Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Politics of “Credibility”

The obsession with reputation may be driven primarily by a concern to shore up a leader's domestic position.

Daryl Press identified a curious phenomenon in Calculating Credibility:

The same leaders who do not use past actions to calculate their enemy’s credibility assume that their own past actions will be used by the enemy to assess their credibility. In other words, leaders invest in their own credibility by taking care to keep their own commitments, but they do not pay attention to whether their adversaries are keeping or breaking commitments. (p.158)

There are some other possible explanations for why leaders would be obsessed with trying to preserve their own “credibility” while dismissing others’ past behavior when assessing theirs. One is that political leaders will assume that the leaders of an opposing government are inherently more aggressive and irrational than they are. If a leader believes this, he will be inclined to assume that any sign of wavering anywhere supposedly invites aggression all over the world. Here in the U.S., credibility-mongers are always reciting the line “weakness is provocative” with cult-like devotion. They take it for granted that other states and groups are ready and willing to take aggressive actions at the expense of the U.S. or our allies if they perceive a lack of American resolve, and so “credibility” has to be maintained virtually everywhere by backing up commitments that the U.S. has supposedly made in places where the U.S. has little or nothing at stake. Further, because hawks consistently inflate foreign threats and overstate the dangers of “inaction,” the imagined consequences of not maintaining “credibility” are similarly exaggerated. Our leaders worry too much about their credibility partly because they are too credulous about the extent of current and future foreign threats.

Another possible explanation is that leaders feel pressured to obsess over “credibility” out of fear of being attacked by hard-line domestic opponents. Hard-liners are already inclined to advocate more aggressive policies no matter what the behavior of other states might be, but it can give a boost to the hard-liners’ argument to warn against the disaster that might befall the country or its allies if their recommendations are not followed. It can also aid the hard-liners’ criticisms of government policy if they can make people in their own country believe that the government has squandered supposedly precious “credibility.” That can make a particular policy appear to be a much bigger failure than it actually is. Perversely, political leaders have more of an incentive to take action–supposedly for the sake of credibility–because they fear that their domestic political standing would take an unacceptably large hit if they “failed” to act. Leaders assume that their credibility will be judged by a more demanding standard than they use to judge the credibility of others because their hawkish advisers and/or critics have conjured up terrible scenarios of what could go wrong if they “fail” to maintain their “credibility.” Whether or not they believe that these foreign scenarios are plausible, they do know that they will nonetheless be denounced by hard-liners at home for the “weakness” of their policy. In other words, the obsession with reputation may be driven primarily by a concern to shore up a leader’s domestic position and in reality has little or nothing to do with how other governments behave or how they perceive our government’s behavior.