The Credibility Addiction

The United States can’t stop fighting other countries’ wars — and its allies are acting like enablers.


Does U.S. credibility matter? If so, how much? Is it more important for other states to have high confidence that the United States will fulfill its overseas commitments, even when doing so might be expensive and not necessarily in America’s best interest? Alternatively, is it better if other states have high confidence in America’s judgment, i.e., in its ability to analyze emerging international problems and devise effective responses to them?

As anyone who’s studied the history of U.S. foreign relations knows, American leaders have been obsessed with credibility ever since World War II. If other states ever doubted U.S. power or resolve, so the argument ran, communists would be emboldened, deterrence would weaken, and America’s allies would be intimidated and neutralized, leaving the United States isolated and friendless in a hostile world. This concern led American leaders to constantly reiterate their pledges to defend allies all over the world, led Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to fight on for years in Vietnam, and drove U.S. efforts to acquire some sort of “nuclear superiority” over the USSR. Even today, whenever something bad happens almost anywhere in the world, hawkish voices will immediately proclaim that America’s credibility will collapse if Uncle Sam does not do something now.

It’s not surprising that credibility looms so large in U.S. foreign-policy thinking. Because the United States is the linchpin of a vast alliance network, it has to convince lots of other countries that its promises are really believable. A lot of these countries aren’t especially powerful or strategically significant, however, so there are good reasons to wonder if it was really in America’s interest to defend them. Moreover, some of these commitments involve nuclear guarantees of one sort or another, which means they entail at least some slight risk of nuclear war. As a result, Washington has to convince allies and adversaries that it might be willing to run big risks on behalf of other countries, even when the United States is not directly threatened and the countries it has pledged to defend aren’t vital to maintaining the global balance of power or to American security more broadly.

Add to these concerns the supposed “lesson” of Munich (i.e., the idea that all dictators are the equivalent of Adolf Hitler and that appeasement never, ever works), and you have a formula for viewing even trivial issues as somehow bearing on the broader question of how the United States will respond when its vital interests really are on the line. Of course, both the U.S. military and the foreign-policy elite are quick to embrace the notion that U.S credibility was both fragile and all-important, because it provided another reason for large defense budgets and another justification for getting involved all over the world.

Unfortunately, this obsession with credibility was misplaced. For one thing, a state’s “reputation” for being tough or reliable didn’t work the way most foreign-policy elites thought it did. American leaders kept worrying that other states would question the United States’ resolve and capability if it ever abandoned an unimportant ally, or lost some minor scrap in the developing world. But as careful research by Ted Hopf, Jonathan Mercer, and Daryl Press has shown, states do not judge the credibility of commitments in one place by looking at how a country acted somewhere far away, especially when the two situations are quite different. In fact, when the United States did lose, or when it chose to cut its losses and liquidate some unpromising position, dominos barely fell and its core strategic relations remained unaffected.

In other words, how the United States responds to a challenge in Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa tells you nothing about how it would or should respond somewhere else, and other states understood this all along. When trying to figure out what the United States is going to do, other states do not start by asking what the United States did in some conflict on the other side of the world. Instead, they ask whether it is in America’s interest to act in the situation at hand. And guess what? This implies that U.S. commitments are most credible when the American interest is obvious to all. I mean, nobody really doubts that the United States would fight like a tiger to defend its own soil, right?

Exaggerated worries about U.S. credibility had a number of unfortunate consequences. They encouraged American leaders to act in places that didn’t matter, in order to convince others that it would also act in places that did. Squandering resources on marginal conflicts undermined confidence in U.S. protection, however, because it consumed resources that could have been committed elsewhere and it sometimes made a war-weary American public even less interested in far-flung foreign adventures. Ironically, misguided efforts to bolster U.S. credibility may have weakened it instead.

The credibility obsession also made it easier for U.S. allies to free-ride (something they were already inclined to do), because they could always get Uncle Sucker to take on more burdens by complaining that they had doubts about American resolve. I don’t blame them for trying this ploy, but I do blame American officials for falling for it so often. In fact, had allies been a bit less confident that the United States was going to protect them no matter what, these states might have been willing to spend more on their own defense and been more attentive to Washington’s wishes.

If the goal is retaining U.S. influence and leverage, what really matters is whether other states have confidence in America’s judgment. If they believe that the United States is good at weighing threats soberly and rationally, and if they are convinced that Washington can set clear priorities and stick to them, then U.S. allies can calibrate their actions with ours and will be more inclined to follow the U.S. lead. If allies and adversaries believe the United States understands what is going on in key regions and has a clear sense of its own interests, then they will know that the United States won’t be buffaloed into unwise actions by self-serving allied whining, or provoked into overreactions by enemies eager to drag us into another costly quagmire.

By contrast, if American leaders panic at every sign of danger and treat minor problems as mortal threats, then other states will be less inclined to trust Washington’s views on these matters and be more inclined to follow their own counsel. When Washington goes to war on the basis of cooked intelligence, worst-case assumptions, and unsurpassed hubris, then other countries will be warier the next time we try to get them to line up alongside us. If the United States keeps throwing soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars into unwinnable conflicts, confidence in our political system’s ability to make rational decisions will decline even more. If foreign powers believe U.S. policy is driven more by domestic politics than by strategic imperatives, they’ll view us with barely veiled contempt and meddle even more in our porous political system. If foreign leaders pay close attention to the bluster and balderdash that pass for strategic debate in official Washington, they’ll have reason to wonder if the self-appointed Leader of the Free World really knows what it is doing. And of course, when they see a lengthy series of costly screw-ups (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Ukraine, etc.), they will be more inclined to think for themselves than to trust Washington’s guidance.

What I’m suggesting, in short, is that successful diplomacy depends less on endlessly reaffirming our “will” or “resolve,” and more on building confidence in the analytical capacity of the American foreign-policy community and the judgment of top U.S. officials. And that’s not surprising, either. Diplomacy is mostly about persuasion; it is ultimately about convincing others to do what we want. They are more likely to accept our recommendations when we can tell a truly convincing story, i.e., one that has the merit of being true. And that means that credibility isn’t the key to a successful foreign policy, especially when it becomes a reflexive tendency to respond to any and all challenges with threats, bluster, and the use of force. If America still wants other states to follow our lead, what really matters is judgment: analyzing issues intelligently, setting clear and sensible priorities, and being willing to rethink a course of action in response to events.

New York Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez famously said that it was better to be “lucky than good.” He was probably right, but it’s even better to be lucky and smart. And both matter more than being mindlessly predictable. Or, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, a “foolish credibility is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images

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

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