An Opportunity Cost Theory of US Treaty Behavior

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats


Citation Stats


© 2015 International Studies Association.The United States often leads in the creation of treaties, but it sometimes never joins those treaties or does so only after considerable delay. This presents an interesting puzzle. Most international relations theory expects states to join treaties as long as the benefits outweigh the costs. Domestic theories modify this with the constraints of institutional veto players. Yet, sometimes neither of these arguments explains the delay or absence of US participation. We supplement these explanations with an opportunity cost theory. We argue that the advice and consent process sometimes slows or stalls because it imposes costs in terms of legislative time and political capital. These costs alter the calculus of key players and may obstruct the process. Statistical analysis supports the argument. The priority the Senate and President give to treaties depends not only on the value they assign to the treaty, but also on the value of the time needed to process the treaty. Presidents are less, not more, likely to transmit treaties to the Senate the more support they have in Congress. Furthermore, the more support the President has in Congress, the more the cost of Senate floor time matters for advice and consent.






Published Version (Please cite this version)


Publication Info

Kelley, JG, and JCW Pevehouse (2015). An Opportunity Cost Theory of US Treaty Behavior. International Studies Quarterly, 59(3). pp. 531–543. 10.1111/isqu.12185 Retrieved from

This is constructed from limited available data and may be imprecise. To cite this article, please review & use the official citation provided by the journal.



Judith Kelley

Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy

Judith Kelley is the dean of the Duke Sanford School and an expert on international relations. She researches how international actors can promote democratic and human rights reforms.

In 2012, Kelley was inducted into the Bass Society of Fellows at Duke, which recognizes faculty for excellence in both teaching and scholarship. Kelley has also been awarded the Susan E. Tifft Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring Award, and she was the 2016 inaugural recipient of the Brownell-Whetten Award for Diversity and Inclusion. Kelley is also a senior fellow with the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. In 2009-2010 she was a visiting fellow at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Kelley serves on several boards. She Chaired and still serves on the Editorial Board of International Organization, as well as other journal boardsShe also serves on the boards of the Hunt Institute, the Government Accountability Office Board of Academic Advisors, the Electoral Integrity project, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the Nicholas Institute, and on the advisory board of the 2023 United Nations Human Development Report. She has served as a consultant to the World Bank and other organizations.

Kelley's work focuses on how states, international organizations, and NGOs can promote domestic political reforms in problem states, and how international norms, laws and other governance tools influence state behavior. Her work addresses human rights and democracy, international election observation, and human trafficking. Past work has focused on the International Criminal Court, the European Union, and other international organizations. 

Her book, Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works and Why It Often Fails (Princeton 2012) was "One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013" and also received the Chadwick F. Alger Prize, which is awarded by the International Studies Association to recognize the "best book published in the previous calendar year on the subject of international organization and multilateralism." Details on her election monitoring project are on the web at Project on International Election Monitoring.

Kelley's more recent work focuses on the global fight against human trafficking. Her recent book, Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence their Reputation and Behavior (Cambridge University Press, 2017), assesses the US policy on trafficking around the world. More about the book can be found at

Relatedly, the book also examines the rising phenomenon of global ratings and rankings, a topic on which Kelley has worked extensively, editing another book, The Power of Global Performance Indicators from Cambridge University Press. This body of work also covers an assessment of the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Indicators, as well as a survey of the global emergence of indicator systems.

Kelley's work has been published by Princeton University Press, Cambridge University Press, and in journals such as American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Common Market Studies. Her work has been discussed by media outlets such as the Economist, the BBC, the Washington Post, and US News and World Report. The Smith Richardson Foundation has supported her as a Policy and Strategy Fellow, and her work has been supported extensively by the National Science Foundation.

She is the host of the Sanford Schools Policy360 podcast.

Kelley is a native of Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Unless otherwise indicated, scholarly articles published by Duke faculty members are made available here with a CC-BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial) license, as enabled by the Duke Open Access Policy. If you wish to use the materials in ways not already permitted under CC-BY-NC, please consult the copyright owner. Other materials are made available here through the author’s grant of a non-exclusive license to make their work openly accessible.