It is Time to Drive a Stake into the Heart of the American Credibility Myth

September 27, 2016

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One of the most common criticisms of President Obama is that he has damaged American credibility. Obama’s foreign policy decisions have been thoroughly denounced by Republicans, some members of his own party, and even former members of his administration. When the United States opted not to respond with military action to the 2013 chemical weapons attacks in Syria, many people argued that failing to punish the Syrian regime would diminish U.S. credibilitySimilar critiques were leveled when Russia annexed the Crimea and the United States responded with economic sanctions instead of force.  “How can we expect other states to take us seriously if we fail to act in these cases?” these critics asked.  In other words, tomorrow’s threats will fail if the United States does not follow through on today’s commitments.

In fact, the record of American coercion is entirely inconsistent with this simplistic view of the role of credibility and reputation in international politics.  To examine this issue, I studied every international crisis between 1945 and 2007 in which the United States was involved. I found that the real world does not operate in the way that these critics of U.S. inaction seem to think it does. It is foolish for the United States to undertake military action for the primary purpose of reinforcing its reputation. Refraining from acting when U.S. interests are not directly engaged will not diminish America’s “credibility” or its ability to wield power effectively.

Others have argued that states do not evaluate reputation and credibility in the straightforward manner described by critics of the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  In this article, however, I draw on my original dataset of U.S. coercion to evaluate the role of reputation in international politics.  When a theory is both as prominent in the national debate about American foreign policy and as wrong about explaining the world as the reputation theory, we must exploit all the information at our disposal to dispel these myths about credibility and effective coercion.

Credibility and Reputation

In the realm of interstate coercion — the use of threats or promised rewards to change a target state’s behavior without physically forcing the target to comply — a commitment is credible when the target believes that the threatener will follow through on the promised action if it chooses not to comply with the threatener’s demands.  A threat’s credibility is thus a belief that the target state holds about the likelihood that the threatened punishment will be executed, not an inherent feature of the threat itself.  What we really care about is whether a threat is effective, i.e., whether a threat actually persuades the target to change its behavior before the threatened punishment has been administered.

Threats and promises have credibility, and states and leaders have reputations.  When people argue that the United States must act against Syria today to preserve its “credibility” with Russia tomorrow, they are actually making an argument about how the U.S. reputation for action influences the behavior of other states.  The logic of this reputation theory is that following through on a commitment today is necessary to make tomorrow’s threat effective.  In other words, this theory holds that bombing Libya today will make Putin think twice about invading Estonia tomorrow.

If this reputation theory accurately explains state behavior, then we should be able to observe two basic patterns in the record of U.S. coercion.  First, we would expect American threats to become more effective over time if the United States follows through on these threats.  That is, if the United States consistently demonstrates that it upholds its commitments, then targets of U.S. threats should be increasingly likely to concede to U.S. demands everywhere (or at the very least targets should not become less likely to concede over time).  Second, we would expect threats to be more effective against a target after the United States has already followed through on at least one threat in the past against that same target.  Once the United States has demonstrated to a particular state that its threats are credible, then subsequent threats against that same state should be highly likely to succeed.

The Record of U.S. Coercion

I looked for these two patterns among all international crises in which the United States was involved from 1945 to 2007.  I focused on American efforts to coerce other states through the use of compellent military threats, which are threats in which the United States promises to inflict military force on a target state in order to convince the state to change its current behavior.  For example, the United States might threaten to bomb a country in order to convince it to admit weapons inspectors, as it did with Iraq in the 1990s.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I found that the United States does not bluff in the realm of compellence.  In all crises in which the United States issued an explicit threat intended to modify a target’s ongoing behavior, it followed through if and when the target chose not to comply with U.S. demands.  (Some might argue that the United States’ decision to take no action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013 would constitute a failure to follow through on a commitment.  Because the initial “red line” threat was an effort to deter the Syrian regime, it would have been outside the scope of my analysis of U.S. compellent threats.  We have direct evidence, however, that Putin saw this inaction as prudent and did not conclude that Obama was weak as a result.)  In terms of the reputation theory, this strongly suggests that U.S. compellent threats should be extremely effective, and that they should become more effective over time as this reputation becomes more consistent and impressive.

When we look at the record of U.S. compellence, however, we find that the opposite is true:  America’s compellent threats have been both more frequent and less effective on average since 1990 than they were during the Cold War.  The target conceded to U.S. demands in 55 percent of Cold War crises in which the United States issued a compellent threat and in only 25 percent of crises in the post-Cold War period. In other words, despite the fact that the United States has demonstrated that it always follows through on its compellent threats, these threats have become less effective over time.  This is the exact opposite of what we would expect given the logic of those who argue that U.S. inaction in Ukraine emboldened Putin to intervene in Syria and that inaction in Syria will similarly embolden him to invade the Baltics.

Cases of Coercion:  Iraq and Libya

Will the willingness to bomb a dictator today persuade the same leader to concede to American demands tomorrow? It turns out that the answer is no. When we look at cases in which the United States has attempted to coerce the same target state over time, we find that the willingness to execute past threats — even those involving the use of considerable military force — does not translate into an increased likelihood that the target will concede to the United States’ demands in subsequent crises.  Consider the most obvious and perhaps most consequential of these targets:  Iraq.  The United States attempted to coerce Iraq with compellent threats before both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion, and several times during the 1990s.  Despite its willingness to launch Operation Desert Storm, the United States still failed to use threats to compel Iraq to admit weapons inspectors in the 1990s (a relatively modest set of demands in the realm of interstate coercion) and failed to convince Saddam Hussein to concede before the 2003 invasion.

We also know from interrogations of Saddam after his capture and from recordings and transcripts seized after the invasion that he resisted Washington’s 2003 threat not because he thought it lacked credibility, but because he had survived U.S. efforts to coerce him in the past and doubted that the United States had the resolve to employ the means necessary to overthrow him.  These beliefs turned out to be incorrect, but that does not change the fact that Saddam’s decision to resist the United States in 2003 did not hinge on credibility (as the reputation theory would dictate) but on his beliefs about U.S. resolve to stay the course after the initial launch of military action.

Another prominent example that spans several presidential administrations is Libya.  The United States attempted to coerce Qaddafi several times over several decades on issues ranging from the support of terrorism to the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.  The United States famously bombed Libya in 1986 and clashed with Libyan forces off the coast several times in the 1980s.  In March 2011, President Obama issued an explicit threat to the dictator demanding that his forces halt their advance on the rebel-held city of Benghazi.  Despite its record of launching military action against the Libyan dictator, the United States was unable to successfully coerce Qaddafi before the launch of the NATO no-fly zone.  Instead, Qaddafi remained steadfastly defiant over months of intensifying air strikes.  He was ultimately hunted down and captured but only by forces on the ground that NATO had been explicitly unwilling to provide.  Although NATO may have eventually reached its goal of overthrowing the Libyan dictator — a goal that Obama and his administration were not openly advancing in early 2011 but which came to define the mission — the effort to coerce Qaddafi was a complete failure.

We will probably never know exactly why Qaddafi chose to resist in the face of this U.S.-NATO threat in 2011, but one thing is clear:  Carrying out military action against Libya in the past did not enable the United States to threaten Qaddafi successfully in 2011. In other words, even if the United States had bombed Putin’s forces in the Crimea or provided direct military support to Kiev, this would not translate into an ability to deter a future invasion of Estonia.

Dispelling the Myths of Credibility

These are relatively easy tests, and the reputation theory has failed at both.  We have looked for and failed to find two obvious patterns in the evidence from actual cases in which the United States tried to use threats to convince a target state to change its behavior.  Even when we set the bar low, the reputation theory cannot clear it.

Although there is little evidence to support the theory that following through on threats today is necessary to make threats effective tomorrow, arguments about American “credibility” are likely to continue to surface in the national debate.  To some extent, these arguments about reputation are relics of the Cold War debate about how to contain the spread of communism.  Senior officials in the foreign policy establishment may retain these frameworks for understanding the world today.  More importantly, the reputation theory holds sway in American debates about security policy because it is a useful and versatile weapon on the policy making battlefield.  Want to criticize your political opponent’s decision not to endorse a particular policy?  Just argue that she is destroying America’s reputation abroad!  Want to sell an overseas intervention to a war-weary public?  Just argue that the operation is necessary to preserve America’s credibility!  The reputation theory is a useful tool for selling a favored policy both within the Beltway and to the broader American public.

As critics fret about Washington’s ability to both work with Moscow on Syria and deter it from advancing into the Baltics, one thing should be clear: The world simply does not operate in the way that proponents of the reputation theory argue it does. This is good news, because it means that the United States is not constrained by the need to intervene in places of questionable strategic interest or else lose its ability to influence outcomes in world politics.  On the other hand, we should not expect that the willingness to bomb a rogue state today will guarantee the United States the ability to get its way tomorrow.  If only the world were so simple.


Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain, PhD, is an Associate Research Fellow with the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.  She was formerly an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.  She is the author of Cheap Threats:  Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States (Georgetown University Press, 2016). 

Image: White House Photo by David Lienemann

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7 thoughts on “It is Time to Drive a Stake into the Heart of the American Credibility Myth

    1. The US has zero claim to Scarborough Shoals — and makes the author’s point very well. It’s not in the US national interest to star a shooting war over Scarborough Shoals — especially in light of President Duterte’s public pronouncements. Let the claimants shed blood and treasure. FON is the only US interest in SCS.

  1. As long as the incumbents in policy offices believe that US government prestige will create a scenario from which they can extract personal gain rather than accept the role of public servants we will have a credibility problem. The expenditure of “political capital” to lead the US in doing right in the world is no longer a moral choice, but an economic one, because the Beltway provides a market in which it can be turned into real capital as long as one remains an insider.

  2. From a mechanical perspective, I think the process in which the US threatens someone has, in the pov. of whoever is threatened, 3 distinct questions and only one of them is related to “credibility” as credibility hawks understand them.

    The first question is what the US is actually demanding. If what the US is demanding amounts of the threatened party committing suicide, then no amount of credible threat will actually make them “change their behavior”.

    Assads Syria is pretty much a case in point here. US demand is that Assad surrenders to the “Christians to Beirut, Alawis to the grave” crowd. Doing so what be suicide-genocide.

    The second question is if a threat by the US is seen as credible. The author has focused on this aspect, and I see now grounds for disagreement here.

    The third question is also based on credibility, it is the question if accepting US demands actually results in not being attacked by the USA, basically, are US promises to not use force if the threatened party does X credible?

    I think the US fares pretty poorly in this regard. Lybia (which disarmed), to a lesser extent Syria (Assad invested a lot into improving his relations with the west prior to the civil war) being the poster children for the US being not credible when it comes to promising to not use force.

    I think that the “threat effectiveness” decline between the Cold War era and now is mostly down to the fact that US demands far more severe things, and to the fact that the US is perceived to bomb and regime change irrespective of the threatened state changing behavior.

    During the Cold War, the Soviet Union limited, simply by existing, what US policy makes could reasonable think they could demand, and it put (in some areas) a brake on the US getting what it wants and then invading anyway.