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.

Great Power Status and Nuclear Weapons: The UK Case

In her first major parliamentary appearance since assuming the role of British Prime Minister, Theresa May recently won a vote to renew Britain’s commitment to nuclear weapons.  The British parliament voted on July 18 to replace Britain’s aging fleet of nuclear-equipped submarines, and this vote is being viewed as an effort to cement the United Kingdom’s status as a major player in international politics in the wake of the recent vote to exit the European Union. May asserted that it was time for the UK to be “stepping up” to meet its responsibilities to NATO and to meet threats to Britain’s security head-on. Given the possibility of increased nuclear threats in the future, “it would be an act of gross irresponsibility to lose the ability to meet such threats by discarding the ultimate insurance against those risks in the future.” The vote to renew the submarine program also highlighted strains within the UK. The Trident force is based in Scotland, but the Scottish population widely opposes the nuclear program and has threatened to hold another referendum on independence in the wake of the Brexit vote. It is not clear where the Trident force would go if the Scots do vote for independence.

The Trident submarines have been Britain’s only nuclear weapons force since 1998, and one is always at sea ready to launch a weapon if necessary. The nuclear-equipped submarine fleet is considered the ultimate nuclear deterrent: capable of staying at sea continuously, they are nearly impossible to detect and track and thus they grant near perfect certainty that one would be able to retaliate against a nuclear attack on one’s homeland. One of May’s first acts as Prime Minister would have been to write a letter outlining the conditions under which the commanders of Trident submarines on patrol would be authorized to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom that rendered the British government unable to make the decision. Every new Prime Minister writes such a letter and it is destroyed when the individual leaves office.

Does the possession of nuclear weapons signify great power status? Maybe it did at one time—back in the Cold War when the US, UK, France, China and Soviet Union were the only states that possessed these weapons. Now, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel also wield these weapons without obvious great-power status. As Ian Jack points out, the UK is largely dependent on help from the United States to construct its Trident submarine force. Why could the UK not simply rely on its American ally to provide a nuclear deterrent, especially given the high cost of building and maintaining this program? Does Britain truly view these weapons as necessary for its survival, or is it about clinging to the United Kingdom’s status as a major player on the international stage? In other words, in the twenty-first century, do nuclear weapons serve any useful strategic purpose or do they function mainly as symbols?


NATO Deterrence in the Baltics

Donald Trump made headlines earlier this week when he called into question the United States’ obligation to defend its NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack. Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one member of the alliance would be considered an attack on all and requires the signatories to assist an ally that is the victim of such an attack. [1] Trump was asked about how the United States should respond if Russia attacks one of its Baltic neighbors, and he said that he would decide whether or not to assist the victim based on whether the state has “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Estonia’s president quickly took to Twitter to defend his country’s contributions, noting that Estonia is one of only five NATO countries that meets the goal of spending two percent of GDP on defense.

NATO recently announced its plan to station four battalions in the Baltics starting in early 2017 to deter Russian aggression, including an American battalion in Poland. I have a new piece over at the National Interest explaining why this will not work to deter a determined Russia from moving against one of its Baltic neighbors. You can read it here.

[1] No word on what happens if an ally and/or its population provokes a non-member into attacking it…hopefully we won’t have to see that played out in the near future.

South Korea’s Nuclear Options

In response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, a debate has reemerged in South Korea about whether the country should deploy nuclear weapons of its own. Last week, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declared that the government maintained its official position that South Korea would not possess or develop nuclear weapons. This is not the first time this debate has bubbled up to the surface. In November 2010, when it was revealed that North Korea had built an advanced plant for the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU, which can be used to construct a nuclear weapon), the South Korean defense minister raised the possibility of reintroducing US tactical nuclear weapons.

Some background: South Korea has a sophisticated infrastructure for the production of nuclear energy and cooperates closely with the United States on the development of its nuclear industry. South Korea did pursue a nuclear weapon of its own during the 1970s, but it abandoned the program under pressure from the United States and signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1975 as a state not permitted to develop nuclear weapons. The United States stationed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War, but these weapons were withdrawn in 1991, when North and South Korea signed a declaration calling for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. You can learn more about the history of South Korea’s nuclear programs from the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

South Korea continues to enjoy a military alliance with the United States that lends it protection under the “nuclear umbrella.” That is, the United States would respond to any nuclear attack on South Korea (presumably, one launched by North Korea) by launching a nuclear strike against the attacker. By this logic of “extended deterrence,” South Korea enjoys the protection of the American nuclear arsenal without having to acquire weapons of its own.

It will be interesting to see whether confidence in the nuclear umbrella begins to erode if and when North Korea develops a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. Currently, they do not possess such a missile, and the succession of failed tests suggests that they are still a long way from such a capability. If, however, North Korea were in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, then South Korea may start to wonder about the United States’ nuclear guarantee. As long as North Korea cannot hit back after a retaliatory strike by the United States (in response to the North’s nuclear attack on the South), then the United States does not have to fear for its own safety when it launches the retaliatory nuclear strike against North Korea. If, however, North Korea might be capable of launching a nuclear weapon after the United States’ retaliatory strike, then the calculation becomes quite different. South Korea may find itself wondering whether the United States would be willing to sacrifice Los Angeles to respond to an attack on Seoul. In other words, South Korea (and others) may find itself questioning the credibility of the United States’ nuclear deterrent and may start to wonder if it really does need nuclear weapons of its own.

Questions exactly like these arose among the United States’ western European allies during the Cold War, when the United States was similarly pledging to retaliate against a Soviet attack on western Europe (either conventional or nuclear, depending on the time period) with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In fact, doubts about the credibility of the American deterrent helped spur France to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. Hopefully we are still a long way from the day when South Korea will find it necessary to act on similar doubts.