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There is substantially more trade within national borders than across borders. An important explanation for this fact is the weak enforcement of international contracts. We develop a model in which agents build reputations to overcome this institutional failure. The model describes the interplay between institutional quality, reputations and the dynamics of international trade. It also rationalizes several empirical regularities. We find that history matters for trade volumes, but that its effects vary with the institutional setting of the country. The same is true for the efticacy of trade liberalization programs. Moreover, while stricter enforcement of contracts enhances trade in the short run, it makes it harder for individual traders to develop good reputations. We show that this indirect negative effect may produce an 'institutional trap': for sufliciently low initial levels of contract enforcement, a small tightening in enforcement reduces future trade fiows. We find also that search frictions aggravate the problems created by weak enforceability of contracts, even if they impose no direct cost on agents. The model allows extensions in several directions. We outline two of them, indicating how one could study transnational networks and the effects of firm heterogeneity within our structure.