Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain understandably wants to kill the shoddy “credibility” argument with fire:
I found that the real world does not operate in the way that these critics of U.S. inaction seem to think it does. It is foolish for the United States to undertake military action for the primary purpose of reinforcing its reputation. Refraining from acting when U.S. interests are not directly engaged will not diminish America’s “credibility” or its ability to wield power effectively.
Hawks like to use the “credibility” argument to agitate for military action, they use it to denounce “inaction,” and they rely on it most often when U.S. interests in a particular conflict are few or non-existent. Despite having been debunked many times, the “credibility” argument remains useful to hawks for creating the illusion that U.S. “leadership” and perhaps our entire alliance structure worldwide is at risk unless the U.S. does as they want in each instance. If hawks don’t get their way, they will assert that U.S. “credibility” has been lost. There is no proof that other states see it this way and become more aggressive as a result, but hawks ignore that and consistently frame all undesirable behavior by other states as “responses” to supposed U.S. “weakness.” Our foreign policy debates are already heavily biased in favor of “action,” and the “credibility” argument provides the excuse for taking “action.” The “credibility” argument is now mainly a rhetorical device that hawks use to create fear of what might happen if the U.S. doesn’t attack the country they want to attack, and it still has some success in frightening politicians into backing unwise and unnecessary military action. The “credibility” argument is obviously false and relies on a complete misreading of how other states perceive and react to what our government does or doesn’t do, and yet it never dies because it is a ready-made crutch for proponents of aggressive policies.
It’s still important to emphasize that the argument is dangerously wrong. Chamberlain reviewed over sixty years of U.S. threats and the actions to back them up, and reached an interesting conclusion:
When we look at the record of U.S. compellence, however, we find that the opposite is true: America’s compellent threats have been both more frequent and less effective on average since 1990 than they were during the Cold War [bold mine-DL]. The target conceded to U.S. demands in 55 percent of Cold War crises in which the United States issued a compellent threat and in only 25 percent of crises in the post-Cold War period. In other words, despite the fact that the United States has demonstrated that it always follows through on its compellent threats, these threats have become less effective over time. This is the exact opposite of what we would expect given the logic of those who argue that U.S. inaction in Ukraine emboldened Putin to intervene in Syria and that inaction in Syria will similarly embolden him to invade the Baltics.
Will the willingness to bomb a dictator today persuade the same leader to concede to American demands tomorrow? It turns out that the answer is no. When we look at cases in which the United States has attempted to coerce the same target state over time, we find that the willingness to execute past threats — even those involving the use of considerable military force — does not translate into an increased likelihood that the target will concede to the United States’ demands in subsequent crises.
The U.S. doesn’t have to resort to military action in places where it has little or nothing at stake in order to maintain its reputation, and it doesn’t have to fight unnecessary wars to shore up the credibility of its threats. As Chamberlain says, the “world simply does not operate in the way that proponents of the reputation theory argue it does,” and we should all remember that in the next debate when advocates for military action trot out this thoroughly discredited argument.