“Credibility” in international affairs refers to the reliability of a country keeping its promises, typically the kind that involve using force under certain conditions like coming to the defense of allies or if a red line is crossed. It is always used by hawks and warmongers to argue for a more forceful foreign policy, with the typical punch line being, “if we don’t intervene forcefully here, it will signal to our enemies that they can take action elsewhere without consequences.”
I reiterated in a post last week why this line of thought, despite being so pervasive in the political discourse in Washington, is complete balderdash. I pointed to a recent piece of mine in Reason arguing against the ridiculous notion that Putin took action in Ukraine because of Obama’s failure to bomb Syria several months earlier and to a solid piece in Foreign Policy by Christopher Fettweis explaining that, “[t]here is a mountain of research from political science to suggest that this [credibility argument] is an illusion…”
Now there is a chorus of commentators arguing the same, even if it hasn’t trickled down to the lowbrow cable news talking heads yet. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart calls the credibility argument “bunk.”
Since the dawn of the Cold War, American policymakers and commentators have repeatedly insisted that the U.S. defend allies in one part of the world to show allies in others that America’s promises enjoy “credibility.” And again and again, the result has been to silence discussion of whether the country in question actually merits the expenditure of American money and the spilling of American blood.
…In his 1994 book, Peripheral Visions, which tested whether between 1965 and 1990 American weakness in one region of the world had emboldened Moscow in others, Ted Hopf, then of the University of Michigan, concluded that the “Soviets continued to attribute high credibility to the United States in strategic areas of the globe because they saw no logical connection between US behavior in areas of negligible interest and its future conduct in places with critical stakes.” In his 2005 book, Calculating Credibility, Dartmouth’s Daryl Press tested the same hypothesis—that weakness somewhere emboldens aggression elsewhere—using different twentieth-century case studies. He too found that, “A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by its power and interests. If a country makes threats that it has the power to carry out—and an interest in doing so—those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past…. Tragically, those countries that have fought wars to build a reputation for resolve have wasted vast sums of money and, much worse, thousands of lives.”
Beinhart says hawks like the credibility argument because it works as an excuse to intervene everywhere: “If every place matters because of its effect on every other place, then foreign policy becomes much simpler: Everywhere America is tested, America must show resolve.”
In a similarly hard-hitting piece, Albert B. Wolf writes in The National Interest that “The only problem [with the credibility argument] is that none of this is true.” He adds: “The United States can break its word and renege on its agreements without creating a more chaotic world or endangering a leader’s hold onto office. If anything, such behaviors may be equated with prudence instead of reckless disregard for the national interest.”
I say, it’s about time more people devoted ink and space to debunking this myth. Pessimistic as I am, however, I don’t expect it to stop supposed experts on cable news from propagating such analysis. After all, it works as an argument for intervention anywhere and everywhere.