What American Credibility Myth? How and Why Reputation Matters


In 1965, a Defense Department memo observed that 70 percent of the justification for remaining in Vietnam was to protect America’s reputation, compared to just 30 percent for the direct strategic and humanitarian benefits of preventing South Vietnam’s falling to communism. Twenty years later, Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged concerns about the potential damage to Soviet reputation as one of the most important objections to withdrawing from Afghanistan. Yet how do we know that the reputations the superpowers were so intent on protecting were actually valuable? Were the lives lost in the effort to preserve reputation simply thrown away?

In a recent article, Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain argues that critics of the Obama administration have been beguiled by an “American credibility myth” that overestimates the importance of protecting America’s reputation. Examining American crises since World War II, Pfundstein Chamberlain concludes that the success of American threats has not depended on whether the United States followed through on previous threats, a result contrary to the standard expectations of reputation theory. This finding joins existing studies by reputation skeptics who see little evidence that leaders rely on reputation when making policy.

This argument has all the hallmarks of an important contribution to the policy debate: It cuts against received wisdom, has important implications for policy, and is grounded in a careful analysis of history. Yet based on our own research, we believe it to be wrong. The implications of reputation both bleed into and extend far beyond the immediate outcomes of confrontations and stand-offs. For example, we find that countries that act irresolutely are more likely to face new challenges, while those that demonstrate resolve face fewer subsequent challenges. In reality, while policymakers may at times overestimate the importance of reputation, it is an error to dismiss the power of reputation on the international stage or conceive of its effects too narrowly.

The issues of credibility and reputation are among the most hard-fought in the pages of policy outlets and peer-reviewed journals alike. If we believe the reputation skeptics, we are presented with a puzzle: Why do leaders care so much about protecting a reputation that does not hold much, if any, explanatory weight? We agree with Pfundstein Chamberlain that appeals to protecting reputation are at times rhetorical, but in cases like the American commitment to Vietnam and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan they were clearly sincere. Without an explanation for why leaders would be committed to protecting a non-existent reputation, an alternate possibility is that reputations really do matter, and that the skeptics simply have not managed to locate them.

Consistent with this possibility, academic research has found evidence that reputation matters in important settings. Focusing narrowly just on the relationship between reputation and the success of coercive threats misses other areas in which reputation plays a significant role. For example, researchers have found that countries that uphold alliance commitments are both sought out as partners and given better terms in alliances than countries that break their word. Similarly, governments that make concessions to separatist rebels are more likely to face additional challenges than governments that hold firm. Others have found evidence of reputations for honesty and violence, as well as evidence that reputation matters in sovereign debt markets and when imposing economic sanctions. In all these cases, leaders appear to make calculations about another government’s credibility on the basis of its past behavior, exactly as the reputation argument predicts.

Of course, leaders may be wrong about the importance of reputation, or reputation may matter in some settings, but not when it comes to credibility in international disputes. However, in our work (“Revisiting Reputation” in International Organization, which is temporarily ungated) we argue that the way in which skeptics have looked for reputation has unintentionally biased against finding it, for two reasons.

First, when looking at historical cases, skeptics frequently conclude that past behavior is unimportant after observing that leaders have discussed opponents’ capabilities and resolve more than they have their past behavior. For example, scholars have found that leaders involved in multiple crises, such as Adolf Hitler in the 1930s or American and British leaders facing repeated Soviet challenges in Berlin, did not discuss their opponents’ past behavior when trying to determine whether they would stand firm this time. The problem with this conclusion is that past behavior is one of the critical bases for deciding how resolved an opponent is. A country that stands firm in the face of difficulty, even when doing so is costly, is much more likely to be seen as resolved than is a country that backs down. As a result, it is thus possible for leaders not to talk explicitly about the opponent’s past actions and yet for those actions to affect estimates of how likely it is for the opponent to stand firm if challenged. To the extent that we find strong evidence of reputation elsewhere, as we do in the analysis below, the connection between past actions and resolve provides an explanation for the apparent disjuncture between our findings and those of the reputation skeptics.

Saddam Hussein’s views of the United States provide a useful example of this phenomenon. Pfundstein Chamberlain observes that Saddam Hussein stood firm in 2003 in part because he “doubted that the United States had the resolve to employ the means necessary to overthrow him.” His belief that the American people would not stomach significant battle deaths was grounded in observations of American policy dating back over two decades, which led him to distrust American promises during the Iran-Iraq War as well as American threats after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In his words, “[A]ll strong men have an Achilles heel. . . . We saw that the U.S. as a superpower departed Lebanon [in 1983] immediately when some marines were killed.” The decision not to push through to Baghdad in 1991, the removal of peacekeepers from Somalia in 1993, and the reluctance to risk casualties in the Kosovo War in 1999 all reinforced Saddam’s belief that the United States would not risk urban warfare and high casualties to achieve his ouster, unlike a country like Iran, which had shown great resolve (if far less military acumen) in the Iran-Iraq War.

Second, the implications of reputation for who wins crises (what in international relations jargon is called “immediate deterrence”) are less clear than the implications for whether crises occur in the first place (“general deterrence”). Before a crisis begins, leaders who do not wish to tip their hands must rely on more indirect signals when calculating how a potential target might respond to a challenge. In this context, inferences based on behavior in other settings — reputation — can prove particularly valuable. By contrast, once a crisis begins, new information based on the target’s diplomacy, military preparations, and other activities provides a basis for reevaluating how likely the target is to stand firm, thereby reducing the significance of reputation.

Moreover, leaders frequently respond to reputation by increasing or decreasing demands in ways that make observing its effects within crises more difficult. To take a historical example, when speaking about the Falklands War in 1982, Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Méndez noted a long history, from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the abandonment of 600,000 British subjects in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), that suggested the British would respond to challenges with negotiation rather than force. Given the reluctance of Argentine leaders to commit to the invasion of the Falklands, it is not hard to imagine that they never would have invaded in the first place, and hence that there never would have been a crisis to resolve, had the British been resolute in prior cases. After the invasion, however, the Argentines discovered that the British did not think of the Falklands as a colony and were unwilling to engage in the same sort of negotiation that they undertook elsewhere.

For this reason, we worry that a study that examines the effects of reputation on crisis behavior, as Pfundstein Chamberlain’s work does, is likely to understate the importance of reputation for policy. In our work, we looked across a broad range of historical disputes and found that countries that capitulated to their opponents’ demands rather than standing firm or fighting were twice as likely to face an additional challenge, while countries that fought through to victory were challenged less often. According to our models, the substantive importance of reputation is on par with the reduction in the risk of a conflict between two countries if both are democracies. These results are precisely what we would expect if reputation matters.

We also find that this effect is not narrowly limited to a single observer or scenario. When drawing conclusions based on reputation, a leader is implicitly drawing an analogy between a past event and a current political situation. We expect leaders to rely on this analogy more heavily the more similar the current scenario is to the prior dispute. Consistent with this expectation, we find that backing down in a dispute with a given opponent emboldens that opponent to a particularly significant degree. At the same time, other observers are also more likely to issue challenges than they would have been had the country stood firm. We also find, in line with a prominent forthcoming study, that the effects of reputation persist even after a new leader comes to power.

Assessing the Importance of Reputation for American Foreign Policy

These findings and those from similar studies have convinced us that reputation matters: Countries are more likely to be taken seriously and to get what they want when they have a history of following through on commitments and standing firm in the face of challenges. Still, this observation does not provide an answer to a related question: Exactly how important is reputation, given the inevitable tradeoffs that leaders must face when contemplating policy choices? Even if we accept that reputation sometimes matters, we can still ask whether it makes sense for the United States to pay costs to invest in protecting it.

On this question, we agree in part with Pfundstein Chamberlain. Thomas Schelling, the architect of the theory of reputation during the Cold War, argued that the loss of 30,000 American dead in the Korean War was “undoubtedly worth it” because the sacrifice enhanced American reputation within the Kremlin, and “Soviet expectations about the behavior of the United States are one of the most valuable assets we possess in world affairs.” Such costs to protect were more justifiable during the Cold War when repeated confrontation with the Soviet Union was guaranteed, making a strong reputation essential. Today, the United States has no comparable adversary. In this situation, we doubt that we are the only ones who find costs on the order of those paid in Korea an exorbitant price to pay to protect American reputation.

That said, the idea that Americans can safely discount reputation remains equally problematic. The importance of reputation varies for different countries and is most important for those that possess widespread commitments and interests, such as the United States. American leaders must worry about potential challenges in multiple theaters: Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe. Like Britain before it, the United States has the ability to concentrate its military at many points to deter aggression by, for example, Russia against the Baltics, North Korea against South Korea, China against Japan, and Iran against Israel. It cannot concentrate forces everywhere simultaneously, however. A strong reputation that deters initial challenges thus reduces the probability that the United States ends up confronting more simultaneous challenges than it can hope to manage, as Britain did as its empire dissolved.

At the same time, this conclusion implies that we should expect to see leaders vary in the importance that they attach to reputations for resolve. In an ongoing research effort, one of us found significant variations among American presidents in their concern about reputation for resolve. While President Carter resisted repeated calls from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to fight for reputation, President Clinton repeatedly invoked reputational considerations in his decision-making during crises. In contrast, President Obama said that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” To explain this variation in leaders’ concern for reputation for resolve, one must look beyond situational or strategic factors to focus instead on the psychological dispositions and beliefs of national leaders.

Finally, this modified view of reputation also suggests that leaders play a critical role in shaping how events are interpreted and hence the implications for American reputation. As the “red line” incident in Syria demonstrates, interpretations of events in the international realm are rarely unambiguous. Did the United States display irresolution by failing to attack Syrian government forces in response to chemical weapons attacks, or did it demonstrate resolve by compelling the Assad regime to agree to dismantle its chemical weapons program? An astute president will look completely resolved in case where backing down is not an option, while providing more rhetorical “outs” in cases where America’s commitment is less clear. Inevitably, there will arise cases in which presidents face a choice between avoiding immediate costs and protecting American reputation. Our work does not provide a simple rubric for when the president should act to preserve America’s reputation, even if that action is costly. It does imply that we cannot pretend that these tradeoffs do not exist.


Alex Weisiger is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His book, Logics of War: Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts, was published by Cornell University Press in 2013. His written work addresses war termination, reputation, and the democratic peace.

Professor Keren Yarhi-Milo is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Politics Department and the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs. She is the author of Knowing The Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence and Assessment of Intentions In International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2014). She is currently finishing her second book, entitled Who Fights for Reputation in International Politics? Leaders, Resolve, and the Use of Force. Her research has been published in academic journals including International Organization, International Security, Security Studies, and International Studies Quarterly.

Image: White House Photo by Pete Souza