Argument

America Has an Unhealthy Obsession With Credibility

There’s no reason U.S. grand strategy should be so concerned with its own reputation.

U.S. President George W. Bush gives a thumbs-up sign under a Mission Accomplished sign after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq in 2003.
U.S. President George W. Bush gives a thumbs-up sign under a Mission Accomplished sign after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq in 2003.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush gives a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard an aircraft carrier off the California coast on May 1, 2003. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

As many observers have commented, the most predictable feature of any debate about U.S. foreign policy is the ritual invoking of “credibility.” Whether the issue is Ukraine, Iran, Russia, Taiwan, Afghanistan, the global war on terror, or even trade policy, sooner or later someone is going to argue that failing to implement their preferred policy will do grievous harm to the United States’ reputation for resolve.

Why is the United States so obsessed with this aspect of foreign policy? Is it an artifact of its political culture, a result of how international relations is taught in universities, or an odd quirk of America’s national history? Is it merely a handy refuge for hard-liners trying to justify actions that can’t be defended on other grounds or just a persistent mind-worm that the foreign-policy elite can’t get past? Or is it perhaps the direct consequence of U.S. grand strategy itself?

Whatever the reason, I can’t think of another great power as concerned with preserving its own credibility as the United States has been for many years. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the United States is the only country that worries about its reputation for resolve, nor am I suggesting that being perceived as credible isn’t valuable when dealing with friends and foes alike. Since World War II, however, the idea that a failure to respond to and decisively defeat any challenge would have baleful consequences for the United States has been a central theme of U.S. foreign-policy discourse. It is the key ingredient in the infamous Munich analogy—surely the most moth-eaten trope in the foreign-policy elite’s toolkit—but also central to the so-called domino theory and recurring fear that any sign of weakness would lead allies to abandon the United States and bandwagon to its foes.

As many observers have commented, the most predictable feature of any debate about U.S. foreign policy is the ritual invoking of “credibility.” Whether the issue is Ukraine, Iran, Russia, Taiwan, Afghanistan, the global war on terror, or even trade policy, sooner or later someone is going to argue that failing to implement their preferred policy will do grievous harm to the United States’ reputation for resolve.

Why is the United States so obsessed with this aspect of foreign policy? Is it an artifact of its political culture, a result of how international relations is taught in universities, or an odd quirk of America’s national history? Is it merely a handy refuge for hard-liners trying to justify actions that can’t be defended on other grounds or just a persistent mind-worm that the foreign-policy elite can’t get past? Or is it perhaps the direct consequence of U.S. grand strategy itself?

Whatever the reason, I can’t think of another great power as concerned with preserving its own credibility as the United States has been for many years. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the United States is the only country that worries about its reputation for resolve, nor am I suggesting that being perceived as credible isn’t valuable when dealing with friends and foes alike. Since World War II, however, the idea that a failure to respond to and decisively defeat any challenge would have baleful consequences for the United States has been a central theme of U.S. foreign-policy discourse. It is the key ingredient in the infamous Munich analogy—surely the most moth-eaten trope in the foreign-policy elite’s toolkit—but also central to the so-called domino theory and recurring fear that any sign of weakness would lead allies to abandon the United States and bandwagon to its foes.

In 1968, for example, then-incoming U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger insisted that the United States had to fight on in Vietnam, even though he had apparently believed the United States could not hope to win the war. Why? Because he believed U.S. credibility was all-important: In his words, “nations can gear their actions to ours only if they can count on our steadiness.”

Failing to respond when states act contrary to U.S. wishes supposedly invites further predations, which is why some observers of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to retaliate after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize Crimea in 2014, even though direct evidence of a link is lacking and Putin might well have acted no matter what Obama did. Today, former U.S. officials claim that failing to respond with force to a Russian attack on Ukraine will invite a Chinese attack on Taiwan and “set the global system back decades,” said retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis to the New York Times.

For the credibility-obsessed, in short, everything is connected to everything else, and even fairly minor events in one part of the world can have enormous repercussions thousands of miles away. Take this logic far enough and the credibility of U.S. commitments becomes the single most important source of peace and order in the world. Historian Hal Brands, U.S. diplomat Eric Edelman, and author Thomas Mahnken express this hard-line view perfectly:

“If America’s credibility is strong, then adversaries will be deterred, allies will be reassured, and relative geopolitical stability will prevail. If American credibility is weak, then adversaries will be emboldened, allies will be unnerved, and geopolitical revisionism and aggression will proliferate. Opportunistic powers will gradually become more assertive on the theory that their aggression will not be punished; the international system will veer toward greater conflict and upheaval. … [I]t is the very foundation of international peace and stability.”

This rather self-centered view of world affairs conveniently ignores those episodes where it was the United States that acted to disrupt “international peace and stability,” but never mind that for now. If the credibility of U.S. promises is the key to world peace, one wonders why the world didn’t come unglued after the United States lost in Vietnam, after North Korea got away with seizing the USS Pueblo and holding its crew prisoner for almost a year, after the Shah of Iran fell and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was captured, after the Reagan administration’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984, after the Black Hawk Down debacle in Somalia, or after former U.S. President Bill Clinton opted not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. Maybe U.S. credibility is neither as fragile nor as essential as hard-liners think.

More importantly, this view assumes that security guarantees—in particular, guarantees issued by the United States—are the main ingredient in global peace, leaving little or no role for negotiation, compromise, reassurance, or other diplomatic efforts to give potential rivals less reason to challenge the status quo. It is also worth noting that the positive effects of a successful defense of credibility never seem to last very long: No matter what the United States did the last time it was challenged, it has to respond as soon as a new problem emerges or else its newly won reputation for resolve may shatter like glass.

As you might expect, scholars have explored these issues for years without reaching a clear consensus. Credibility skeptics—such as academics Jonathan Mercer, Ted Hopf, and Daryl Press—argue that concerns about credibility are generally exaggerated, especially when would-be challengers are trying to determine if another state will fight to defend a commitment. They point out that government officials rarely base their estimates of what another state will do on the basis of how that state acted in some unrelated context in the past. Rather, they base them on whether it has interests at stake that are worth defending and the capacity to act effectively. Other scholars have challenged this conclusion, however, arguing that individual leaders acquire reputations for resolve (or weakness) that persist over time and that past behavior can influence how potential challengers gauge a defender’s level of interest in a given commitment. States with good reputations may find it easier to form alliances too. There is also the strong possibility that reputation and credibility are issue-specific: Whether a state lives up to the terms of a trade deal may tell you next to nothing about its reliability as an ally or on an issue like arms control.

The bottom line is that credibility and reputation operate in complex and contingent ways, and simple generalizations about them—such as the sort that politicians and pundits typically make—are often wrong. Credibility and reputation do matter in some circumstances, but how, why, and under what conditions remain exceedingly difficult to parse. (For a good summary of recent scholarly developments on this topic, see here.)

I won’t try to sort out this complicated set of issues here. Instead, I want to suggest that the U.S. preoccupation with credibility is, to a large extent, a function of U.S. geopolitical position and grand strategy, especially the outsized international responsibilities the United States has assumed for itself.

At the most basic level, credibility is the likelihood that a state will fulfill a promise or commitment as perceived by others. With respect to deterrence, for example, a threat to retaliate is credible if a potential challenger believes it is likely to be carried out. Even when a defending state is 100 percent willing to fulfill a particular commitment, deterrence can still fail if the challenger isn’t convinced.

Commitments are not created equal, however. Some guarantees are inherently more credible than others because it is obviously in a state’s interest to uphold them. No one questions whether great powers will defend their own soil against attack, for example, and even weak states often fight fiercely to defend their home territory against more powerful invaders. Similarly, states are more likely to fight to defend important economic interests, such as access to critical resources. For this reason, U.S. pledges to defend access to energy supplies from the Persian Gulf were inherently credible because a significant reduction in energy exports from that region might be extremely costly. One might say something similar about the importance of defending Taiwan’s chip-making industry, which much of the world now depends on. During the Cold War, the United States’ commitment to defend its allies in Europe and Asia was also highly credible, especially if it could be done without using nuclear weapons, because significant Soviet expansion in either region might have tilted the global balance of power against the United States.

By contrast, challengers are more likely to question a commitment when it is more difficult for them to see it as vital to the defender. The U.S. pledge to defend West Berlin during the Cold War was harder to demonstrate, for example, because the loss of West Berlin would not have affected the balance of power at all or had much of an impact on U.S. prosperity back home. West Berlin was an important symbol, of course, and U.S. leaders worked hard to make the pledge to defend it credible by explicitly tying it to the broader issue of Western resolve. They also kept enough troops there to make it impossible for the Warsaw Pact to seize the city without killing a lot of U.S. soldiers. A credible commitment was maintained, but it took more effort.

In short, the more tenuous the link between a particular pledge and a country’s security and prosperity, the harder it will be to convince others that the commitment is rock-solid. In these situations, defenders are in effect trying to convince others that they are willing to do something that might not be in their short-term interest—such as being willing to do something where the short-term costs exceed the benefits—to convince challengers that their word is good and other commitments should not be threatened. They aren’t necessarily bluffing, but others are more likely to suspect this might be the case.

Moreover, the greater the number of less-than-vital interests a country pledges to defend—that is, the more places it says it may fight to protect for less-than-vital stakes—the more other states will question both its willingness and ability to do all that it has promised. Trying to honor all those commitments may also be expensive, sapping both resolve and resources over time. Instead of bolstering one’s credibility, defending a lot of secondary interests for the sake of one’s future reputation may unintentionally undermine it.

A U.S. military convoy takes part in joint patrol with Turkish troops in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha along the border with Turkey.
A U.S. military convoy takes part in joint patrol with Turkish troops in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha along the border with Turkey.

A U.S. military convoy takes part in a joint patrol with Turkish troops in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha along its border with Turkey on Sept. 8, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Here’s the real kicker: The United States has a credibility problem in part because its own geopolitical position is so favorable. There are relatively few interests that are truly vital to the United States’ independence or prosperity, yet it still maintains a far-flung global presence and has made a lot of promises to protect other countries.

Start with the first point. By any measure, the United State is still the most secure great power in history. It possesses the world’s largest economy in nominal terms, there are no great-power rivals near its borders, its nuclear deterrent consists of thousands of sophisticated nuclear weapons, and it has powerful conventional military forces. No country is going to attack the U.S. homeland directly, attempt to blockade it, or directly threaten the American way of life. These features do not insulate Americans from all global dangers—including contagious viruses—but what country wouldn’t trade places with the United States if it could?

On the one hand, this favorable geopolitical position makes it possible for the United States to intervene all over the world for the simple reason that it doesn’t have to worry very much about defending its own territory. But on the other hand, this also means it has less immediate need to take on ambitious foreign-policy missions. U.S. military deployments and overseas commitments aren’t primarily about defending U.S. soil directly or protecting American lives at home. Rather, they are about trying to shape events in distant regions in ways that U.S. leaders think will spread a desirable set of values or enhance U.S. security—or both.

What this situation implies, however, is that there are few overseas commitments where it is unmistakably clear to friends, foes, and itself why the United States should fight for them. Please note: I’m not arguing for isolationism here; as I’ve written repeatedly, I think the United States has a vital interest in helping preserve favorable balances of power in key strategic areas (specifically, East Asia, Europe, and—to a lesser extent—the Persian Gulf). I am simply pointing out that potential challengers have reasons to wonder if every one of the United States’ overseas pledges is something the country would truly be willing to send its children to die for.

During the Cold War, the United States took on an array of global missions, most of them directly linked to its broad strategy of containment. But U.S. ambitions grew even larger once the Cold War was over, and Washington spent the next three decades trying to create a global liberal order under its own supposedly benevolent leadership. Today, there are dozens of places where the United States is engaged, committed, obligated, and in some way expected to act should trouble emerge but where it is hard to demonstrate that truly vital interests are at stake. In these circumstances, other states are bound to question whether the United States would really do what it has promised to do or whether it would stay the course should fulfilling the stated mission prove more difficult than expected. That is why U.S. leaders worry so much about credibility and why they look for opportunities to demonstrate resolve. They are hoping that a demonstration of firmness will convince other challengers not to try their luck, thereby making it less likely that other commitments will need to be defended.

The danger, of course, is that this powerful need to demonstrate credibility will lead U.S. leaders to fight in places that don’t matter very much in the hopes it makes it less likely that they will have to fight in places that do. But there’s another option: The United States can make its commitments and guarantees more credible to others by being more careful and discriminating when making them. A more selective, realistic, rational, and restrained approach to overseas commitments will make the ones that remain more credible because the United States’ interest in meeting them will be readily apparent to potential challengers. Carefully drawn commitments are also more likely to command more enthusiastic support from the American people, not just when answering a pollster’s question but also when they are called on to make genuine sacrifices to fulfill them.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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