Why We Teach

Defending International Normas: The Role of Obligation, Material Interest, and Perception in Decision Making,” by Richard Herrmann and Vaughn Shannon, International Organization, Vol 55 No 3, Summer 2001, pp 621-654, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=164678&jid=INO&volumeId=55&issueId=03&aid=164677.

Another reading. Discusses a poll of opinion-leaders on international law. It would be interesting to see a similar poll done for bloggers. There is a laugh-out-loud moment in the reading where majorites want Iran to be punished regardless of Iran’s reason for doing a certain action. Apparently, some bad blood between us and the Persians.

The authors suggest an agent-based simulation to demonstrate their theories — as a former geek, I whole-heartedly applaud programmer full employment.

I titled this post “Why We Teach” because the field of “international law” and international politics generally seems to be very derivitive of teaching and learning. That is, when it’s not used as some sort of left/liberal sharia.

Norms play a role in international affairs. Few deny this. Hans Morgenthau, perhaps the best-known contemporary realist who reduced much of international relations to the pursuit of power, himself wrote that “certain things are not done on moral grounds, even though it would be expedient to do them. Such ethical inhibitionsoperate in our time on different levels with different effectiveness.” This observation directs attention to our central research questions: not whether norms matter, but how much do they matter and when? How can we explain the variation in decisions to defend norms that are violated? Why do key actors like the United States enact norms in some situations but not in others, and what does this tell us about the operation of norms in the international system more generally?

We address these questions by concentrating on prescriptive norms related to the use of force. Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink have noted the lack of attention given prescriptive norms, “those which prescribe appropriate behavior to actors,” and the importance of studying them.3 We concentrate on two norms that have been articulated and codified in various long-standing international statutes: nonintervention and the general prohibition on the use of force. The sustained and widespread acceptance of these norms makes them “robust” norms that Jeffrey Legro’s analysis suggests ought to have an impact.

We consider three ways to combine our three central concepts. First, perceptions of a situation can evoke felt normative obligation and, in turn, lead to behavior defending the norm. Second, desires to advance material interests may run counter to felt normative obligations and bias perceptions of the situation. This can lead to constructions of the situation in which seizing the material gain is framed as consistent with, even required by, moral duty.8 Third, normative rules may provide templates that structure perceptions of situations and affect both constructions of material interests and calculations on how best to advance them. Ideas in general, and prescriptive norms in particular, do not affect international outcomes the same way structures of power do. Structures of power can compel compliance after an actor makes a decision. Norms, however, affect conceptions of identities and interests in the process of actor decision making [OODA loop — tdaxp]. Prescriptive norms give rise to feelings of moral obligation to abide by and defend the norm. As Gary Goertz and Paul Diehl argue, to say the United States is affected by feelings of normative obligation is to say that its leaders and prevailing elite share certain beliefs and norms.10 Therefore, they suggest that perhaps the best way, surprisingly not used very often, to examine the role of norms is to study the thinking of a country’s elite through a survey. Such a “bottom-up” strategy would avoid essentialist stereotypes and provide empirical foundation for generalizations about the ideational landscape in the country.

The three concepts central to the theoretical issues we pursue are (1) material interests, (2) felt normative obligation, and (3) perception of the situation.We define material interests as economic and military assets that are valued by U.S. leaders. Normative obligation, in contrast, is defined as a collective expectation about the proper course of behavior that identified actors should follow in specified situations. This definition highlights the notion that normative motives involve distinctions of right and wrong. Rather than being reducible to some “optimizing mechanism,” norms carry “a sense that they ought to be followed.”

Constructivists typically use definitions that treat interests as constituted by normative ideas, arguing that norms shape interests and, therefore, cannot logically be opposed to interests. This argument rests on either particular definitions of the concepts that other scholars need not accept or is an empirical claim about the effect norms have on interests. In the latter case, the empirical claim needs to be demonstrated. In either case, the difficulty of differentiating between norms and interests, and the recognition that both are essentially ideational concepts, has directed attention away from norms and interest per se and toward different patterns of reasoning that can be connected to behavioral choices. We will adopt this same strategy.

Conceiving of different systems of logic directs attention to the mind-set of actors. Surprisingly, this phenomenological shift in theorizing has not produced a greater reliance on methods drawn from political psychology, where the study of mind-sets, cognitive reasoning systems, and decision making has a long tradition [what’s the role of Boydian thought in this area? — tdaxp]. Perceptions play a large role in both the logic of the appropriate and the logic of consequences. Perceptions of the situation define which rules, duties, and obligations are relevant as well as the type of utilitarian interests at stake. Perhaps because the study of norms in international relations research has often proceeded at the structural level and has not focused on variation in enactment, the role of perceptions has not received the attention it deserves.19 We propose to focus substantial attention on perception as a concept and use research strategies and methods to study patterns of reasoning that are well known in political psychology.

The difficulty of identifying which ideal-typical logic system (appropriateness or consequences) is a useful descriptor of any particular leader’s mind-set, and the empirical conundrumfacing any attempt to attribute behavior to one logic system or the other, have not deterred scholars from trying to make these distinctions. Finnemore, for instance, concludes that Robert McNamara’s actions at the World Bank related to the alleviation of poverty were attributable to a logic of the appropriate and not so much to utilitarian interest. She also argues that the bulk of military intervention following the Cold War has been to save civilian populations in places of little or no strategic importance and that discussions about these actions have not been about “interest and advantage” but “about responsibility and duty [Barnettian Gap].” She concludes more generally that “consequentialist utility maximization does not explain much of what goes on in international politics.” Krasner, in contrast, argues “that the international system is an environment in which the logics of consequences dominate the logics of appropriateness.” He argues that recent constructivist treatments overemphasize the impact of international norms and understate the importance of power and interest. For Krasner, “violation of or adherence to, international principles or rules is based on calculations of material and ideational interests.” He argues that rulers may honor norms, perhaps only in talk to secure resources, but when material and domestic political interests are at stake, rulers will typically allow the utilitarian logic of consequences to “trump” the logic of appropriateness.

In our scenarios, participants were asked to defend a norm, not to violate it. We chose to frame the investigation this way for two reasons. First, the norms regulating the use of force are well known, codified in many formal institutions, and likely to evoke “politically correct” responses. Although this reflects the noncontroversial discursive importance of a prescriptive norm, it does not address the more important debate over the relative impact of normative obligation on behavior. To deal with this problem, we used a technique applied in studies of racial attitudes. We created a context in which defending the norm was appropriate but the respondent could also generate an account for not defending it. Second, because too few of the emotional and material factors that might lead actors to violate a norm are activated in our scenarios, we concentrated on a more modest measure of compliance. This form of compliance, the defense of a norm, is far from trivial and is typically seen as an essential dimension of normative obligation. The defense of norms is one of the most common reasons leaders use to explain the use of force and intervention in world politics. Leaders often evoke the notion that they have an obligation to defend norms and clearly see defense of a norm as integral to the norm’s operation. Theorists typically make the same point, stressing the vital role played by society rebuking and punishing violators. Our method, in this regard, evokes Friedrich Kratochwil and John Gerard Ruggie, who argue that “whether or not violations also invalidate, or refute a law (norm) will depend (upon . . .) how the community assesses the violation and responds to it.” In our experiments we measured the differential willingness to defend a norm; if by some chance the norm generates only a sense of obligation not to violate the norm but no obligation to defend it, we should see little inclination to defend across any situation and no systematic pattern of normative defense in some situations and not others.

In the Persian Gulf experiment, U.Sfielites were also inclined to punish Iran no matter their perception of Iran’s motivation [still true if Iran was retaliating against a recognized al Qaeda attack? — tdaxp], with half favoring the use of force (Table 2, row 1c). Fewer than a quarter of those who saw Israel as aggressive were prepared to use force to punish Israel, although nearly everyone was prepared to at least apply economic pressure. In this experiment, unlike in the Bus Bomb experiment, the difference in the perception of Israel’s general motives did not make much difference in the way people responded to Israel’s attack.


In the Repel an Aggressor, Defend a Victim, and Persian Gulf experiments, we asked elites whether they would defend against a norm violation in situations where economic and security interests were at stake and in situations where they were not at stake. We found that in all three experiments, considerably fewer people were willing to defend the norm when material interests were not at stake. In situations where the victims represented no economic or security importance to the United States, U.Sfielites were significantly less willing to punish the norm violator [same way in classrooms? — tdaxp] (see Table 3, as well as Table 1, rows 1a, 2a, 3b). For instance, the probability that a respondent would be strongly willing to repel an aggressor dropped from .44 to .06, and elites were only half as likely (.23 as opposed to .48) to defend a victim when no U.S. material interests were at stake. In the Persian Gulf experiment, the probability that U.Sfielites were willing to defend Saudi Arabia was .525, and for Kurdistan the probability dropped to .184.

Table 4 arrays decisionsmade to Repel an Aggressor and Defend a Victim across the eight conditions of these experiments. In the Repel an Aggressor experiment, when material interests are present, more than 60 percent of the elites were willing to repel the attacker. In three of four situations of this type 80 percent of the elites chose this course of action. In contrast, in the four situations where material interests were not present, in only one case did even close to one-quarter of the respondents choose to repel the attacker. In the other three cases fewer than 15 percent made this choice. Consistent with the ordered probit findings reported earlier, the situational factors related to normative reasoning had the expected effect within the overriding condition of whether U.S. material interests were present or not. For example, once we took into account whether material interests were at stake, attacks that came “out of the blue” evoked more willingness to repel than did attacks coming as part of a feud [so is this a norm? similarity to GWOT. also, like a lotto-style skinner box — tdaxp] (Table 4, rows 1c and 1d compared to 1a and 1b, rows 1g and 1h compared to 1e and 1f). These effects, however, appear to be quite small compared to the effect of material interests.

The results of the Defend a Victim experiment are more complicated, although in terms of the relative effect of normative obligation and material interest they tell much the same story. In the Repel an Aggressor experiment, the vast majority of elites were willing to use force to repel the attacker and, evidently, did not see a contradiction in using force to punish those who violated the norms of not using force. In the Defend a Victim experiment, staying out of the conflict rather than defending the victim was a more typical response. As in the Repel an Aggressor experiment, however, when U.S. material interests were at stake more of the elites were willing to defend the victim than when interests were not at stake (Table 4, rows 2a, 2b, 2c, 2d). When material interests were at stake, more than 22 percent chose to defend, and in one condition more than two-thirds made this decision. When interests were not engaged, the percentage of respondents willing to defend hovered in the single digits with an important exception.

The data in Table 6 also suggest that although moral reasons play a role in elite decision making, there is substantial disagreement regarding what obligations follow from an international norm in any particular situation. For instance, among those U.Sfielites who were told that U.S. material interests were at stake, roughly the same percentage of those who defended the victim and those who did not defend the victim said moral reasons captured their thinking very well [War of Ideas / 4GW — tdaxp] (Table 6, rows 1b and 2b). Less dramatic but still indicative of difference in normative interpretation are the nearly 63 percent of elites who, when told that no U.S. material interests were at stake, said the moral thing to do was to defend the victim and did so, compared to the more than 25 percent of those who—in the same condition—chose not to defend the victim and said this was the moral thing to do

Second, the results we have presented thus far reflect trends among the U.Sfielite as a whole. This aggregate focus makes sense given our interest in the United States as a collective actor, but it may disguise important individual differences. For instance, the patterns we find may apply to certain types of Americans much more so than to other types. If this were so and a particular type of elite was in power, it would be necessary to know more about that type of elite before commenting on the applicability of our findings. To explore this possibility, we looked for a relationship between well-known fault lines in the U.Sfielite and choices in our experiments. We constructed scales to measure three dispositions that have been found to represent important divisions within the U.Sfielite. They are (1) internationalism versus isolationism, (2) accommodative cooperativeness versus militant assertiveness, and (3) liberal versus con- servative. Table 8 presents ordered probit results that suggest that there are not systematic differences between liberals and conservatives or between internationalists and isolationists when it comes to making choices in our experiments [counterintuitive! certainly not the fashion of the moment… — tdaxp]. Militant assertive elites are more likely to repel aggressors and defend victims. However, they also are more likely to forgive retaliators in the Bus Bomb experiment. This latter finding suggests that the difference between militants and cooperators probably has less to do with felt normative obligations to defend norms than with the proclivity to use force to defend material interests [divides worls into Kaplanophiles and Kaplanoskeptics? – tdaxp].

The United States because of its power is in an unusual position to defend norms and enact system standards. Also, the United States is sufficiently powerful that when it is affected by normative obligation, observers are less likely than in cases of weak states to attribute this to the pressure of external compulsion. Finally, the United States is a critical case because if prescriptive norms are to be treated as important independent determinants of international relations, they need to affect the thinking, rhetoric, and action of the strong and not just the weak [so perhaps there is no one IL? also, would argue that the teacher should also be bound by classrom socialization — tdaxp].

We did not find that U.Sfielites felt compelled to disguise in some form of justificatory ideology the priority granted to U.Sfieconomic and security interests, as Morgenthaumight have expected they would. Our participants may have provided more normatively based explanations for their choices had we asked them to defend their choices publicly. In the confines of our con. dential interview, however, they explained their choicesmostly in terms of U.S. material interest. This was somewhat more true for decisions to act than for decisions not to act, but it suggests that among the U.Sfielite, when U.Sfieconomic and security interests are at stake, taking action is mostly perceived as a morally defensible norm in its own right. This apparent intuitive realist inclinationmay be easy to understand given what Morgenthau called “nationalist universalism,” [how could one argue that this is a norm? — tdaxp] or elevating individual national interests to the level of universal normative prescription; it also may go some distance in explaining why many less powerful states respond with skepticism to U.S.-led calls for a new world order based on normative principles.

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