Reputation and Rational Choice: Some Limits?

by Alex Geisinger

I’d like to thank everyone involved for having me. I, too, look forward to an engaging discussion.

Let me state from the outset that I agree with Professor Guzman regarding the nature of the debate. I believe there are interesting things to be learned from rational choice approaches as well as from constructivist and other approaches to international law. I have just finished a review, along with my co-author, Michael Stein, of How Rational Choice Works for the Michigan Law Review and much of the review we wrote reflects this general point.

I thus begin my first inquiry into the book by considering what Professor Guzman himself describes as the parsimonious vision of international law he develops in the book. In particular, I query the usefulness of a theory that models treaties solely on cooperation or coordination games and leaves reputation to playing a role only as a force of compliance. I see that Professor Alford has gotten to some of this ahead of me but I hope that my post can add some additional thoughts regarding the specific limits of parsimonious rational actor theories.

To make my concerns clear, I’d like to turn to the area of human rights treaties. If I am correct in my understanding of Professor Guzman’s parsimonious structure, such treaties will only come into existence if they further the direct interests of states. Put another way, a state will ratify a treaty only if ratification advances directly its own interests. (I will discuss my use of the word “directly” below). Of course, as Dean Koh has suggested previously (and as Professors Guzman and Alford have begun to address), it is hard to understand human rights treaties within the framework of coordination and cooperation. Professor Guzman suggests in his book that human rights treaties can be explained within this framework because the preferences of a number of states after World War II have evolved to include a preference for a provision of human rights to the citizens of other states.

This observation, to me, gets us about half-way there. We still have to account for why ratification advances the interests of those other states. It seems to me that the hidden assumption that makes entering such human rights regimes worthwhile for these other states is the recognition that entering such regimes will provide direct material benefits such as aid. The problem, of course, is that most treaties don’t provide such direct benefits.

Where I am left, then, is that the other states are ratifying human rights treaties because they perceive these treaties to provide them with benefits somewhere down the line. This, to me, is “reputation”. Yet Professor Guzman’s parsimonious rational choice theory cannot account for this reputational concern for two reasons. First, reputation is left to playing a role in treaty compliance only. Second, reputation as Professor Guzman describes it, is simply based on reputation for complying with obligations. Yet, as the foregoing analysis suggests, “reputation” must play some role in creating the (treaty) obligations in the first place.

So, if my account is correct, the problem with theories that model state behavior only in terms of cooperation and coordination, is that they can’t account for some other mechanism of treaty ratification that we loosely call “reputation”. That is they don’t explain the mechanism whereby other state ratifies human rights treaty because other state believes ratification will provide material benefit somewhere down the line. It may be that ratification creates future benefits by signaling a state’s general willingness to cooperate, a state’s value of group membership or a state’s discount rate or that ratification reflects the internalization of a norm. Professor Guzman seems to pick up on some of these former mechanisms, when he responds to Professor Alford that treaty ratification can send a signal if it is costly enough. All of these seem fruitful areas for analysis. However, my understanding is that a parsimonious rational choice theory (such as the one Professor Guzman so elegantly and valuably develops) does not explain state behavior in this situation because it limits reputation to a role as a force of compliance based on signaling a willingness to adhere to already existing obligations. Moreover, I would suggest that, the benefit of human rights treaties is that they throw these reputational influences into relief. However reputational influences are probably not limited to playing a role just in human rights treaty ratification. It seems likely that, to the extent reputation plays a role in human rights treaty ratification it plays a role in ratification of other treaties as well. If this is a correct reading of the parsimonious theory, am I wrong in my observation that it cannot account for the role of reputation in treaty formation?

I hope in my effort to be clear I have not sounded too forceful and I look forward to all responses.

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