Daniel W. Drezner

Ten things to read about reputation in international relations

There’s been a lot of chatter during the latest iteration of the North Korea crisis that the DPRK leadership is testing the Obama administration’s mettle, or that "[other] nuclear wannabes, such as Iran, are watching how we deal with this provocation. To ignore, excuse, or reward it might send an unfortunate signal."  This comes on ...

There’s been a lot of chatter during the latest iteration of the North Korea crisis that the DPRK leadership is testing the Obama administration’s mettle, or that "[other] nuclear wannabes, such as Iran, are watching how we deal with this provocation. To ignore, excuse, or reward it might send an unfortunate signal."  This comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s mantra about changing America’s reputation in world politics, from one of bellicose hard power unilateralism to a greater mix of soft power and multilateralism. 

So, apparently, concepts like reputation and credibility matter a lot in international affairs — and, intuitively, we would think this to be true.  The thing is, reputation is also a fuzzy concept.  Countries should cultivate a reputation for what, exactly?  Can a reputation for toughness in a crisis be reconciled with a reputation for compliance with international law?  Do countries have reputations, or just leaders?  Does a reputation in one issue area — say, aid generosity — spill over into other issue areas? 

I could give you a definitive answer to all of these questions, but that would be an act of hubris on my part, and I don’t want that rep.  Instead, here are ten books/articles to read on reputation and international relations that might confuse you even more provide some enlightenment on the subject:

1)  Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532 [1513]).  "Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with."  And the debate about reputation commences.   

2)  Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (1960).  If you’re interested in international relations, you should read this book regardless.  Schelling devotes a significant portion of his analysis, however, to the utility of "rational irrationality" — i.e., making the other side think you are a maniac.  One could argue that the North Koreans have imbibed Schelling in full. 

3)  Earnest May and Philip Zelikow, ed., The Kennedy Tapes (1962 [2002])  Reading the Excom conversations during the Cuban Missile Crisis is enlightening to see the moments when reputation is discussed — as well as the moments when it simply disappears from the policy debate altogether. 

5)  Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics (1996).  Mercer points out the cognitive biases that affect how reputations are constructed.  If we think someone is a bad actor and they do a good thing, we ascribe that to environmental pressure.  If they do a bad thing, it’s because of their intrinsic preferences.  This suggests that it’s very hard for any international actor to alter their reputation in the eyes of their allies or adversaries. 

6)  George Downs and Michael Jones, "Reputation, Compliance, and International Law."  Journal of Legal Studies 31 (January 2002):  S95-S114.  Do countries have a single reputation that covers all issue areas?  Downs and Jones think the answer is no.  They arhue that the effects of reputation are bounded.  When a state defects from an agreement in one area (i.e., the environment) there is little evidence that they jeopardize their reputation in every other area (for example, trade and security). 

7)  Anne Sartori, Deterrence by Diplomacy (2005).  Sartori argues in this book tha during crises, what matters is not a reputation for resolve, but a reputation for honest diplomacy.  This is why goverments tell the truth (but not necessarily the whole truth) most of the time — doing so allows them to maintain reputations for honesty, which in turn enhances their ability to resolve future disputes using diplomacy rather than force.  Part of the reason the DPRK acts the way they do, perhaps, is that no one believes what they say any more. 

8)  Daryl Press, Calculating Credibility (2005).  Press makes a provocative argument in this book — in the heat of a military crisis, reputation does not really matter all that much.  It certainly matters less than the military balance of power.  This suggests that the Obama administration’s response to North Korea has no bearing on Iran — what matters are the viability of military options in both cases. 

9)  Mark Crescenzi, "Reputation and International Conflict," American Journal of Political Science 51 (April 2007):  382-396.  Crescenzi pushes back a bit on Press’ argument.  He argues that past actions to affect others’ perception of reputation — provided that countries in question are similar in their capabilities.  So, contra Press, Creszenzi might argue that Iran will pay close attention to how the Obama administration responds to North Korea. 

10)  Michael Tomz, Reputation and International Cooperation.  Part of the problem with talking about reputation is its ineffable quality — how do we know it when we see it?  Tomz looks at a tangible measure of reputation — the ability of sovereign countries to borrow.  He argues for a dynamic theory of reputation, in which actors can update their beliefs over time about whether governments will honor their commitments. The empirical evidence Tomz brings to the table is very impressive.

Readers are welcomed to proffer their suggestions in the comments.

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