Speaker: Joshua A. Schwartz, Grand Strategy, Security, & Statecraft Fellow, International Security Program

A fierce debate in international relations concerns the impact that past actions have on a state's future reputation and ability to deter adversaries. According to Hawkish Reputation Theory, states inevitably harm their reputation for resolve by backing down and enhance it by choosing to stand firm and engage in military conflict. This logic has been used to justify consequential and extremely costly military interventions like the Vietnam War.

On the other hand, adherents of Skeptical Reputation Theory posit that a state's past actions—whether backing down or standing firm—do not matter much, if at all, for its future reputation and deterrence efficacy.

The speaker advances a new theory of reputation—Dovish Reputation Theory—which challenges both of these existing theories. In contrast to Skeptical Reputation Theory, the speaker argues that past actions do matter. Contra Hawkish Reputation Theory, he contends that fighting can actually sometimes worsen a state's reputation for resolve relative to backing down. In particular, fighting costly wars often produces war-weariness among a country's public and leaders, undermining a state's actual resolve. Foreign powers—observing these signs of war-weariness—then downgrade their assessments of the state's reputation for resolve precisely because of its decision to fight. The speaker provides evidence for this novel theory through an elite experiment conducted on members of the United Kingdom Parliament and a historical case study that leverages internal Iraqi government documents. Overall, this study indicates that the benefits of using military force and the costs of backing down are lower than the conventional wisdom suggests.

Everyone is welcome to join us online via Zoom! Please register in advance for this seminar:

For more information, email the International Security Program Assistant at susan_lynch@harvard.edu.