On June 14, 10 months after President Obama declared that Bashar Assad would cross a “red line” if he used chemical weapons against rebels or civilians in Syria, Obama moved to make good on his threat. After American officials confirmed that Assad had indeed deployed chemical weapons, Obama announced that the United States would begin arming rebel groups against the regime.
This came as a huge relief to many critics and observers—not just those worried about Syria in particular, but those who simply feared what it would mean for Obama not to follow through on his words. If a president threatens action, they said, he needs to back it up. “The credibility of the United States is on the line,” Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham argued in April, “not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a high-ranking State Department official during Obama’s first term, wrote in The Washington Post, “U.S. credibility is on the line....[Obama] should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore.”
This position seems like common sense: A leader who backs down from a threat is irresolute, unsound, weak. A president who makes a habit of blustering on the world stage and then sitting on his hands would become a global laughingstock—“a joke,” as the military historian Max Boot put it in April, following early reports of chemical weapons use.
So what would have happened to America’s reputation if Obama hadn’t bothered to make a move? A handful of international relations scholars who have closely studied the outcomes when nations make public threats—and then do, or don’t, follow up—think the answer may be a surprising one: not much. In fact, they have found that when leaders back down from threats, they don’t necessarily suffer damage to their reputations. And, strangely, following through may not have the expected effect either: When leaders do go to war to back up their threats, their future threats may actually be taken less seriously.
When you negotiate by threat—“coercive diplomacy,” as it’s sometimes called—the reputational principle at stake is as simple as the tale of the boy who cried wolf. If we couldn’t believe you last time, why should we believe you now?
In his 2006 book, “Calculating Credibility,” Dartmouth College government professor Darryl Press assessed three 20th-century cases in which threats and follow-up figured prominently: the run-up to World War II, the faceoff over Berlin between the Soviet Union and the West between 1958 and 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis. He picked these cases as ideal tests for what he calls a “past actions” interpretation—the idea that a state’s earlier actions will define its current credibility. “If this reputation hypothesis is right, it would have to be right in these cases,” Press explained.
“When I went into this, I was certain that backing down was going to hurt credibility,” Press said. What he found instead was that even in cases where leaders backed down, they were taken seriously the next time. France and Britain acquiesced to Hitler’s demands throughout the 1930s. But, according to documents Press found from the era, when Hitler and his generals debated their strategy in Eastern Europe—which France and Britain had pledged to defend—it was French and British military capabilities they reckoned with, not their history of backing down.
After the war, between 1958 and 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued a series of ultimatums demanding that the Allies pull troops out of West Berlin. Khrushchev repeatedly backed down, reiterated his threats, and backed down again. Yet the United States consistently took his bellicose rhetoric seriously, increasing defense spending and improving nuclear readiness.
During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy might have looked back at Khrushchev’s blustering over Berlin and decided that his threats were not credible. But when Khrushchev proposed placing Soviet missiles in Cuba, his previous irresolution was erased from memory. His move was taken as a grave affront to US security and nearly precipitated a nuclear war.
What Press found in his research is that leaders are very concerned about their own perceived credibility, but rarely pay attention to others’ histories of follow-through. Reading through thousands of pages of archived documents, he said, “I might have found two about what adversaries had done in the past and what [policy makers] should infer from that.” Yet those same policy makers were convinced that their own credibility was at stake with each major decision.Continued...