These historic cases are consistent with Todd Sechser’s findings. Sechser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has undertaken careful quantitative studies of threat-making, has found that following through on threats “seems to carry few reputation benefits; to the contrary, it seems to carry considerable reputation costs.”
Sechser compiled a list of 210 instances of “compellent threats” made by nations between 1918 and 2001 in order to evaluate whether and under what circumstances states that make threats tend to get what they want. He also looked at what happened to states after they issued threats. He found that when a state followed through on a threat, its next threat succeeded in only 19 percent of cases, whereas when it did not follow through, its next threat succeeded 31 percent of the time.
Concern about credibility can have enormous costs. The domino theory that brought the United States into Vietnam was predicated on the notion that a failure to follow through on commitments to stop communists in one part of the world would guarantee communist expansion in the rest of it. “Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere,” President Johnson asserted.
What Press concludes is almost precisely the opposite: “Fighting for reputation is a waste of lives and money,” he said. He describes the assumed importance of a reputation for credibility as an “analytic crutch” imported from our daily interactions with one another but, on a global scale, unsupported by empirical study of history.
None of this means we should predict that enforcement of Obama’s “red line” will fail. Indeed, Syria’s beleaguered people will be fortunate if US action protects them from chemical weapons. And depending on how the situation in Syria evolves, there may be good reasons for further US military involvement at some point. But bolstering America’s reputation won’t be one of them. The better approach, Press argues, is to worry about your current goals, not about “signals you’re hoping some unspecified future leader is going to take from your decisions.”
Given how essential reputation is in everyday life, it may be hard to accept that sometimes credibility isn’t worth fighting for. But when the matter at hand is not everyday life but life and death in the international arena, the history of foreign policy suggests it’s sometimes smarter to walk away.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review and has written for The American Prospect, Los Angeles Review of Books, and WBUR.