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“Credibility” and Clients

Fettweis makes another useful observation in his chapter on honor and credibility:

The concern with credibility actually serves to decrease U.S. power by effectively yielding control over events to its junior partners. The assurance that the United States will act to bolster its reputation on a consistent basis allows smaller states to exert influence over the actions of their senior partner in ways they would otherwise be incapable of doing. (p. 116)

We have seen this several times in the last few years. Allies and client states alike have used Washington’s obsession with preserving “credibility” to pressure it into doing what they want while offering various gestures of “reassurance.” If the U.S. “fails” to be as accommodating to the demands of its allies and clients as hawks would prefer, or if it pursues a policy in the service of American interests that some clients dislike, hawks will accuse the administration of neglecting and abandoning them. American hawks most obsessed with maintaining “credibility” are naturally the ones that fear that it is slipping away everywhere, and allied and client governments are only too happy to exploit this anxiety by joining the chorus of worriers. Then hawks seize on these expressions of worry from foreign officials to “prove” that U.S. “credibility” really is diminishing, when all that this proves is that allied and client governments want the U.S. to do even more things for them. Allies and clients can use Americans’ preoccupation with “credibility” to advance their preferred policies, or to undermine U.S. policies that they dislike, and to try to guilt the U.S. into taking actions that they can’t or won’t take on their own.

This creates a perverse arrangement in which U.S. allies and clients demand and receive protection from the U.S., and then threaten to pout and gripe if they don’t receive constant reassurance and additional promises. If our policymakers and pundits weren’t so fixated on preserving “credibility,” and if hawks weren’t so inclined to panic about losing it, it wouldn’t be practical for allies and clients to berate their patron so often for lack of attention and support. As it is, hawkish client governments whine that the U.S. isn’t doing enough for them, and U.S. officials more often than not hasten to placate them for fear that “credibility” will be lost if they don’t engage in this absurd ritual.

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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