ARENA Working Papers
WP 02/14


Persuasion in International Institutions


Jeffrey T. Checkel


My title begs two issues.Why the focus on persuasion?And why persuasion in international institutions?Regarding persuasion, the emphasis would seem obvious given our workshops theme.Yet, other concepts could have been chosen - deliberation or arguing, most obviously.I shy away from the first because of the normative orientation of most work on deliberation in international and, especially, European affairs (Eriksen and Fossum 2001, for example).I shy from the second because of difficulties in operationalizing the term.Moreover, theorizing persuasion is one way of addressing constructivisms micro/agency problem (Adler 2002, 109-110; Fearon and Wendt 2002, 54) and it is something the importance of which has been stressed by students of international law for many years (Chayes and Chayes 1995).


O.k., but why study persuasion in international institutions?The reason is straightforward.Much of the recent work has studied persuasions causal role in networks promoted by international institutions writ large (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse, Ropp and Sikkink 1999).While excellent, these studies have largely conceived of and documented persuasion as strategic manipulation or what Riker many years ago termed heresthetics (Riker 1996, chapter 1; see also Checkel 2000b).My interest here is to explore a role for thicker forms of persuasion that may occur within institutions and international organizations (see also Johnston 2001). [1]


The analysis proceeds in four steps.I begin by saying a bit about the toolkits upon which I draw to theorize persuasion.Second, I put persuasion in context (Gourevitch, Katzenstein and Keohane 2002) by considering institutional/organizational settings, including the key roles played by size and depoliticization.Third, I contextualize persuasion further by examining the influence of audiences and noviceness.The essay closes by highlighting cutting-edge challenges for students of persuasion in international institutions.


My raw materials are drawn from two projects.A first - my own - examines the evolution and diffusion of new citizenship/membership norms in post-Cold War Europe.It consists of three cases, a European-level one that charts the development of new normative understandings, and two diffusion/country studies - Germany and Ukraine.A second - collaborative - project is entitled International Institutions and Socialization in the New Europe. It explores both micro-socialization dynamics (within EU institutions, say) and macro- or state-socialization in Eastern Europe and the former USSR (Checkel 2002).My own work accords a central role to persuasion, while the collaborative endeavor views it as just one of several different socialization mechanisms.


Theorizing Persuasion

I define persuasion as a social process of interaction that involves changing attitudes about cause and effect in the absence of overt coercion.More formally, it is an activity or process in which a communicator attempts to induce a change in the belief, attitude or behavior of another person ... through the transmission of a message in a context in which the persuadee has some degree of free choice.Here, persuasion is a process of convincing someone through argument and principled debate (Perloff 1993, 14; see also Zimbardo and Leippe 1991; Brody, Mutz and Sniderman 1996; Keohane 2001, 2, 10).


So defined, this is thick persuasion.For sure, there are different levels at which persuasion can occur (Gourevitch, Katzenstein and Keohane 2002).Indeed, there is a long tradition in rational-choice scholarship emphasizing a thin, strategic and manipulative understanding of persuasion - for example, Rikers work on heresthetics (Riker 1986, 1996).Common to these thin definitions is that persuasion does not bring about preference or attitude change.Given that manipulative understandings have received a good bit of attention in recent work (Schimmelfennig 1999, 2000, 2001; Evangelista 2001; Payne 2001), I focus on the thicker variant here.


In doing this, I draw mainly upon work in social psychology. [2] Good Lord, why?!After all, many have argued that this largely laboratory-experimental literature is a swamp, offering a host of sometimes conflicting hypotheses and conclusions (Riker 1996, 8, among others).Nonetheless, given that it does advance theoretically informed insights on persuasion, I thought it important to test these in a different way - through process tracing and qualitative case studies.For my purposes, the most important insights are that thick persuasion is likely only in certain contexts, defined by cognitive uncertainty and noviceness on the part of the persuadee, in-group status of the persuader and, more generally, in less politicized and more insulated, in-camera settings (Checkel 2001 for details; see also Johnston 2001; Gheciu 2002; and Finnemore nd, chapter 5).

An additional reason for turning to social psychology was my unhappiness with other possible alternatives for theorizing persuasion.Here, an obvious candidate is Habermas theory of communicative action.However, I remain skeptical of going this route.In part, this is a real-world response to Habermasian claims, where many who conduct field work have discovered that it is not the force of the better argument that changes minds, but the persuasive appeal of ones interlocutor (the persuader) and the open-mindedness of the persuasion target (the persuadee).The most morally compelling or logically correct argument may matter little if it is advanced by a weak debater, or is presented to an individual with deeply held and countervailing beliefs.


More important, it is not clear how one operationalizes Habermasian arguments. Habermas approach is social theory with an important normative component; it is not a substantive theory amenable to easy operationalization.Indeed, if one examines his arguments carefully, most of the causal weight falls on (unspecified) mechanisms of persuasion (Checkel 2001; see also Lynch 1999, chapter 1).More generally, Habermas provides little sense of the various social mechanisms that might help us better to understand how social systems and individuals actions mesh (Hedstroem and Swedberg 1998, 212).


Persuasion in Context I: Institutional Settings

Persuasion does not float freely (apologies to Thomas!) and, indeed, appears to be crucially hindered or facilitated by certain factors or, more formally, scope conditions. Regarding institutional contexts, my studies highlight the importance of two variables - size and degree of politicization.Consistent with insights from social psychology, one sees that thick persuasion is more likely the smaller the group size and the more depoliticized the institutional setting.


Let me give an example from the project on new European citizenship/membership norms.One concern here has been to document how these norms developed over the past decade, with a key focus on the Council of Europe (CE), an intergovernmental, pan-European, human-rights organization based in Strasbourg, France.�� When the Council seeks to develop new policy and norms in a given area, it sets up committees of experts, which are composed of representatives from CE member states as well as academic and policy specialists.In the early 1990s, two such committees were established: a Committee of Experts on National Minorities and a Committee of Experts on Nationality.If new norms were these committees outputs, then the issue for me was the process leading to such outcomes.In particular, what roles were played by bargaining and persuasion?(In this intergovernmental club of democracies, one would expect coercion to play a very small role.)


For the committee on national minorities, bargaining dynamics were dominant throughout its five-year life.There were few attempts at persuasion - of any type.Rather, committee members were content to horsetrade on the basis of fixed positions and preferences.Key in explaining this outcome was the politicization of its work at a very early stage.Events in the broader public arena (the Bosnian tragedy) and within the committee led to a quick hardening of positions. [3]



The story was quite different in the committee on nationality.Through the mid-1990s, nationality was a rather hum-drum, boring issue - especially compared with the highly emotive one of minorities.Initially, much of the committees discussions were taken up with mundane discussions of how and whether to streamline immigration procedures and regulations.In this technical and largely depoliticized atmosphere, attempts at persuasion were evident, especially in a working group of the committee.In this smaller setting, individuals freely exchanged views on the meaning of nationality in a post-national Europe.They sought to persuade and change attitudes, using the force of example, logical examples and the personal self esteem in which one persuader was held.In at least two cases, individuals did appear to rethink their views on nationality in a fundamental way, that is, they were convinced to view the issue in a new light (Checkel 2003).


That phrase appear to rethink hints at an important methodological issue: How would I recognize persuasion if it were to walk through the door?This is complicated and probably best taken up during our workshop discussions.In brief, I can say the following.


I employ multiple data streams, consisting of interviews with committee members (five rounds spread over five years), confidential meeting summaries of nearly all the committees meetings and various secondary sources - and triangulate across them.In the interviews, I ask two types of questions.A first taps into an individuals own thought processes and (possibly) changing preferences.A second is more intersubjective, asking the interviewee to classify his/her interaction context.I give them four possibilities - coercion, bargaining, persuasion/arguing, imitation - and ask for a rank ordering.Interviewees are also asked if their ranking changed over time and, if so, why.For sure, this aint rocket science, nor does it ultimately allow me to get inside heads.However, it does greatly strengthen confidence in the validity of the inferences I draw.


In sum, smallness and depoliticization promoted persuasion. [4] Put differently, persuasions causal role increased as the institutional context became thicker (Gourevitch, Katzenstein and Keohane 2002).These findings are consistent with insights drawn from social psychology.�� They are also probably not a fluke, as they are corroborated by results from two other empirical research programs that emphasize non-bargaining dynamics in apolitical, technical settings - work on epistemic communities in IR theory (Haas 1992) and on comitology in EU studies (Joerges and Neyer 1997a, b; Joerges and Everson 2000).


Persuasion in Context II: Political Environments and Agency

If the above sets the structural and institutional contexts in which persuasive appeals may play a role, the present section considers an additional environmental factor and an agency-level variable.On the former, persuasion aimed at convincing an individual to change his or her basic attitudes appears to work best in front of small, knowledgeable and private audiences.This was the case in the small working group of the committee of experts on nationality discussed above.There is also evidence of such dynamics at work in small-group settings in post-Soviet Ukraine (Checkel 2001) and post-communist East Europe (Gheciu 2002), as well as in a new in-camera monitoring procedure established by the CE to promote rights enforcement in its member states (Checkel 2000a).


These findings represent a good news, bad news situation.On the one hand, such results are consistent with what social psychologists would argue; they also provide strong corroboration for the conditions under which jawboning is likely to change minds (Chayes and Chayes 1995).The bad - or, better said, frustrating - news is that other scholars have argued the opposite: Thick persuasion is more likely in front of large, public audiences!For example, the Risse, Ropp, Sikkink project on the diffusion of international human-rights norms suggests that when politicians in public settings >talk the human rights talk, they become rhetorically entrapped and eventually internalize new normative understandings - that is, thick persuasion as I define it (Risse, Ropp, Sikkink 1999, passim).


Elsewhere, I have argued that this claim is somewhat tenuous on both empirical and theoretical grounds (Checkel 2000b).In particular, the causal mechanism leading rhetorically entrapped actors to internalize new beliefs is not clear. [5] My point here is not to say that Checkel is right and these others are wrong.Rather, we need to clarify the roots of this disagreement if research on persuasion is to advanced


At the agent level, an individuals cognitive priors - that is, his/her background and previous thinking on the subject at hand - strongly affect the role played by persuasion.A robust finding from several different research projects is that novices are much more likely to be open to thick persuasion (Johnston 2001; Gheciu 2002). [6]


For example, in Ukraine, one reason the West was able to persuade and change minds on questions of citizenship and nationality in the first part of the 1990s was the newness of the Ukrainian participants in such exchanges.Indeed, many of these individuals were truly novices, with few ingrained cognitive priors on matters of nationality and citizenship.The recruitment of these novice outsiders was a direct consequence of Soviet policies, which saw major policy decisions taken in Moscow.The USSR thus bequeathed Ukraine few qualified home grown personnel of its own.


Consider the role played by Dr. Petro Chaliy, head of the Citizenship Department in the Presidential Administration through the mid-1990s.Before assuming this position, he was a researcher at the Institute of State and Law of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences; his scholarly work examined constitutional law and local self-governance.Within the government, Chaliy therefore found himself in an unfamiliar position and uncertain environment, dealing with issues of first principle: the fundamental normative guidelines for Ukraines conception of membership.He was a likely candidate for thick persuasion (Checkel 2001). [7]


This claim about noviceness, which comes largely from work in social psychology, can be generalized.The issue is really one of embeddedness.Simply put, social actors, when entering a possible persuasive setting at the European/international/whatever level, are in no sense free agents; they arrive embedded in multiple contexts. Consider the work of my EU collaborators in the project on international institutions and socialization in post-Cold War Europe.Their starting point is that individuals are embedded in multiple international and domestic organizational settings.However, these analysts go an important step further, theorizing and documenting how particular features of domestic and Europeanization organizations can hinder or promote persuasion and preference change within the Commission, Council working groups or COREPER (Egeberg 1999, 2002; Beyers 2002; Lewis 2002; see also Hooghe 2001).The clear, consensus conclusion emerging from this work is that efforts to explain the roles of persuasion and socialization within the EU will fail unless they systematically control for prior embeddedness. [8]


The Challenges Ahead

I see four challenges and cutting-edge issues for students of persuasion in international institutions: research methodology; getting inside heads; a micro/macro problem; and questions of institutional design.


Research Methodology. There are two issues here: research design and research methodology.On the former, I have already alluded to a problem of overdetermination in some current research on persuasion.Too many of us (and I am no exception) have advanced complex, multi-causal arguments that are then tested against a small number of cases.Yet, this is the way in which much of the best question- or problem-driven research begins.After this exploratory, hypothesis-generating stage, then scholars should proceed to develop more rigorous designs and expand the N.


The good news is that we are now clearly entering the latter stage.The Risse/Mueller project, my own on institutions and socialization and, indeed, this workshop are all signs of this healthy progression.Work of this sort promises more fine-grained hypotheses on the persuasion/preference-change nexus, helping us more clearly distinguish - both theoretically and empirically - between the Bayesian-updating, strategy-adjusting agent and her complex learning, preference-changing opposite (Checkel and Moravcsik 2001; see also Fearon 1998, 52).


Regarding methodologies, other techniques are needed as a supplement to the interviews that figure prominently in much research on persuasion.Possibilities include cognitive mapping, the adoption of interview methodologies from clinical psychology, and utilizing content analysis techniques that isolate argument structures.All three would serve to reduce the reliability problems that arise from excessive reliance on what people say. [9]


Getting Inside Heads.Can we do this?And even if we can, should we bother?Let me start with the first question, where it is necessary to address and rebut two strikingly similar claims - advanced from opposite ends of the ontological spectrum.Each revolves around individual agents and their intentions, that is, the extent to which one needs to get inside peoples heads when studying the causal motors of persuasion or arguing.Choice-theoretic critics will claim such an exercise is impossible, while theorists of a more Habermasian orientation will say it is not necessary.Both are wrong.

Any response to the choice-theoretic types must begin with a clarification.The claim here is not that we must get inside heads when studying persuasion; rather, we should and can shrink the black box around the persuasive/argumentative process.Much of the research cited above is performing precisely this shrinking exercise.These scholars employ a process-tracing methodology, triangulate across multiple data streams, consider alternative explanations and, where appropriate, conduct counterfactual analysis - all aimed at understanding better the conditions under which and the mechanisms through which arguing and persuasion occur.That is, they have gone some way toward answering a key question: How would we recognize persuasion if we saw it? [10]


The claim made by students of arguing is different.They suggest that we need not care about what people really think; it is what they say that matters (Risse 2001, 2, 5, for example).I have encountered this stance on numerous occasions and do not understand it.How can we make claims that better arguments have led social actors to alter their preferences when we only look at what they say?How does such an approach control for the possibility that individuals have strategically deployed arguments in an attempt to manipulate others (Schimmelfennig 1999, 2001)?


For sure, one has Elsters notion of the civilizing force of hypocrisy (Elster 1998, 109-112), which is often invoked by these scholars.This is a claim that, even if a social agent is using arguments strategically, their public utterance - that is, publicity - can have a civilizing force on his/her more self-interested instincts.That is, what starts out as strategic behavior (a) may later lead to preference change (b).Well maybe.However, absent some theoretical explanation for how we get from (a) to (b), and, more important, empirical evidence that such a dynamic ever really occurs, this claim should be treated with skepticism. [11]


There is an even more basic problem with bracketing agent motivation and intention when studying persuasion and argumentation - and this brings me to the why bother question.We study such processes not just for their own sake.Rather, as both Habermasian scholars (Eriksen and Fossum 2000, chapter 1) and IR theorists (Risse 2000; Keohane 2001) make clear, we examine them as part of a larger concern with social order, compliance and global governance.If this is the case, then lets consider three ideal-typical ways in which order, compliance and governance come about: an agent is coerced; he/she complies out of self-interest; or he/she complies because it is the legitimate and appropriate thing to do.The causal mechanisms in these three instances are very different: force; incentives; and internalization. [12]


It seems intuitively obvious that the durability and stability of compliance and social order will vary significantly between the second and third mechanisms.With the second, which corresponds to Elsters civilizing force, compliance will be tenuous as an agent will calculate differently when the incentive structure changes.However, once internalization occurs, compliance will become more robust and enduring.


In sum, there are good theoretical and normative grounds for studying what Keohane calls rational persuasion (Keohane 2001, 2) or what I call the thick sort.It is an ideal and, like all ideal types, it does not occur that often in the world we study.(Note in my examples above the many conditions that needed to be in place before thick persuasion occurred.)Nonetheless, we do want to know whether persuasion and argumentation have convinced someone (internalization) or whether arguments are being deployed strategically (incentives), or, most likely, whether there is some complex relation between the two processes (Fearon and Wendt 2002, 62).And, theoretically-methodologically, this will require some greater attention to stuff between the earlobes.


Micro/Macro Linkages.There is no such thing as a free lunch, not even in IR theory.For sure, my micro focus and research agenda come at the expense of the macro.In particular, social and material power in the broader environment receive insufficient attention.Do persuasive outcomes ever not coincide with the interests of materially powerful states in the EU or other international institutions?In a particular small group setting, what makes an argument persuasive?Is it simply characteristics of the group and the persuadee, as suggested earlier?Or, does it have more to do with whether a persuaders arguments resonate and are thus legitimated by broader social discourses?


In answering such questions, students of persuasion will benefit from some bridge-building.For example, a new generation of classical realist work has insights to offer on the materiality of power and how it can shape individual behavior (Brooks and Wohlforth 2000), while both critical constructivists (Milliken 1999) and students of public spheres (Schlesinger and Kevin 2000; Mitzen 2002) have much to say about the broader social discourses that may legitimize (or delegitimize) arguments advanced by particular agents.


Institutional Design.There have been brief and informative discussions of institutional design issues in the literature for several years now (Keohane 2001, 8-9; Johnston 2001, 509-10, for example).Yet, we are now at a stage where more is needed.In particular, most welcome would be survey articles examining the growing empirical literature on arguing and persuasion in international institutions.Work of this sort could then productively and critically reflect on earlier proposals based more on theoretical or normative considerations.What have we learned about the roles of publicity, agenda setting, decision/voting rules and the like?How do these condition the possibilities for non-coercive change in the partially globalized world (Keohane 2001) in which we live? [13]















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[1] Such a focus coincides with renewed interest in such dynamics within the institutions of the European Union (EU).Beyers 1998; Egeberg 1999; Hooghe 2001, for example.

[2] To a lesser extent, I utilize insights from communications research, which also has a good bit to say about persuasion.

[3] On the latter, at one of its first sessions, both France and Turkey declared that they had no national minorities (!) and would countenance no change in this view.

[4] There is a problem of over-determination here to which I return in the concluding section.

[5] Elsters claim about the civilizing force of hypocrisy is also relevant here.See the concluding section for discussion.

[6] Material power asymmetries do not seem to be a relevant explanatory factor here as the finding holds for representatives from weaker states in East Europe, as well as from strong ones in Asia (China).

[7] The evidence and research methodology behind such a claim are as follows.I interviewed Chaliy, his close collaborators and his Western interlocutors.I carried out a Abefore and after comparison of Chaliys writings on the subject (citizenship/nationality).I asked the counterfactual: Absent Western intervention and attempts at normative suasion would Ukrainian policy have been any different?Finally, I compared word with deed, examining how and to what degree new beliefs translated into new policy.

[8] The validity of these insights is further bolstered by the degree to which they overlap with those drawn from other research traditions.This is particularly true of symbolic interactionism, where scholars have theorized multiple embeddedness in terms of role conflict.See Stryker 1980; Meyer and Strang 1993; and, for an important application to international institutions, Barnett 1993.

[9] Abdelal, Herrera, Johnston and Martin 2001.

[10] Johnston 2001, 491-92, is a excellent rebuttal of the choice-theoretic criticisms.

[11] Fearon 1998, 54, suggests that Avarious psychological mechanisms may be at work in getting us from (a) to (b).If this is so, then it would seem important for Habermasians to specify and operationalize these mechanisms and provide empirical documentation of their effect.

[12] Hurd 1999; Wendt 1999, 249-51.

[13] Iain Johnston is addressing such issues in his contribution to my project on international institutions and socialization in Europe.