Honor, Symbols, and War

Barry O'Neill
A lively and profound analysis of the role of symbols in international relations


Nelson Mandela's presidential inauguration invitation to his former jailer; the construction and destruction of the Berlin Wall; the Gulf War's yellow ribbons. While the symbolic nuances of words and actions such as these are regular concerns for foreign policy practitioners, the subject has never been emphasized in international relations theory. That will change with the publication of this exceptionally original work.

Many practitioners see symbolism as peripheral compared to resources, interests, military power, and alliances. Those who theorize about norms, ideas, and institutions tend to be open to the importance of symbolism, but they have not drawn out its details. Barry O'Neill's Honor, Symbols, and War puts symbolism at the center of the discussion. O'Neill uses the mathematical theory of games to study a network of concepts important in international negotiation and conflict resolution: symbolism, honor, face, prestige, insults, and apologies. His analysis clarifies the symbolic dynamics of several phenomena, including leadership, prenegotiation maneuvers, crisis tension, and arms-control agreements.

This book will be of interest to political scientists, in particular those involved with game theory and international relations. Its findings also will prove useful to students of cultural anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and political behavior.

Barry O'Neill is Associate Professor of Politics, School of Management, Yale University.

Praise / Awards

  • "O'Neill provides an analytically precise and theoretically rich examination of symbolism and its roles in international relations. . . . This book integrates aspects of realist and constructivist thought through the analytical tool of game theory. . . . This is an important and provocative book. Combining a rich set of real-world examples with rigorous game-theoretic analysis, O'Neill develops a convincing argument for taking symbolism into account when studying international relations. His work justly deserves the 54th Annual Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award for the best book published on government, politics, or international relations.
    —Scott Gates, American Political Science Review, Volume 95, No. 4
  • ". . . An analytically precise and theoretically rich examination of symbolism and its role in international relations."
    —SG, Journal of Peace Research, Volume 39, No. 1
  • "O'Neill is to be commended for writing a book that links two of the more commonly referenced, but rarely examined, concepts in international politics. . . . The wondrous mix of theory, evidence, and anecdotes ensures that this book will be required reading in the study of symbolism and war for some time to come."
    —Christopher Sprecher, Texas A&M University, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Summer 2001
  • Winner: American Political Science Association's 2000 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 360pp.
  • 30 figures, 28 matrices.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08786-0

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  • $33.95 U.S.



  • political science, international relations, Nelson Mandela, Berlin Wall, Gulf War, foreign policy, symbolism, military power, game theory, conflict resolution, cultural anthropology, sociology, social psychology