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State Reputation as a Public Good

William Phelan


A state’s concern for its reputation is widely considered the most powerful mechanism for inducing rational egoist states to comply with costly commitments. A state with a diversity of interests will accept costs on organised groups in the expectation of future benefits derived from a reputation for meeting its international commitments. Although the scope of the effectiveness of this argument has been qualified by subsequent scholarship, reputational incentives remain a central causal mechanism in institutionalist approaches to international relations. This paper introduces a new, more fundamental criticism: a state’s reputation for complying with international obligations is a public good so far as diverse politically influential domestic constituents are concerned: each constituent has an incentive not to accept costs towards the maintenance of a states’ overall reputation for fulfilling its obligations. We should therefore expect that states will not, in general, fulfil costly obligations out of respect for their reputation, unless gains from reputation can be reliably internalised in the form of private goods or where domestic politics provides reliable solutions to the relevant domestic collective action problems.

Last updated 28 August 2014 by IIIS (Email).