The expectation that state voice drives perceptions of the legitimacy of international institutions is a common theme in academic scholarship and policy discourse on global power shifts. This article tests this expectation empirically, using novel and unique survey data on legitimacy perceptions toward eight international institutions among political and societal elites in six countries, comprising both rising and established powers. The article finds only limited support for a link between a state’s voice in an international institution and elite perceptions of legitimacy. Differences in formal state representation are only partly reflected in patterns of perceived legitimacy across the six countries. In addition, there is no evidence at the individual level that assessments of state voice shape elites’ perceptions of institutional legitimacy. Instead, considerations of good governance best predict whether elites perceive of international institutions as more or less legitimate. These findings suggest that only institutional reforms which are seen to favor general qualities of good governance, and not narrow demands for state voice, are likely to be rewarded with greater legitimacy.
- The link between a state’s voice in an international institution and the perceived legitimacy of this institution among state elites is weaker than policy‐makers typically assume.
- Policy‐makers striving to secure the legitimacy of international institutions should focus on ensuring that these institutions work in a democratic, effective, and fair fashion, rather than on satisfying each state’s demands for more voice.
- Policy‐makers with this aim should only accommodate demands for greater state voice when such reforms contribute to making international institutions more democratic, effective, and fair.
- Policy‐makers in states challenging or defending existing institutional arrangements should be aware that claims for greater voice framed in terms of legitimacy is a rhetorical strategy that resonates poorly with elites’ own conception of the legitimacy of these institutions.