Tag Archives: Credibility


Assumptions are extremely important. If they’re wrong, everything which follows is probably wrong too. So when analysts don’t make their assumptions clear to policy makers, but instead try to pass them off as facts, there’s a great danger that poor decisions will result.

What brings this to mind is a new report by Duncan Allan, published by Chatham House and entitled Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack. The report claims that,

The nerve agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury … was a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life threatening attack … Russian decision makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.

Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals, Mr Duncan thinks that the response is still not tough enough and ‘there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent.’ Duncan urges the government to resort to ‘deterrence by punishment’ by making it clear to Russia that in the face of future attacks it will use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. By pressuring the latter, Britain can dissuade the former from misbehaving. This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’ For too long, Duncan claims, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds – speaking out against Russia while continuing to do business with it. Consequently, Britain has signalled weakness, and so encouraged Russian attacks. ’ Up to now, says Duncan, Britain has ‘lacked credibility’. This needs to change.

What are the assumptions here? First, that Russia considers Britain weak. And second, that this perception encouraged the Russian state to poison Sergey Skripal. Allan Duncan portrays these as facts. They are not. He provides no evidence for either the one or the other. They are assumptions. So too is the idea which lies behind this report that there is such a thing as ‘credibility’ – one’s reputation for being willing to take robust action – and that the possession of ‘credibility’ deters hostile acts. Finally, Mr Duncan’s argument rests on an assumption that ‘deterrence by punishment’ actually works, which in turn rests on assumptions that a) Russians will correctly interpret the signals that Britain is trying to send, and b) Russian elites will respond to British pressure by successfully pressuring their own government, and c) the Russian government will respond to that pressure in the manner desired by the British. All these assumptions may, of course, be true. But as no evidence is produced to say whether they are indeed correct, one must conclude that they might equally be wrong. Consequently, the policy recommendations are without value.

Let’s take a closer look. Was the attack on Sergey Skripal a product of Russian perceptions of British lack of credibility? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To say one way or the other, one would have to know what was going on in the brain of whoever ordered the operation. Since we don’t actually have any information about that, Mr Duncan’s claim cannot be treated as a serious basis for a major policy decision. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before in this blog, historical and political science research suggests that ‘credibility’ is a greatly overestimated virtue. Such evidence as we have about the way politicians come to their decisions suggests that considerations of whether a foreign state is likely to respond to a given action are rarely based on perceptions of how that state and its leaders have responded in the past, and whether they are credible, strong, determined actors, but rather on considerations of whether they are capable of responding and of whether the matter in question is of sufficient interest for them to be likely to want to respond. In short, when people worry about their credibility, they do so for no good reason. This undermines the entire logic of Mr Duncan’s report.

As I have also often said, misperceptions play an extremely important role in international conflicts. A lot of international relations is about sending signals to other states. The problem is that the message received is very often not at all what the person sending the signal assumed would be received. Mr Duncan assumes that punishment will be understood by Russian leaders as being punishment. That’s a very unwise assumption in my opinion. In the current political climate, in which Russians see themselves as the aggrieved party, I doubt that they will interpret being sanctioned by Britain as being punished for their own misdeeds and therefore feel deterred from further such misdeeds in the future. It’s just as possible that they will see this as further proof that the Brits are out to get them come what may and that there is absolutely no point in modifying their behaviour in the way the Brits desire, because they won’t get anything in return. Whether they’re right or wrong to feel that way is neither here nor there. If that’s how they feel then Mr Duncan’s proposal isn’t going to have the desired effect. It might even backfire and encourage even more hostile behaviour.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. Is this actually a thing? Duncan assumes a) that the business sector has a powerful influence over the Russian state and b) that business will pressure the state into changing its behaviour if financial interests overseas are threatened. Yet, the business sector in Russia is rather separate from the security organs whom the British consider responsible for the Skripal poisoning. Do rich Russians with accounts in the UK really have a say in what the GRU does? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the example of anti-Russian sanctions to date provides no evidence in support of assumption b) above. On the contrary, as Richard Connolly has shown, the way the state-business relationship works in Russia is that when the business elite is hurt by sanctions, the state comes to its rescue and redirects resources so that business’s losses are covered. This might harm the economy as a whole, but it protects the targeted sectors. At the same time, it increases those sectors’ dependence on the state, making them less and less capable of pressuring the state to alter its political direction. The idea that ‘punishment’ of Russian businessmen results in changes in the behaviour of the Russian state is most definitely unproven, and may in fact be entirely false.

Obviously, if another attack on British soil were to be attributed to the Russian state, it would be politically impossible for the British government not to react, and I’m certainly not saying that it would be wrong to do so. But one shouldn’t imagine that punishing Russian businessmen for the alleged sins of their state will somehow prevent such an attack by enhancing British ‘credibility’. Allan Duncan calls for ‘managed confrontation’ with Russia. But by focusing on confrontation rather than on finding ways to eliminate conflict, there is a danger that his proposals will simply drive an ever bigger wedge between East and West. In this way, rather than enhancing British security, Duncan’s approach may serve merely to undermine it.


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.