What Happens When the United States Develops a Credible Reputation for Incompetence?

What if the United States develops a credible reputation for incompetence?

What Happens When the United States Develops a Credible Reputation for Incompetence?
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julio Martinez Martinez/Released

Arguments about credibility abound in discussion of the politics of the Asia-Pacific. Most of these discussions revolve around perceptions of toughness and resolve; how do we indicate to a potential opponent that our threats are credible? Although there are substantial reasons to question the logic of credibility, the arguments on both sides remain intense.

In a recent Foreign Policy essay, Stephen Walt asks a different question, one that has bounced around the edges of debate on U.S. foreign policy since the George W. Bush administration; what happens if the United States develops a credible reputation for utter incompetence?

The argument that the U.S. was incompetent, untrustworthy, and therefore useless as a partner regularly emerged after the difficulties with the U.S. invasion of Iraq became clear. Similar arguments were made about the Obama administration, albeit from a different ideological perspective. If the U.S. is simply incompetent, then allies cannot rely on its promises, while enemies cannot rely on its threats.

Defenders of Trump have resorted to increasingly baroque invocations of his skill as a negotiator and player of eleventh-dimensional chess. We also know that the President fetishizes unpredictability, an approach reflected in the management of his foreign policy team. Thus, there is at least some question as to whether the Trump administration should be regarded as incompetent, or whether it merely looks incompetent by the metrics that we normally associate with sensible policy. But few would disagree with the argument that the President Trump and his cabinet have considerably less experience at managing the foreign policy apparatus than virtually any administration in historic memory.

Although international relations scholarship has only tangentially tackled the question “what if the United States is simply incompetent,” there is some work potentially relevant to our current situation. For example, in his seminal work Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod showed that complex strategies for taking advantage of negotiating partners can result in misperception, frustration, and lost gains for both sides. The underlying logic of the credibility game demands a degree of predictability; actions need to have predictable, reliable consequences for deterrence and compellence theory to work. If the opponent believes that your actions are simply random, then she will have no reason to comply with your wishes.

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Trump has only been in office about six months. It is possible that a clear understanding of how he intends to manage foreign policy will, with the benefit of hindsight, become clear. Until that happens (and it may never happen), both U.S. adversaries and U.S. allies need to be wary of the U.S. ship of state; it may move erratically for some time.