Does the United States suffer from erectile dysfunction?
In a recent interview following a speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, PLA General Zhu Chenghu, dean of China’s National Defense University, argued that the United States was simultaneously engaging in the dangerous escalation of disputes in the South and East China Seas, and also that it lacked the gumption to follow through on its commitments. Zhu argued “We can see from the situation in Ukraine this kind of ED [extended deployment] has become the male type of ED problem: erectile dysfunction.”
At the same time, Zhu emphasized the threatening nature of U.S. commitments: “If you look at what the U.S. is doing on China’s periphery — things such as reconnaissance, exercises, massive deployments, strengthening military alliances, taking sides on territorial disputes — these things are not good at all.”
This is an odd combination; on the one hand, Zhu is contending that the United States is a paper tiger, unwilling to meet its international commitments. On the other, he’s arguing that U.S. commitments are threatening, aggressive, and contributing to an unhealthy climate in East Asia. But if the U.S. is too weak to defend any of its commitments, how can it threaten China?
Arguably, a credibility gap could hurt U.S.-China relations in two ways. First, China could struggle to understand which commitments the United States actually stands behind, which could create a dangerous imbalance of perception. Second, U.S. allies could misunderstand the gap between U.S. rhetoric and U.S. resolve, and engage in provocative behavior with the expectation of U.S. support.
However, even this requires that someone believes U.S. rhetoric. In fact, the episode highlights just how tenuous accounts of state behavior focusing on “credibility” and “resolve” really are.
If we take General Zhu at his word, he believes that U.S. unwillingness to prevent the Russian occupation of Ukraine (a country to which the United States has made no formal security commitment) indicates that the United States will not abide by its formal security commitments to Pacific allies. There are, to be sure, some commonalities with recent events in the Pacific; the United States made no direct commitment to the security of Vietnam, and has done nothing to prevent China from deploying an oil rig in disputed waters.
We might draw the lesson that the United States does not go to war in order to defend countries that it has no formal obligation to defend. Instead, lazy pundits (and General Zhu) have been quick to assert that the U.S. failure to intervene in both cases somehow means that American “credibility” is at stake. There is apparently no event in world politics that cannot negatively impact U.S. credibility.
Strangely enough, international relations scholars are overwhelmingly negative on the idea that “resolve” matters for allies and enemies. The biggest question with respect to the “credibility fairy” is why journalists, pundits, and policymakers continue to believe its efficacy despite a lack of evidence that credibility and reputation matter for international politics. The most obvious answer is that complaints about credibility are easy to make, and require little in the way of substantive knowledge of the subject matter of particular disputes. And, as the example of General Zhu implies, the concepts of credibility and resolve may go to the heart of “tough,” “vigorous” and even “masculine” national identity.
Before reaching for the foreign policy Viagra, policymakers would be best advised to give some thought as to whether an aggressive move builds a reputation for credibility, or just for premature… excitement.