America’s Reputation Isn’t On The Line

by Patrick Appel

Back in May, Jonathan Mercer spelled out why national “credibility” is a terrible reason to go to war:

Do leaders assume that other leaders who have been irresolute in the past will be irresolute in the future and that, therefore, their threats are not credible? No; broad and deep evidence dispels that notion. In studies of the various political crises leading up to World War I and of those before and during the Korean War, I found that leaders did indeed worry about their reputations. But their worries were often mistaken.

For example, when North Korea attacked South Korea in 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was certain that America’s credibility was on the line. He believed that the United States’ allies in the West were in a state of “near-panic, as they watched to see whether the United States would act.” He was wrong.

When one British cabinet secretary remarked to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee that Korea was “a rather distant obligation,” Attlee responded, “Distant — yes, but nonetheless an obligation.” For their part, the French were indeed worried, but not because they doubted U.S. credibility. Instead, they feared that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory. Later, once the war was underway, Acheson feared that Chinese leaders thought the United States was “too feeble or hesitant to make a genuine stand,” as the CIA put it, and could therefore “be bullied or bluffed into backing down before Communist might.” In fact, Mao thought no such thing. He believed that the Americans intended to destroy his revolution, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

Similarly, Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, has found that the Soviet Union did not think the United States was irresolute for abandoning Vietnam; instead, Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests. And, in his study of Cold War showdowns, Dartmouth College professor Daryl Press found reputation to have been unimportant. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets threatened to attack Berlin in response to any American use of force against Cuba; despite a long record of Soviet bluff and bluster over Berlin, policymakers in the United States took these threats seriously. As the record shows, reputations do not matter.