Why U.S. Foreign Policy is Nothing Like That Time Your Friend Flaked on You

This post is the first in an irregular series of blog posts titled “Surprising Findings in IR” which will highlight political science research that is counter-intuitive or unexpected.

I was at a dinner several weeks ago where a friend criticized the Obama administration, and Obama specifically, for issuing threats and then failing to back them up.  “Obama keeps telling other countries not to do things, but then they do them and the U.S. does nothing in response.  This emboldens our enemies and makes us look weak.”

Now, my goal here is not to engage in either a defense or a critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.  Instead, I’m interested in this prevalent idea that failing to carry out foreign policy threats causes a state to be perceived as weak or otherwise encourages its rivals.  It turns out that there is a literature in IR that deals with precisely this topic: studies of credibility.  And a major study within that literature that directly speaks to the topic at hand is Calculating Credibility by Daryl Press.

In the book, Press examines the archival record of top-level leaders during several major crises in international politics: the “appeasement” crises that pitted Nazi Germany against France and the United Kingdom in the run-up to WWII; a number of instances during the early Cold War where the Soviets threatened war if the Western allies did not pull out of West Berlin; and that perennial favorite of IR scholars, the Cuban Missile Crisis.  What did Press find digging around in all those archives?

The conventional wisdom holds that credibility depends on a country’s past behavior–its history of keeping and breaking commitments.  Like people who keep their word, countries that keep their promises will be believed when they issue new assurances.  And like people who casually break their promises, countries that renege on their commitments soon discover that their promises carry no weight.  […]

This book argues that the conventional wisdom about credibility is wrong.  A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is not driven by its past behavior but rather by power and interests.  If a country makes threats it has the power to carry out–and an interest in doing so–those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past.  […]  When assessing credibility during crises, leaders focus on the “here and now,” not on their adversary’s past behavior.  Tragically, those countries that have fought wars to build a reputation for resolve have wasted vast sums of money and, much worse, thousands of lives.

Find this hard to swallow?  I invite you to take a close look at Press’ case studies, such as the West Berlin impasse, where fascinatingly senior officials never refer to the past even though the practically the exact same situation keeps playing out over and over again every few months.  Instead, decision-makers myopically focused on the present, treating each new crisis on its own individual terms.  Furthermore, Press notes the tragic irony that the same countries that themselves never consider others’ past behavior when assessing credibility nevertheless feel very strongly that maintaining their own credibility at all times is crucial, no matter the cost.

Now of course Press’s book is not the definitive final word on credibility (for the curious, see Daniel Drezner’s primer), but at least it might somewhat reassure those worried that Obama has frittered away America’s standing in the world.  More generally, Press’ work shows us that relying on analogies and heuristics developed at the everyday level of interpersonal relations does not always translate upwards to the realm of states, international relations, and foreign policy.  As easy as it is to do, anthropomorphizing the state can be quite misleading.  There are significant differences between how we deal with our friends, colleagues, and children and how states interact with one another: the raw number of interactions, the time that elapses between interactions, the difficulty of sending clear signals from one state to another, the difference between a single individual’s memory and the diffuse and generally far less effective institutional memory of governments, etc.  This same caution also applies to international economics, where one well-known fallacy is thinking that government finances are akin to household budgets (debunked here, here, here, here, and many other places on the Internet).

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