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.