August 12, 2005

Credibility, Power, Appeasement

I have a sticker on my coffee mug: "Please don't steal me... or else!" If someone came around to my cubicle and swiped my mug, I would, of course, be obliged to kick 'em in the shins, or maybe worse. If I just let it pass—without any "or else!"—they might do it again. So that's a pretty solid course of action for establishing office harmony, but does it work for countries? If a country backs down from a commitment, does that ruin its credibility?

Daryl Press, in this paper, says no, probably not. There are two theories of credibility out there: 1) "past actions" theory, which holds that credibility depends on one's record of keeping or breaking commitments. (There are broad and narrow versions of this; some narrow versions, for instance, say that the credibility counter is "reset" as soon as a new leader comes to power.) And 2) "current calculus" theory, which argues that leaders judge the credibility of an adversary's threats by looking only at the balance of power and the interests at stake in a given crisis. Past actions don't matter so much. Press argues for #2 is: power is the key determinant for credibility, although this may hold only for serious crises where a country has key national interests at stake. For minor issues where, for example, the U.S. has national preferences at stake—as in Kosovo or Somalia—but not vital national interests, the U.S. may have trouble making credible threats without a consistent prior pattern of living up to similar commitments.

As a case study, Press revisits Hitler's actions in Europe from 1933-39, and his look at the Sudetenland crisis gives the flavor of the thesis. Hitler, of course, had originally planned to invade Czechoslovakia, and was instead offered the Sudetenland by France and Britain. Germany's military generals very much opposed an invasion—so much so that they were willing to contemplate a coup in 1938—because they believed Britain and France would go to war over the matter, and win. It didn't matter at all to them that the Allies had done nothing about rearmament, or remilitarization of the Rhineland, or Anschluss. Memos show they took Allied threats seriously, focusing on balance-of-power considerations, rather than past appeasement. Hitler, for his part, finally came around and accepted the Sudetenland offer, but even while he was arguing strenuously for invasion, he too, cited balance-of-power reasons, and never mentioned Britain and France's "irresolution" or anything of the sort. Past actions contribute only a little to the credibility of one's threats.

Anyway, there's much more there that I can't summarize. I started reading this after seeing Gen. William Odom's argument that a U.S. withdrawal in Iraq wouldn't damage American "credibility." In this case, that's somewhat wrong. A hasty withdrawal would show prospective insurgents that the U.S. can't suffer very many casualties in a guerilla war, and that domestic considerations puts a limit on our ability to occupy a country. It would also confirm some of our military limits. But, as per Press, it probably wouldn't affect our credibility elsewhere, when national interests are on the line—as in, for example, discussions with Iran or North Korea or China. (So this would counter Greg Djerejian's argument about "showing resolve" here, although one might make the case that the situations are different.) One can also note that, had the U.S. backed down from invading Iraq in early 2003, after it became clear that inspectors weren't finding WMDs, our credibility per se might not have suffered much, as many hawks had feared. (Although it might have showed some countries that our threshold for fighting wars of choice is fairly high. So much the worse for wars of choice.)
-- Brad Plumer 2:42 PM || ||