Publication Title

Washington University Global Studies Law Review


Given the rarity of direct sanctions for violations of international law, the rationality of compliance often hinges on a vague estimation of “reputational costs.” Rationalist international law scholars currently calculate noncompliance reputational costs as the price a state pays when excluded from future treaties due to its reputation as an unreliable treaty partner. From such limited reputational costs, it might follow that international law is powerless in the high stakes arena of international security. This Article, however, proposes a new form of noncompliance reputational costs. Following World War II, states signaled restraint by binding themselves to international security institutions. But violations of security-related commitments signal a threatening lack of restraint and have historically led to strategic reputational costs: (1) adverse alliance formation, (2) rivals’ increased armament, and (3) the denial of informal cooperation. In short, noncompliance reputational costs are not always limited to foregone treaty opportunities, but also include costs incurred when states balance against the violator in reaction to what this Article terms “security threat focal points.” The reputational costs of violating international law are greater than previously estimated, strengthening the argument for rational compliance.