Stephen M. Walt

Why are U.S. leaders so obsessed with credibility?

What’s the biggest mistake the United States has made since the end of the Cold War? Invading Iraq? Helping screw up the Israel-Palestine peace process? Missing the warning signs for 9/11, and then overreacting to the actual level of danger that Al Qaeda really posed? Not recognizing we had a bubble economy and a corrupt ...

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

What’s the biggest mistake the United States has made since the end of the Cold War? Invading Iraq? Helping screw up the Israel-Palestine peace process? Missing the warning signs for 9/11, and then overreacting to the actual level of danger that Al Qaeda really posed? Not recognizing we had a bubble economy and a corrupt financial industry until after the 2007 meltdown?

Those are all worthy candidates, and I’m sure readers can think of others. But today I want to propose another persistent error, which lies at the heart of many of the missed opportunities or sins of commission that we made since the Berlin Wall came down. It is in essence a conceptual mistake: a failure to realize just how much the world changed when the Soviet Union collapsed, and a concomitant failure to adjust our basic approach to foreign policy appropriately.

I call this error the "credibility fetish." U.S. leaders have continued to believe that our security depends on convincing both allies and adversaries that we are steadfast, loyal, reliable, etc., and that our security guarantees are iron-clad. It is a formula that reinforces diplomatic rigidity, because it requires us to keep doing things to keep allies happy and issuing threats (or in some cases, taking actions) to convince foes that we are serious. And while it might have made some degree of sense during the Cold War, it is increasingly counterproductive today.

One could argue that credibility did matter during the Cold War. The United States did face a serious peer competitor in those days, and the Soviet Union did have impressive military capabilities. Although a direct Soviet attack on vital U.S. interests was always unlikely, one could at least imagine certain events that might have shifted the global balance of power dramatically. For example, had the Soviet Union been able to conquer Western Europe or the Persian Gulf and incorporate these assets into its larger empire, it would have had serious consequences for the United States. Accordingly, U.S. leaders worked hard to make sure that the U.S. commitment to NATO was credible, and we did similar things to bolster U.S. credibility in Asia and the Gulf.

Of course, we probably overstated the importance of "credibility" even then. Sloppy analogies like the infamous "domino theory" helped convince Americans that we had to fight in places that didn’t matter (e.g., Vietnam) in order to convince everyone that we’d also be willing to fight in places that did. We also managed to convince ourselves that credible nuclear deterrence depended on having a mythical ability to "prevail" in an all-out nuclear exchange, even though winning would have had little meaning once a few dozen missiles had been fired.

Nonetheless, in the rigid, bipolar context of the Cold War, it made sense for the United States to pay some attention to its credibility as an alliance leader and security provider. But today, the United States faces no peer competitor, and it is hard to think of any single event that would provoke a rapid and decisive shift in the global balance of power. Instead of a clear geopolitical rival, we face a group of medium powers: some of them friendly (Germany, the UK, Japan, etc.) and some of them partly antagonistic (Russia, China). Yet Russia is economically linked to our NATO allies, and China is a major U.S. trading partner and has been a major financier of U.S. debt. This not your parents’ Cold War. There are also influential regional powers such as Turkey, India, or Brazil, with whom the U.S. relationship is mixed: We agree on some issues and are at odds on others. And then there are clients who depend on U.S. protection (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Taiwan, etc.) but whose behavior often creates serious headaches for whoever is in the White House.

As distinguished diplomat Chas Freeman recently commented, "the complexity and dynamism of the new order place a premium on diplomatic agility. Stolid constancy and loyalty to pre-existing alliance relationship are not the self-evident virtues they once were. We should not be surprised that erstwhile allies put their own interest ahead of ours and act accordingly. Where it is to our long-term advantage, we should do the same."

What might this mean in practice? As I’ve noted repeatedly, it means beginning by recognizing that the United States is both very powerful and very secure, and that there’s hardly anything that could happen in the international system that would alter the global balance of power overnight. The balance is shifting, to be sure, but these adjustments will take place over the course of decades. Weaker states who would like U.S. protection need it a lot more than we need them, which means our "credibility" is more their problem than ours. Which in turn means that if other states want our help, they should be willing to do a lot to convince us to provide it.

Instead of obsessing about our own "credibility," in short, and bending over backwards to convince the Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, Afghans, Israelis, Saudis, and others that we will do whatever it takes to protect them, we ought to be asking them what they are going to do for themselves, and also for us. And instead of spending all our time trying to scare the bejeezus out of countries like Iran (which merely reinforces their interest in getting some sort of deterrent), we ought to be reminding them over and over that we have a lot to offer and are open to better relations, even if the clerical regime remains in power and maybe even if — horrors! — it retains possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle (under IAEA safeguards). If nothing else, adopting a less confrontational posture is bound to complicate their own calculations.

This is not an argument for Bush-style unilateralism, or for a retreat to Fortress America. Rather, it is a call for greater imagination and flexibility in how we deal with friends and foes alike. I’m not saying that we should strive for zero credibility, of course; I’m merely saying that we’d be better off if other states understood that our credibility was more conditional. In other words, allies need to be reminded that our help is conditional on their compliance with our interests (at least to some degree) and adversaries should also be reminded that our opposition is equally conditional on what they do. In both cases we also need to recognize that we are rarely going to get other states to do everything we want. Above all, it is a call to recognize that our geopolitical position, military power, and underlying economic strength give us the luxury of being agile in precisely the way that Freeman depicts.

Of course, some present U.S. allies would be alarmed by the course I’m suggesting, because it would affect the sweetheart deals they’ve been enjoying for years. They’ll tell us they are losing confidence in our leadership, and they’ll threaten to go neutral, or maybe even align with our adversaries. Where possible, they will enlist Americans who are sympathetic to their plight to pressure on U.S. politicians to offer new assurances. In most cases, however, such threats don’t need to be taken seriously. And we just have to patiently explain to them that we’re not necessarily abandoning them, we are merely 1) making our support more conditional on their cooperation with us on things we care about, and 2) remaining open to improving relations with other countries, including some countries that some of our current allies might have doubts about. I know: It’s a radical position: we are simply going to pursue the American national interest, instead of letting our allies around the world define it for us.

The bottom line is that the United States is in a terrific position to play realpolitik on a global scale, precisely because it needs alliance partners less than most of its partners do. And even when allies are of considerable value to us, we still have the most leverage in nearly every case. As soon as we start obsessing about our credibility, however, we hand that leverage back to our weaker partners and we constrain our ability to pursue meaningful diplomatic solutions to existing conflicts. Fetishizing credibility, in short, is one of the reasons American diplomacy has achieved relatively little since the end of the Cold War.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.