At Their Word

Arnold Kling doesn't write much about foreign policy, but his ideological manifesto nicely lays out one of the presuppositions behind frequent Munich-invocations in the American political debate:

10. When foreign leaders issue threats against us, we take them at their word and act accordingly.

The only problem with this principle is that it's totally nuts. For one thing, is there a reason we take threats at face value but not other kinds of statements? Presumably we don't, as a rule, take all statements made by foreign leaders at face value. We don't do this for the same reason we don't, as a rule, take all statements made by people in general at face value: Sometimes it serves people's interests to lie. If it sometimes serves people's interests to lie, this applies to foreign leaders as well. It applies to both the threats and the non-threats of foreign leaders. You should always, obviously, take into account what people are saying to you. In general, however, and especially in international politics, it rarely makes sense to evaluate statements at face value.

To take an example, when George W. Bush promised to "end tyranny" as a general phenomenon around the word, should the People's Republic of China took his threat to overthrow their government at face value? Launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike? Of course not. That would be stupid. People say things for all kinds of reasons -- responses need to be tailored to the actual situation, not to remarks others utter. What's more, think how easily foreign leaders could push us around if they knew all threats would be responded to as if they were 100 percent credible.