The U.S. Doesn't Need to Prove Itself in Ukraine

War hawks claim America's policies abroad will embolden enemies and undermine allies. They're wrong.

Reuters/The Atlantic

The American people may not much care, but among the foreign-policy elite, public opinion is undergoing its sharpest shift since the Iraq War went south. Fears of overstretch are out; fears of vacillation are in. Russia’s shrewd and thuggish behavior in Ukraine has alarmed not just the Dick Cheney-Bill Kristol crowd, for which every American adversary is Nazi Germany and every contested space is the Sudetenland, but many in the sensible center as well. The clearest evidence yet comes courtesy of that tribune of worldly prudence, The Economist, which declares in this week’s cover essay that “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends.” The Obama administration’s “retreats,” warns the magazine’s accompanying editorial, have sparked “a nagging suspicion among friends and foes that on the big day America simply might not turn up.”

This is bunk. There are legitimate criticisms of Obama’s individual policies. In Syria, he may have missed an opportunity to arm, and shape, the anti-Assad opposition before jihadists took over, and calling Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons a “red line” was clearly a mistake. In Ukraine, it’s conceivable that harsher immediate retaliation in Crimea might have stopped Vladimir Putin there, although such a response might also have fractured Western unity. Where The Economist, and other newly hawkish critics of Obama’s foreign policy, go wrong is in asserting that Obama’s policies in one corner of the globe have emboldened adversaries and demoralized allies elsewhere. That’s an old and costly illusion. Call it the “credibility fallacy.”

Since the dawn of the Cold War, American policymakers and commentators have repeatedly insisted that the U.S. defend allies in one part of the world to show allies in others that America’s promises enjoy “credibility.” And again and again, the result has been to silence discussion of whether the country in question actually merits the expenditure of American money and the spilling of American blood.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, George Kennan urged his superiors in the Truman administration to distinguish between those areas of the globe that were important enough to defend against Soviet advance and those that were not. But by the Korean War, Kennan’s more limited strategy was overtaken by Paul Nitze’s NSC-68, which insisted that, “any substantial further extension of the area under the domination of the Kremlin would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled [anywhere else].” Whether the country under Soviet threat mattered in its own right was now irrelevant. Every country mattered because if the U.S. acquiesced to Soviet domination anywhere, it would lose credibility everywhere. “The effect,” writes John Lewis Gaddis, “was to vastly increase the number and variety of interests deemed relevant to [American] national security, and to blur distinctions between them.”

But the real disaster came in Vietnam. As a general rule, the men who led America into war did not see Vietnam itself as of great value. What haunted them was the fear that if America did not uphold its commitments there, it would demoralize America’s allies, and embolden the Soviets, in places that really mattered, like Central Europe. “Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand,” declared Lyndon Johnson in April 1965, “are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word.” If the United States did not uphold its guarantees to Saigon, added Secretary of State Dean Rusk, its “guarantees with regard to Berlin would lose their credibility.”

Ironically, the very European leaders whose morale Johnson and Rusk feared undermining if America abandoned South Vietnam—men like British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and French President Charles de Gaulle—privately urged the U.S. not to escalate the war. In the end, after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese had died, the United States did abandon South Vietnam. And the world shrugged. Yes, communists racked up victories in some other corners of the developing world in the 1970s. But they lost ground in others. And in the heart of Europe, the place American policymakers really cared about, NATO held together and the Soviets stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain.

So dramatic was the contrast between the importance America’s leaders ascribed to global credibility and the results on the ground that academics began studying the concept. In his 1994 book, Peripheral Visions, which tested whether between 1965 and 1990 American weakness in one region of the world had emboldened Moscow in others, Ted Hopf, then of the University of Michigan, concluded that the “Soviets continued to attribute high credibility to the United States in strategic areas of the globe because they saw no logical connection between US behavior in areas of negligible interest and its future conduct in places with critical stakes.” In his 2005 book, Calculating Credibility, Dartmouth’s Daryl Press tested the same hypothesis—that weakness somewhere emboldens aggression elsewhere—using different twentieth-century case studies. He too found that, “A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by its power and interests. If a country makes threats that it has the power to carry out—and an interest in doing so—those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past…. Tragically, those countries that have fought wars to build a reputation for resolve have wasted vast sums of money and, much worse, thousands of lives.”

Sadly, it is precisely this hoary fiction that The Economist now perpetuates when it declares that Obama’s “failure to enforce his own ‘red line’ over chemical weapons in Syria gravely damaged his credibility.” In fact, The Economist presents no evidence that Obama’s Syria policy played a role in Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. (Which makes sense when you consider that the Russian president did something similar in Georgia in 2008 even after George W. Bush had enforced his “red line” in Iraq with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops). “Credibility is also easily lost and hard to rebuild,” adds the magazine, gravely. It’s the kind of statement that sounds sober and authoritative. But it happens to be untrue. “Establishing a reputation as a nation able and willing to defend its interests,” concludes Hopf, “is a much easier task than deterrence theorists and Munich analogists [and British magazine editors] have maintained.”

The grim developments in Ukraine fit Hopf and Press’s theory quite well. In assessing America’s likely response to aggression in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin looked not at what America had done in Syria, or anywhere else, but at how much America cared about Ukraine. The evidence was clear: Ukraine was not a country the United States was willing to risk war over. The decision not to include it in NATO had made that abundantly clear. Putin’s assessment turned out to be right.

Similarly, in assessing America’s likely response to attacks on the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) islands, China will likely draw on what it knows—from America’s public statements, private messages, past actions, and military deployments—about how much the United States cares about islands in the East China Sea. Believing that Beijing will determine Washington’s willingness to defend the Senkakus based on American policy in Syria or Ukraine makes about as much sense as believing that America will assess China’s likelihood of attacking the Senkakus based on China’s policies in Syria or Ukraine.

So why the obsession with credibility? What many contemporary commentators like about the concept, I suspect, is exactly what Kennan disliked. It prevents Americans from having to make hard judgments about the particulars of any given conflict and the scope of our national interests. If every place matters because of its effect on every other place, then foreign policy becomes much simpler: Everywhere America is tested, America must show resolve.

The United States has paid dearly for such thinking in the past. What a pity that it’s making a comeback today.