The ORE of Politics will be available for subscription in late September. Speak to your Oxford representative or contact us to find out more.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, POLITICS ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 16 August 2017

Rediscovering Reputation Through Theory and Evidence

Summary and Keywords

Reputation as it applies to the arena of international relations is information adhering to a state or its leaders about behavioral or intentional characteristics relating to cooperation or conflict. The study of reputation in world politics has waxed and waned in recent decades, but is enjoying a renaissance both in terms of theoretical and empirical analysis. We review the origins of the study of reputation in world politics, as well as the post-Cold War context that contributed to reputation’s apparent demise. We then focus on the recent rediscovery of reputation through the development of new theoretical and empirical analyses. These works have overcome earlier challenges to the conceptualization and measurement of reputation to improve our understanding of how this phenomenon affects coordination, cooperation, and conflict among and between states in the international arena.

Keywords: reputation, world politics, conflict, war, cooperation, coordination, resolve, status, honor, empirical international relations theory


Reputation as it has been applied in the study of world politics is a term used to describe information adhering to a state or its leaders about behavioral or intentional characteristics relating to cooperation or conflict. States often obtain reputations for some defining quality that 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 improve its ability to enter into contracts such as alliances with other states. States can also develop reputations for being aggressive or untrustworthy, which can exacerbate international crises and increase the chance of war. In its purest sense, reputation can also be an end to its own, and states can cultivate reputations for being honorable or develop high status. As a source of information, reputation is gleaned from past interactions, contracts, or statements, often but not always involving other states in the global arena.

Reputation in and of itself can be considered a desirable attribute (especially when dealing with concepts such as status or honor), but it is frequently tied to a desire to signal an attributional quality. This information is then used by others to predict intentions and behavior. The empirical veracity of this assumption, however, has been contested in previous research. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, new scholarship called the conventional wisdom surrounding reputation into question. As a result, the concept of reputation as it relates to world politics developed a reputation of its own as fool’s gold. Only recently have scholars returned to the idea that reputations not only exist but can systematically influence political outcomes in international relations. Through innovations in theoretical modeling, research design and data collection, this new scholarship has overcome many of the issues that reputation’s critics identified in earlier work. In this article we trace the evolution of the study of reputation’s role in world politics, focusing on the importance of these theoretical and empirical developments that have enabled new scholarship in recent years to improve our understanding of this elusive but important phenomenon.


Reputation has historically enjoyed a prominent position in the study of international relations. From Thucydides’ historiography of the Peloponnesian War, reputation was cast as a central component of the motivation for war. Much later, when Schelling crafted his works on strategic bargaining in world politics, reputation played a central part in establishing credible threats in pursuit of peace through deterrence. Throughout the Cold War, reputation was considered to be an essential component of credible deterrence.

Readers will undoubtedly recognize elements of the following discussion in the chapters of this volume concerning bargaining theory and deterrence. This is because, like power, reputation is a means to an end, and as such it is often conflated with those ends. Also like power, reputation is observationally elusive and difficult to measure. Reputation is also linked to similar concepts such as resolve, face, honor, status, and even identity. This conceptual ambiguity makes the systematic study of reputation challenging.

As the end of the Cold War shook the rafters of academic research, scholars began to notice that the concept of reputation in world politics bore a resemblance to Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. As Hopf (1998) points out, many of the theoretical arguments espousing reputation’s importance had reached those conclusions based on assumptions rather than evidence. The disjuncture between reputation’s role in theory and our inability to empirically observe reputation at work led to a crisis in the study of reputation. Scholars such as Hopf (1998), Mercer (1996), and Press (2005) emphasized the importance of perceptions and socially constructed contexts surrounding reputations, concluding reputation’s influence on deterrence to be elusive and mercurial. Suddenly the role of reputation in world politics was in doubt.

In recent years, however, reputation has made a comeback. This resurgence appears to be a result of a confluence of three theoretical and empirical developments. First, the role of reputation in the phenomena of cooperation and coordination did not suffer the same existential crisis as in conflict and deterrence. As the political economy literature continued to rely on reputation as a mechanism for coordination, particularly in repeated interaction contexts, this research began to diffuse back into studies of conflict processes. Second, new theories of reputation emerged from scholars such as Crescenzi (2007, 2017), Kydd (2005), Sartori (2005), Sechser (2010), Tomz (2007), Walter (2009), and Yarhi-Milo (2014). These new theoretical treatments shed the constraints of focusing only on deterrence and credible threats, and this broader treatment of reputation produced important new empirical implications for study. Third, the resurgence of behavioral economics and its application to the study of world politics had opened up opportunities to use experimental research designs to study reputation. These innovations improve our ability to match up empirical evidence with theoretical arguments.

Classic Theories and Their Critics

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, 1966) and Huth (1988). 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.

In two landmark works, Schelling (1960, 1966) presented what would quickly become the cornerstone for the study of reputation in the modern emergence of the field of international relations. In The Strategy of Conflict (1960), Schelling explores how actors can construct credible threats in bargaining. According to Schelling, threats are meant to deter an adversary from a course of behavior that the issuer of the threat has deemed incompatible with her incentives. One dynamic method of credibly threatening an adversary is to stake one’s reputation on fulfilling the threat and ensuring that future bargains will be negatively impacted by defection in the present. Six years later in Arms and Influence, 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 became prevalent in the literature as a fundamental component of the study of reputation in international relations and a key component of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

Much of the empirical support for reputation in this classical framework is linked to the study of deterrence. Two of the most important studies, Huth and Russet (1984) and Huth (1988) provide a robust set of tests concerning the question of whether deterrence works, as well as reputation’s role in that success. Huth and Russet develop an expected utility model of immediate deterrence to determine under what circumstances deterrence is successful. They find that immediate deterrence is most likely to be successful when economic and political-military ties are strongest between the defender state and the state that is being threatened. In contrast to classical deterrence theory, they find that the defender state’s previous behavior has little baring on the probability of successful deterrence, which suggests that a state’s reputation may not be as important in successful deterrence.

Four years later, however, Huth (1988) follows up this research with a major study that establishes a clear link between a state’s reputation for following through with deterrence commitments and the success and failure of future deterrence events. In this analysis, Huth studies 58 cases of extended-immediate deterrence to determine under what political and military conditions this form of deterrence will succeed or fail. Huth finds that a past record of backing down or intransigence in confrontations with attackers increases the likelihood of deterrence failure. In these instances, a reputation for a lack or resolve or aggression increases the likelihood for deterrence to fail.

As the Cold War ended and sent reverberations of change throughout the world as well as those who study it, reputation did not escape introspection. Just as Schelling 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. 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.

Mercer’s arguments echo earlier cracks in the conventional wisdom surrounding reputation. In an important critique of classical deterrence theory, Hopf (1994) analyzes the lessons learned by the Soviets in various episodes of engagement between the United States and the Soviets from 1965–1990 by analyzing statements made by Soviet foreign policy makers and academics. He is intrinsically skeptical of reputation as a meaningful construct, pointing out that all too often reputation seems to matter in theoretical analyses because reputation is assumed to do so in the first place. Hopf suggests that the fundamental principle of deterrence theory remains valid, however. If a state seeks to prevent an adversary from obtaining a piece of territory, it is important to clearly communicate the state’s resolve and capabilities. Hopf argues that the scope of expressing resolve and capability needs to be expanded to include the plethora of deterrent instruments available to a state rather than simply focusing on military tools. Perhaps most vexing is Press’ (2005) analysis that sets out to find the role of past actions in decision-making and finds none. Press argues that rather than assessing their adversaries’ credibility by looking at past behaviors of commitment and credibility, policy makers are focused on the present crisis and do not consider the past when selecting a policy. According to Press, reputation does not play a crucial role in crisis behavior. Instead, policy makers are swamped by information that is uniquely important in the time and space of the crisis at hand. In essence, in times of crisis considering the reputation of an adversary becomes a luxury that leaders and states cannot afford.

These criticisms of reputation are not without critiques of their own. In his critique of Mercer’s book, Copeland (1997) identifies inconsistencies in Mercer’s logic. Chief among these inconsistencies is that reputations for resolve may be hard to change not because these reputations are hard to form but rather these reputations are imbedded in the labels that states have already given each other. Whether a state is seen as an ally or as a foe matters for that state’s reputation. Copeland moves from his critique to create a potential causal framework to understand how reputations become established between actors and to suggest that in future research scholars should specify under what conditions certain kinds of reputations form.

Huth (1997) also pushes back on the demise of reputation’s role in deterrence. He notes that there is a significant gap between the intuition that reputations are an important cause of interstate conflict and the paucity of data suggesting that reputations are consequential. He argues that the theory of reputation in deterrence has not been adequately proven with rigorous empirical tests. He then lays out an agenda for further research. Overall, however, critics of reputation as an influential process in the phenomena of war revealed an important set of problems that hindered our ability to isolate the effects of reputation. Perhaps because of the parallels between reputation and identity, scholars keyed in on the situational social construction of reputation. Whereas empirical analyses were treating reputation as a common attribution, critics emphasized the situational complexity that clung to reputational information like baggage. Ultimately, the question of whether reputations matter remained unresolved, and the study of reputation in conflict stagnated.

Classic Theory of Reputation and Cooperation

Reputation also serves as a mechanism for cooperation and coordination, particularly in situations where there exists an expectation of repeated interaction. It is interesting to note that in the arena of cooperation and coordination, reputation as a contributing factor did not suffer the same existential crisis that it did in the study of conflict. Instead of being conflated with resolve and status, in the study of cooperation the notion of reputation is more akin to trust, reciprocity, and precedent. As a result, reputation has enjoyed a sustained presence in the study of coordination in repeated interaction contexts. Eventually this research diffused over to the study of conflict in repeated interaction contexts as well, aiding the resurgence of studies in the conflict processes field.

In the study of coordination, the focus is less specific than a mechanism for resolve. For example, Axelrod (1984) shows how reputation organically emerges from the combination of being able to observe past behavior and expectations of future interaction. In this groundbreaking study of cooperation under anarchy, Axelrod finds that future interactions between actors helps establish cooperation among egoists. The prospect of having to interact with an actor again can loom on the present interaction and change the outcome of the current interaction such that cooperation becomes a more likely strategy. Similarly, the practice of reciprocity is enabled by reputations for cooperation. Axelrod and Keohane (1985) provide a formative analysis of cooperation under the condition of anarchy, citing reputation as a key mechanism for ensuring continued cooperation. International regimes, they argue, make it easier to build a reputation for practicing reciprocity. Reputations become important assets to states because states are more willing to make agreements with states that respond to cooperation in kind, creating an efficient escape of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

In the arena of sovereign debt, past repayments may convey a state’s reputation for its ability or willingness to repay new debts in the future. Eaton and Gersovitz (1981) develop a theory of borrowing by poor countries in private markets. Based on this theory, they develop an econometric model of borrowing by poor countries in the international financial market where default results in a future loss of access to international debt markets. They determine that states are incentivized to repay debts in the present due to concerns for future access to borrowing to smooth consumption in the future. Thus maintaining a good reputation for repayment is essential in maintaining access to lending. Bulow and Rogoff (1989) take issue with the reputational approach to understanding sovereign debt repayment practices, however, because this approach requires that no actors will sell financial assets to the debtor in default. This assumption is not supported empirically as past repayment record has little bearing on a country’s ability to borrow. Instead, Bulow and Rogoff argue that the primary motivation for repayment is direct sanctions imposed by lenders on debtor countries. They develop a dynamic model of international lending that is less dependent on reputation and repayment risk. Rogoff (1987) provides an excellent overview of reputational models of monetary policy. He argues that reputational considerations can reasonably constrain the government’s incentives to inflate the currency. Rogoff notes that the models of reputation in monetary policy are sensitive to changes in information structure and have a substantial number of equilibria. He concludes that that it is plausible that reputational constraints will prevent governments from partaking in episodes of surprise inflation but that the sensitivity of the models under review supplant issues of cooperation with issues of coordination.

Tomz (2007) lends an important resolution to the debate over reputation’s role in sovereign debt, and identifies reputation as a key mechanism for lending and repayment in sovereign debt. In this novel study, Tomz develops a reputational theory of sovereign debt. Using data spanning three centuries, Tomz finds that reputation has been a key component to lending and repayment. Reputation, in turn, is an important enforcement mechanism in continued cooperation between states in the international debt market.

New Theories of Reputation

One of the ways in which the study of reputation became revitalized was through the development of new theories linking reputation to political decisions and behavior. For example, Simmons (2000) provides a cornerstone for the study of reputation in compliance and commitments in international law, while Downs and Jones (2002) think theoretically about the role of reputation in treaty compliance. From a political economy perspective, Mailath and Samuelson (2006) provide an expanded analysis of reputation’s role in repeated games and long-run relationships. Others honed in on mid-level theorizing in more specific political contexts. As a result, scholars are now able to identify reputational effects outside of the contexts of deterrence or repeated play prisoner’s dilemma models. Here we review some of these new theoretical contributions in the study of conflict processes, international institutions, and international political economy.

Reputation, Status, and International Conflict

One of the most interesting theoretical innovations deals with the reputations of leaders. Wolford (2007) develops a new theoretical analysis of leader reputations within the framework of leader tenure. His dynamic analysis of the changing information needs of leaders reveals an intrinsic motivation for leaders to build their reputations early in their tenure. Wolford builds a game theoretic model of leadership turnover and international conflict. He assumes that since successive leaders of a state can vary in their willingness to use force, incumbents have an incentive to build a reputation for resolve early on to improve their bargaining outcomes overtime. Antagonists, in turn, have an incentive to test a new leader’s resolve through crisis bargaining. Gibler (2008) also investigates the role of reputation at the leader level of analysis. He examines whether a state’s past behavior in alliances, upholding or defecting from alliance commitments, has an impact on future alliance commitments and conflicts. Gibler demonstrates that alliance reputations do affect the formation of alliances and the behavior of those alliance partners in disputes.

At the same time, new theories emerged at the state level. Crescenzi (2007, 2017) theorizes that the situational contexts that surround reputation are conditioned by temporal and relational dynamics. He presents a model of reputational learning among states and examines how this learning affects international conflict. He then tests whether states are more likely to experience conflict if at least one of the states has a reputation for hostility. Moreover, he uses an exponential decay function to model the diminishing effects of history on reputation over time. Crescenzi finds that information outside of the dyadic interaction between the two states has a significant impact on the likelihood for conflict, but that this reputational information degrades over time and is less important for dyads once they have established a direct history of interaction. In subsequent analyses, Crescenzi, Kathman, and Long (2007) and Crescenzi (2017) expand this study to show that a reputation for hostility also increases the likelihood for escalation to war.

Similarly, Weisiger and Yarhi-Milo (2015) theorize that reputation has a dynamic impact over time. The authors critique recent work on reputations dealing with resolve that suggest that reputations do not form and that past actions do not influence behavior in future interactions. The authors develop a theory that suggests that reputation should decline overtime, they test their hypothesis by developing a decay function and find that past actions do in fact inform reputations. Wiegand (2011) focuses on the use of reputation to transfer resolve from one situation to another. She develops a theory for why states involved in territorial disputes are more likely to initiate militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) when compared to states that are involved in other types of interstate disputes. States sometimes use MIDs to not only signal resolve to the opposing state but to also signal resolve to other states in conflict with the initiator state.

Walter (2009) anchors a new focus on the role of reputation in internal, civil conflicts. Walter develops an information argument based on the logic of the chain store paradox that highlights the need for states to respond to internal challenges with future potential challenges in mind. Thus, even when it appears that an individual challenge should be accommodated by the state, the need to preserve a reputation for intransigence may result in a lack accommodation by the state. Walter provides evidence that reputational concerns strongly influences state behavior in separatist conflicts when the state thinks that it may face additional separatist challengers in the future.

New theories also emerged with a focus on the role of reputation in threats and crisis situations.

In contrast to previous research that links credibility to reputations for resolve, Guisinger and Smith (2002) argue that credibility is linked to the gains made by having a reputation for honesty in diplomacy. The authors suggest that when a reputation for honesty resides within a leader rather than the country, citizens will have an incentive to remove leaders caught bluffing. They develop a game theoretic model to look at the interaction. Similarly, Sartori (2005) expands the scope of classical deterrence theory to look at the value placed on the importance of reputation and of honesty in establishing effective diplomatic relations. Being honest most of the time allows states to maintain reputations for honesty, which in turn improves the state’s ability to demonstrate resolve in future disputes. Sartori notes that there is a drawback, sometimes a state will acquiesce in a crisis when they may have been able to successfully bluff.

Sechser (2010) argues that reputation concerns can cause compellent threats to fail when they would otherwise be expected to succeed. In this study, Sechser attempts to address why compellent threats issued against weaker adversaries often fail. Sechser argues that reputation can be viewed as a strategic problem and that challengers should anticipate the reputation costs associated with appeasing an aggressor. A challenger that recognizes the costs associated with appeasement may be able to offer side payments to mitigate these costs. The argument is then illustrated by a case study of the Russo-Finnish crisis in 1939. In a subsequent analysis, Sechser (2016) analyzes when states choose to pay high costs to protect their reputations and when they are willing to tarnish that reputation. He argues that states value their reputations less and are more willing to concede to coercive threats when the state does not expect a subsequent challenge. Using the Militarized Compellent Threats dataset, Sechser finds support for his theory.

Important progress has also occurred in the study of honor, status, and face and conflict. Clare and Danilovic (2012) conduct an empirical test of the logic of Schelling’s famous argument that “face” is worth fighting for. Clare and Danilovic examine the interaction between reputation and interests when states initiate challenges in crisis bargaining. They find that the role of reputation is mediated by a state’s interests when initiating challenges. Dafoe and Caughey (2016) focus even more explicitly on status, reputation, and resolve. They analyze the role that cultural origins of leaders play in heightening concern for reputations for resolve. They analyze the role that the culture of honor in the American South plays in Southern U.S. presidents’ conflict behavior. They find that international conflicts under Southern presidents are more likely to result in the use of force, last longer, and are more likely to end in victory than those conflicts under non-Southern presidents.

Reputation and International Cooperation

The study of reputation has expanded in the fields of international institutions and international political economy as well. Progress in the field of international institutions has centered around reputation as a signal for compliance. Simmons (2000) investigates why governments make international legal commitments. Focusing her inquiry on international monetary law, she argues that reputational concerns explain patterns of compliance with international law. She finds that governments are more likely to commit and comply with legal obligations if other countries in the region do. Guzman (2008) argues that reputation serves as an enforcement mechanism for compliance with international law. In this book, Guzman creates a rational choice theory of how international law can be a sustained institution without an enforcement mechanism. A state’s concern over a good reputation for compliance with international law is a key mechanism for sustaining cooperation. Guzman further argues that a state may have several competing reputations for compliance in different issue areas. The importance of maintaining a reputation for compliance in the realm of international law may also vary based on the dyad and on the regime.

Carnegie and Dolan (2016) argue that international assistance can undermine a government’s reputation by making it appear weak. Governments will at times reject aid when they are able to send a credible signal, when they care very little for assisting the affected citizens, and when rejecting aid is important for maintaining status. They test their hypotheses empirically using an original dataset on political response to natural disasters.

Reputation can also impact sanctions behavior. Peterson (2013) argues that a state that is the target of sanctions will look to the previous response of the state imposing sanctions to states that were resistant. When a sender state has recently backed down, the sender state is more likely to face resistance. Peterson then examines U.S. sanction threats spanning from 1971–2000 and finds support for his theory. Miller (2014) notes that there is a selection effect at work in the imposition of nonproliferation sanctions by the United States, only states that are not effectively deterred by the threat of sanctions are those that pursue nuclear proliferation. This selection effect results in mixed evidence regarding the effectiveness of nonproliferation sanctions. The United States continues to sanction those states that are not deterred to maintain a reputation for sanctioning to ensure that other states are deterred. Miller tests his hypotheses using both qualitative case studies and quantitative methods.

Finally, new theories help explain the dynamics of reputation and coordination in international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and international law. Gent, Crescenzi, Menninga, and Reid (2015), for example, strategically models the importance and consequences of reputation in the interactions between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their donors. They analyze how concerns over reputation can lead to NGOs altering their behavior such that it becomes detrimental to achieving policy goals. This focus allows them to capture the strategic interaction between donors and NGOs where donors select those NGOs that have a reputation for success, NGOs are then incentivized to select projects that are more easily accomplished but not necessarily the most efficient for achieving the NGOs goals.

In the arena of international institutions and contracts, scholars have demonstrated that reputations can affect not just the existence but the quality of international contracts. Jensen and Johnston (2011) argue that states suffer reputational costs when they fail to honor contracts but governments that have economies that are natural-resource-dependent are not as sensitive to these reputational costs. As a result, they argue, natural-resource-dependent states are more likely to expropriate and to have contract disputes. They use a measure of expropriation risk to test their theory. Similarly, Crescenzi and colleagues (2012) demonstrate that states with a reputation for upholding their alliance commitments over time are more likely to form alliances in future years with other states. A good reputation as an ally not only affects the likelihood of future alliances, it can affect the quality of the contracts as well. Mattes (2012, 2015) uses a tightly focused mix of theory and empirical analysis of alliance contracts to show that states with poor alliance behavior in the past are likely to face more stringent and constraining alliance contracts in the future.

Empirical Innovations

In this final section, some of the research is highlighted that has helped innovate the study of reputation in international relations through new developments in research design and data collection. The analyses provide creative approaches to solving one of the most difficult challenges to the study of reputation. That is, observing and measuring reputation outside of the theoretical realm and incorporating measures of reputation into empirical models of conflict and cooperation processes.

New Approaches to Data

One understudied approach is to use a network analysis framework to study reputation. Craik (2008) offers a network model of reputation at the individual level, albeit with a social psychological focus rather than focusing on political outcomes. Craik argues that the individual can have multiple ongoing reputations, and that reputation dynamics are best understood in a network framework. Scholars may be able to improve our understanding of how reputations spread or change across network ties, as well as when and how reputations reverberate within or across network structures.

New datasets also enable improved focus on the study of reputation. Sechser (2011) breaks new ground with an ambitious dataset on Militarized Compellent Threats (MCTs). By collecting data on threats as well as actions, Sechser unlocks the ability to examine the impact of threats and pre-conflict crisis behavior on state reputation. His work allows us to understand when large states may use compellent threats differently due to concerns about their reputations. Similarly, McManus (2014) creates an original dataset that measures the level of resolve of statements issued by U.S. presidents during Militarized Interstate Disputes. McManus finds that a higher level of resolved statements is associated with favorable resolution of these disputes. Tokdemir and Akcinaroglu (2016) present an innovative dataset that identifies the reputation of terror groups, which may help explain discrete actions within the context of terror campaigns.

New data has also been useful in the study of international institutions and economic behavior. Two major new datasets have led to innovative research on the study of reputation in alliances and economic sanctions. Leeds, Ritter, Mitchell, and Long (2002) collect detailed and important information on alliances in world politics. Scholars such as Crescenzi, Kathman, Kleinberg, and Wood (2012), Crescenzi (2017), and Mattes (2012) use this data to test arguments concerning the impact of reputation on alliance formation and alliance contract qualities. Similarly, Morgan, Bapat, and Krustev (2009) introduce an innovative new dataset that identifies the threats as well as impositions of economic sanctions. By adding the essential first step of the threat stage, this data allowed Peterson (2013) to examine when states follow through with their threats and how a reputation for following through impacts the success of future sanctions threats.


With the resurgence of behavioral economics in the social sciences, and the experimental research design that often comes with this approach, scholars have recently leveraged experiments to test hypotheses involving reputation as a causal factor in decision-making. Two lines of research established a platform for this research as it has been applied to questions of cooperation and crisis. First, Tomz (2007, 2008) establishes an innovative experimental approach to examining reputation in international political economy. Recent studies of the credibility of international threats has suggested that domestic audience costs are a mechanism that ensures the credibility of a threat. In this article, Tomz develops an experiment embedded in public opinion surveys to study the dynamics of domestic audience costs. He finds that audience costs may arise because people are concerned with the international reputation of the country or leader. He then complements this research with interviews with U.S. voters and British policy makers regarding preferences and expectations over international law. He finds that individuals are more likely to oppose otherwise identical policies if they violate international law. The concerns with violating international law that individuals have are partially a result of worry over a loss in reputation.

Tingley and Walter (2011) provide the other anchor to the use of experiments in empirical analyses of reputation. Tingley and Walter focus on the notion of reputation building as a purposive strategy. Rather than assuming that reputations simply emerge and asking the question of how they matter, they compellingly argue that states seek out reputations and will invest in obtaining reputations that serve their interests. The incentives for reputation building are analyzed through a series of laboratory experiments. This paper uses comparative statics from a repeated entry-deterrence game to isolate how incentives for reputation building may change as the number of entrants changes. This revival of Schelling’s intuition had been difficult to assess empirically until this research unlocked a new avenue for investigation.

New scholarship has taken advantage of this platform and launched a series of important experimental studies linking reputation to both compliance and conflict. Gray and Hicks (2014) conduct a survey experiment to evaluate the effect of international agreements on a country’s reputation when few prior beliefs are held regarding the country. They find that joining in international agreements with countries that have good reputations will result in a reputation for less risk whereas entering into agreements with countries with bad reputations will result in a higher risk assessment. Similarly, Fjelstul, Weeks, Tomz, and Reiter (2015) analyze the domestic audience costs faced by leaders violating military alliance agreements. The authors argue that audience costs are higher for those leaders that violate general alliances rather than defensive alliances but that the difference in audience costs should vanish if the ally is a victim of aggression. Their hypotheses are then tested using an original survey experiment.

Beyond coordination problems, experimental research designs are informing our understanding of reputation’s role in international crisis behavior. Kertzer (2016) creatively unpacks the state to reveal how domestic audiences focus on reputation and resolve. In his book, Kertzer addresses why some leaders display resolve in confrontations while others do not. This study combines laboratory and survey experiments with studies of great power military intervention to develop a theory to explain the ways leaders and members of the public define situations and the trade-offs between the cost of fighting and the costs of backing down based on risk preferences, honor orientation, and self-control.

Last, new studies focus on the notion and importance of status. Renshon (2015) examines the interaction between status and the judgment of political and military leaders. In his study of the microfoundations of status, Renshon conducts an experiment where status concerns are randomly assigned prior to a task where individuals are tasked with increasing their commitment to winning or cutting their losses. Renshon conducts this test on a sample of political and military leaders as well as a series of control subjects. He finds that power is an important mitigating factor in concerns for status. Those that have a high power mindset are less likely to be concerned with status. In forthcoming work with Dafoe and Huth, Renshon presents a theory of influence-specific reputations. Renshon and colleagues (forthcoming) argue that reputations will adhere more to actors who have greater influence in the relevant decision-making prices. They find evidence of country-specific reputations being developed in this manner as well as leader-specific reputations. The authors deploy two survey experiments to test their theory.


As we reflect on this revitalization, it is apparent that this progress is due to three factors. First, scholars are able to build off of more sophisticated theoretical platforms to establish clear and focused arguments concerning reputation in world politics. Gent and colleagues (2015), for example, use the theoretical progress established in Mailath and Samuelson (2006) to investigate reputation’s influence on NGO behavior. Experimental designs such as Kertzer (2016) or Renshon (2015) are encouraged by the resurgence of behavioral economics both substantively and in research design. As such, this new knowledge concerning reputation is a product of a cumulative and maturing science.

Second, new data generation has enabled scholars to investigate the impact of reputation in mid-range phenomena such as sanctions, alliances, or state–rebel group negotiations. Important datasets such as Leeds and colleagues’ (2002) ATOP dataset on alliance behavior, Morgan and colleagues’ (2009) dataset on economic sanctions and threats of sanctions, and Sechser’s (2011) data on militarized compellent threats all provide resources that others have utilized to test new and focused arguments concerning the role of reputation.

Third, this progress was made possible in part by the ability of scholars to set aside the unique and complicated context of deterrence theory and the role of reputation in threat credibility in deterrence. The highly specific contexts of deterrence crises lend themselves to the critique that Mercer (1996) makes when he argues that reputations are too specific to be useful in different crisis contexts. By stepping back and putting less weight on the role of reputation to be the critical determinant of peace versus war, scholars have improved our understanding of this elusive phenomenon.

New applications are quickly emerging, such as Mitton’s (2015) analysis of Schelling’s reputation arguments applied to the role of the United States in the current conflict in Syria, or Joshi and Quinn’s (2016) research analyzing the reputations states earn by keeping (or breaking) promises with rebel groups. As we continue to hone our understanding of when and how reputation matters in world politics, we can only expect this revitalization of research to continue.


Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Axelrod, R., & Keohane, R. O. (1985). Achieving cooperation under anarchy: Strategies and institutions. World Politics, 38(1), 226–254.Find this resource:

Bulow, J., & Rogoff, K. (1989). A constant recontracting model of sovereign debt. Journal of Political Economy, 97(1), 155–178.Find this resource:

Carnegie, A., & Dolan, L. (2016). The effects of aid on recipients’ reputations: Evidence from natural disaster responses. Unpublished manuscript.Find this resource:

Clare, J., & Danilovic, V. (2012). Reputation for resolve, interests, and conflict. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 29(1), 3–27.Find this resource:

Copeland, D. C. (1997). Do reputations matter? Security Studies, 7, 33–71.Find this resource:

Craik, K. H. (2008). Reputation: A network interpretation: Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Crescenzi, M. J. C. (2007). Reputation and interstate conflict. American Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 382–396.Find this resource:

Crescenzi, M. J. C. (2017). Of friends and foes: Reputation and learning in world politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Crescenzi, M. J. C., Kathman, J. D., & Long, S. B. (2007). Reputation, history, and war. Journal of Peace Research, 44(6), 651–667.Find this resource:

Crescenzi, M. J. C., Kathman, J. D., Kleinberg, K. B., & Wood, R. M. (2012). Reliability, Reputation and Alliance Formation. International Studies Quarterly, 56(2), 259–274.Find this resource:

Dafoe, A., & Caughey, D. (2016). Honor and war. World Politics, 68(2), 341–381.Find this resource:

Downs, G. W., & Jones, M. J. (2002). Reputation, compliance and international law. Journal of Legal Studies, 31(1), 95–114.Find this resource:

Eaton, J., & Gersovitz, M. (1981). Debt with potential repudiation: Theoretical and empirical analysis. The Review of Economic Studies, 48(2), 289–309.Find this resource:

Fjelstul, J., Weeks, J., Tomz, M., & Reiter, D. (2015) Alliance terms and audience costs: An experimental study of the microfoundations of alliance compliance. Unpublished manuscript.Find this resource:

Gent, S. E., Crescenzi, M. J., Menninga, E. J., & Reid, L. (2015). The reputation trap of NGO accountability. International Theory, 7(3), 426–463.Find this resource:

Gibler, D. M. (2008). The Costs of Reneging: Reputation and Alliance Formation. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52(3), 426–454.Find this resource:

Gray, J., & Hicks, R. P. (2014). Reputations, perceptions, and international economic agreements. International Interactions, 40(3), 325–349.Find this resource:

Guisinger, A., & Smith, A. (2002). Honest threats: The interaction of reputation and political institutions in international crises. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 46(2), 175–200.Find this resource:

Guzman, A. (2008). How international law works: A rational choice theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hopf, T. (1994). Peripheral visions: Deterrence theory and American foreign policy in the third world, 1965–1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Find this resource:

Hopf, T. (1998). The promise of constructivism in international relations theory. International Security, 23(1), 171–200.Find this resource:

Huth, P. (1988). Extended deterrence and the outbreak of war. The American Political Science Review, 82(2), 423–443.Find this resource:

Huth, P. (1997). Reputations and deterrence: A theoretical and empirical assessment. Security Studies, 7(1), 72–99.Find this resource:

Huth, P., & Russet, B. (1984). What makes deterrence work? Cases from 1900 to 1980. World Politics, 36(4), 496–526.Find this resource:

Jensen, N. M., & Johnston, N. P. (2011). Political risk, Reputation and the resource curse. Comparative Political Studies, 44(6), 662–688.Find this resource:

Joshi, M., & Quinn, J. M. (2016). Watch and learn: Spillover effects of peace accord implementation on non-signatory armed groups. Research and Politics, 3(1), 1–7.Find this resource:

Kertzer, J. D. (2016). Resolve in international politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Kydd, A. H. (2005). Trust and mistrust in international relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Leeds, B. A., Ritter, J., Mitchell, S., & Long, A. (2002). Alliance treaty obligations and provisions, 1815–1944. International Interactions, 28(3), 237–260.Find this resource:

Mailath, G. J., & Samuelson, L. (2006). Repeated games and reputations: Long-run relationships. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Mattes, M. (2012). Reputation and alliance design. International Organizations, 66(4), 679–707.Find this resource:

Mattes, M. (2015). Democratic reliability, precommitment of successor governments, and the choice of alliance commitment. International Organization, 66(1), 153–172.Find this resource:

McManus, R. W. (2014). Fighting words: The effectiveness of statements for resolve in international conflict. Journal of Peace Research, 51(6), 726–740.Find this resource:

Mercer, J. (1996). Reputation and international politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

Miller, N. L. (2014). The secret success of nonproliferation sanctions. International Organization, 64(4), 913–944.Find this resource:

Mitton, J. (2015). Selling Schelling short: Reputations and American coercive diplomacy after Syria. Contemporary Security Policy, 36(3), 408–431.Find this resource:

Morgan, T. C., Bapat, N., & Krustev, V. (2009). The threat and imposition of economic sanctions, 1971–2000. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 26(1), 92–110.Find this resource:

Peterson, T. M. (2013). Sending a message: The reputation effect of U.S. sanction behavior. International Studies Quarterly, 57, 672–682.Find this resource:

Press, D. G. (2005). Calculating credibility: How leaders assess military threats. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

Renshon, J. (2015). Losing face and sinking costs: Experimental evidence on the judgment of political and military leaders. International Organization, 69(3), 659–695.Find this resource:

Renshon, J., Dafoe, A., & Huth, P. (forthcoming). To whom do reputations adhere? Experimental evidence on influence-specific reputations. American Journal of Political Science.Find this resource:

Rogoff, K. (1987). Reputational constraints on monetary policy. Paper presented at the Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, North-Holland.Find this resource:

Sartori, A. E. (2005). Deterrence by diplomacy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Schelling, T. (1960). The strategy of conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Schelling, T. (1966). Arms and influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Sechser, T. S. (2010). Goliath’s curse: Coercive threats and asymmetric power. International Organization, 64(4), 627–660.Find this resource:

Sechser, T. S. (2011). Militarized compellent threats, 1918–2001. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 28(4), 377–401.Find this resource:

Sechser, T. S. (2016). Reputation and signaling in coercive bargaining. Journal of Conflict Resolution. Advance online publication.Find this resource:

Simmons, B. A. (2000). International law and state behavior: Commitment and compliance in international monetary affairs. American Political Science Review, 94(4), 819–835.Find this resource:

Tingley, D. H., & Walter, B. F. (2011). The effect of repeated play on reputation building: An experimental approach. International Organization, 65(2), 343–365.Find this resource:

Tokdemir, E., & Akcinaroglu, S. (2016). Reputation of terror groups dataset measuring popularity of terror groups. Journal of Peace Research, 53(2), 268–277.Find this resource:

Tomz, M. (2007). Domestic audience cost in international relations: An experimental approach. International Organization, 61(4), 821–840.Find this resource:

Tomz, M. (2007). Reputation and international cooperation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Tomz, M. (2008). Reputation and the effect of international law on preferences and beliefs. Unpublished manuscript.Find this resource:

Walter, B. F. (2009). Reputation and civil war: Why separatist conflicts are so violent. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Weisiger, A., & Yarhi-Milo, K. (2015). Revisiting reputation: How past actions matter in international politics. International Organizations, 69(2), 473–495.Find this resource:

Wiegand, K. E. (2011). Militarized territorial disputes: States’ attempts to transfer reputation for resolve. Journal of Peace Research, 48(1), 101–113.Find this resource:

Wolford, S. (2007). The turnover trap: New leaders, reputation, and international conflict. American Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 772–788.Find this resource:

Yarhi-Milo, K. (2014). Knowing the adversary: Leaders, intelligence, and assessment of intentions in international relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource: