Applying Rational Choice Theory to International Law: The Promise and the Pitfalls

Posted: 10 May 2002


Rational choice offers a promising foundation-including a coherent set of assumptions and various tools of analysis-on which to base positive theorizing regarding the creation and influence of international law. Yet the power and versatility of rational choice is at once its greatest virtue and a source of potential analytical dangers. First, while rational choice may accommodate a wide range of actors as the locus of theorizing, its use is limited when the preferences of individual actors must be aggregated to explain outcomes. Second, while rational choice has demonstrated flexibility in explaining behavior in diverse settings, existing models and theories can be stretched too thin when transferred from one empirical domain to another. Third, precisely because a rationalist explanation can be constructed (often post hoc) to explain virtually any behavior, research design and empirics are of heightened importance for rational choice practitioners. Researchers must be careful to not just present confirmatory evidence but also to construct arguments that are precise and falsifiable, and to link their arguments to testable implications. Sensitivity to these issues is required for rational choice contributions to the study of international law to become a productive research program.

Suggested Citation

Thompson, Alexander, Applying Rational Choice Theory to International Law: The Promise and the Pitfalls. Available at SSRN:

Alexander Thompson (Contact Author)

Ohio State University ( email )

Department of Political Science
2140 Derby Hall, 154 North Oval Mall
Columbus, OH 43210-1373
United States
614-292-9491 (Phone)

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