The Credibility Myth

One of the most frequent critiques leveled at President Obama is that he has diminished the United States’ international “credibility.”  For example, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has argued that Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria after the use of chemical weapons there in 2013 damaged U.S. credibility.  These critics argue that the United States must follow through on its commitments today so that its threats will be credible (and thus effective) tomorrow.

I have a new article published today at War on the Rocks explaining why these arguments about America’s credibility and reputation are misguided.  You can read the article here.

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.

Cheap Threats Has Arrived

cheap_threats_coverIt’s here! My first book, Cheap Threats: Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States is now available for purchase through Georgetown University Press and Amazon. The book focuses on the following puzzle: The United States has the world’s most powerful military and has demonstrated a willingness to use its military power on many occasions (in fact, the book demonstrates that the United States always follows through on its compellent threats[1]). Why, then, would a small, weak state choose not to comply when the United States threatens it with military force to try to convince it to change its behavior? In other words, when the United States says to a weak state, “admit weapons inspectors to your nuclear facilities or we will bomb you,” why would this state choose to resist?

In Cheap Threats, I draw on game theoretic logic about costly signaling to argue that target states resist compellent threats issued by the United States when these threats are cheap to issue and to execute. I demonstrate that the United States has developed a method of war-fighting that limits the costs (human, financial, and political) of employing military force, and thus the threat to employ force is not a convincing signal that the United States is highly motivated to exact compliance from the targeted state. In other words, targets resist in the face of threats that are relatively cheap to execute because the cheapness of the force does not signal that the United States is highly motivated. A target expects that the United States will carry out the threatened action and then give up as the costs of continuing to coerce the target state become too high.

How can I argue that the use of force is cheap for the country with the world’s most expensive defense establishment?  Cheap Threats demonstrates that the United States now has a model of warfare that relies on an all-volunteer military (no politically costly conscripts to send overseas) supplemented by private contractors who rely on advanced technology to attack targets from a distance (precision air power and drones, for example), and that we pay for our wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) with deficit spending. We have effectively insulated the vast majority of the American public from the costs of employing force, and we even shield our own soldiers from many of these costs by opting for “standoff strike” operations like we saw with the 2011 Libya intervention, which was conducted entirely from the skies.[2]

To make the case for my theory, I evaluate an original dataset of compellent threats in all international crises in which the United States was involved from 1945-2007. I also examine in detail four prominent cases in which the United States employed threats to coerce an adversary: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 War against Iraq, and the 2011 Libya intervention. The Iraq chapters draw on new caches of documents and recordings seized after the 2003 invasion of Iraq to probe Saddam Hussein’s decision making (spoiler alert: he’s not as crazy as you might have thought!), and the Libya chapter traces the course of the U.S. decision to intervene and Qaddafi’s continued resistance. I also take a look at many competing arguments about threat effectiveness. I find, for example, no support for the argument that states determine whether to comply with threats based on the United States’ reputation for acting in past crises. In other words, the United States does not need to take action simply for the purpose of reinforcing a reputation for toughness.

Need more convincing? Read reviews of the book and see a list of contents here.



[1] A “compellent threat” involves the use of a threat of military force to convince a targeted state to change its current behavior. A “deterrent threat,” on the other hand, is a threat intended to prevent future behavior (nuclear deterrence would fall into this general category).   Cheap Threats focuses only on compellent threats.

[2] The book explains why the costs that the United States incurs when issuing and executing threats, not those incurred by the target, make a threat effective in changing a target’s behavior.

Regime Type and Icelandic Feminism

In my research project about decision-making during the Second World War, I am examining how a state’s “regime type,” i.e., the type of government it has (democracy, autocracy, or something in between) affects its foreign policy. I am also examining whether the regime type of a state’s opponent or potential opponent affects foreign policy outcomes. So, for example: does the fact that a potential opponent is a democracy affect a state’s decision to launch a war against it? In the world of international relations, we refer to such theories as “second image” explanations of international political behavior.

In addition to tracking down and interpreting the relevant archival sources on the decisions in question, one of the most challenging aspects of conducting research like this is deciding how to classify a particular state’s regime. Ask yourself this question: how do we determine whether a state is a democracy or not? One obvious answer might be that the state must hold elections. Okay, so….elections for what? For the head of state? For the head of government? What about representatives in the national assembly? What about judges? How many candidates or parties must be running to count as a “real” election? And who is voting? These are just a few of the many criteria that researchers must consider in determining whether we should classify a state as democratic or not. In an earlier post I argued that many of the criteria researchers use to evaluate whether a state qualifies as a democracy are actually measures of how similar a particular state is to the United States, not how well the state measures up to some objective standard.

To me one of the most important criteria for determining whether a state should be counted as democratic is that adults are not excluded from voting in national elections based on their race, gender, or socioeconomic standing. So, for example, it is inappropriate to refer to the United States of 1850 or 1915 as fully democratic because major categories of adults were ineligible to vote (African Americans in 1850 and women in 1915, although we know that African Americans were effectively disenfranchised long after they were officially granted the right to vote, further complicating our assessments).

Back to my research: my project examines the British invasion of Iceland in 1940 (and the planned attack on Norway that was thwarted by Germany’s own invasion of that country). Over the past few weeks I have been researching Iceland’s political system, and I discovered that Icelandic women were granted the right to vote in 1915, before the same right was extended to women in the United States. I also learned that in 1980, Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir as president, making her the first democratically elected female head of state in the world. A fascinating article by Kirstie Brewer ties this remarkable electoral feat to a day in 1975 when 90% of all women in Iceland went on strike, refusing to attend their jobs outside the home, to perform housework or to look after children in order to call attention to their demands for equal rights with men.  Icelandic fathers dubbed this day “the Long Friday” while they scrambled to entertain children at their workplaces and bought out easy-to-prepare sausages for their kids from the local shops. For many the day was heralded as a wake up call for women demanding equal rights with men.  It’s a fascinating article about the path taken by a state that many have dubbed the most feminist country in the world, and worth thinking about in a U.S. election season where feminism and gender have become major stumbling blocks for the Democratic party.