Reputational Limits Continued

by Alex Geisinger

I thank everybody for their comments regarding the reputational posts. I think this conversation has been excellent up to now and hope this post will add some substance as we approach, what seems to me, to be some agreement regarding the reputational element of rational choice. Before I begin, let me also be clear about my terminology. I agree with Andrew regarding the notion of internalization. To me, internalization is analogous to a preference change within a state (to the extent we assume a state can have a preference). As Andrew points out in his response to my earlier post, I believe there may be many different mechanisms at play in this process. However, given that I take my charge here to be to focus on the explanatory value of Andrew’s rational choice account of international law, I do not fully consider these alternative models.

So, to the extent we are testing the rational choice framework, I move forward with my thoughts in hopes to approach some understanding of the theory’s benefits and limits in the area of reputation. As I understand Andrew’s response, we are in general agreement that some force which we loosely call “reputation” exists and that it probably does a lot of “heavy lifting” when it comes to garnering human rights treaty ratification. I’m not sure there’s agreement on this but it seems fair to at least assume that if reputation affects willingness to ratify in human rights treaties, it also works similarly with regards to other types of treaties and perhaps in other areas of international law. I think, as well, we agree that a very parsimonious rational choice theory cannot fully account for the reputational force or that, at least, Andrew has not provided a full account of the reputational force as it applies to ratification in his book.

If we agree that the reputational force cannot be fully captured in a parsimonious theory, then the question I raise is how this limitation affects the explanatory power of the the theory as a whole? That is, if the reputational force influences state decision-making but we do not have a sense of exactly how this force works, doesn’t this limit the explanatory power of the rest of the rational choice theory? This is particularly the case if we assume the reputational force to be a powerful and pervasive one and is, of course, less the case if we assume the reputational force to be weak and of limited influence. My own sense is that the ability of the reputational force to do the “heavy lifting” in human rights treaty ratification suggests it can be a relatively powerful force. My own work in the area of norm development and origin also suggests to me that reputational forces are pervasive.

There is, of course, no doubt that Andrew’s elegant description of how rational self-interested states may create and comply with international law has great value. Among other things, he has provided us with a springboard for an important discussion of how rational choice theories explain international law. In his response to my earlier post, Andrew suggested that he believes reputational influences can, ultimately, be explained fully by rational choice theories. As my earlier post suggests, I believe that other processes may account for the reputational influence as well and I look forward to a continued dialogue regarding these issues. Before entering such a dialogue, however, I will ask for everyone’s thoughts on the issue I raise here regarding the limits of reputation in rational choice. I am, of course, also interested in knowing whether I have properly identified areas of agreement and disagreement and any other issues with my analysis.

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