America’s Reputation: Syria and Ukraine

I am currently working on an article about the role of reputation in international politics—that is, how a state’s reputation for action (or inaction) affects its ability to get what it wants from other states. We are often told that the United States must act in a certain situation to preserve its “credibility” for future crises. The Vietnam War was frequently justified along these grounds: if the United States did not uphold its commitment to South Vietnam, then the Soviet Union would not take its threats and promises seriously in other cases. More recently, President Obama was criticized for not taking action against Syria after chemical weapons were used against civilians in the summer of 2013. Critics argued that the failure to take action against the Assad regime emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine. According to Marc Thiessen, “Putin believes there will be no real costs for his intervention in Ukraine because there were no costs in Syria.”  My work on compellent threats demonstrates that reputation does not actually operate in this way, and I hope to be able to point you to the finished article soon.

In the meantime, however, I can point you to a fascinating article on this topic that ran in The Atlantic in March. One of the biggest challenges we face when studying the use of threats in international politics is assessing why a particular threat works (or doesn’t) to influence a state’s behavior. This is especially tricky in the case of deterrence, in which one state issues a threat to persuade an adversary not to undertake a particular course of action. How can we tell that the threat has worked? If we observe that the adversary chooses not to undertake the proscribed action, that could mean that the threat was effective in influencing the target’s behavior—or it could mean that the target never intended to take the prohibited action in the first place, and thus the threat didn’t actually change the target’s behavior. To be really sure that the threat had influenced the target, we would want to know exactly how the decision makers in the target state assessed the threat and whether it caused them to change their state’s policies as a result. We might want to interview the targeted leader, for example, but it is likely to be nearly impossible for a researcher to get such access. Even if we could interview the targeted leader, she may have strong incentives not to admit that a threat influenced the state’s behavior—otherwise she may look weak to her political rivals and to regional adversaries. We might be able to rely on documents or memoirs published long after a particular crisis has passed, but this doesn’t help us much in the short term (and nor can we be certain that memoirs are accurate or that we have access to all the relevant documents).

In other words, it is extremely difficult to determine whether and to what extent a threat influences another state’s behavior. Often we must settle for observing a state’s behavior as an imperfect measure of threat effectiveness. To get back to that article I mentioned: Julia Ioffe interviewed several individuals with access to Vladimir Putin about how he interpreted the United States’ decision not to take action against the Assad regime in 2013. She asked whether Obama’s decision not to use force after the chemical weapons attack encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine. The overwhelming response: absolutely not. “No one sees Obama as a weak president, and no one saw that moment as a moment of weakness” according to Igor Korotchenko. “You shouldn’t think of Putin as such a primitive guy. It’s totally clear that the Syrian and Ukrainian crises had nothing to do with one another,” said Fyodor Lukyanov.

This article provides rare and fascinating insight into the mind of one of the United States’ adversaries. No, it is not an interview with Putin himself, but it is about as close as we can get under the circumstances. The view from Moscow is that the United States’ inaction in Syria in 2013 had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine and that bombing Syria would not have convinced Putin to refrain from acting. Arguments about reputation and credibility have some intuitive appeal, but they do not stand up to scrutiny.

Wishful Thinking: Russia and Ukraine

George Soros had an article about Ukraine in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books[1] that captured many of the dominant attitudes about Russia’s foreign policy and what we should do about it. His main argument is that the EU should be funneling a lot of money to the Ukrainian regime to allow it to resist the forces of evil from within and without, and that we should maintain and if necessary increase economic sanctions on Russia to (punish? deter?) aggression.

The article captures the zeitgeist on Russia and Ukraine, and it presents us with many opportunities for discussion, not the least of which is that rich people should probably not assume that they are masters of all disciplines simply because they are very good at one thing. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The two most important issues I see with this argument are: 1. We really have no idea how to “funnel money” to other countries to make them pursue the particular economic and political pathways we want.[2] If we knew how to do that, pretty much every country in the developing world would have an open, functioning economy and thriving democracy. 2. Economic sanctions rarely, if ever, work to achieve political outcomes, and when they do, they work best against relatively small and isolated states. There’s plenty of research on this in political science, and plenty available in the realm of common sense if you stop and think about it: probably the most effective sanctions regime in place today (“effective” if we’re talking simply about actually stopping the flow of goods and services to a country) is the one against North Korea (and even that’s not perfect), and that hasn’t worked so far; decades of sanctions did not dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba; and I could go on, but I suspect I would lose you, dear reader. I was dismayed when the United States slapped sanctions on Russia in response to the incursion into Crimea and more recent fighting in Ukraine. They really don’t work very often as instruments of foreign policy, but they like drone strikes at least allow the administration to appear to “do something” in the face of behavior it finds unacceptable. I’m also puzzled about why Soros argues that falling oil revenues in Russia are evidence that current sanctions are “biting,” when everyone knows global oil prices are in the toilet.

For me, Soros’s argument about Ukraine also highlights the difference between policy and political science. Political science is (at least in theory) a discipline[3] whose practitioners apply consistent theoretical frameworks to understand the world around them and to develop recommendations for how to respond to the world. Policymakers do not have to apply these consistent frameworks to their thinking, and it is glaringly obvious that they do not. Soros’s piece, for example, berates the EU for its shoddy management of the recent debt crisis in Greece (an EU member state), but his main recommendation is for the EU start shoveling (more) money towards a non-EU state. How exactly is that going to happen given the incentives that prevented the EU from providing a timely and generous bailout for one of its own members?

At its core, Soros’s piece is also based on the assumption that Russia is inherently aggressive and that its advance must be halted lest all of Europe (and eventually the United States) fall to communism. No, wait—not communism, because the Cold War is over, right? Indeed this piece smacks of orthodox Cold War reasoning. There’s no evidence that Russia and/or Putin have grand designs about taking over the world. Russia is a state with a faltering oil-based economy trying to make limited territorial gains it views as essential to its own security. “But they’re intervening in Syria!” you say? So is France! So are we! So is Saudi Arabia, which has been funneling money and arms into the region for years! Why aren’t we getting all wound up about Saudi Arabia’s efforts to dominate the Middle East, but we think Russia’s behavior is evidence of a plan to take over the world?

I’m not really doing justice to Russia here, I admit—I’ll take up the issue of Russia’s foreign policy behavior and why we should stop acting as if a New Cold War and/or WWIII is dawning in a future post. For now, let me say that Soros’s recommendations for Ukraine are founded on nothing more than wishful thinking and a weird nostalgia for Cold War-era resistance to Russian “aggression.” The “loss” of Ukraine (to what? The dark side?) will not lead to a “failed state,” nor would “saving” it lead to some magical transformation in European politics or a change in Russia’s behavior.


[1] “Ukraine and Europe: What Should Be Done?” New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 15 (October 8, 2015).

[2] Unless we’re talking about funneling money to an established dictator to maintain his/her hold on power—there’s been some success with that in the past.

[3] I’ll admit that here I’m talking about international relations as a field within political science; this is distinct from “international relations” as a multidisciplinary field or degree in which students study economics, political science, languages, etc.