A policy or institution can be legitimate – both in terms of the processes through which it was created and with respect to outcomes that it fosters – without being in any sense optimal. There is certainly room for improvement in accountability in world politics. And recognizing the inapplicability of domestic democratic mechanisms of accountability to world politics need not be cause for despair. Instead, it can be liberating, by focusing our attention on the variety of mechanisms, not all of which are democratic, that might be used to improve accountability on a global scale. The absence of democratic accountability does not necessarily render international organizations unaccountable. We turn now to examine specific structures of global power and various mechanisms that might be employed to prevent abuses of power on the global level.
Comprehensive systems of democratic accountability presuppose established norms of legitimacy. That a system of governance is legitimate means, among other things, that people subject to it regard actions taken according to accepted procedures as properly authoritative. But world politics is characterized by sharp conflicts of interests and values, and by potential or real violent conflict in the absence of a common government. The chief sources of legitimacy at the domestic level, such as constitutional mandates, electoral processes, legality, tradition, and the services provided by effective government, are not available to transnational organizations or to states when they exert coercive effects on non-citizens. Hence claims to legitimacy at the global level depend on more general norms of fairness and process and on claims that the rules and actions involved improve the quality of outcomes (Scharpf 1999).