Defending International Norms: The Role of Obligation, Material Interest, and Perception in Decision Making

Richard K. Herrmann, Vaughn P. Shannon
2001 International Organization  
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more » ... nounced that Iraq's armed invasion of Kuwait was an unacceptable violation of international law and the norms of interstate relations. President George Bush declared that the Iraqi occupation "will not stand," and with more than half a million troops in the theater, gave the order to repel the Iraqi army and liberate Kuwait. At the same time, Israel's ongoing occupation of southern Lebanon drew less criticism, with many Americans labeling the violent resistance to the Israeli policy terrorism. In the latter 1990s the United States used force to defend Bosnia and Kosovo, while doing much less to stop the bloodletting in Rwanda, the extension of this ethnic conflict into Congo, or the killing in Sierra Leone and Sudan. The variation in U.S. behavior across these cases raises important questions about the factors that motivate U.S. action as well as about the role of norms in international relations. Because the behavior of the United States in any particular case can be attributed to a compound of factors, identifying the mix of material concerns and feelings of moral obligation is a highly controversial task. Critics of the United States in the developing world complain that Washington follows a "double standard" and uses moral arguments to mask more selfish economic and military goals. Americans, on the other hand, lean toward interpretations emphasizing normative duty and resist attributing behavior to material interests. For instance, when asked to identify the motives driving the U.S. decision to repel Iraq from Kuwait, the American public was inclined to explain the action in terms of We thank Philip Tetlock, who played a key role in helping to design the experiments; and Richard Timpone, who gave us valuable guidance in analyzing the data. We also thank Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza for their assistance in designing the survey instrument and Richard Ned Lebow and Steven Bernstein for reading early versions of the article. Several anonymous reviewers and the editors of 10 also provided detailed and helpful feedback on earlier versions of the article, and we thank them for their help. International Organization 55, 3, Summer 2001, pp. 621-654 ? 2001 by The IO Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 622 International Organization stopping proliferation, defending victims from atrocities, and upholding international norms rather than in terms of protecting U.S. access to oil.' 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 inhibitions operate in our time on different levels with different effectiveness."2 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.4 The sustained and widespread acceptance of these norms makes them "robust" norms that Jeffrey Legro's analysis suggests ought to have an impact.5 To explain variation in the enactment of norms we rely on three key concepts: (1) material interests, (2) felt normative obligation, and (3) perception of the situation. Like James March and Johan P. Olsen, we recognize that the logics of material consequence and normative appropriateness are not mutually exclusive and can be interconnected in several ways.6 At the same time, like March and Olsen, Stephen D. Krasner, and Finnemore and Sikkink, we also recognize that there is substantial analytical and interpretative value in identifying the different effects of these two causal systems. We contend that it is also important both (1) to identify the effect perceptions of the situation have on the generation of felt normative obligation and on the construction of material interest, and (2) to recognize that these motivational factors can influence the content of cognitive beliefs about the situation. 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 1Obligation, Interest, Perception in Decision Making 623 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.9 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.'1 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 strategy we employ relies on a survey of a large sample of U.S. elites, allowing us to distinguish between idiosyncratic peculiarities and general patterns.11 It also allows us to embed four experiments in the survey and thus take advantage of the rigor possible in experimental design while still examining the decision making of an important set of participants. Many of our participants are important decision makers; all of them are opinion leaders who shape the political environment in which government officials operate. As a collective, they represent the pool from which officials are selected and the range of opinion that government policy most likely reflects or at least accommodates. 8. This is consistent with the traditional realist argument that treats cognitive ideologies as self-serving disguises for the pursuit of self-interested material gain. Morgenthau 1973, 14, 88-91. 9. See Jepperson, Wendt, and Katzenstein 1996, 56; and Finnemore 1996, 5-6, 10. Of course, norms can be enforced by institutions and instruments of power, or even market factors and concerns about reputation. At that point, however, compliance is not a product of the logic of appropriateness but of utilitarian calculation. 10. Goertz and Diehl 1992, 645. 11. The data analyzed in this study were collected using a computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) survey conducted by the Ohio State University Survey Research Center. The survey interviewed 514 participants between June and September 1997. Participants were identified from the group of U.S. leaders compiled by Holsti and Rosenau (1984, 1993). The sample included State Department officials, business leaders, officers in the various branches of the U.S. military, religious leaders, labor union officials, and university professors who teach and conduct research in the area of international relations. A list of approximately 4,000 names was obtained from Holsti and Rosenau. A random sample of 1,502 names was drawn from this list. Phone numbers were obtained for these individuals by matching names and addresses to information contained in a national phone and address database. From this list, an activated sampling pool of 1,097 cases was created. Letters were sent to these potential interviewees outlining the details of the survey, encouraging their participation, and informing them that they would be contacted. The survey had an overall response rate of 59.4 percent. When potential respondents were reached in person (that is, not through a spouse or secretary), the response rate was 74.1 percent.
doi:10.1162/00208180152507579 fatcat:vbbpbg3vkvgxninnbtqexlhpru