The “credibility” argument is almost exclusively used by foreign policy hawks, and they pay no attention to negative international reactions to U.S. behavior that contradict their assumptions about “credibility.” If other states react to provocative and confrontational policies by becoming more assertive in their respective regions, hawks interpret that as proof of the other states’ inherent aggressiveness and “expansionist” tendencies.
Hawks usually do not accept that adverse responses that directly follow U.S. actions have any connection to U.S. policies, but any development that happens to take place after the U.S. “fails” to “act” somewhere is preposterously traced back to the moment of “inaction.” Thus, the U.S. is blamed for somehow “causing” unrelated events in one part of the world by choosing not to do something in an entirely different part, but it is excused from responsibility for the direct negative consequences of whatever it has actually done. That is because the only thing that jeopardizes “credibility” in their eyes is “inaction” (i.e., not attacking or threatening to attack someone), and adverse consequences of “action” (e.g., expanding alliances, invading/bombing/occupying other countries) are ignored or spun as the result of later “weakness.”
This is all correct, but the funny thing to me is that credibility arguments should be the almost exclusive preserve of advocates of restraint. Why? Because if credibility is an important asset that allows America to achieve some objectives without deploying resources (by simply making a commitment to respond if some other actor takes some other action), then we should not squander that asset by making commitments we do not intend—or cannot—make good on.
Consider two possibilities. In one, we live in a world where credibility matters a lot. Actors in the international system pay close attention to what other actors say, as well as what they do. When the two line up closely—an actor who does what he says, and only what he says—that actor’s words carry great weight. They are credible. When they do not—an actor who says a lot but does not actually do much—not only do that actor’s words carry little weight, but other actors presume that the actor’s behavior indicates essential weakness and they are willing to escalate challenges to find whether there is any point where that actor will act.
This is not an impossible world. In fact, it is probably what the world would look like if most actors had generally low confidence in their ability to assess each other’s true interests and capabilities. In the absence of objective information of that sort, that assessment would, perforce, be deduced largely from behavior. Consequently, bluffing would play a very important role in the international system.
A very important role—but also a very risky role. Because if this is the way the world works, then credibility is fragile. Bluffing, and having one’s bluff called, can be devastating to one’s position and can invite all kinds of mischief. In this world where credibility matters greatly, it is therefore vital not to bluff recklessly—that is to say: not to blithely make commitments that one does not intend to honor. If credibility is very important, then we should be relatively commitment-averse so that we are better able to back up all our commitments with resolution and maintain our precious credibility.
Now, consider an alternative world where actors have higher confidence in their abilities to “read” each other—to know what each actor’s objective interests and capabilities are. In this world, credibility is much less important. Actors in this system may bluff, but bluffs are unlikely to work very often—and for that very reason, nobody in the system cares much when they do not work.
But for that very reason, this is a relatively less-risky world for adventuresome hawks. They can make unwise commitments or threats without worrying terribly much about the negative consequences—at least if they are not likely to personally be in harm’s way. What determines outcomes is not bluff, primarily, but the objective correlation of forces. Since the outcome of any contest is to some degree uncertain, those with more appetite for combat may roll the dice when the odds look good enough. They can also change their minds if they decide it is not worth backing up a bluff that is called, without fearing that this will invite catastrophe.
Obviously, we now live in a world somewhere between these two poles. Most actors in the international system have some degree of confidence in the objective capabilities and interests of most other actors—but far from perfect confidence in any case, and in some cases very poor (North Korea, for example, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Iraq War). Some actors go out of their way to make their capabilities clear, so as to make deterrence more effective; others go out of their way to hide the true extent of their capabilities, which usually is a sign of weakness, not strength. America has generally followed the path of projecting objective strength—because we have it.
That is why I say that credibility arguments should belong to the advocates of restraint. They should be arguments against extending commitments beyond the bounds of our manifest objective capabilities and interests. So why are they deployed routinely on the other side, as arguments for making (and then backing up) such commitments?
Well, the United States’ position in the international system is unique because our power vastly exceeds that of any other actor. For that very reason, we have a much higher degree of discretion in how that power is deployed. While our resources are not infinite by any means, they so far exceed any other actor’s that we can exceed the plain bounds of interest in terms of our commitments for quite some time before paying a significant price in terms of diminishment of power.
So how can another actor determine whether we are going to be more restrained or more expansive in our actions? How can they determine whether we will voluntarily limit ourselves to deploying power only where it makes sense in terms of rational national self-interest? How are they to interpret declarations on America’s part that there are effectively no limits to our interests? Are they to take these sorts of claims seriously?
By any objective measure, the United States has no compelling national interest at stake in who governs Afghanistan, in who controls eastern Ukraine, or any number of other matters in which we are engaged. But we are engaged.
The “retreat” that hawks fear is a retreat to more-readily discernible lines related to the national interest. They want other actors to believe that we will continue to act well beyond that line. Which really does require repeated demonstration, across multiple theaters of conflict, because it cannot be “read” from our objective interests and capabilities.