A series of events in recent weeks has created a widespread narrative that the U.S. is an unreliable ally and a weak partner.
First, the U.S. government shutdown forced President Barack Obama to cancel his trip to a couple of Asia summits. Then, new Edward Snowden leaks revealed that the National Security Agency has been spying on up to 35 world leaders, including top U.S. allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both events take place against a backdrop of concerns about U.S. credibility from top Middle East allies, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both countries are fearful that Washington will cut a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and have taken exception to the Obama administration backing down on its various threats against the Assad regime in Syria.
Taken together, the general sentiment was summarized succinctly by former Vice President Dick Cheney, when he observed that “our friends no longer count on us, no longer trust us and our adversaries don’t fear us.”
Current circumstances provide a good test case into how nations calculate other countries’ credibility in general, and how the U.S. maintains and loses credibility with its allies in particular.
U.S. foreign policy has often been formulated on the belief that nations will calculate U.S. credibility based almost entirely on its past actions. Indeed, huge strategic blunders like Vietnam were predicated on the arguments that the U.S. couldn’t withdraw from the fiasco without greatly concerning its other allies around the world.
America’s current credibility crisis does not support this notion of credibility. Indeed, America’s post-WWII record of supporting allies in these regions is remarkable.
In the Middle East, the U.S. has unflinchingly backed Israel since at least the late 1960s. Notably, when Israel faced an existential threat during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the U.S. quickly organized an arms resupply to Tel Aviv that helped empower the Israeli Defense Forces to defeat their adversaries. It also immediately approved credits to ensure Israel could pay for the weapons. It did so despite knowing full well that the Gulf States were likely to retaliate with their oil reserves.
Despite the immense costs it paid for supporting Israel in 1973, America’s commitment to allies in the region has endured. Indeed, less than two decades later when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and seemed poise to continue on to Riyadh, the U.S. organized a rapid response in the form of Desert Shield. It later ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and restored the royal family there.
U.S. support for Western Europe in general, and Germany in particular, has been equally remarkable. Following WWII, the U.S. quickly went to work helping to repair the continent’s ravished economies. It also organized NATO to protect Western Europe from the seemingly imminent Soviet military threat. Although it has continuously prevailed on Europe to shoulder a larger burden in providing for its self-defense, its pleas have been rebuffed each and every time. The U.S. nonetheless continues to underwrite the continent’s security nearly a quarter century after the Soviet threat disappeared.
The U.S. has expended considerable resources on Germany in particular. The Berlin Crises of the early Cold War were among the closest the U.S. and the Soviet Union ever came to war during their decades-long rivalry. After the Warsaw Pact collapsed, the U.S. played an integral role in helping West Germany smoothly absorb East Germany.
The U.S. has an equally strong record in Asia, particularly when it comes to protecting countries that face a threat from China or its allies. Despite declaring South Korea outside of America’s security umbrella shortly before North Korea’s invasion, Washington led a UN-effort to repel Pyongyang’s attack on South Korea and restore the latter’s sovereignty. Similarly, despite long ago reaching a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. has continued to protect Taiwan’s territorial integrity. It has done so at great cost to its relationship with Beijing, including almost coming to blows with China in the mid 1990s.
Thus, the current impression in Asia, Europe and the Middle East that the U.S. is not a reliable ally cannot be based on a historical assessment of its reliability.
Another theory on how nations calculate credibility comes from Daryl Press. In his book, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats, Press argues that states calculate the credibility of military threats made against them based on how much the other state has at stake in the dispute, as well as its capabilities to make good on its threat. If the state making the threat has a lot at stake in a dispute, and it has the necessary military capabilities to carry out the threat it has made, then the target state will view the threat as credible. If it doesn’t have much at stake in the crisis and/or if it lacks the ability to carry out its threat at an acceptable cost, then the threat will not be seen as credible.
Press’ theory better explains America’s current credibility crisis, especially in the Middle East and Asia. On the one hand, regional allies in the Middle East and Asia view America’s military power as in relative decline. In the Middle East, the U.S. is quite openly trying to eschew large-scale military commitments. U.S. allies are therefore concerned that the U.S. will ultimately accept an Assad victory in Syria and cut a nuclear deal with Iran rather than make a military commitment large enough to forcibly prevent either of these outcomes. In the case of Iran, Tel Aviv and Riyadh also worry the U.S. will reach a rapprochement with Iran in order to reduce the need for a robust U.S. military presence in the region.
In East Asia, the concern is that the U.S. is in decline relative to China, or at least is too unstable at home or engaged in the Middle East to make a reliable, long-term commitment to the region. Although the U.S. has never failed to protect an ally from an aggressor in the past, as China rises relative to the U.S., deterring or defending against Chinese aggression will require an ever-greater share of U.S. resources. Leaders in Asian states wonder if the U.S. is stable or committed enough to make this investment.
The concern of U.S. Asian allies highlights an inherent difficulty for U.S. credibility. Namely, as a regional hegemon, U.S. allies are inevitably more dependent on Washington than Washington is on them. Furthermore, regional states always have more at stake in regional developments than the U.S. does. To be sure, it is in the U.S. national interest to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or China from dominating the Western Pacific. However, an Iranian nuclear bomb is by nature a much greater direct threat to Saudi Arabia and Israel than it is to the U.S.
The same is true in Asia with China’s rise. Although the U.S. has a strong interest in preventing China from becoming a regional hegemon, it is a much more indirect than the interest U.S. regional allies have. Whereas China’s regional hegemony would mean the subjugation of its neighbors and their loss of sovereignty, for the U.S. it would only increase the potential for China to cause problems in other regions of the globe, including the Western Hemisphere.
If history is any guide, and I believe it is, then this indirect threat is enough to keep the U.S. strongly engaged in the Western Pacific. Still, U.S. allies in the region have everything at stake in this game, and they therefore must always fear that the U.S. will decide to retreat behind the enormous protective barrier that is the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. can take various steps to lessen ally concerns about this potential, but it cannot eliminate them entirely. And thus, the U.S. can never be entirely credible in the eyes of its allies.