Reputational Rhetoric: When does it work?

11 February 2010, 1330 EST

Over at, Stephen Walt provides a review of an interesting new book:

[M]y colleague Matthew Baum and his co-author, Tim Groeling of UCLA, have recently published an excellent book entitled War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views on War (Princeton University Press). Drawing on a wide array of empirical evidence (including opinion surveys, media content, and foreign policy decisions), they argue that the interaction between elites, media, and public opinion is a three-way process in which each group’s behavior is essentially strategic. Politicians try to use media to advance their aims; the media picks stories in order to maximize audience (or in some cases, to advance an ideological agenda), and therefore tend to favor stories that are novel or surprising (like when a prominent senator criticizes a president from his own party). Similarly, the public does not just consume the news passively; readers and viewers use various cues to gauge the credibility of different sources.

I have not read the book yet, but it certainly sounds interesting. I do wonder to what extent it may shed light on an idea I kicked around for my dissertation: the effectiveness of reputational rhetoric.

Reputational rhetoric can be defined as the strategic deployment by state leaders of rhetoric that implies a threat to the state’s reputation for resolve if a) the state backs down from a challenge or threat, or b) a state alters course in an existing conflict. The purpose of this rhetoric is to manufacture or maintain public opinion that is favorable to the leader’s preferred foreign policy. There has been quite a bit written in the literature about reputation and whether it matters, but mostly from the perspective of whether adversaries take a state’s reputation for resolve into account when determining how to react to threats or whether to challenge the status quo. What seemed to me to be missing in the literature is an examination of the extent to which the deployment of such logic and arguments by leaders is effective at swaying public opinion.

Leaders across time and space have often deployed reputational rhetoric in an attempt to rally the public. It wouldn’t take us long to find examples uttered by US Presidents from Eisenhower to Johnson to Reagan to Clinton to Bush. Sometimes this rhetoric is met with skepticism and disdain from the public, other times it is embraced–often during the same conflict. Furthermore, the use of this rhetoric is not bound by party or era. Understanding when such rhetoric is successful would seem to me rather important from an academic, policy, and political perspective.

So what might explain the success or failure of such rhetoric? I have a few notions (these have by no means been rigorously developed, just initial thoughts):

  1. Media: it may be that the degree to which the media is unified in its characterization of a conflict will help determine whether reputational rhetoric succeeds or fails.
  2. Filters: rather than looking at the media as a whole, it may be that the public relies on certain outlets or individuals as filters for the various opinions that exist around a policy. If those filters begin to adopt the same reputational rhetoric as state leaders it could sway the public.
  3. “Never Again”: reputational rhetoric may be more effective following a defeat or attack, as the impulse to regain a reputation for resolve and deter further attacks may be strong. Think about a gambler who loses a number of hands in a row and, rather than cut his losses, continues to place bets to recover what was his previously. Framing of the conflict as avoiding a potential loss or regaining that which was previously held may trigger greater support (prospect theory may tell us something about why, psychologically, this would be the case).
  4. Stage of a conflict: it may also be that reputational rhetoric works best during the early stages of a conflict when it appears there is much to lose unless action is taken and where victory seems probable. However, as the conflict drags on and victory seems less likely, the public may become more focused on preventing further losses (in terms of blood, treasure, and possibly even the state’s reputation for capabilities–i.e., the state can actually achieve military victory vs the state is simply willing to use force).

As I said, these are off the cuff thoughts. I would be curious what others have to say. Obviously, Patrick could comment on the potential power of reputational rhetoric as a rhetorical commonplace, particularly in the United States. Additionally, Jon has published on the interplay of political leaders, citizens, and the media when it comes to making the case for war.