war on the rocks

What Is This “Credibility” You Speak Of?

October 15, 2013

Credibility. What does it really mean?

National security leaders have thrown about the c-word quite a bit lately, most prominently with the Syria debate, but also in reference to the government shutdown. Credibility and deterrence have always been a factor in diplomacy and war. How else to get another actor to bend to your will or follow your lead if your threats and rewards are not believable? Credibility, as a centerpiece of deterrence theory, took on a heightened importance for U.S. foreign policy over the course of the Cold War and the nuclear standoff. For those hoping to prevent unthinkable events, such as the use of weapons of mass destruction or catastrophic terrorist attacks, the idea of credibility has easily transitioned into the post-Cold War landscape. It is time today to consider credibility more broadly and look for some implications that have been missed.

By definition, credibility has always been integral to maintaining a position of leadership, as well as to deterring adversaries. During the Cold War, however, credibility and deterrence took on a greatly heightened importance. Deterrence became an end unto itself, due to the terrible possibility of absolute annihilation in nuclear war. Theorist Bernard Brodie wrote in his 1958 RAND Memo, “The Anatomy of Deterrence” that “we look upon deterrence of total war today as something that must go permanently unchallenged. There is also presumptive evidence that a deterrence strategy diverges significantly from a strategy which emphasizes ability to win if war comes.”

Brodie continued:

[D]eterrence philosophies and win-the-war philosophies may diverge in important respects. We can say in advance that they are likely to diverge in terms of priority.… The objective of erecting a high degree of deterrence takes a higher priority than the objective of assuring ourselves of a winning capability, if for no other reason than that the first is likely to be prerequisite to the second anyway, and is likely to cost less.

Despite Brodie’s warning, the United States learned about this divergence the hard way as the Kennedy Administration’s approach to deterrence, known as flexible response, came up against the test case of Vietnam. There, as Brodie had foreseen, the conflict itself was not as important as the demonstration of American resolve – specifically, resolve against the creeping menace of Communism and resolve to stand by America’s allies. In a word, it was a question of credibility. Failure to be credible in Vietnam, it was reasoned, could lead to a whole line of dominoes falling, as President Eisenhower warned in 1954: after Vietnam would go Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, the Korean Peninsula, Indonesia, and then Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and even Australia and New Zealand. Robbed of its trading partners, Japan would have no choice but to turn toward the communist hordes.

“So,” Eisenhower concluded, “the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.” In Vietnam, an initial commitment of advisors to signal resolve and credibility was taken without consideration of how to ultimately win the war, setting the stage for a series of escalations, each based on the failure of the previous half-measure. Incredibly, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy gave the chances of winning the war at as little as 25 percent, while still maintaining that “even if it fails, the policy will be worth it.” The larger standoff with the Soviet Union was the overriding concern, but the path America chose—which led to strategic defeat and the deaths of over 58,000 Americans—and the unforgettably searing images of defeat can hardly have enhanced American credibility.

When credibility becomes a logic unto itself for using military force, it crowds out debate on more concrete aims and whether or not the campaign is likely to achieve them.  And if the aim of a campaign is to uphold credibility, then anything short of absolute victory and unconditional capitulation is a self-defined failure. Yet, these sorts of victories can be elusive when a power is unable or unwilling to deploy overwhelming and ruthless military power in ways that are now commonly viewed as amoral and illegal, even in the context of war.

As deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling stated, “With enough military force a country may not need to bargain.” The United States has shown a disinclination to bargain, but it also hesitates to use maximal military force. When policymakers look at force as a marker of credibility and see their clashes as bipolar struggles between good and evil, they do not see bargaining as a legitimate course of action. When they forego bargaining, war becomes a futile act of vengeance.

For Schelling (like Clausewitz) violence and diplomacy had to be linked to have purpose:

To inflict suffering gains nothing and saves nothing directly; it can only make people behave to avoid it. The only purpose, unless sport or revenge, must be to influence somebody’s behavior, to coerce his decision or choice. To be coercive, violence has to be anticipated. And it has to be avoidable by accommodation. The power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy.

America is willing to use force to defend its credibility, or, as we saw in the case of Syria, the credibility of certain international norms. In other words, it is willing to hurt for deterrent effect. Today’s landscape is far different from that of the Cold War, yet American views of the world continue to favor a bipolarity of good versus evil.  While these are simple and satisfying concepts, they harden minds and encourage leadership-by-intimidation rather than leadership-by-example.

Yet, even during the Cold War, American leadership was predicated on much more than the credible threat of military force. Military dominance played a huge role in the postwar Pax Americana, like the Pax Romana and Pax Britannia before it. But there was far more. Each of these powers provided order to political, commercial, and social life across great swathes of the globe. While the United States did not seek to build its own empire, it did help to rebuild postwar Europe and Japan and lead the way to a prosperous network of global trade. That role has diminished, leaving U.S. foreign policy increasingly militarized—all sticks and few carrots.

The U.S. would do well to reduce its preoccupation with the credibility of its deterrent stick and to focus more on its credibility as a functioning political system capable of providing order to the world’s political and commercial life. When the U.S. does feel compelled to exercise its military credibility, it needs to pay close attention to the fact that unless violence is used to compel some diplomatic behavior, it is nothing more than sport or revenge.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: “War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History” and “Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.”


Photo credit: manhhai