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Guilt by association: The link between states’ influence and the legitimacy of intergovernmental organizations

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Unfavorable views toward a particular state will result in skepticism about the legitimacy of IGOs in which that state possesses influence. The more extensive the avenues of influence, the stronger this “guilt by association.” The rationale is two-fold. First, a state that possesses institutionalized influence (e.g., a veto) within an intergovernmental organization faces substantial difficulties in credibly committing to non-interference with organizational activities. Second, even if a state somehow could commit to abstention from overt interference, it may exert covert ideational influence if it already has embedded its values into an IGO. Elites and laypeople alike recognize the avenues of influence that fuel guilt-by-association. With statistical analyses of public opinion data from 35,397 people in 23 countries, I provide the first systematic evidence that guilt-by-association exists: for the United States, Russia, Japan, and Pakistan, vis-à-vis the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. The evidence is robust to numerous alternative specifications. The findings contribute to international relations scholarship by enhancing our understanding of threats to IGO legitimacy and by providing concrete evidence for a mechanism by which antipathy toward powerful states matters in the international realm.

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  1. Legitimacy is rooted in context: a socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions.

  2. Voice of the People surveys and Asia Barometer surveys are available from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR 2008a, b) website. In the 2003–2007 Asia Barometer surveys, respondents were explicitly asked to indicate uncertainty or unfamiliarity concerning particular IGOs. Only 14 percent of the 35,397 Asian interviewees said that they had no opinion or did not know what to reply about the United Nations. For the World Bank and IMF, the percentages were 19 and 21 percent, respectively. Perhaps the most notable difference is that a greater percentage of the respondents exhibit familiarity with the International Monetary Fund, possibly due to the IMF’s highly visible intercession during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

  3. Other datasets were considered but lacked sufficient information about the dependent variables (legitimacy assessments for intergovernmental organizations), the key independent variables (evaluations of the influence of various states), or both. For example, the 2005 Voice of the People poll, conducted in 72 countries, solicits opinions about IGOs but not about influential states.

  4. According to field reports and other documentation, various forms of multistage, stratified, clustered, and national probability sampling were employed. The researchers sought to use random and nationally representative sampling. However, resource constraints necessitated urban-focused surveys in a few countries (e.g., geographically expansive China). In each year, each country’s sample consisted of approximately 800 to 1,000 interviewees. Different interviewees are selected each year. Lacking a theoretically compelling reason why each country should not be considered equally important in examining IGO legitimacy, the responses from more populous countries are not weighed more highly in these analyses. Each of the five years of data covers different sets of countries, approximately in three-year cycles—the focus is on East Asia in 2003 and 2006, Southeast Asia in 2004 and 2007, and Central Asia in 2005. As with any multi-country survey, response rates and data quality may vary across countries—this is particularly true for countries that have been involved in only one cycle of data collection so far, where Tokyo University’s in-country research teams are gathering the data for the first time. Robustness checks confirm that the main results are the same regardless of whether countries surveyed only once are included or excluded in the analysis. Six other countries (Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam) are dropped, because the researchers did not ask certain politically sensitive questions (e.g., about the trustworthiness of one’s own government, or about assessments of the influence of other states) that are important in the analysis.

  5. A similar question is asked about the World Trade Organization—but unlike the UN, World Bank, and IMF, the WTO was created quite recently (1995). This study focuses on the post-World War II institutions.

  6. The “Don’t Know/No Answer” category is around 30 percent for Russia and Pakistan, because the questions about the influence of these two states was not asked in any of the surveyed countries in 2007. Most of the “Don’t Know/No Answer” category for Japan stems from the fact that interviewees in Japan were not asked about their own country’s influence.

  7. With the invasion of Iraq, the United States attracted international attention in the 2003–2007 period. In the five years covered in the dataset, the average value of Negativity toward United States closely hovers around the overall mean of 1.66, ranging from a mean of 1.82 in 2003 to a mean of 1.49 in 2005. Broken down by country, mean values range from 0.63 and 0.76 in Afghanistan and the Philippines respectively, to 2.43 and 2.64 in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively.

  8. Large-scale surveys of opinions about intergovernmental organizations are relatively rare, and those that do exist generally deal with only a handful of prominent IGOs, such as the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. Statistical analyses with Asia Barometer data can probe the guilt-by-association hypothesis across states with different levels of institutionalized and ideational influence in these IGOs. However, they currently cannot examine the hypothesis for organizations with which the United States is unassociated, for no such IGOs are covered in the surveys. This remains for extensions.

  9. See the Statistical Appendix for the Asia Barometer survey questions and coding for the control variables.

  10. The guilt-by-association hypothesis does not claim that one’s assessment of the United States or other states is the sole driver of assessments of IGO legitimacy. Untrustworthiness of Own Government is an important predictor. Yet while the coefficients on this control variable are larger than those on the key explanatory variables, the latter remain crucial. Negativity toward United States, Negativity toward Japan, and Negativity toward Russia are statistically and substantively significant even after controlling for country fixed effects, year fixed effects, and numerous other factors. Moreover, Untrustworthiness of Own Government affects each country individually, but negative perceptions of the influence of the U.S. and other influential states holds across many countries simultaneously.

  11. To conserve space, the results of the robustness tests are not shown here. The dataset does not offer adequate information to control for income or political ideology. Until additional years of data become available, it is not possible to untangle unfavorable perceptions of the United States from unfavorable perceptions of the George W. Bush administration.

  12. Edwards (2009) uses 2002 data from developing countries to examine a somewhat different dependent variable: specifically, an omnibus question about the general goodness of the influence that economic organizations like the World Trade Organization, IMF, and World Bank have on the respondent’s country. As such, his analysis focuses on economics-related explanations for variation in the public support that this general group of international economic organizations garners in relatively poor countries. Nevertheless, variables used in his analysis are useful for robustness checks here. For example, I too find that men are more likely than women to hold negative views of the intergovernmental organizations—the relationship is statistically significant for the United Nations. In contrast to Edwards (2009), I find that more educated respondents are less likely to see the IGOs unfavorably—but this relationship is statistically significant only for the UN, and High School Graduate may be a blunt measure for capturing respondents’ education levels.

  13. Table 3 includes summary statistics for versions 1 and 2 of the ordered dependent variables UN/WB/IMF Untrustworthiness.

  14. Japan Times, 21 April 2007, 1.

  15. The Independent (London), 7 May 2007, 1.

  16. Hindustan Times (India), 14 August 2007, 1.

  17. Sunday Telegraph (United Kingdom), 20 March 2005, 002.

  18. Al-Dustur (Jordan), 2 April 2005, 12.

  19. Japan Times, 4 June 2007, 5.

  20. The Straits Times (Singapore), 22 May 2007, 1.

  21. USA Today, 16 May 2007, 1.

  22. Washington Post, 18 May 2007, A01.


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The author thanks Takashi Inoguchi for making available the results of Asia Barometer surveys. The author also is grateful for the useful comments of Peter Bernholz, Lloyd Gruber, William Howell, Jon Pevehouse, Nicole Simonelli, Duncan Snidal, Michael Tierney, Erik Voeten, University of Chicago workshop participants, and anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Tana Johnson.

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Statistical Appendix: Asia Barometer Survey Questions for Control Variables

Survey questions for the dependent variables and the key explanatory variables are discussed in the text.

Statistical Appendix: Asia Barometer Survey Questions for Control Variables

Negativity toward Technocracies

  • “Do you think that a system whereby decisions affecting the country are made by experts (such as bureaucrats with expertise in a particular field), according to what they think is best for the country, would be very good, fairly good, or bad?”

    0 “very good,” 1 “fairly good,” 2 “bad”

Own Government’s Untrustworthiness

  • “To what extent do you trust your central government to operate in the best interests of society? If you don’t know what to reply or have no particular opinion, please say so.”

    0 “trust a lot,” 1 “trust a bit,” 2 “distrust a bit,” 3 “distrust a lot”

Extent of Global Exposure

  • “How many of the following situations are true for you: 1) have a relative living in another country, 2) traveled abroad at least three times in the past three years, 3) have friends from other countries, 4) often watch foreign-produced programs on TV, 5) often communicate with people in other countries via the Internet or email, 6) hold a job involving contact with organizations or people in other countries.”

    Count, ranging from 0 to 6

Extent of Nationalism

  • “How proud are you of being your nationality?”

    0 “not proud at all,” 1 “not really proud,” 2 “somewhat proud,” 3 “very proud”

Worry about [War, Poverty, Global Recession]

  • “Which, if any, of [war, poverty, global recession] cause you great worry? Please choose all issues that cause you serious worry.”

    1 “yes,” 0 otherwise

Generally Distrusting

  • “In general, do you think people can be trusted or do you think that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”

    0 “Most people can be trusted,” 1 “Can’t be too careful in dealing with people”

Extent of Political Understanding

  • “Please indicate how much you agree or disagree: politics and government are so complicated that sometimes I don’t understand what’s happening.”

    0 “strongly agree,” 1 “agree,” 2 “neither agree nor disagree,” 3 “disagree,” 4 “strongly disagree”

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Johnson, T. Guilt by association: The link between states’ influence and the legitimacy of intergovernmental organizations. Rev Int Organ 6, 57–84 (2011).

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