Metaproblems of Legitimacy

Up to this point, we might have the impression that the problem of defining standards of good governance for fragile states is only a matter of application: we must define the norms rather abstractly in order to be able to adapt them in such a way that they make assessments of policies under nonideal conditions intelligible. One fundamental difference between sufficiently consolidated states and fragile states, however, should not be overlooked. In the latter cases, we are often confronted with metaproblems of legitimacy that are already solved in stable states. Our components of good governance already presuppose two things: the existence of a collectivity for which binding decisions can be made; and the existence of a political authority that has the ultimate responsibility for such decisions. In this second respect, the borders that divide public and private spheres must be sufficiently clear to determine the roles different actors might play with regard to structures of governance.

The collectivity must not be the people of a state, and the authority must not be a government. But in situations in which the authority is de facto absent or fundamentally contested, and the collectivity is deeply divided or its boundaries heavily disputed, a basic question of politics cannot be answered: who is responsible to whom? Following Kalevi Holsti, we can call the first sort of problems “lack of vertical legitimacy” and the second “lack of horizontal legitimacy” (1996, chap. 5). Where the latter is lacking, communicative power in Hannah Arendt’s sense-understood as the capacity to joint action, built on agreement by discourse-is absent or at least very weak. And without communicative power no public can hold the authorities responsible. Where vertical legitimacy is lacking, the public misses the opposite of a jointly accepted institutional structure with clearly defined roles for achieving supremacy in the making, application, and enforcement of collectively binding rules. The situation must not be one of true state breakdown. Even hybrid and multilevel forms of governance, as well as legal pluralism, make it easy for governance actors to conceal bad performance and to shift responsibility onto other players in cases of critique (Randeria 2003).

Solving these metaproblems of legitimacy is a precondition for fulfilling our basic norm: to guarantee that each individual has access to institutions that protect their basic rights. To repeat, that norm does not call for a specific structure of institutions corresponding to a specific collectivity, but it requires some structure and some collectivity. The conceptual openness has to be filled, and filling it means solving the metaproblems of legitimacy. Most basically this requires establishing and securing a societal order as such. In order to find solutions for the metaproblems of legitimate governance, the engagement of the international community with its organizations and institutions is indispensable. Additionally, nonstate actors, from the international and local civil society as well as business enterprises, might be well suited to do their share.

Normative political theory up to now has not much to say concerning these metaproblems. This is partly so because any concrete answer will mostly depend upon pragmatic considerations. For example, there is no general answer of principle to the question of what are the proper boundaries of a state. A principled reasoning seems to allow only a very formal answer: whoever is sufficiently well suited for becoming a governance actor on the second level should try his or her best to establish or strengthen those structures of institutions and those collectivities which most likely will satisfy all four criteria of good governance. Whenever alternatives are feasible, and accessible without prohibitive transaction costs, he or she should choose the one that most likely will bring the best benefit instead of being satisfied with a solution that is clearly suboptimal (Keohane 2007). And any actor should do so in forms and by means that do themselves express commitment to the standards in terms of which they justify their engagement.

This latter requirement is a matter of integrity: acting in accordance with one’s self-proclaimed procedures and major goals. It is highly likely that an actor will not foster compliance to norms by others if he or she manifestly and unnecessarily deviates from them. The decline of the United States’ reputation as a consequence of its violations of human rights and international law under the guise of a “war on terrorism” is an obvious example.

But the integrity criterion is not only of instrumental importance. It is itself a matter of principle. To the degree that actors play a political role, the standards of good governance should be applied to their performance approximately. Solving the metaproblems of legitimate governance is itself a task of governance, yet on a higher level. At that level, the demand for legitimacy appears again. In the last instance, humanity as such has a stake in the quality of meta-level governance. Fragile statehood is a challenge for cosmopolitanism.

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