As the world closely watches the situation in Syria, I thought I would write about credibility theory in international relations. After all, the Syrian crisis is famous among right-leaning groups as the time when Obama backed down on his “red line” guarantee, thus crippling America’s global image. Indeed, many people across the political spectrum attribute Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and Xi’s South China Sea meddling to Obamas unwillingness to enforce his red line. The theoretical and empirical data is a little less clear, however. What is clear, though, is that credibility does not matter nearly as much in international relations as many people assume.
It is unsurprising that so many commentators and armchair generals believe credibility is vitally important to a country’s international standing. After all, credibility plays a big part in how we live our lives at the individual level. We all have that friend who loves to exaggerate and bend the truth, and over time we have learned to take his or her comments with a grain of salt. In other words, experience has taught us that our default assumption should be one of skepticism. To get a little more technical and abstract, humans are generally rational actors operating with incomplete and hidden information. Because it is impossible to know everything with complete certainty, actors must look to past actions to infer future trends. It is, therefore, only common sense that this dynamic exists at the international level as well. And, to be fair, it does to some degree. However, the story is a bit more nuanced than your average pundit might let on.
First, it’s important to remember that states possess far more capabilities for discerning other’s intentions than you or I. The U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars on signals intelligence, human intelligence, and collaboration with foreign intelligence. In short, states have access to lots of intelligence. They are, therefore, far less reliant on past actions to decipher other states’ intentions. While credibility and past actions do play an important role during times of peace, during times of conflict, states devote far more time and resources to study their rivals. When the risk of conflict is high and lives are at stake, past actions are no longer sufficient. States demand more nuanced, specific indicators of their enemies’ likely response. Thus, credibility largely goes out the window as states try to predict the specific strategies that their enemies will attempt to undertake.
Second, actions in one region are not very good indicators of actions in another. After all, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred right as the U.S. was escalating in Vietnam. It was very clear that the U.S. was opposed to the spread of Soviet influence, and it was willing to sacrifice thousands of American lives to prove this point. Nevertheless, the Soviets were not deterred by American fortitude in Vietnam and continued to advance into central Europe. The reason was simple: Czechoslovakia was not Vietnam. It was in a different region, the conflict implicated different countries, and the strategic situation was dissimilar. While the U.S. was willing to fight the relatively weak North Vietnamese Army, the Soviets were rightfully convinced that the Americans would be unwilling to start a shooting war in Europe over a minor country like Czechoslovakia. The Russian’s 2008 invasion of Georgia is another example. Bush was one of the most assertive presidents in American history. He invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan and pursued aggressive sanctions on North Korea and Iran. Say what you will about his policies, but there is no doubt that he had a reputation for strength. Nevertheless, the Russians went ahead and invaded Georgia in 2008, right as Bush was surging forces into Iraq. The reason the Russians were not very concerned about war with the U.S. is that they recognized that Georgia was not Iraq. It’s lack of oil meant that it possessed little strategic value, and Moscow knew that even Bush would think twice before declaring war on the Russian Federation. Sure enough, the Bush administration was relatively restrained in its response.
Third, actions meant to signal resolve often backfire. Look at Iran, for example. In 1991, the U.S. demolished Saddam’s army because he failed to comply with American and international demands. Instead of causing Iran to submit itself to American hegemony, the routing of its neighbor’s army encouraged Iran to seek nuclear weapons in an effort to mitigate America’s dominance in conventional warfare. The attacks on Libya also had perverse spillover effects beyond just creating a power vacuum in northern Africa. After all, Qaddafi gave up his nuclear aspirations to comply with Western demands. Then, only a decade later, the West betrayed him and assisted in his ousting and death. The next time Kim considers giving up his nuclear arsenal, he’ll remember what happened to his fellow strongman Qaddafi and probably hold on to his nukes. This is not to say that the First Gulf War or Operation Odyssey Dawn were poor decisions. However, it is to say that military posturing and preemptive warfare is not always the best way to signal resolve or enhance one’s credibility. More often than not, being overtly aggressive and unilateral in one’s foreign policy doesn’t lead to prestige, it leads to other states resisting and counterbalancing. To quote Conor Friedersdoorf’s excellent article in the Atlantic:
Arguments that turn on signal-sending so often adopt assumptions about the signal to be sent that are highly questionable at best, and that are, at worst, simplistic, naive, and totally lacking in rigor. Their advocates never seem to look back and notice the signals that don’t work. The Iraq invasion was predicated in part on the fact that Saddam Hussein gassed his own people, and the belief that he had chemical weapons. Yet neither the Iraq invasion nor the execution of Saddam Hussein stopped chemical weapons from being used in Syria.
And what are we to make of the argument that we must intervene because “the world is watching”? It might make sense as a hawkish talking point if most of the world decidedly favored intervention, but that is far from true. The parliament of our closest ally, along with the British people, thinks intervention is a bad idea. Neither the UN nor NATO will endorse intervention, and it’s hard to imagine that, say, Brazil or Canada or India will change its attitudes toward America in any salutary way if and only if we send cruise missiles or bombs into Syria.
The world is always watching, and parts of the world, like Israel, may be eager for America to intervene in Syria. Of course, disappointing the Israelis by failing to intervene, even though they’re watching, wouldn’t do any damage to the United States. Nor is America’s relationship with the hawkish French likely to suffer in any profound way if we stay out of Syria. Meanwhile, there are many parts of the world who are watching Obama and thinking to themselves, “Are those fool Americans so arrogant as to launch another war in the Middle East?” The Signal Hawks often invoke “the world watching” in a way that is totally disconnected from actual world opinion and perceptions of the conflict in question — as if global observers broadly share hawkish notions of credibility.
American strength is the bedrock upon which the international system rests. However, it is finite and should not be squandered on pointless signals that are often irrelevant and frequently counterproductive. The next time you hear Rubio or Clinton wax poetic about the greatness of the American military and the necessity of American intervention against every bad actor under the sun, be very skeptical. Sometimes action is necessary, but frequently it is not. War is not a game, and it is not a cheap tool to scare thugs halfway around the world. It would be tragic if American lives were lost to send a message that might never be received.