In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reputation in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • The Classic Debate
  • Reputation, Leaders, and Status

International Relations Reputation in International Relations
Mark J.C. Crescenzi, Bailee Donahue
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0208


The concept of reputation in the study of world politics typically describes information adhering to a state or its leaders concerning behavioral or intentional characteristics relating to cooperation or conflict. States or their leaders obtain reputations for some key dimension of information, which others use to predict the state’s actions. For example, a state can develop a reputation for being trustworthy or reliable, and this information may affect future contracts and treaties with other states. States can also develop reputations for being aggressive or untrustworthy, which can exacerbate international relations. Reputation can also be an end to its own, and states can cultivate reputations for being honorable, saving face, or being of high status. As a source of information, reputation is gleaned from multiple sources, such as past behavior, interactions, contracts, or statements, often but not always involving other states in the global arena. The notion of reputation as an influential component of world politics is as old as the study of world politics itself. In his classic historiography of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides speaks often of reputation both as a measure of status and as a trait worthy of preserving at all costs. This original casting of reputation’s role remained unmodified throughout much of the early evolution of the study of international relations and even took center stage in the aftermath of World War II and the rapid onset of the Cold War. In the aftermath of the Cold War, however, scholars began to reconsider reputation’s influence, and its contribution to our understanding of international conflict began to unravel. Yet at the same time reputation remained a central component of the study of cooperation, and new research points to a renewed understanding of this elusive phenomenon.

The Classic Debate

Regarding the question of reputation and international war, classic theories and their critiques are characterized by their focus on a state’s use of reputation as a mechanism for conveying information about resolve. This resolve is either with respect to the willingness to fight for one’s honor, as in the case of Thucydides, or the willingness to punish, as in the case of Schelling 1960 and Schelling 1966. This notion of resolve is a key component of deterrence theory, a vast body of work that overlaps with theories of reputation. Critiques of the notion that resolve could be conveyed through reputation focused on the intersubjective context of resolve that causes resolve to be too specific to transform into reputational information. As the Cold War ended, reputation’s role in world politics was called into question. Just as Schelling’s works anchored the classic models that took reputation as a given component of the bargaining and deterrence processes, Mercer 1996 anchors the challenge against reputation as a systematic and predictable influence in world politics. According to Press 2005, reputation does not affect crisis behavior. The current calculus of the crisis dominates policy decisions and deliberations.

  • Copeland, D. C. “Do reputations matter?” Security Studies 7 (1997): 33–71.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636419708429333

    Copeland notes that there are inconsistencies in Mercer’s logic, namely that reputations for resolve may be hard to change not because these reputations are hard to form but rather because these reputations are imbedded in the labels states have already given each other. Copeland moves from his critique to create a potential causal framework to understand how reputations become established between actors and to specify under what conditions certain kinds of reputations form.

  • Huth, P. “Reputations and deterrence: A theoretical and empirical assessment.” Security Studies 7.1 (1997): 72–99.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636419708429334

    Huth provides a theoretical and empirical assessment on the state of deterrence theory and reputation. He notes that there is a consequential gap between the intuition that reputations are an important cause of conflict and the empirical evidence that would support such a conclusion.

  • Mercer, J. Reputation and International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

    In his study, Mercer theorizes on the role that cognitive biases play in the construction of reputation. Mercer argues that altering a reputation in the eyes of a state’s allies and enemies is very difficult. Contrary to decades of foreign policy prescription, Mercer argues that reputations may not be worth fighting for.

  • Press, D. G. Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

    Press argues that rather than assessing their adversaries’ credibility by looking at past behaviors of commitment and credibility, policymakers are focused on the present crisis and do not consider the past when selecting a policy. Press’ study suggests that reputation does not play a role in policymakers’ decisions during crisis.

  • Schelling, T. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press, 1960.

    In this book, Schelling explores how actors can credibly threaten an adversary. One method of making a credible threat is to stake one’s reputation on fulfilling the threat and ensuring that future bargains will be negatively impacted by defection in the present. Backing down once the threat has been made has a negative reputational impact.

  • Schelling, T. Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.

    In his influential work, Schelling notes that one of the few things in the world worth fighting for is “face.” Face, he argues, is a combination of the state’s reputation for taking action and the expectations other countries have of its behavior. This observation has been a fundamental component of the study of reputation in international relations and has been a guiding principle for US policymakers.

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