Home/Daniel Larison/Absurd Arguments About “Credibility” and the “Reset”

Absurd Arguments About “Credibility” and the “Reset”

Jonathan Tobin repeats a commonplace bit of nonsense:

Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy.

To the extent that such claims about credibility can be tested, the evidencesuggests that this is not at all true. Jonathan Mercer summed up his argument this way:

Those who argue that reputation and credibility matter are depending on strategists to be simple-minded, illogical, and blissfully unaware of recursion. And if Assad is illogical, then calibrating U.S. foreign policy to elicit particular responses from him is pointless. The same goes for other adversaries. No one can know what the North Korean leadership will make of U.S. behavior in Syria. They might think that Obama has no credibility, that he is, in fact, resolute, or that he is driven by other U.S. interests. Whatever conclusion they come to will be driven by their own beliefs and interests.

Paul Pillar comments on the same topic in a recent post:

One of the major flaws in this perspective is that much of import that happens in the world, including much that is violent or disturbing, is not the work of the United States and is not within the power of the United States to prevent. Another major flaw is that there is not nearly as much of a connection between what happens in a situation one place on the globe and how players assess credibility and motivations in a different situation someplace else [bold mine-DL]. Governments simply do not gauge the credibility of other governments that way.

Much more important than any vague global reputation are the specific interests and options involved in whatever is the situation currently at hand [bold mine-DL].

Arguments about the importance of “strength,” “resolve,” and “credibility” frequently hinge on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In this case, the argument goes, because Russia’s incursion in Ukraine came after the decision not to attack Syria, the latter must have somehow enabled the former. This takes for granted that a more aggressive Syria policy would have helped deter Russia from acting as it has, but this doesn’t even make superficial sense. Attacking Syria over strenuous Russian objections would have infuriated Moscow, and that would have made it even more likely to take the actions that it has in Ukraine. Insofar as Russia already blames the crisis in Ukraine on Western meddling, Western military intervention in Syria would have increased Russian hostility to “pro-Western” governments in its vicinity and stoked paranoia about Western intentions.

Hawks recite the mantra “weakness is provocative” with religious devotion, but over the last twenty years we know that Moscow has viewed Western shows of “strength” with great alarm. Hawks always assume that other governments act as they do because U.S. “weakness” permits or invites them to do so, but this is impossible to entangle from their general assumption that specific U.S. policies need to be more aggressive across the board. The possibility that other states perceive the U.S. as still being far too meddlesome and intrusive doesn’t occur to them because they are preoccupied with complaining about so-called “retreat.” Despite the fact that Russian action in Ukraine came in direct response to an “advance” by “pro-Western” forces, hawks discount that and look back to the Syrian episode because they think this validates the “retreat” argument. In so doing, they ignore what really seems to be motivating the Kremlin’s decision-making and substitute their own explanation.

On a related note, there have been a number of lazy assertions that the so-called “reset” is somehow at fault in what has been happening. When the “reset” was still going on, it had some modest but real successes, but once the original agenda was exhausted there was very little incentive or political will on either side to keep it going. Judged on its own terms as a means of repairing U.S.-Russian relations from its previous nadir in 2008, the “reset” did what it was supposed to do, but it could not magically change how Russia perceived its interests in the “near abroad” nor could it alter the way that the Kremlin behaved inside Russia. The Libyan war and the way it was conducted certainly soured Russia on further cooperation, especially because of how Russia was persuaded to permit U.N. authorization, and by 2012 the “reset” was essentially over. In its wake, U.S.-Russian relations resumed their dreary course as the U.S. was pursuing a number of goals in Syria and elsewhere that Russia flatly rejected. The U.S. also passed the Magnitsky Act, which the Kremlin saw as poisoning the relationship, and the Snowden affair did quite a bit of damage as well. Then there was the Ukraine crisis itself. Once again, hawks in the West faulted Obama for being insufficiently supportive of the protesters, but as Moscow saw it U.S. and EU involvement was still quite excessive and menacing. Western hawks think Obama has not been “strong” enough on Ukraine, but as far as the Kremlin is concerned both Washington and Brussels have been only too “strong.” The notion that Russia would be behaving noticeably better if not for the “reset” is a fantasy that requires us to ignore everything we’ve seen in U.S.-Russian relations over the last twenty years.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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