brush to explain variations in the way in which legitimacy is created in particular issue areas. Hegemony is a very large scale concept. For instance, Arrighi (1993) identifies "the three hegemonies of historical capitalism". Certainly shifts in hegemony and in the class relations upon which it is based have been used by Gramscian analyses to explain the replacement of embedded liberalism by neoliberalism. Nevertheless it would be awkward to use this scale of analysis to explain smaller scale-changes and stresses in international institutions. Relatedly, the content and details of the mechanisms by which legitimacy is established remain vague, in part because it is assumed that such mechanisms, rather than having an autonomous and patterned logic, are instead historically variable expressions of a more fundamental compromise of interests at the level of social class. Indeed the contribution of a particular type of process to legitimacy, as opposed to the contributions of material benefits and ideological effects, tends to be underestimated. Finally, there is a tendency to identify the key normative disjuncture as lying between hegemony and a counter-hegemonic project involving civil society actors. I shall argue that the normative problems in global governance that give rise to a need for legitimacy are more complex than this.

Let us then relook at the evolution of legitimacy in the contemporary period as a broad and relatively autonomous phenomenon that is crucial for the reproduction of social order, and not one that is just an expression of underlying relations among states or social classes.

Work at the end of the 1970s by Habermas and others expressed a widespread perception that a turning point had been reached in the ability of the welfare state to legitimize itself. Legitimacy had been fostered by high levels of economic growth and by the commitment of the state to redressing the unjust effects on its citizens of market forces. However by extending its reach into society in the course of these legitimizing activities the state also made itself vulnerable to crises of legitimation if it failed to meet citizens' expectations. The growth of new social movements highlighted these problems as well as the inability of formal political and legislative procedures to sustain their role in legitimizing the state.

From the vantage point of the new millennium it is remarkable how well legitimacy crises have been avoided despite these problems. The key and unforeseen development has been the powerful legitimizing roles of globalization, private authority 2, and technology. For states that have done unexpectedly well economically, such as the United States, the expanded role of globalization, of private authority, and of technology has had a positive legitimizing effect by sustaining the culture of productivity. For those states and individuals who have done less well, however, the expansion of globalization, private authority and technology have had an alternative powerful legitimizing effect. Rather than being a phenomenon that is associated with power and politics hardship is seen as resulting from one's failure to adjust to global economic forces, to be sufficiently entrepreneurial, to move into high-tech industries, or to master bodies of technical expertise.

This could be perceived as fair as long as it was believed that all would have their chance to play the game if they just learned and followed the rules. Three of Franck's rule-related components of legitimacy--determinacy, coherence and adherence--are evident in the increasingly complex and abstract bodies of technical and economic knowledge that shaped the world and our perceptions of it in the 1980s and 1990s. The fourth, symbolic validation, was fostered by the cultural counterpart of economic globalization, with its promotion of identities expressed through consumption, American-style individualized risk-taking, and cosmopolitan mobility. Thus the legitimacy of the state, and of social relations, was tied to both the output of globalized, private and technical systems, but also to the aesthetic and ethical effect of their formalized logics. The financial crises of the late 1990s, then, were crises not just because of the material hardship they imposed on their victims, but because of the challenge they posed to the broader global, private, and technical systems of legitimation. The Mexican crisis of 1994 and 1995 could be partly rationalized as the result of the Mexican government's failure to comply with these systems' rules: its vain attempt to fix its currency at above-market levels and the backwardness of its financial sector. The solution to the problem could also be portrayed as involving more careful use of, or compliance with, the systems' rules: using NAFTA trade rules to increase exports and using technologies to modernize the banking sector, to increase the flow of information, or to offset risks through the creation of peso derivatives markets. The return of system-threatening financial crisis a mere two years later, and in East Asia which had been applauded for its highly successful export-oriented growth, was far less easy to explain as consistent with the systems' rules, as we shall see below.

This analysis suggests, then, that legitimacy is not just something created by the interactions of states nor is it an epiphenomenon of a large-scale compromise between social classes. It is also a characteristic of systems of rules that make them appear to be logical, coherent and fair. Legitimacy can be threatened, then, not just from non-compliance by states or by a strengthening counter-hegemony, but also by contradictions and inadequacies in the systems of rules. In the next section I explore the ability of this conceptualization of legitimacy to explain the developments of 1999 relative to alternative explanations.


2 The term "private authority" here refers to the way in which market actors develop a legitimized capacity for structuring social relations and corresponds to the discussion of the legitimizing effects of the economy above. For a fuller discussion of private authority see Cutler, Haufler and Porter, 1999.

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