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Jack L. Goldsmith & Eric A. Posner, Moral and Legal Rhetoric in International Relations: A Rational Choice Perspective, 31 J. Legal Stud. S115 (2002).

Abstract: Critics of realist and rational choice approaches to international law argue that if nations were motivated entirely by power or self-interest, their leaders would not make moral and legal arguments because no one would believe them. Thus, the prevalence of moral and legal rhetoric on the international stage refutes the behavioral assumptions of realism and rational choice. This paper argues that even if nations are not motivated by a desire to comply with morality or law, the use of moral and legal arguments could occur in equilibrium. Signaling and cheap talk models show that nations may engage in talk in order (1) to deflect suspicion that they have unstable political systems or adversarial interests, and (2) to coordinate when gains from coordination are available. International talk is often moral and legal because the obligational vocabulary of moral and legal dispute between individuals is also useful for purely amoral strategic interactions when cooperation and coordination are involved. The existence of moral and legal rhetoric in international relations is the result of strategic incentives, not of the desire to comply with morality or law.