“Credibility” is not everything but it’s not nothing either

by James Fearon on September 7, 2013 · 6 comments

in International Relations,International Security,Presidency,War

In the deluge of blogospheric commentary on the administration’s massive Syria problem, you see a lot of extreme positions on the question of whether it is important to use force to uphold Obama’s or the US’s “credibility.”  Advocates of intervention (who are relatively few) often argue that this is a critical consideration (eg, Walter Russell Mead, or John Kerry).  Opponents argue that maintaining credibility is in general a crazy reason to use military force (eg, Andrew Sullivan, Conor Friedersdorf, Jim Manzi, Stephen Walt, among many others).  Maybe it’s boring to say, but both extreme positions are wrong.  Credibility, or following through on previous diplomatic commitments, should clearly not be the only consideration but neither should it be completely disregarded.

If a prior commitment or threat implies that, the way things play out, you would have to take an action that is incredibly costly and not at all in your current interest, then, fine, take the hit and don’t do it.  No one will infer that you are no longer willing to fight for anything that’s important to you.  At worst you will face more challenges than you otherwise would have on some foreign policy margin.

But neither does the position that credibility should be completely irrelevant in a decision to use force make much sense.  I’m struck by how often advocates for this position in effect lay down the following two Diplomatic Commandments for US presidents:

1)  Never make a commitment to use force (set a red line) that you aren’t willing to actually follow through on.

2)  Never fight a war or carry out a military action just for the sake of credibility.  Use force only if it is in your national interest, all things considered, at the time of decision.

If you think about it, there is a pretty strong tension between these two commandments, because (2) implies that any prior public commitments you make are essentially meaningless—you are going to use force according to whether it makes sense at the moment, regardless of what you said in the past.  So what would the point be of making public statements concerning what you might be willing to use force over?  How would doing so convey any real information beyond what other states could already surmise based on behavior or a strategic calculation of your interests?  Do you really want to say that leaders should never try to indicate what they might view as an important interest that they might be willing to use force over when this isn’t already 100% clear?

States certainly want to be able to communicate credibly on the question of what they would use force over, and on average it is probably a good thing—in terms of avoiding unnecessary conflicts—if they can.  But there is an inevitable downside.  The cost of credible communication is that there is sometimes a cost for not following through, and that cost can be a consideration inclining a leadership towards using force when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

I’m drawing here on arguments about what the IR literature usually calls “audience costs,” which are domestic political costs a leader may pay for escalating an international dispute, or for making implicit or explicit threats, and then backing down or not following through.  Having the ability to generate such costs can be a good thing for state, as they enable a leader to communicate more clearly in dangerous situations.  But they inevitably come with a risk of a downside, which the Obama administration is now experiencing.

A couple of recent articles have argued that case evidence for the existence of audience costs is slight.  At least in the case of Snyder and Borghard (gated), I think this was based mainly on the mistaken belief that if the public supports a leader for not going to war (or otherwise backing off), this means there weren’t audience costs created by the leader’s escalation or threats.  Instead, the relevant question to ask is whether the leader would have preferred not escalating or making the threat to begin with to having done so and then later backed down.  In this example, does Obama regret the “red line” statements?  Probably yes, but even if not, isn’t it obvious that he has already paid some domestic political price for not doing anything on chemical weapons use in Syria earlier this year, and will all the more so if he doesn’t follow through now?  I’m not saying that in this case he should follow through for the sake of credibility and reputation, just that lambasting presidents for taking credibility or domestic audience costs into account in deciding what to do is neither realistic or nor necessarily good council as a general principle.

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