International institutions may be increasing in salience in our globalizing world, but their impact on deterrence is understudied. The current crisis in Ukraine illustrates an interesting model for considering international organizations in deterrence and reputation. It is well understood that international institutions can facilitate compromise by decreasing transaction and communication costs. However, international organizations may additionally have the ability to defuse crises by decreasing actors’ reputation costs. The situation in Ukraine presents just such a scenario. In a classic Chicken model of deterrence, disaster results when both parties “tie their hands” by throwing their proverbial steering wheels out the window. Analogously, when two states commit to a hard-line approach in a military crisis, a costly military contest may result. However, the presence of international institutions can create an additional step between both parties’ defection and immediate disaster. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is playing this role now in Ukraine.
A critical tenet of deterrence theory is that states’ actions today can come back to haunt them tomorrow. A rich political science literature debates the importance of reputation in international relations, albeit with little consensus. The importance of reputation in theoretical models of deterrence is understandable: past behavior can be a powerful predictor of future actions. While it is typical in this literature to think of reputation as an attribute of states, Sechser (2010) reframes reputation as a bargaining problem. He argues that a successful threat “requires the challenger and target to agree on a fair ‘price’ for the target’s reputation” (629). Under this framing, as long as reputation is a divisible good, it should not unduly affect crisis bargaining behavior. Sechser offers the idea of side payments to “divide” a state’s reputation costs. However, international institutions offer an alternative when such a division is difficult.
Russia’s apparent decision to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine provides an example of just such a case. When Russia challenged Ukraine by sending a convoy to the border for “humanitarian” purposes, it was acting upon its estimate of Ukraine’s resolve. Wary of Russians bearing gifts, Ukraine refused entry to the vehicles, simultaneously demonstrating Ukraine’s resolve and challenging Russia. This creates a situation in which either Russia or Ukraine must pay a reputation cost for backing down. According to Sechser’s framework, the party to back down could demand a side payment in exchange for their humiliation. However, such a side payment may be difficult to identify in practice. Fortunately, the ICRC has created a third option, allowing both parties to avoid paying high reputation costs for standing down. The ICRC, as a neutral third party, is able to allow Russia to carry out its ostensible mission without being blocked, while Ukraine gets the piece of mind of knowing that the aid is truly humanitarian. What’s more, ICRC can defuse this contest without coercion: it is in both states’ interest to comply with ICRC’s mandate.
More formal theorizing is necessary to truly understand the implications of this role of international organizations in deterrence. Will a potential decrease in reputation costs increase the rate of foreign policy crises, especially with humanitarian pretenses? If so, will the consequent international organization activity be sufficient to decrease the overall rate of war? Will states be able to resort to this method of decreasing reputation costs in all cases, or will Russia’s reputation suffer regardless of the ICRC’s involvement? The costs and benefits for international organizations in future deterrence are uncertain, but their potential role is worth more inquiry.