Can’t Buy Me Love? Specific and Diffuse Reciprocity in International Relations

In collaboration with: Samuel Brazys, Adrian O’Hagan, and Diana Panke

The notion that powerful states influence their weaker counterparts in international organizations through “vote buying” was first advanced over 40 years ago and has remained a dominant understanding in international relations scholarship. This article challenges this claim by distinguishing between diffuse and specific reciprocity. In the former, recipients align with donors out of strategic loyalty in the absence of their own sincere preferences, while in the latter position shifts take place in response to promises or threats regarding future aid. A game theoretic model, a quantitative analysis, and qualitative interviews are suggestive of strategic loyalty (diffuse reciprocity) being more widespread in the UNGA than tit-for-tat vote-buying (specific reciprocity). While the equalizing institutional designs of international organizations are effective in keeping power differentials from strongly impacting negotiation outcomes, our analysis shows that the dynamics of voting alignment are often driven by the agency of weaker, rather than stronger, states.