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If Credibility Is Fragile, Then Commitments Should Be Rare

Daniel Larison on how hawks use credibility as a bludgeon [1]:

The “credibility” argument is almost exclusively used by foreign policy hawks, and they pay no attention to negative international reactions to U.S. behavior that contradict their assumptions about “credibility.” If other states react to provocative and confrontational policies by becoming more assertive in their respective regions, hawks interpret that as proof of the other states’ inherent aggressiveness and “expansionist” tendencies.

Hawks usually don’t accept that adverse responses that directly follow U.S. actions have any connection to U.S. policies, but any development that happens to take place after the U.S. “fails” to “act” somewhere is preposterously traced back to the moment of “inaction.” Thus the U.S. is blamed for somehow “causing” unrelated events in one part of the world by choosing not to do something in an entirely different part, but it is excused from responsibility for the direct negative consequences of whatever it has actually done. That’s because the only thing that jeopardizes “credibility” in their eyes is “inaction” (i.e., not attacking or threatening to attack someone), and adverse consequences of “action” (e.g., expanding alliances, invading/bombing/occupying other countries) are ignored or spun as the result of later “weakness.”

This is all correct, but the funny thing to me is that credibility arguments should be the almost exclusive preserve of advocates of restraint. Why? Because if credibility is an important asset that allows America to achieve some objectives without deploying resources (by simply making a commitment to respond if some other actor takes some other action), then we shouldn’t squander that asset by making commitments we don’t intend – or cannot – make good on.


Consider two possibilities. In one, we live in a world where credibility matters a lot. Actors in the international system pay close attention to what other actors say as well as what they do. When the two line up closely – an actor who does what he says, and only what he says – that actor’s words carry great weight. They are credible. When they don’t – an actor who mouths off a lot but doesn’t actually do much – not only do that actor’s words carry little weight, but other actors presume that the actor’s behavior indicates essential weakness, and are willing to escalate challenges to find whether there is any point where that actor will act.

This is not an impossible world. In fact, it’s probably what the world would look like if most actors had generally low confidence in their ability to assess each other’s true interests and capabilities. In the absence of objective information of that sort, that assessment would, perforce, be deduced largely from behavior. Consequently, bluffing would play a very important role in the international system.

A very important role – but also a very risky role. Because if this is the way the world works, then credibility is fragile. Bluffing, and having one’s bluff being called, can be devastating to one’s position, and invite all kinds of mischief. In this world, where credibility matters greatly, it is therefore vital not to bluff recklessly – that is to say: not to blithely make commitments that one intends not to honor. If credibility is very important, then we should be relatively commitment-averse, the better to be able to back up all our commitments with resolution and maintain our precious credibility.

Now: consider an alternative world, where actors have higher confidence in their abilities to “read” each other – to know what each actor’s objective interests and capabilities are. In this world, credibility is much less important. Actors in the system may bluff, but bluffs are unlikely to work very often – and for that very reason, nobody in the system cares very much when they don’t work.

But for that very reason, this is a relatively less-risky world for adventuresome hawks. They can make unwise commitments or threats without worrying terribly much about the negative consequences – at least if they aren’t likely to personally be in harm’s way. What determines outcomes is not bluff, primarily, but the objective correlation of forces. Since the outcome of any contest is to some degree uncertain, those with more appetite for combat may roll the dice when the odds look good enough. And they can change their minds if they decide it’s not worth backing up a bluff that is called, without fearing that this will invite catastrophe.

Now, obviously, we live in a world somewhere between these two poles. Most actors in the international system have some degree of confidence in the objective capabilities and interests of most other actors – but far from perfect confidence in any case, and in some cases (North Korea, for example, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Iraq War) very poor. Some actors go out of their way to make their capabilities clear, so as to make deterrence more effective; others go out of their way to hide the true extent of their capabilities (which usually is a sign of weakness, not strength). America has generally followed the path of projecting objective strength – because we have it.

That’s why I say that credibility arguments should really belong to the advocates of restraint. They should be arguments against extending commitments beyond the bounds of our manifest objective capabilities and interests. So why are they deployed so routinely on the other side, as arguments for making (and then backing up) such commitments?

Well, the United States’s position in the international system is unique, because our power vastly exceeds that of any other actor. For that very reason, we have a much higher degree of discretion in how that power is deployed. While our resources are not infinite by any means, they so far exceed any other actor’s that we can exceed the plain bounds of interest in terms of our commitments for quite some time before paying a significant price in terms of diminishment of power.

So how can another actor determine whether we are going to be more restrained or more expansive in our actions? How can they determine whether we will voluntarily limit ourselves to deploying power only where it makes sense in terms of rational national self-interest? How are they to interpret declarations on America’s part that there are effectively no limits to our interests? Are they to take these sorts of claims seriously?

By any objective measure, the United States has no compelling national interest at stake in who governs Afghanistan, in who controls eastern Ukraine, or any number of other matters in which we are engaged. But we are engaged.

The “retreat” that hawks fear is a retreat to more-readily discernible lines related to the national interest. They want other actors to believe that we will continue to act well beyond that line. Which really does require repeated demonstration, across multiple theaters of conflict, because it cannot be “read” from our objective interests and capabilities.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "If Credibility Is Fragile, Then Commitments Should Be Rare"

#1 Comment By cfountain72 On January 7, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

(Cross posted from identical comments made under Larison’s post…)

The ultimate irony is that the actions taken and supported by these same hawks actually undermine the same ‘credibility’ they claim to covet. As an example, can anyone seriously claim that we have more ‘credibility’ in 2015 as a country (militarily or diplomatically) now than we did in 2000? Or in 1990?

We have spent many years doing the exact sort of expensive, adventurous interventionism that McCain, or Graham, or Kristol, or Krauthammer, or Hillary have supported, often using the ‘credibility’ argument as a crutch. And lo these many years later, we have been unmasked as a hellfire-equipped Apache helicopter-in-a-china shop, without any claim to true moral or strategic superiority. Credibility, which may have once been supported through substantive examples of respect for liberty, sovereignty, self-determination, and restraint, have been replaced with little more than our current might-makes-right, ‘do as I say, not as I do’, nation-building, imperial fiction of what neocons label ‘credibility’.

…or “Millman, what you said.”

Peace be with you.

#2 Comment By Jonathan On January 7, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

By any objective measure, the United States has no compelling national interest at stake in who governs Afghanistan, . . .”

Unfortunately there is a compelling national interest here just as there was one when the Soviet Union tried to control Afghanistan. That is the existence of rare earth minerals in Helmand province. Rare Earth minerals are not only required for our automobile’s catalytic converters. They are vital to the manufacture of integrated circuits and therefore vital to our defense.

Today, China is the world’s producer and exporter of these minerals. No country has been able to rival China in this regard. Extracting rare earth minerals from Afghanistan might tip the scale away from China. But then the problem of controlling that country remains. It appears that it is not feasible and might even be impossible to stabilize this country from the outside.

The Eastern Ukraine is crucial to U.S. Interests in this one respect: the Crimean peninsula. A militarily and economically strong Ukraine eventually makes for an even stronger European Union our major trading partner as this country joins its ranks. However, this is not an excuse for a direct confrontation with Russia even in the form of sanctions. Can we in anyway aid the Ukraine in getting back its lost territory without colliding with Putin’s Russia? I doubt that this is possible.

#3 Comment By Darth Thulhu On January 8, 2015 @ 1:02 am

I think you and Larison have both largely missed the mark as to which “credibility” really is in danger. It’s not the “credibility” to live up to boring treaties and dull legal commitments. That credibility isn’t remotely in doubt … but the actual “credibility” in peril isn’t one that can be talked about politely in public.

Succinctly: Our “credibility” to continue being an effective Evil Empire is at stake.

Our “credibility” to keep being the kind of nation that can bomb weddings en masse (on the off chance of assassinating someone we wish were dead), that can torture people who get in the way with impunity, that can establish puppet governments to secure access to resources, and that can overthrow elected governments that dare to defy our whims … that specific “credibility” actually is in danger if we don’t really step it up.

If we don’t keep bombing weddings, torturing people on the down low, cutting deals with brutal (but compliant) autocrats, and blowing up anyone who doesn’t knuckle under to our sabre rattling (no matter how democratically supported they might be), then our “credibility” to bully people into obedience and to mercilessly slaughter meaningful dissent at will will be in real danger. That will truly reduce our power to bully other people in distant lands into bowing to our minor whims.

So, clearly, we need to redouble the drone war, invade a few more uppity nations, and start openly torturing bystanders and families “terrorists” again. Our Imperial credibility really is on the line, here.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 8, 2015 @ 6:35 am

” Because if credibility is an important asset that allows . . .”

I appreciate the deeper look into your understanding of credibility.

Though credibility also rests on putting one’s words into action effectively when one acts, which would be supportive of credibility by the threat of force.

The viability of Afghanistan’s mineral rich environment or oil pipelines prospects could have been more effectively served with a smaller footprint of the US military.

But neither oil pipelines or the presence of rare earth minerals is cause for our invasions nor attempts to realign their societies. Women and their desire to export abortion, bikini wax, etc, not withstanding.

These two areas of potential international revenue would have provided better leverage for transformation of Afghanistan at every level than the muck raking we engaged in.

And perhaps, most importantly, Those minerals and other economic assets belong to the people of Afghanistan and whatever government they so choose.

#5 Comment By Jonathan On January 8, 2015 @ 7:52 am

“The viability of Afghanistan’s mineral rich environment or oil pipelines prospects could have been more effectively served with a smaller footprint of the US military.”

Not so. It takes an imperialist policy to sequester a people into submission for access to these rights. This is what motivates our foreign policy.

“But neither oil pipelines or the presence of rare earth minerals is cause for our invasions nor attempts to realign their societies.”

This is what colonization is all about. But, it has proven far too expensive to establish and maintain a viceroyship and remote control via establishing an home-grown but loyal bureaucracy is also fret with the trouble of cultivating and maintaining such loyalty.

“And perhaps, most importantly, Those minerals and other economic assets belong to the people of Afghanistan and whatever government they so choose.”

That’s exactly the point.

#6 Comment By Ted On January 9, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

Right now, the most important part of the world where our credibility matters, is in East Asia/the Western Pacific. It saddens (if, really, not astonishes) me that there is so little discussion of the threat posed by China to the peace of the region.

Because of our treaty commitments with South Korea and with Japan, there are two areas in East Asia – North Korea and the Ryukyu island chain – where there is a live possibility that U.S. forces could fall into a confrontation with Chinese forces. This is not to mention our strong implicit commitment to help defend Taiwan, or even the Philippines, in the case of Chinese aggression.

The reason why this area matters to the U.S., to at least threefold: 1) China imposes on the sovereignty of its neighbors 2)China threatens the freedom of navigation in the most important part of the world’s oceans (both commercially and strategically) – the South China Sea 3) China’s success in making itself the regional hegemon, ENTAILS the eviction of the U.S. Navy from the region (they would prefer to do this without a fight, but they are right now building the blue-water navy necessary to accomplish this by force, if necessary), and THAT in effect means the end of U.S. maritime hegemony. In time we would be pushed back to Hawaii, and the Chinese would press forward to the Malacca Strait and into the sea-lanes leading to the Middle East.

The editors of this magazine may take a sanguine attitude towards all that; they may say that none of this amounts to a casus belli for the Americans. And in terms of Cold Realpolitik, they may be right (though regional warfare would almost certainly accompany and American withdrawal to Hawaii – the PLAN is pretty much in a pre-1914 mindset).

But historically, Great Powers simply just don’t gracefully hand off their hegemonic status. These things are driven by honor, as well as pride. I fear that most Americans will be drawn into a bellicose attitude towards the Chinese (with the crucial assumption that hostilities would be confined to the waters), as they gradually come aware of China’s intent (already openly declared, for anyone paying attention) to tear up the U.S.-presided status quo of the region. Given the stakes of a prospect like this, WHY are our elite journals of opinion (like this one) not discussing it??

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 9, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

“Not so. It takes an imperialist policy to sequester a people into submission for access to these rights. This is what motivates our foreign policy.”

I am sure you mean authoritarian. But the evidence for your position is blghted by democracies, not engaged in authoritarian domestic control over the exploitation of those resources.

To suggest that one must be an imperialist, and occupier controller of another state or region is demonstrated to be false by your next contention, that which import I will soften a bit. That access to these minerals is best obtained via a friendly government willing to provide them at a favorable expense.

Colonial and imperial use of control are in my mind the same though the tactics are different. And I would however agree that colonial or imperial acquisitioning has proved problematic in modern foreign policy, except among the weakest (smallest) of nation states.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 9, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

I think the point I am making in my last comment is about our ability to exercise restraint, over states not powerful enough to withstand our will.

Caveat: Should we decide to use force save in instances of humanitarian aide, such use should be complete and uncompromising to the purpose.

#9 Comment By don On January 10, 2015 @ 6:05 am

this article was already taxing my patience with convoluted syntax even though I “get” what author tries to say. But when I got to “perforce” I went straight here to Comments. Uncle! Enough! you win

#10 Comment By Jonathan On January 12, 2015 @ 6:16 pm

“I am sure you mean authoritarian.”

Well, no. I mean imperialist. And imperialism is not incompatible with democracy such as England before WWII and Teddy Roosevelt’s America.

Afghanistan is a case in point concerning remote control — submission of an entire population from afar using local delegates to manage them — a satrapy if you will not unlike India under the British.

“That access to these minerals is best obtained via a friendly government willing to provide them at a favorable expense.”

Not so. There is the case for control of and for the pursuit of cheap natural resources. And how does one maintain a friendly government and how to persuade it to willingly give up its resources at reduced prices?

Of course we both agree that what is important is granting the right of national self-determination and not this selfish pursuit for natural resources. Now, what does it take to persuade our elected officials that it is in our best interests as a sovereign nation to let other countries be without meddling in their internal affairs.

#11 Comment By Jonathan On January 12, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

“Caveat: Should we decide to use force save in instances of humanitarian aide, such use should be complete and uncompromising to the purpose.”

Agreed, it should not be used as a cover for another war-making agenda. And then the question becomes: how many boots on the ground? Or, at what expense to our youth who volunteer for this mission and to our economy as a whole do we mind someone else’s back?