To Defend or Not to Defend: Understanding How States View Strong and Weak Reputations
Edelstein, David M
Why do states back down during crises despite the risk of harming their reputation for resolve? The existing literature contends that leaders believe, perhaps more than they should, that cultivating a strong reputation for resolve is vital for their states’ national security as it enhances both their credibility and ability to deter threats. Based on this logic, the existing literature stipulates that states back down when actors care less about their reputation for resolve because these strategic advantages are absent or perceived to be irrelevant. In contrast, this dissertation contends that states and leaders may still decide to acquiesce during crises because of the long-term costs of saving face and the benefits of cultivating a ‘weaker’ reputation for resolve. Specifically, I propose the theory of moderate reputation for resolve and argue that two factors, fears of reputation races and greater emphasis on the process of negotiations rather than its outcomes, cause states to prefer moderate rather than strong reputation for resolve. States and leaders that reach this conclusion will be more likely to back down during crises as a way of managing their reputation. I verify these claims through qualitative analysis of four case studies; US-China relations during the 1950s in the context of the first and second Taiwan Strait crises; South Korea’s response to the Blue House Raid in 1968; South Korea’s foreign policy during the 1980s after the Rangoon Bombing incident in 1983; and Britain’s policy of appeasement during the 1930s. This dissertation contributes to our understanding of how reputations matter in international relations by illustrating that decisions to back down can also be caused by reputational concerns, not despite it. By demonstrating how states and leaders may intentionally choose to not only defend but also concede their reputation for resolve due to the respective costs and benefits of maintaining either strong and moderate reputations, I highlight how a state’s reputation is an asset that needs to be not uniformly strengthened but rather adroitly maintained through the use of force regardless of the circumstances and their foreign policy objectives.
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