Adversaries Determine Credibility

When it comes to credibility and reputation, the adversaries’ perceptions are all that matter.

Well before we have any solid information on how the deal between Russia, Syria, and the United States will play out, analysts have begun debating its implications for broader U.S. foreign policy. Our own Harry Kazianis ruminates on the potentially dire lessons that East Asian friends and foes might draw about U.S. credibility and resolve from this exercise.

The basic logic of reputational commitment runs as follows: a U.S. demonstration of resolve with respect to its “red line” declaration in Syria will enhance U.S. credibility worldwide. Because commitments are interdependent (demonstrating strength in one area helps everywhere) potential foes like China or North Korea will become less likely to “test” U.S. commitments to Pacific allies. Holding fast on chemical weapons in Syria helps to ward off future problems in East Asia. 

Accordingly, concerns over the failure or success of Obama policy have focused on whether or not the United States displayed “weakness.” As a recent RUSI report on the deal suggested, “the real problem with this deal is its impact on America's global standing.” Doug Feith, in the Wall Street Journal, argues that authoritarian regimes now have greater incentive to develop chemical weapon stockpiles.

Indeed, several reports have emerged that U.S. allies have expressed the most concern about the lack of will and credibility on the part of the Obama administration. Even if the U.S. approach to this deal does not delight North Korea and China, it might unsettle South Korea and Japan.

You can count me as among the skeptics that the Syria deal is a harbinger of impending U.S. failure. As Dan Drezner and Heather Hurlburt discussed last week, there is a growing divide between academics and policymakers on reputation and credibility. The evidence that commitments are interdependent in a way that meaningfully affects reputation is exceedingly thin. The central problem is that it is extremely difficult to send messages about resolve and determination that will be understood in the way you want them to be understood. States don’t own their reputations; friends and foes are free to draw their own (often conflicting) interpretations of events.

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To clarify this a bit, consider the interaction of resolve and capabilities, both of which are necessary to make deterrence successful. Even if the United States has the resolve to establish its credibility with respect to red lines in Syria, doing so may detract from its capability to enforce similar promises in East Asia. The Pacific Pivot is, after all, about redistributing U.S. military and diplomatic resources and effort to the Pacific Rim. While the U.S. probably has sufficient cruise missiles to manage both Syria and North Korea, if Washington is wasting time and attention trying to establish “credibility” in Syria, it may not be paying sufficient heed to events around the Pacific. Similarly, did the reluctance of Obama to move forward with strikes on his own reflect a lack of will, or concerns about his capability to act without Congressional support?

The bottom line is that we don’t actually know how Pyongyang or Beijing will interpret this deal, or how what they “learn” will matter for policy six months or six years down the road. It’s true that policymakers seem much more willing than academics to entertain the notion that reputation matters, but it’s not clear why.

It’s possible that policymakers simply have strong incentive to err with the herd; if everyone thinks in a particular way, disagreeing (even if correct) can be dangerous. But then it’s also possible that political scientists don’t yet fully understand how policymakers approach questions of reputation. But given that there’s significant doubt that messages of “resolve” actually convey what they’re supposed to convey, wise policymakers would be best advised to approach questions of “credibility” with a great deal of caution.