American 'Credibility': An Overrated Concept

A state’s willingness to back down does not necessarily signal weakness—or that the world will collapse

In the new issue of The Economist, the editors raise a provocative question: “What Will America Fight For?” They note, “Credibility is also easily lost and hard to rebuild.” The article argues that Obama broke what it calls “the cardinal rule of superpower deterrence: you must keep your word.” The West has been “weakened” by the President’s failure to make good on his “red line” with Syria and for not standing up to Putin’s Russia. This has not only encouraged our enemies but also unnerved our friends, starting with the Baltic members of NATO. The only problem is that none of this is true. Credibility is a highly overrated commodity in international politics, for three reasons: states’ past actions rarely make a difference in current crises; dominoes do not fall; and domestic political audiences are less likely to punish a President—or any democratic leader—for backing down in a crisis when standing firm is counterproductive.

Reputations are irrelevant

Since 1938 we have been haunted by the “Lessons of Munich”: unless we stand up to aggressors now, we will have to deal with further belligerence later. Although there’s been an extensive debate over “rational appeasement”, it’s important to remember two things. Yes, in 1939 Hitler did remark, “Our enemies are worms. I saw them in Munich.” However, as pointed out by Daryl Press, much of Hitler and the German military’s reasoning were driven by their assessments of the military balance of power rather than Anglo-French decision-making during the crises of the interwar period. During the run-up to the Anschluss, for instance, decision makers in the Third Reich were unconcerned with the British and French failures to act when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland. Similarly, during the Munich Crisis itself, Hitler again did not seem concerned with French and British behavior during the Anschluss. Similarly, Soviet leaders did not infer anything about the U.S.’ willingness to defend Western Europe based upon their actions in places like Vietnam.

Democratic leaders think the same way. For instance, Nikita Khrushchev backed down repeatedly over Berlin. However, in each subsequent crisis (such as in Cuba in 1962), his threats were still taken seriously because he had something at stake. His reputation for bluffing did not interfere with how seriously his threats were taken.

A state’s willingness to back down does not necessarily signal weakness to its enemies. Decision makers who have an enemy image of another state may attribute the decision to back down to situational characteristics rather than lack of resolve or spinelessness. They do not conclude that a state that backs down today will be an easy target tomorrow.

Dominoes do not fall

Starting with the work of Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, during and after the Cold War many decision makers came to believe that a failure to stand up to aggression anywhere would provoke aggression everywhere. Proponents of this point of view came to believe that weaker states tended to bandwagon, or ally with the source of threats to their security, instead of balance.

Again, there is little evidence that this happens in the real world. Iran was a target of Soviet aggression for years because of its oil wealth and unique geographic position. Before becoming a client of the West, Iran balanced against the Soviets all on it’s own. Under the Nixon Doctrine the U.S. forced states like South Korea and Japan to take up a greater share of the burden for their own defense. Instead of allying with the Soviet Union or China, the two drew closer to one another even though they were not formally allied.

Audience costs do not exist

Many have argued that democratic leaders have a unique advantage in world politics because of their ability to generate audience costs, or domestic political punishments for publicly backing down in a crisis. This suggests that domestic audiences place a premium on their state’s reputation for honesty. The empirical record does not bear this out.

A survey experiment carried out by Matthew Levendusky and Michael Horowitz showed that backing down could benefit a president politically. However, case studies also show that domestic audiences simply do not place that high a premium on credibility. Instead, they care about the prudence of the policy itself.