Shadow Government

Voices Carry: How Careless Campaign Bombast Can Undo Administrations

It matters not only what you do as a candidate, but also what you say.

A picture taken on June 3, 1961 shows US President John F. Kennedy (R) smiling with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev after a meeting at the US embassy in Vienna. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on June 3, 1961 shows US President John F. Kennedy (R) smiling with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev after a meeting at the US embassy in Vienna. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Presidential candidates during this election cycle have certainly not been shy about declaring their willingness to assert American power abroad. In fact, the rhetoric on the campaign trail over the past year has been down right bombastic. Donald Trump promises to aggressively employ American economic power against China and Mexico. Hillary Clinton swears she will use military force against Iran without hesitation if the state pursues nuclear weapons in the future. “So what?” you may be wondering. Is anyone really paying attention to what candidates say on the campaign trail?

Yes, they are, though political scientists have argued for years whether credibility really matters in foreign policy. There is an older body of scholarship that suggests concerns over credibility are overstated (for a sympathetic review of that literature, see here). According to this view, leaders could make idle threats and not pay a price, because in each new contest, the actors discounted heavily whatever had been done or not done, said or not said, in earlier stages.

However, more recent scholarship has debunked the “credibility does not matter” school. For instance, the dissertation one of us (Danielle Lupton) wrote shows that making unrealistic threats and promises that you may not be able or willing to keep in the future is an entirely unwise course of action. Drawing on new archival material, her evidence from the history of U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War, as well as new experimental research, demonstrates that statements create expectations of future behavior. Leaders who make assertive statements and then fail to deliver on their promises can see their reputations seriously damaged and leave their countries more vulnerable to threats from abroad.

Take, for example, the case of President John F. Kennedy. New documents from Soviet and American archives reveal that the Kremlin paid close attention to his foreign policy statements on the campaign trail and his senatorial record. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev used this intelligence to predict the new president’s commitment to defending Berlin in 1961. The problem for Kennedy was that he failed to back up strong rhetoric with decisive action.

Kennedy made highly assertive statements about his willingness to extend the umbrella of American power over Berlin during his campaign and inaugural speech. However, this rhetoric did not match his initial behavior during his first months in the Oval Office. Most notably, Kennedy failed to support U.S.-backed Cuban exiles in their bid to depose Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion. This led Khrushchev to believe that Kennedy was not serious about his commitments abroad. Khrushchev then pushed the new president hard during negotiations at the Vienna Summit in June 1961. Here, again, Kennedy was perceived as weak and intimidated. As a result, Khrushchev issued his ultimatum at the end of the summit, initiating the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

Khrushchev believed that Kennedy’s assertive statements were hollow and that the new president’s bark was much worse than his bite. Throughout these interactions, the Soviet premier presumed that Kennedy’s statements were not legitimate signals of resolve. This contradiction between JFK’s campaign rhetoric and his early behavior in office made him appear indecisive and irresolute.

Kennedy then faced increasingly difficult foreign policy challenges from the Soviets, as Khrushchev later capitalized on this perception of a weak and easily intimidated president by erecting the Berlin Wall and deploying missiles to Cuba. In short, Kennedy’s failure to back up his rhetoric with firm action put the security of the United States and its allies at risk.

The pattern of attitudes reflected in the Khrushchev-Kennedy interaction shows up in other settings as well. For instance, Lupton’s recent survey experiments, with a large subject pool, show that individuals view political leaders who make assertive statements but then back down as weaker than leaders who are initially cautious but then stand firm during crises.

Even more so, leaders who make tough statements but then fail to follow up are perceived to be as irresolute as individuals who make weak statements and also back down. This confirms that failing to follow through on aggressive rhetoric can be very damaging to leaders. This isn’t just a story about a leader’s physical actions. Instead, these findings demonstrate a clear interaction between a leader’s statements and that leader’s subsequent behavior. Together, both rhetoric and action drive perceptions of resolve.

Just as Khrushchev interpreted Kennedy’s campaign statements as a commitment to future action, these experimental surveys show that statements are widely perceived as signals of intended future behavior. Leaders who offer weak and indecisive statements certainly make themselves and their states more vulnerable in the future. Yet, failing to follow through on assertive statements with firm and decisive action also leaves political leaders in a poor bargaining position and exposes their states to challenges from abroad.

What does this mean for policymakers? First, strong statements alone will not prevent you from being tested by potential international adversaries. It is not the rhetoric itself that is critical, but the follow through that affects how you are perceived. When the United States is directly threatened, presidents and presidential candidates should certainly declare their commitment to standing firm in the face of threats.

However, even presidential candidates must choose their words wisely. While it may be tempting to make aggressive statements to fire up one’s base of support, these words can come back to haunt you in the future if you win the election and are unable to follow up on your assertive promises. Internationally, it is a much better strategy to make reasonable and achievable claims regarding America’s future foreign policy behavior.

Talk is not cheap or without cost. It matters not only what you do as a candidate, but also what you say.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Danielle L. Lupton is an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University. She holds a PhD in political science from Duke University. She is currently writing a book examining how leaders develop reputations for resolute action through their statements and behavior.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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