Crackpot theory #4: Credibility is a vital interest

The fourth in my series on crackpot theories looks at the idea that nations must always be seen to be strong, lest they lose ‘credibility’ and thereby encourage others to attack them. This fits in with my class this week on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’, which will examine ideas of honour and how they affect international relations.

The notion that ‘credibility’ is a vital national interest is at the core of the arguments of many foreign policy hawks. As Will Tobey and Will Imboden put it in Foreign Policy a year ago:

The most urgent matter is to re-establish the American credibility so regrettably squandered over the past several years — in Afghanistan by simultaneously announcing a surge and a retreat, in Iran with unenforced and ever-moving red lines, and in Syria with incomprehensible vacillation that left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a stronger position after American threats. Credibility is the coin of the realm in international politics. Allies and adversaries need to know again that America will defend its interests. When the president speaks of “consequences” and “costs” associated with violations of international law and failure to comply with arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the country cannot afford to have other nations doubt his resolve.

The language of credibility can be found again and again in justifications of wars. ‘U.S. Must Escalate Bombing In Bosnia to Boost Credibility,’ argued the Washington Post in 1994. ‘To walk away now would not only destroy NATO’s credibility but would also be a breach of faith with thousands of innocent civilians,’ British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons in March 1999 in justification of NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. ‘To back down now would be the worst possible result’, a senior British official told The Guardian before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ‘We would have no credibility if Saddam Hussein was still in place.’ And so on.

Superficially, it seems logical that having a ‘credible’ reputation would protect one from aggression. There are, however, some serious problems with the theory:

  • However great one’s reputation, it can be destroyed by one moment of weakness, since credibility is only as good as the last time it was tested. It has to be continually defended. Consequently, one must be prepared to be forceful even over trivial matters. The result is disproportionate responses to minor crises, allied to an inability to distinguish between vital and non-vital interests. Credibility is supposed to keep one safe, but in the effort to avoid war, one runs the risk of being perpetually at war.
  • There is a lack of evidence that appearing weak does in fact invite attack in international relations. In essence the credibility theory is a variation of the old Domino Theory which justified America’s war in Vietnam. Yet, after the communists won the war in Vietnam, the dominoes did not fall. Indeed, far from becoming more aggressive, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War the Soviets reached out a hand to the West in the form of détente.
  • As Darryl Press has pointed out in his book Calculating Credibility, states do not base their judgements of other states’ likely actions based on those other states’ past behaviour, but rather on their assessment of  how important the issue in question is to others and what capabilities they have to do anything about it. The fact that you acted forcibly in one case will not convince others that you will do the same in another case in which a vital interest is not at stake and when you are in any case not capable of acting forcibly.
  • The credibility theory assumes that acting strongly will produce positive results. Often it doesn’t. One justification of the American invasion of Iraq was that American weakness elsewhere, such as in Somalia, had emboldened al Qaeda to attack the USA. The invasion of Iraq would restore America’s credibility. Instead, the insurgency which followed the invasion reinforced the image of American weakness.
  • If credibility is your objective, then in cases involving the use of force the objective is achieved the moment that force is first used. This means that there is little incentive thereafter to apply force in a manner designed to produce positive results. Wars fought for credibility are likely to be associated with poor strategy.
  • Using force over trivial matters may make others see you not as strong but as a bully. Rather than deterring enemies, the desire for credibility may create them.

In an interview last month, former British Defence Minister Liam Fox argued that the conflict in Ukraine ‘is about the credibility of NATO and the Western alliance. I think the defence of the Baltic, for example, begins in Ukraine.’ Consequently, says Fox, NATO needs to increase its military presence in Eastern Europe and also provide weapons to the Ukrainian Army. This is precisely the kind of thinking that has dragged Western states into unnecessary conflicts in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. It should be resisted.

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