There was a recent exchange on Twitter about the importance of “credibility” that deserves some follow-up comments. This contribution from Rob Farley sums up the skeptical view fairly well. Earlier in the conversation, I had remarked that credibility was a useless thing to worry about. What I meant by this was that it is useless to be anxious about something that has no meaningful effect on how other states judge U.S. commitments and threats. In addition to being useless, however, obsessing over credibility is potentially quite harmful in that it makes us think that the U.S. must take certain actions that don’t make sense on their own merits in order to impress and/or intimidate other states so that they take U.S. commitments everywhere else seriously. For instance, China doesn’t judge the reliability of the U.S. commitment to Japan based on what Washington does or doesn’t do in Syria, or Ukraine, or Iraq, but on how seriously the U.S. takes its security commitments to Japan, how capable it is of fulfilling them, and how important Japanese security is to the U.S. Obsessing over credibility encourages people to treat vital interests and peripheral ones as if they were all of equal importance and effectively interchangeable, and that leads to numerous mistakes in analysis.
During the Syria and Ukraine debates, we saw many versions of this argument. Hawks tended to take for granted that the case for direct intervention and/or a more aggressive policy was not all that compelling to most Americans (and the case was extremely weak in both places), and so they sought to find other reasons not directly related to the countries in question that they thought would make Americans more supportive of taking a harder line. In practice, this amounts to little more than fear-mongering and a new round of silly domino theory speculation, but it can make restraint superficially appear far more dangerous and risky than it actually is. Worrying about credibility is the all-purpose fallback argument for “doing something” abroad, because all that a hawk needs to do is to create anxiety that something undesirable might happen in a place that actually matters to the U.S. in order to make Americans more receptive to an interventionist policy in a place that matters very little or not at all. “You may not think that intervention in Syria is a good idea,” this sort of argument goes, “but if we don’t follow through on our stupid threats there we might have to repel a North Korean invasion in the near future.” It’s a transparently ridiculous argument, but if repeated often enough it can start to gain traction.
Obsessing over credibility can also be harmful when it allows the U.S. to be guilted into supporting a bad policy goal favored by an ally or client for fear that the ally or client will “lose faith” in the U.S. unless Washington eagerly does what its dependent wants done. The danger is not that the ally or client will seriously entertain aligning with some other major power. The connection with the U.S. is vastly more valuable to the client government than it is to the U.S. The danger is rather that the U.S. government will trick itself into thinking that this might happen and therefore indulge the client in its pet project regardless of its wisdom or necessity or relevance to U.S. interests. We have seen something like this in the complaints from eastern European NATO allies about Ukraine over the last six or seven months: they believed it was imperative to pull Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit, and to that end they very much wanted a change in government in Ukraine, and so they were dissatisfied with any U.S. policy that didn’t pursue their parochial goals as vigorously as they preferred.
When this project backfired and resulted in a dramatic and dangerous Russian response, these same allies started demanding new commitments and deployments from the U.S. in order to be “reassured,” but this was just more of the same efforts to extract additional support above and beyond the major commitment that the U.S. had already made to them. These allies tried exploiting our political class’ obsession with credibility, and to some extent it worked in getting the U.S. to reaffirm its commitments to them and to go out of its way to “reassure” allies that the U.S. was already treaty-bound to defend. The problem here is that it is always in the allies and clients’ own interests to complain that the U.S. isn’t doing enough for them and to warn that Washington is neglecting its dependents, and no matter how much the U.S. does to satisfy them sooner or later something will happen to occasion a new round of complaining.
There are weaker and stronger expressions of the credibility obsession, but all of them suffer from the flaw that they invest Washington’s reputation with major and sometimes even decisive importance in influencing how other governments judge U.S. commitments. The reality is that it has no real importance except in the minds of some American pundits, analysts, and politicians. The more expansively one defines U.S. interests, and the more “indispensable” one believes the U.S. to be to the maintenance of “world order,” the more likely one is to use and believe the bogus credibility argument. The argument is very popular with supporters of U.S. hegemony and advocates of aggressive foreign policy measures, because it dovetails with other unexamined and unfounded assumptions that U.S. vital interests are at stake all over the world and the security of the rest of the world hinges on vigorously defending these often imaginary interests whenever they are threatened. The obsession with credibility is itself something of a confidence trick that hawks and our allies and clients play on the American public, and unfortunately far too many Americans are still willing to fall for it.