Author Archive for
Alex Geisinger

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.

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.