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

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2001


States defend norms in some cases but not in others. Understanding this variation sheds light on both U.S. foreign policy and the role of normative reasoning. We report the results of four experiments embedded in a survey of U.S. elites. The experiments identified the effects of felt normative obligation (that is, the logic of what is appropriate) and concern for U.S. economic and security interests (that is, the logic of utilitarian consequence) as well as the role played by individual perceptions. We find that perceptions of another actor's motivation, of conflicts as civil or cross-border wars, and of the democratic nature of victims affect decisions to defend a prescriptive norm. This finding means that theories of international relations that feature norms as structural concepts need to consider actor-level cognition when examining the operation of norms. Moreover, we find that when U.S. economic and security interests are at stake there is a much greater inclination to defend norms than when simply normative obligation is present. Most U.S. elites appear to treat the presence or absence of U.S. material interests as a legitimate criterion for deciding whether or not to defend an international prescriptive norm.



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