30 September 2016

This is the Wisest Thing I've Read in Some Time

Academician Dianne Pfundstein Chamberlain makes what should be an obvious point, that that military adventures for the purpose of promulgating the illusion of our national "credibility" is a complete clusterf%$#:
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. credibility. Similar 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.


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.

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.


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.
This is not a surprise, and I agree, but I think that Pfundstein Chamberlain misses part of the dynamic.

Many of the people who invoke "Credibility" to justify military adventures actually profit from these ill conceived actions.

"Credibility" justifies our bloated military establishment.  Defense contractors, retired generals, and their ilk profit from the maintenance of this edifice.



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