In this book, Judith Kelley provides an insightful and important analysis of the origins, impact, and influence of the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report. Scorecard Diplomacy makes two novel contributions to the study of human rights and international relations. It contains a systematic and in-depth investigation into the politics and impact of the TIP report, demonstrating how states throughout the international system react to the State Department’s report and how this instantiation of scorecard diplomacy can have real effects on domestic human rights behavior. At the same time, the book is a fascinating examination of the political construction of reputation and identity in international relations. As such, Kelley shows us not only how reputations can affect policy behavior, but also that these reputations can be crafted by agents of powerful states. The inability of target states to manipulate their TIP scores (other than improving their human trafficking practices, of course) generates tension for state leaders as they grapple with their reputations and identities as seen in the eyes of the U.S. Department of State and the surrounding ecosystem of nongovernmental organizations and neighboring states. I will focus on these dual contributions in turn.
Kelley defines scorecard diplomacy as the “embedding of recurring monitoring and comparative grading of countries in traditional diplomacy” (p. 12). In essence, this is a political construction designed to reflect another state’s performance along a policy dimension. The goal is to use a rubric to highlight and compare human rights violations within the context of the expectations and ambitions of the international community. The State Department’s TIP Report constitutes one such form of scorecard diplomacy, generating annual grades for states with human trafficking records. The process complements traditional diplomacy, and the author demonstrates convincingly that target states care a lot about the scores they receive. Moreover, it is not just states that are paying attention. She finds that human rights NGOs, particularly those working on the problem of human trafficking, are highly attuned to the TIP Report and its grades. NGOs credit the TIP scores as essential to shining a light on these human rights abuses.
Kelley does an excellent job of connecting the dots between state and nonstate actors as they influence and are influenced by these TIP Reports. Here, her book complements the research by Amanda M. Murdie and David R. Davis (“Shaming and Blaming: Using Events Data to Assess the Impact of Human Rights INGOs, International Studies Quarterly, 56(1), 2012), and Byungwon Woo and Amanda Murdie (“International Organizations and Naming and Shaming: Does the International Monetary Fund Care about the Human Rights Reputation of Its Client?” Political Studies, 65(4), 2017) that links NGO naming and shaming practices to human rights improvements. In Woo and Murdie, for example, the authors show that it is the naming and shaming practices of human rights organizations (HROs) that can affect the likelihood of International Monetary Fund program participation. From Kelley’s perspective, these NGOs may take their cues from scores such as the TIP Report to identify where powerful states, institutions, and donors are willing to support their efforts to improve human rights.
As I read about how closely NGOs pay attention to the TIP Report and shape their efforts around it, I wondered if these organizations are able to lean on the legitimacy and power of the report as they continuously try to convince donors that they are a worthy investment (see Stephen E. Gent et al., “The Reputation Trap of NGO Accountability,” International Theory, 7(3), 2015). I also wondered if NGOs that worry about their own reputations may find it difficult to go against the findings of the powerful Department of State (see, for example, Sarah S. Stroup and Wendy H. Wong’s 2017 The Authority Trap: Strategic Choices of International NGOs.)
One of the key implications of the book is that states perceive their TIP scores in comparison to a peer group. Kelley repeatedly provides evidence showing that state leaders are keen to place their own ratings within the context of their peers and are particularly upset when they receive scores that are worse than those in their peer group. This suggests that scholars may be misspecifying our models examining human rights responsiveness with monadic or dyadic research designs. If peer reputations matter, then we cannot fully explain or predict the impact of reputations on decision making without placing information into this peer context. For example, if the concern is the effect of a bad TIP score on foreign direct investment, the poor grade may only be a problem if the alternative investment targets have better TIP scores.
Do these TIP Reports systematically reduce human trafficking? More broadly, does scorecard diplomacy work? Here, the answer is a bit more elusive, and while Kelley provides illustrations of how and when scorecard diplomacy leads to institutional improvements in the form of the criminalization of human trafficking, evidence of outcome improvements is a bit shakier. To be sure, the empirical question is complex due to the selection process of TIP grades and the strategic importance of peer contextualization of this information. The author does find that criminalization is positively associated with the TIP process, and she connects criminalization with actual human trafficking improvements on the ground. Detecting this sort of direct effect with observational data at this level of analysis is always a challenge. She also finds an indirect effect in the way that TIP grades and scorecard diplomacy condition the energy and resources of NGOs, which in turn are able to directly invest in improving human rights outcomes for citizens.
Shifting now to the second major contribution of the book, Kelley has also managed to shed new light on the political construction of reputation and identity formation as an exercise of power. Her research uncovers an amazing instantiation of reputation in action. In an area of research where the central concept is often highly elusive and difficult to observe, she has found a way to put it directly under the microscope. As such, even though she embraces Jonathan Mercer’s (Reputation and International Politics, 1996) “reputation is in the eye of the beholder” framework, she provides a clear refutation of his conclusion that reputation’s impact on world politics cannot be systematically understood.
Indeed, it is this combination of the tangible impact of the TIP score and the inability of states to control this score (other than by altering domestic policy) that highlights one of the fascinating things about reputation. When a state receives a bad TIP grade from the State Department, one wonders if it is chafing as much about the failure to prevent the score as it is about the score itself and its implications for state leaders. In other words, this form of reputation is both affecting tangible policy actions and creating its own policy space.
To the extent that there are limitations of the work, for the most part they arise in the discussion of whether scorecard diplomacy “works” in the sense of systematically affecting the policy behavior of the target states. Here the results are mixed, with a focus on the mechanism of criminalization. Countries that seem to be the most sensitive to their TIP scores also appear to be the most likely to criminalize human trafficking. So there appears to be an institutional effect, but here the classic challenge of endogeneity problems makes this analysis difficult. One also wonders about the strategic motivations of the Department of State and their fluctuations across different administrations. In a way, one of the remarkable findings of the book is that TIP grades matter for target states even though the State Department appears to be focusing on states with poor records, and the dynamics of geopolitics inevitably water down the authenticity of the report.
An interesting extension would be to look more closely at behavioral measures of improvements in human rights practices. Of course, the institutional changes such as criminalization are important, but there does not seem to be much evidence that implementing these changes translates to increased arrest rates and decreased trafficking. As Kelley points out, however, evaluating the overall impact of TIP on the prevalence of human trafficking is difficult. One interesting idea for future research would be to contextualize the state response with peer ratings. Are states that are rated worse than their peers more likely to make institutional changes, and are they more likely to implement those changes at the societal level? The key here would be to open up the notion of peer groups beyond spatial dimensions. Economic peers may be the relevant comparison group when investment or trade agreements are considered, for example. Once we have the ability to gauge a state’s TIP grade within this peer context, the prediction of when scorecard diplomacy matters becomes more specific. Indeed, one might find that a state receiving the exact same score over time will suddenly become responsive (or unresponsive) solely due to changes in the scores of its peer network.
Of course, ideas such as these are only possible because of the rich contributions of the book, and there are many more extensions easily envisioned throughout the chapters. Kelley has crafted a durable and important book, and her ability to provide an accessible window into the dynamics of reputation and power in global politics is impressive. Scorecard Diplomacy will be of use to scholars seeking to understand the impact of diplomacy on human rights practices, or the link between state reputation and political behavior. It will also be useful for students preparing for careers in public service or international human rights improvement.