How much does credibility matter in foreign affairs?

Under one view, credibility is like a chain.  If the United States does not keep one of its public promises, the credibility of the chain falls apart.  In essence observers are using the behavior of the American government to draw inferences about its true underlying type.  A single act of breaking a promise or failing to honor a commitment would show we really cannot be trusted, or that we are weak and craven, and so that characterization of our true type would be applied more generally to all or most of our commitments.

Under a second view, we don’t have that much credibility in the first place.  To be sure, we can be trusted to do what is in our self-interest.  But there is not much underlying uncertainty about our true type.  So we can promise Ruritania the moon, and fail to deliver it, and still the world thinks we would defend Canada if we had to, simply because such a course of action makes sense for us.  In this setting, our violation of a single promise changes estimates of our true scope of concern, but it does not much change anyone’s estimate of the true type of the American government.

Insofar as you believe in the first view, our inability/unwillingness to honor our commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine is a disaster.  Insofar as you hold the second view, our other commitments remain mostly credible.

For the most part, I see the second view as more relevant to understanding U.S. foreign policy than the first.  We’ve broken promises and commitments for centuries, and yet still we have some underlying credibility.  Remember those helicopters evacuating Saigon rooftops in 1975?

Still, when it comes to Taiwan, or those Japanese islands, or other Pacific islands, I think the first view plays a role.  That is, I think the world does not know our true type.  How much are we willing to risk conflict to limit Chinese influence in the Pacific?  Whatever you think should be the case, what is the case is not clear, perhaps not clear even to our policymakers themselves.  (In contrast there are plenty of data on the parameters of American preferences toward Middle East and Israel-linked outcomes, and our willingness to incur costs to alter those outcomes.)

That is another way of thinking about why the Ukraine crisis is scary for the Pacific.  It is one reason why the Nikkei was down 2.5% shortly after market opening Monday morning (Asia time) and ended up 1.3% down for the day.  The Chinese stock market did just fine.


I'm no expert on game theory, but I would have imagined that view #1 is important precisely in order to be able to make credible threats and promises that can be relied on to last beyond the duration of transitory short-term interests. The capacity to make such commitments would seem to be quite valuable in foreign affairs.

That ‘capacity’ could be hidden in other variables. Max U game theory can’t tell you a huge amount about the credibility of a sovereign power in terms of *virtuousness* or any criteria of willingness-to-cooperate as perceived by a skeptical ideologically-volatile international audience (including poorly educated ordinary Russians). No one really trusts a bankrupt. The perception, right or wrong, that the USA is technically bankrupt weighs in the balance. Imagine how different the international perception of US ‘security’ credibility would be if the country had had the discipline and foresight to forego some current consumption and maintain its competitive ‘economic’ credibility in terms which household-running people all over the world comprehend. And don’t forget the man on the street in China who knows he owns American debt. How credible is that. I’m not saying I believe any of this. Both Tyler’s scenarios are credible, though ‘weakness’ in the first view could be credit-worthiness as much as a deficit of manliness. Yesterday I wrote a blogpost on causations between the variables titled ‘Credible Commitment, War and Public Debt’ So it’s on my mind. There are good stories in recorded history about the linkages between credibility, war and debt.

When you lose the credibility of your commitments, you leave it up to the enemy to decide whether the next infraction is 'important enough' to worry about a response. And has history has shown us, other countries are really bad at determining where your red lines are if you lose the capability to simply tell them and have it be believed.

Hitler invaded Poland because he became convinced that the west would do nothing after he got away with taking the Sudetenland. He didn't realize that Poland was a real 'red line' for the west, because he'd already crossed several explicit 'red lines' without retribution. Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor because recent history had indicated that America had no stomach for a real fight in the Pacific. Japan was incapable of seeing the real 'red lines' for America.

That's my biggest worry with Putin. If he's allowed to take the Crimea without consequence, what does that do to the probability that he expands his adventure to the entire Ukraine? At that point do you then do something? If so, how much harder will be be than having opposed him right from the beginning? And if he does take the Ukraine without consequence, what do you do if you start seeing Russian military movements on Poland's border?

Do you want to risk world peace on the hope that your opponent doesn't make an attribution error? Or would clarity be a better idea?

Let the Ukrainians fight it out with the Russians. It's like two cousins having a fistfight--it's not your fight. I doubt Putin wants to conquer west Ukraine, since it will be like Vietnam, but even if he does, the US should let him then get him to support US objectives like disarming Iran, North Korea and/or destabilizing Syria in exchange. Realpolitics.

As for foreign policy, I think it's like Option #2: the US does whatever is in its best interest, which is often but not necessarity the right thing to do. Case in point: a while ago the US Navy ran one of their ships into a protected coral reef here in the Philippines, and they have yet to pay damages of a mere $1.5M, see here:

If it was China or Russian the USA would have paid promptly, since it's more high profile. In short, the USA is not an angel and does things that it perceives as its best interest. If for some reason, due to say a bureaucratic mixup, a completely innocent American was to be targeted by a drone strike you can bet it will be portrayed as a shade of grey rather than black and white, and for example some story will be concocted that the target was thought to be a terrorist based on rumor and flawed evidence. It's all a game, and every country plays it. War of all against all, foreign policy is a Hobbesian existence of dog eat dog.

Ray Lopez: "Let the Ukrainians fight it out with the Russians. It’s like two cousins having a fistfight–it’s not your fight."

That is a pretty good imitation of Neville Chamberlain: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."

If the Chamberlains of the world had been in charge in 1914 what do you think would have happened?

If the Chamberlains were in charge of every country, it would have been great. The problems only arise when you have at least one non-Chamberlain.

I question your premise that "Chamberlains" could have been in charge of the world for more than a blink of the eye of history. "Chamberlainism" is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. It is vulnerable to invasions by mutant strategies like Hitlerism or Bonapartism.

... and Putinism.

You do know that Neville Chamberlain's father was an extremely important politician in the years running up to WWI, right?

"You do know that Neville Chamberlain’s father was an extremely important politician in the years running up to WWI, right?"

Yes, but how important were Chamberlain's children?

Letting the Germans overrurn Denmark is like two cousins having a fistfight. But from 1864 and Holstein to 1866 and Austria, then 1870 and France was just six years.

But I guess you could look at my family, where a Germany France war is just a fistfight between cousins, where aren't bordering countries cousins, in Europe at least.

Putin was willing to conquer South Ossetia and I really doubt he wants an EU member Ukraine with a ton of native Russian speakers on his doorstep. Putin has been dreaming of a Russian counterpart to the EU, but without Ukraine any such arrangement would obviously be just Russia and a bunch of tiny countries.

I suspect a likely outcome at this point is Russian troops sitting in Crimea while the region 'votes' for independence, and when they do Russian troops will continue to sit there to make sure Crimea is 'protected'. I doubt Ukrainian troops want to start a shooting war and risk loosing half the country.

The question is how much pressure the US and EU can exert to stop this plan, I don't think anyone wants the US to get into a shooting war with Russia, but whether the West can hurt Russia enough economically is the question.

> while the region ‘votes’ for independence

Why the quotation marks? Do you have any idea how Russian-speaking majority feels? Can you explain why referendums are prohibited by Ukrainian law?

It is possible to 'overlearn' an historical lesson. 1938 is an excellent example.

How about 1980 with the Russians invading Afghanistan? We didn't do much there and it drained a lot of the Soviet Union empire. Frankly we don't have much credibility as The Ukranine.

1) Has little strategic or national security importance.
2) The Ukraine might simply divide with the East willingly going to Russia at this point.
3) It will awfully hard for The Ukraine to thrive without any Russian trade. (Think what happen to Mexico trade without the US.)
3) Why do we want to potentially dump another $1T into war? The economy is slowly coming back and wars suck this countries engergies. Notice the longer Recessions of 1974-1982, I simplifying that those years were long recession, and The Great Recession came at the tail end of both long conflicts.

1) Opposing Russian ambitions might have great strategic importance.

2) Some people in the east want to go to Russia, but not all. What about them? Even Crimea is only 57% Russian.

3) Doubtful. The EU could fill this void in the long run. Anyway "they need their trade with Russia" is far short of an argument for letting Russia invade

4) One could make a much stronger response to Russia than is currently being done without going to all-out war. For example, major sanctions on trade, stopping diplomatic relations, etc. I seriously doubt Putin is really willing to go to war with the U.S. He has just calculated (correctly) that Obama will do next to nothing in response.

You cannot name one thing outside of war that will deter Russia. Putin is playing to his domestic audience. They dont care what you think. The EU could act, but it has not. Think about that. Maybe they are worried about their energy needs. Maybe they dont see the advantage in pumping billions of dollars into a corrupt, fractured country. Finally, just exactly who are the good guys we should be supporting in Ukraine? This is much like Syria where there really isnt anyone we should want to support.


Well, except neither of your WW2 examples are true, though.

Hitler was an expert at pushing buttons - but he was also preparing the whole time for war. He *wanted* to draw a confrontation, and do it on terms most favourable to himself. He expected, and was exceedingly well prepared for, eventually going too far.

Japan on the other hand planned for Pearl Harbour as a decisive first strike; the American oil embargo had tied their hands, such that they lacked the resources to continue their imperial ambitions without breaking off diplomatic relations. As a result, they figured crippling the US Pacific fleet would give them enough of a head advantage to cement their gains and pass off their empire as a fait accompli.


The Sudetenland parallels are incredibly striking; Putin is following that example step by step. But given the continent's current political position it's hard to make an argument he's going to roll through the rest of the Ukraine. The Crimea is one thing, but Poland is now an EU member and it's hard to see credible threats to the sovereignty of the rest of the Ukraine not being responded to in some manner.

Ukraine had a lot of nuclear weapons after the fall of the USSR. We wanted them to give them up so we signed a treaty, along with several EU countries (Germany and the UK I think.) and Russia, to guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty. Foolishly the Ukraine trusted us, and the EU, but no one will ever make that stupid mistake again.

The lesson of this crisis is that if you have a big nasty neighbor you better get your own nukes. Welcome to the post-Obama world.

It wasn't a treaty it was a memorandum and even if was a treaty it was never ratified. Ukraine should have demanded that, I bet they could have got it too.

To quote Harold Ramis:

"You f'ed up, you trusted us"

Irradiating the steppes - along the remaining attendant externalities - strikes me as a poor long term outcome for Ukraine.

If we're talking about commitments, it seems to me that Ukraine would have a hard time credibly committing to using their weapons in case of a conventional attack - any more so than the EU does if it finds a belligerent Russia right up against Poland. It's not like *Russia* lacks nuclear weapons.

What's the outcome? Flattening St Petersburg or Moscow? It's not like they would have the capacity to take out all Russian nuclear weapons - the US never achieved that level of readiness. Attack once and all of your major population centres get wiped out in retribution. Clearly a poor bargain, even if you are looking at Russian subjugation.

No, MAD as a strategy is rather poor. If it takes a madman to credibly commit to using them, that madman strikes me as rather more likely to cock it all up in the first place.

The word we gave to Mikhail Gorbachev - that of course doesn't matter. But lets not forget the Obama administration spent $5 billion fermenting armed revolution in Ukraine, here's Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland:
Feel free to prove 'our word' and join up to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, I'm sure Obama and all the EU leaders can get plenty of volunteers to join you, here's what you'll be facing:
Yanukovich says he's still president:

"When you lose the credibility of your commitments, you leave it up to the enemy to decide whether the next infraction is ‘important enough’ to worry about a response. And has history has shown us, other countries are really bad at determining where your red lines are if you lose the capability to simply tell them and have it be believed."

Absolute words of wisdom which is why Tyler's post is nonsense. Hitler was genuinely shocked that Britain honored its commitments to Poland.

At the time of the Syrian back track, many people made this observation. Once Obama mentioned red lines, he placed the credibility of the US on the line. When he backed down, it caused everyone to question where the US actually stood on all its other commitments. There is a direct line from that to this Ukraine crisis. That it occurred so quickly indicates how aggressive Putin really is.

Given the events in Ukraine, Putin was likely to do something, but it is highly questionable if he would have risked an outright invasion.

If there had been more than the one chemical weapon attack, your argument would make more sense. However, Syria denied using weapons and quickly agreed to allow all its weapons to be destroyed. If Syria had responded with further chemical weapon attacks, we'd have troops in Damascus now (and about 8,000 US casualties to go with the occupation).
We've drawn no red lines in the Crimea.

It's your contention that Hitler wouldn't have invaded Poland had he known France and Britain would declare war because of that invasion (and not do anything other than making that declaration)? What's your support for that?

On the broader point of the post, I think the red line stuff gets overemphasized. People in this country view foriegn policy as if it's parenting -- you need follow through, the analogy goes, on threatened punishment in order for your threats to be credible and your authority to remain intact. But the US is not the world's parent. We are one country (a very important one, but just one) among many. No credible threats we are going to make (we won't and can't and shouldn't threaten nuclear war) are going to have much effect on what Russia does here. We need to stop thinking that the world revolves around what we say and do.

Insofar as you hold the second view, our other commitments remain mostly credible.

More correctly, our other commitments remain mostly unchanged. It is quite consistent to hold the second view and yet think that most US foreign policy commitments (to Taiwan, Japan, etc.) are not credible but have always been not credible, and that the Ukraine crisis does nothing to change that..

The sound of falling dominoes ......

'Still, when it comes to Taiwan'

They remember 1949 (being on the losing, American supported side), and also watched those helicopters leaving Saigon. From the U.S, Embassy, it must be noted, and not just some random rooftops - the Vietnamese had no worry about respecting American sovereignty when they kicked out all American presence from their country.,_Saigon

'or those Japanese islands'

Are you talking about the Japanese islands the Russians now claim (, or the islands the Japanese now claim, though both Taiwan and China agree the islands belong to Taiwan -

'Following the 1968 discovery of potential undersea oil reserves in the area and the 1971 transfer of administrative control of the islands from the United States to Japan, the latter's sovereignty over the territory is disputed by both the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC, commonly known as Taiwan).[9][10][11][12][13] The Chinese claim the discovery and control of the islands from the 14th century while Japan controlled them from 1895 until its surrender at the end of World War II. The United States administered the islands as part of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands from 1945 until 1972, when the islands reverted to Japanese control under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement between the United States and Japan.[14]

The islands are a contentious issue in the foreign relations between Japan and the PRC and between Japan and the ROC.[15] Despite the complexity of relations between the PRC and ROC, both governments agree that the islands are part of Taiwan as part of Toucheng Township in Yilan County of their respective divisions. Taiwan is not officially recognized as a sovereign state by Japan,[16] which regards the islands as a part of the city of Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture. Japan acknowledges neither the claims of the PRC nor the ROC to the islands and has not allowed the Ishigaki administration to develop them.'

'How much are we willing to risk conflict to limit Chinese influence in the Pacific?'

1949 provides a clear data point where that limit exists - but I'm sure that who lost China is not really much of a concern to anyone but old guard Birchers at this point.

It also comes down to who is President. I think Obama will do the right thing, if the right thing is for America to do nothing. Much of the time that's a good instinct (if only he had it for domestic affairs too). I'm pretty sure that Putin can see he has a reasonably free hand if he doesn't go too far.

So what is important in the context of Tyler's question, is that for the sake of maintaining diplomatic capital, the US does make a fair go of showing where the real red lines are. I suspect Obama will be quite poor at this, because he really is a lot more talk than trousers (see eg those Syrian red lines)..

The problem is, the U.S. already proclaimed that the Ukraine's current borders are a red line in the agreement for Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons. That is why there is no credibility if we say "Just kiddng, but here is the real red line".

The claim that this "is one reason why the Nikkei was down 2.5% shortly after market opening Monday morning (Asia time) and ended up 1.3% down for the day" is totally devoid of content. There is no way of knowing, even in principal, if this was one of the reasons why the Nikkei was down 2.5% shortly after the close and ended down 1.3% for the day. Anyway, there is nothing surprising about the Nikkei being up or down a few percent in a day. It happens all the time.

Once you read enough "X is one reason why the market did Y yesterday" posts & articles over the decades, you tune them out with nothing more than a mild bemusement.

That's why the job of media financial analyst is so much easier than weatherman. A weatherman tries to predict the future and takes a lot of heat if he gets it wrong. A financial analyst just has to look at what the market did, what was in the news, and blame one on the other. He's essentially predicting the past.

I've heard a fall in the Dow blamed on a rise in the price of oil, because higher energy costs are like a tax on the whole economy. I've also heard a rise in the Dow credited to a rise in the price of oil, because oil stocks form a large part of the Dow. How can I get a bogus job like this one? You can't lose.

Agreed. And if I had to hazard a guess I'd posit the following pathway as more likely:

Ukraine jitters -> "Risk Off" -> Defensive trades -> Yen Up -> Japanese exports down -> Nikkei down

still the world thinks we would defend Canada if we had to, simply because such a course of action makes sense for us

The current powers-that-be could convince themselves that it's not so bad to have a belligerent enemy residing up north.

For the current powers-that-be, Canada is worth defending only if it's what necessary to keep the hoi polloi from throwing them out of office.

Yet one message is clear: No country whatsoever will give up its nuclear arsenal anymore in exchange for US' guarantees. This was Ucraine's big mistake.

And while we look at the various conflicts in east Asia let's not forget the middle east. Israel's opinion of the Obama government is already low and - no matter wether you believe this is justified or not - this means they will now regard American guarantees even less.

Putin once said the break up of the soviet union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 21st century. I believe now he was right. Because the US alone don't have what it takes to enforce peace and international law.

By the way: The events leading to World War I seemed just as relatively unimportant as those around tiny Crimea or "those islands in the japanese sea".

I guess the exporters of military equipment are happy today.
Interesting times ahead.

Interesting times ahead.

This is why I'm concerned about Croatia having become part of NATO. It's not hard to imagine another war between Serbia and Croatia, but this time dragging NATO and Russia into the conflict.

A Japanese guy can be a liar or extremely honest. Either way, he is Japanese. The Bulgarian will always be a Bulgarian. The Russians will always be Russians. Failing to see the diplomat or politician in the context of his tribe is failing to understand the world. Americans are probably the worst at this, but that's part of our culture. The yapping about keeping promises and defending freedom is for domestic consumption. Our foundation myth says we are not like everyone else, when it comes to nationalism. So, we pretend to be different.

As far as what Ukraine means down the line, the Chinese already know the current American leadership is weak and stupid. Ukraine does not change anything. They also know it is in their best interest to let us think abandoning the region is our idea. They have time on their side.

How the Chinese leadership is smart to stay out of the conflict? That seems to be their foreign policy MO in which they stay out of other countries.

"How the Chinese leadership is smart to stay out of the conflict? That seems to be their foreign policy MO in which they stay out of other countries."

That seems to be a misreading of history. I'm sure a few million Tibetans would certainly disagree with the statement.

I don't buy the China Imperial bogeyman, although I understand this is a no-brainer for the military-industrial complex. OK, China hasn't always been nice to its less powerful neighbors. To me, this is a bare minimum qualification for joining the human race based on my read of history. When it comes to global scale imperialism, though, the Chinese guys are pikers. At least a half dozen Western countries have a more alarming history in this regard.

"I don’t buy the China Imperial bogeyman. "

Whose saying the Chinese are a bogeyman? I'm saying that they are indeed human and will act like humans have historically acted.

"That seems to be their foreign policy MO in which they stay out of other countries."

I was responding to this statement, which is just wrong. Tibet being the obvious case in point. How was the invasion and conquest of Tibet in the 1950's not an imperialistic act?


"I’m saying that they are indeed human and will act like humans have historically acted."

In this case, you don't need to cite any history of imperial ambition. The fact that there is another country out there not under our dominion, especially one with 1.2 billion people, is by itself enough to justify [fill in the blank] spending on our military-industrial complex.

Look, we simply can't afford to be world cop anymore. It's been fun, but we're just going to have to learn to live in a world with other foci of power. Most humans already do this, and Americans used to.

"Look, we simply can’t afford to be world cop anymore. It’s been fun, but we’re just going to have to learn to live in a world with other foci of power. Most humans already do this, and Americans used to. "

Brian D, I'm pretty sure I didn't make any pro-US world cop argument in my posts. ;)


My bad.

Chinese chauvinism keeps them from wandering too far from home. If you think the rest of the world is full of dirty barbarians, job number one is keeping them out. Going out to live with them is never going to be high on the list. That's not to say they have no desires to dominate the Pacific Rim. I suspect they figure time is on their side. The Japanese are too old to be a threat. Taiwan and Korea are too small. The rest are too backward. Once the US recedes over the horizon, China will naturally dominate the region. Therefore there is no need to rush anything. Unlike the cult running American, the Chinese will not immanentize the eschaton.

and the Ukrainian woman may not be a woman until it's too late

I think we've got a bigger problem underlying the credibility issue, which relates to who is "we" and what is "our?"

By way of example, if Israel faced an existential threat, we know the Jewish diaspora and evangelical Christians would be taking up collections and calling Congressmen. But plenty of other Americans are starting to wonder what our dog is in that fight, and no longer subscribe to Protestant Christian eschatology. There are more African and Middle Eastern Muslims and Levantine Christians arriving every day and they're not pro-Israel. I've yet to see any Black Americans marching in the streets for Israel, and I imagine Latinos who will probably be the majority of the country in two generations are rather indifferent over Israel as well.

Same issue with Taiwan and the US's increasing numbers of Han Chinese-Americans, and lots of others from the Asian sub-continent. Do any of them care about places like Taiwan, Latvia and Israel?

"We" have a lot of commitments that were made when America was a very different place. I think this is beginning to worry a lot of people, so now instead of talking about "American interests," we talk about warm, fuzzy things like democracy! and human rights! which we assume won't offend anybody.

And that leads to another problem, which is whipping up taxpayer support for things like a potentially theater-wide war for Syrian Wahabbist rule. That one didn't get very far.

In other words, Obama was right to stay clear of Syria. Right, A-G?

Yes, it was that stubborn old isolationist Obama, quoting from his mentor Senator Robert Taft, who told the American people that Syria was a den of thieves and whatever atrocities a shadowy, incoherent opposition may allege, there is no casus belli for war against an international sovereign for what it does to its own people and in any event, there was no treaty violation with the US and war would not result in any gain to American territory or national wealth. Shortly thereafter, Obama announced his intention to join the Constitution Party.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the point is it's hard to sell the NAACP, La Raza, ACORN or municipal employee labor unions on why we need a huge bluewater Navy and overseas military bases for things like democracy in Syria or any other place that most people don't know and don't care about.

I'm not following the snark.

Obama stayed out of think that's the right thing to do...thus Obama did the right thing, right?

Obama was made to do the right thing, because of Americans' notable lack of enthusiasm for the cause of voting rights for Syrians.

This is the two-pronged nature of the problem: increasingly diverse Americans are going to come down on different sides of overseas inter-tribal conflicts. This worries policymakers, so instead of talking about parochial notions like the "American interest" or American cultural/territorial integrity, they talk about incorporeal, universalist notions like "democracy" and "human rights." Which leads to the second prong of the problem: it's hard to get people worked up to pay higher taxes and enlist in the military when the only thing we're fighting "for" is so groups of people we don't know in places we've never heard of get to vote in elections.

So Obama really wanted to send in the troops? That doesn't sound accurate.

I think mood affiliation makes it hard to reconcile the fact that Obama's foreign policy leanings tend towards non-intervention, which most libertarians should applaud. But how can they, because Obama.

"On September 1, President Obama laid out the case for a targeted military action against Syrian regime targets as a result of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons that killed over one thousand people--including hundreds of children. The President also made clear that this would not be an open-ended intervention, and there will be no American troops on the ground. Instead, our action would be limited in duration and scope.

The President has put forward a proposed authorization that is focused on his clearly stated objectives – preventing and deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons within, to, or from Syria; degrading the Assad regime’s capacity to carry out future chemical weapons attacks; and deterring this behavior in others – including Iran and Hizballah – who would otherwise feel emboldened to use such weapons.

While the President was clear on the need for action, he announced he would seek Congressional authorization for the use of force.

On September 3, following his September 1 announcement, President Obama met with Congressional leaders at the White House to discuss his plan for military action.

On September 7, in his weekly address, President Obama makes the case for limited and targeted military action to hold the Assad regime accountable for its violation of international norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.

On September 9, Ambassador Rice laid out the case for the damage that would be done to our national security and that of our partners and allies should we fail to respond to enforce the longstanding international norm against the use of chemical weapons."

To Obama's credit, he is not particularly engaged in foreign policy, being far more concerned with distributing largesse to key Democrat-voting groups and visiting the critically important nations of Indonesia and Kenya. That doesn't leave a lot of time and energy for worrying about the foreign commitments made by old, white Cold Warriors.

We also have to ask, what's Putin's credibility? According to Merkel he seems ready to do anything, so he seems to have been successful in making people afraid of him.

"We also have to ask, what’s Putin’s credibility?"

Pretty high, honestly. How many people think that Putin is just bluffing? And you'll note that Putin has been careful not to verbally commit himself to a particular course of action.

a lot more than Obama

Damn you Puntin. my stocks are falling

Obama will figure out some way to make this worse and lie about it. dont worry

Republicans especially tend to adhere to view #1 (extremely naive) which is why I always think that I may get more worthwhile opinions on foreign policy from 13-year olds involved in model U.N

Exactly, except the ones in model UN are already too acculturated and civilized, which is why you need to draft kids into model UN. I know some rural Idaho kids who got drafted to be Senegal. They were very well behaved but they were not invited back, they were under the impression you could "win".

I'm optimistic this will blow over in a few months, lest Obama screw things up. Steven pinker is right n that market fundamentalism has replaced religious fundamentalism, making the world more peaceful.

Whoa hang on. Steven Pinker argues in 'the better angels of our nature', that despite evidence to the contrary (such as WW1 and WW2) the trend over the very long term - 1000s of years - is away from violent death. This might be true, but even if he is right he isn't saying there won't be wars, and the situation in the Ukraine if it was to lead to a war would be analogous to the inter-state rivalry and ethnic tensions that were some of the causes of those two world wars. That said, I agree with you that I think in this case it will blow over, but as I say that isn't because of market fundamentalism (which was if anything stronger in Victorian times).

Myr theory (or analogy, I'm not sure it rises to the standard of 'theory') is that US foreign policy particularly in terms of credibility is like 5 card draw geopolitical poker. In some games - the ones that are held in the Western Hemisphere, the European Union, the Pacific and Australasia - the US player gets to pick extra cards, in some cases we even get to see the cards before we pick them. In those areas the US has huge advantages which means it's unlikely anyone is going to challenge us because unless they get lucky, they're going to lose. In darker corners of the world, like the Former Soviet Union, China, etc. the US is just a poker player like any other, albeit the one with far and away the biggest bankroll and therefore staying power. In the places where we have extra cards we almost always go straight for the win (and do.) When we have no advantage in the cards we tend to bluff and play for time counting on our staying power to win through in the end. The former strategy was how we won WWII, the latter how we won the Cold War. You may not credit this but I actually think the US is a pretty good Geopolitical poker player. Of course it helps to have those extra cards.

As I pointed out yesterday, the US has never as far as I know issued a guarantee to the Ukraine about its borders. Just because a President signs something, this is not the same as the US as a whole. The President is not king, he does not have that power. Only Congress and the President together have that power and I am betting that except for NATO there are few such guarantees out there.

Sounds like we need to have a lot of research going on to see who exactly gets a guarantee from the US and who just has some papers signed by a President or their spokesman.

Violent attack on Taiwan would be a clear red line. They've done public polling on this before and I think a solid majority of Americans support military action to defend Taiwan. Given how isolationist people are lately, that's something.

Senkakus? Scarborough Shoal? If China shoots a plane down or sinks a ship, there will be no US response. Even if they build on some of these islands, it's likely nothing will happen. Of course doing any of these things would throw fencers like Singapore and Malaysia into America's loving arms, so it wouldn't be the best choice.

Anyway, I think Tyler's proposal #1 applies if a legit democracy is involved. You couldn't sit on the sidelines if Russia tried to eat Estonia or Poland.

I would be impressed if a majority of Americans merely knew from whom we would be defending Taiwan.

Or knew what and where Taiwan is.

I have always told Taiwanese friends you can't count on us unless you can hold out for 96-136 hours and be willing to let a lot of people die. Because while I think the American people are willing to fight a war for Taiwan our national leadership and commercial interests are deluded cowards.

I still believe this, but it really depends on the president,

The reason I think that not backing Taiwan is the position of deluded cowards is that a China who invaded Taiwan would be wrecking the world economy anyway and so destabilize Asia that any gains from appeasing China would be meaningless. It is like the Sino Japanese War. The Japanese were determined to eliminate Western economic interests, so appeasing Japan was pointless for the US and Britain. We would lose our trade and investment either way.

I also don't think the PRC could take Taiwan without massive casualties, if the Taiwanese fight. That would be the biggest maritime invasion in history.

Commitment is always and everywhere a question of what price you are willing to pay to achieve a desired goal.

The US pulled out of Somalia and Lebanon because it was not willing to pay the price to achieve the results it wanted. The US is not willing to risk war to defend Ukraine - the prize is not worth the cost. Ukraine is poor and hopelessly corrupt. The periphery of Europe is a much higher priority. (Personally, I think the US should broker a deal where Russia buys Crimea from Ukraine for a large sum in cash, and a contract to supply natural gas at a reasonable price - that would be cheaper for everyone including the Russians).

The United States would be willing to lose a few thousand soldiers to defend Taiwan - it would not be willing to see San Francisco nuked. If China did attack Taiwan, the Western world would isolate China economically and China would collapse from within.

It may be that America's biggest asset is not its commitment to its friends but the fact that it is heavily armed and has a reputation for irrational violence. Who, after all, goes out of their way to provoke a heavily armed psychopath?

The cato institute, AEI, and heritage foundation believe that the best way to secure Amerca's future is to spread democracy and capitalism abroad, even if it costs lives and money, or the mission is ill-defined. The war is won when there is a mcdonalds and stabucks in ever neighborhood. While the Bush doctrine seems to have fallen out of favor among the mainstream GOP, the evidence shows that countries that are the most backwards are also the most hostile towards capitalism.

I agree with spreading capitalism and democracy. The problem is that you can't do it through armed invasion unless you are willing to spend a lot of money and kill very large numbers of people. The US failed to do it in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, it would have been far cheaper to just flood the country with free internet access and wait. In Iraq, it would have been cheaper in blood and treasure to have bought off Hussein.

biggest asset is not its commitment to its friends but the fact that it is heavily armed and has a reputation for irrational violence. Who, after all, goes out of their way to provoke a heavily armed psychopath?

Which country are you talking about here??

The "heavily armed psychopath" is an allusion to the uSA.

In the run-up to Pearl Harbor, say from 1920 on, the US had two (Pacific) options: abandon the Philippine Islands or build a navy that Japan could respect (fear). The US did neither. And so, oceans of American and Japanese blood and treasure were spilt.

The Obama regime's serial jibber-jabber campaigns echo the inaction of the pre-WWII US insolationists. All talk. No action. No batttleships. No troops. However, WWIII isn't what's going to finish us. We did it to ourselves. In a few years, the US will be Zombie Land.

Angela Merkel has no army or navy to speak of, and no stones.

Golda Meir on the other hand . . .

If we're drawing lessons from history, doesn't WWII teach us that economic power can be converted into military power in short order? The US military in the 1930s was pretty dilapidated, but by 1944...

Absolutely, and 400,000+ young Americans were dead.

Are you suggesting that a strong US military build-up in the 1930s would have dissuaded Germany and Japan? I'm not seeing it.

Japan, maybe. The plan was to knock the US out of combat via sneak attack until they could establish an empire they could defend. That would have looked a lot harder to do with a bigger US Pacific presence.

Germany, arguably, had bigger things to worry about than the US.

Yes, all is lost.

Actually the US agreed in 1935 to give the Philippines independence in 1946.

And the US Navy was limited by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1936. The section of the naval treaty that gave the US more ships then the Japanese was part of the reason Japan was unfriendly to the US. It was internationalism not isolationism which limited the US military.

The Japanese were also miffed by publication of Yardley's book, which revealed that the Americans had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew the Japanese negotiating position going into the conference.

This is the problem with letting successive Presidents make up foreign policy on the fly.

Does anyone doubt that if North Korea invaded the south we would intervene? The Us and South Korea have a properly ratified Mutual Defense Treaty. Likewise NATO etc...

Congress needs to get back control of foreign policy as laid out in formal treaties.

Treaties made by old, dead, white men who thought they were killing commies for Christ. Yeah, I think there's some doubt. I think a couple of generations from now Americans will have very different priorities.

Today [...] Chaplain Charlie will tell you about how the free world will conquer Communism with the aid of God and a few Marines! God has a hard-on for Marines because we kill everything we see! He plays His games, we play ours! To show our appreciation for so much power, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls! God was here before the Marine Corps! So you can give your heart to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Corps!

Credibility has a lot to do with, not only willingness to keep that promise, as well as the ability to keep that promise. There are promises we just don't have the ability to keep. So we must be very careful about over promising. The promises we have the ability to keep can have major costs too. Are we the people willing to pay those prices ? Is economic benefits the only way to define our interest ? Do we really care about other nations and their people, or are these just slogans ? It is a very important issue to think about, discuss, and let our government and politicians know.

Think Vietnam War. We thought we have the stomach for it, and we later find that we don't. That's how a war was lost.

Bill, I agree with your point. It's the ability to keep the promise - as well as the ability to have the support of the American people to pursue military objectives. There's little discussion in willingness of the American people to support military action anywhere in this thread. In hindsight, perhaps it seems best to keep the powder dry until it's vitally important - and not spend the public reserve of support on a voluntary campaign like Iraq. It weakens support for any subsequent involvement (like Libya, Syria, Ukraine, whatever is next).

How much are you armchair warriors willing to increase your taxes for these wars or military spending. How much did Iraq cost. Where are the Japanese, Germans, and South Koreans. How much are they willing to pay.

"How much did Iraq cost." About as much as the annual Obama deficit.

Guess again. And, how can you say an inherited military budget is Obamas deficit?

Deficit was from 167 billion in 2007. You guess again.

Maybe it's time to change the terms of The Axis' contracts?

The important side of the "follow through matters" school is at the front end. It's simply not practical to follow through on all the promises, especially all the implicit or explicit-but-non-treaty promises floating out there. Someone who endorses that theory needs to foster promises carefully and pay them out sparingly. The promise to protect Ukraine's territorial integrity was a fine gesture, one that probably made more sense in a world where the fate of countries Angola and Nicaragua were so central to keeping the Reds out of Omaha and Mayberry that it seemed normal to shovel money and bullets across the globe.

But now we're in a situation where a semi-autonomous republic of a country is quasi occupied by a large power, but the local population may in fact prefer this outcome. So to protect the ill-considered, easily granted and lightly bonded promise made ~20 years ago, we'd spark a civil war slash border war whose object is to overrule the likely self-determination wishes of the local populace, likely resulting in heavy costs and maybe casualties for the quasi-client state on whose behalf we made the promise? Ukraine is already insolvent, teetering near some sort of default, and will rely on Russian trade and commerce for the foreseeable future. If the Crimeans want to be Russian, and the costs of regaining a breakaway region are likely to be heavy, then promise or not it's a bad idea.

I just don't think commitment to promises should matter so much. It's clear that the US has an enormous stockpile of weapons. Maybe it makes more sense to preserve a peace when it's not clear anybody is terribly worse off by the status quo in Crimea other than the pre-Sochi Olympics borders of Ukraine and the 1993 promises of Pres. Clinton.

Only sensible comment so far.

Vietnam is instructive here, I think. First there is a strong sense in which the US retreat from its obligations in Vietnam undercut its credibility, but there is also a sense in which the US willingness to involve itself at great cost in the protection of an ally for nearly 10 years – in spite of having little in the way of a “self-interest” – suggested that it could not be easily written out of geopolitical calculations. Indeed, it is reasonably clear that the US involvement in Vietnam played a key role in stopping communism in Indonesia and Thailand.

What made Vietnam damaging to US credibility was not that the US “lost” in any way that we would normally understand that word. Rather it is that the US and its South Vietnam ally had won the conflict but that the US threw a tantrum and handed South Vietnam over to the North to somehow prove a point. The US had won a war at significant cost, but then refused to pay the relatively very small cost required to maintain the resulting status quo. And it was willing to ignore its treaty obligations to an ally and the wholesale violation of a treaty by North Vietnam to do so. This raised fundamental questions regarding the willingness of the US to defend its status and support its allies.

Isn't that what we are doing again?

Israel, Taiwan, the Philippines, should all be running scared. Even South Korea should think about this when they look at future status of forces agreements.

Or maybe they should realize the truth of the modern world, the US can't be nor should it be the world's policeman anymore.
Certainly not in the unilateral way we used to run things after WWII. Those days are long gone.

The Philippines told us to leave.

I think South Korea would absolutely slaughter North Korea.

No kidding. I don't think they'd leave a single North Korean soldier alive. And I bet they'd tell the survivors and families straggling southward to turn around and go back home.

The last sentence is silly. They might rout their army but they would welcome back their countrymen with open arms, just like West Germany did theirs.

As I have read, the South Koreans are appalled at the prospect of having to bail out their strange, ignorant northern cousins with whom, unlike Germany, they fought a bloody civil war.

I thought it was all about nations/races/blood with you?

I'm not Korean.

Meaning, you're always going on about how the US is doomed because of race mixing/immigration of 'the other', and how the EU is doomed because it's a forced marriage of different tribes...shouldn't the Koreans, who are as close as brothers in tribal terms, in fact basically the same 'tribe', be very eager to reunite? At least from a racial/tribal perspective?

Aren't we talking about a similar situation to the Kurds, a unified tribe/race/nation artificially divided by borders quite recently drawn?

The Koreans are in the middle of a family feud. The Kurds are not, and moreover, they recognize blood ties over the State's legal ones.

That's the good thing about blood ties that libertarians seem strangely unable to acknowledge: blood ties aren't the State's to give or take away. It's a natural organizing principle for a Stateless or minarchist society that libertarians do backflips around.

"Isn’t that what we are doing again?"

No, not currently with the Ukraine. We have a Memorandum of Security Assurances which no one is going to mistake with a treaty of mutual defense. It's certainly may be tough on some Ukranians, but Russia's actions are not the fault of the US nor the UK (who also signed).

In particular, here is what the nations agreed to regarding defense:

"4. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used;

6. Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America will consult in the event a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments."

This kind of blows Tyler's #1 out of the water. Our actual commitment to Ukraine is pretty minimal.


+1. It's good to actually read texts.

I would note, though, that Article 4 makes a rookie legal drafting mistake. There is a syntactical ambiguity as to whether "in which nuclear weapons are used" just modifies "a threat of agression" or both "an act of aggression" and "a threat of agression." Can someone read the non-English versions to figure out which is meant?

Perhaps read something by someone who has done some systematic analysis of the question? Always a good place to start.

Off hand, I'd say that credibility matters a great deal if you have given a large number of people promises with similar levels of guarantees.

Looking at Europe, Germany can probably rest easily in the belief that the US is more committed to its defense than to Ukraine's. But how about Poland? Byelorussia / Czech Republic / Romania / Hungary? If some of those countries start rearming or, alternatively, repositioning themselves closer in the Russian orbit, do the others have to do so as well?

Ukraine is not a member of NATO. I do not think that credibility regarding mutual defense is all that much at stake here (and really, how many Poles stand ready to defend US territory?).

While this may simply indicate that I have not spent much time around Americans in recent times, It has been a while since I had a conversation with someone who thinks that America is truly there to defend democracy and promote individual freedoms worldwide. Rather, I think most people understand that American administrations manipulate the public and/or try to develop greater support for overseas missions by appealing to traditional American aspirations. Maybe the world would believe them if they weren't seen as excluding all non-pro-America forces from actual participation in democratic process when American military and intelligence is involved.

I think the USA has a long way to go to build credibility, whether of a world wide public who disbelieves their pro-democracy motives or on the part of diplomats who may question whether the USA has extended more commitments than it can back up.

We live in an increasingly multipolar world, regardless of which metric you wish to use. This process will continue for some time. Things are getting more complicated. Other powers (Russia, China, Brazil, etc.) need to be legitimized in numerous ways in order to put them in a situation where they can be seen as credibly promoting both their self interest and stability at the same time.

I noted Obama's emphasis today on Russia's self interest -- that once it/Putin realized its self interest it would pull back from the brink. The markets seem to think, at least, that Putin's move is not in Russia's self interest. By the same token, the markets also seem to believe Russia is not going to reverse course.

The lesson here, and of WWI and WWII and likely other historical examples, is that all else being equal, the world would be far better of under a system where view 2 is dominant, since view 1 "commitments" are far more susceptible to misjudgement.

An example of view 2 might be a nuclear-armed Japan instead of Japan maybe-or--maybe-not being under the US nuclear umbrella. Of course that is not all else being equal. That is the rub.

While we're on the subject of historical examples, what about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 … or its invasion of Mexico in 1848? See

"(In contrast there are plenty of data on the parameters of American preferences toward Middle East and Israel-linked outcomes, and our willingness to incur costs to alter those outcomes.)"

Does anyone have any links for such studies?

It would be fun to use them and make predictions on possible moves on Taiwan by the PRC.

In 1951, ahead of the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the U.S. plotted and supported the reactionary forces of the Tibetan upper classes to resist the People's Liberation Army to liberate Tibet. While its plot to help the Dalai Lama flee Tibet failed, it said.

Speaking of credibility we never made any "commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine" so it's a little hard to see how not honoring it is a disaster in any view.

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