Credibility Will Survive Washington’s Recent Strategic Retreats

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Photo: Joe Crimmings/flickr.

To its critics, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has become one of retreat. The decision not to engage militarily in Syria undermined the United States’ credibility around the world, and now there is the crisis in Ukraine. With Russia in partial control of Crimea, the critics feel further aggrieved. Surely the administration’s passivity and weakness helped provoke the incursion, they now argue.

The critics’ argument rests on the ‘demonstration principle’, i.e. the notion that how a state responds to one event establishes a reputation that others will react to in the future. It’s a principle with a rich history. For instance, historians generally believe that Britain’s willingness to accept Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia 1938 encouraged Hitler to think that there would be few consequences for moving against Poland a year later. In contrast, there is evidence to suggest that the US’ overthrow of Saddam Hussein had positive secondary effects throughout the broader Middle East, with Iran suspending its nuclear weapons program, and Libya abandoning its nuclear activities altogether.

If you believe that weakness abets aggression while strength facilitates compliance, then it’s logical to conclude that the US President’s reluctance to enforce ‘red-lines’ emboldens rivals and unnerves allies. Indeed, critics of current US policy now invoke this causal relationship on a routine basis. By allowing Damascus to ‘get away’ with using chemical weapons, they argue, Washington’s regional allies will increasingly turn away from US guarantees, and traditional adversaries will adopt more forceful approaches, as Russia has done now in Crimea. But are these critics right? Is their faith in the ‘demonstration principle’ legitimate?

In my view, their faith is misplaced. First, we have to remember that Washington’s formal allies are perfectly capable of distinguishing their own strategic context from the context of others. In the case of Syria, at no stage did the US offer security guarantees to the Syrian rebels. A military campaign to defend them from chemical attacks would have amounted to an effort to bring a future, rebel-led Syria into alignment with Washington and its allies. The same is true of the US’ support for the new government in Ukraine, which also lacks formal arrangements. It is the absence of existing guarantees that makes these cases different from failing to protect a state that already has them, and the latter know that. Indeed, this distinction helps to explain why, in the case of Syria, so few Allies favored what would have been yet another US-led intervention in another Middle Eastern state. Besides, Washington already has over thirty security partners to whom it has made some form of security guarantee. They can be forgiven for thinking that every time it expands its protection to others, the credibility of its existing guarantees invariably decreases.

In addition, there is little evidence to suggest that diplomatic actions taken in one region have a cascading effect in another. Developments within the Middle East were affected by Washington’s unwillingness to use force against Damascus, as they probably will be in Eastern Europe if the US adopts a ‘weak’ response to Russia’s presence in Crimea. However, the US’ partners have a distinctly regional focus. While the Saudis may care a great deal about Syria and the Poles a great deal about Ukraine, they are unlikely to be equally troubled by both. For those who count on American pledges of security, proximity is far more important than principle. The same is true for adversaries. To suggest that Putin acted when and where he did because of US weakness in Syria is a stretch.

Nor is it the case that an occasional decision to back down and risk charges of ‘weakness’ causes irreparable damage to security alliances. John F. Kennedy risked doing so by agreeing with Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey in return for the Soviet withdrawal of nuclear warheads from Cuba. Rather than make Kennedy look weak, however, the ‘horse-trading’ deal ended up strengthening Kennedy’s leadership credentials with nervous allies.

Above all, the key weakness of the demonstration principle is that it cuts both ways. While a strong policy can breed success, it will only do so if it is carried out successfully. For example, Austro-Hungary’s assertive response to the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was designed to demonstrate strength. Yet instead of generating compliance, it provoked a powerful reaction from Russia, resulting in the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Likewise, while the initial success of the second invasion of Iraq prompted restraint in other Middle East regimes, the protracted counter-insurgency that followed only underscored Washington’s weakness in the eyes of Iran and Gulf State partners.

The above examples remind us that a strong and assertive policy only breeds strength when it is successful. The chances of that happening in Syria were slight. Rather than put other regimes on notice that chemical strikes remain beyond the pale, limited military strikes against Syria – which were the only options on the table – would have probably exposed the US’ inability to prevent them. Indeed, a cunning Assad would have most likely bid his time, re-used such arms on a small scale, and thereby demonstrated his continued freedom of action. It is because of this possibility that the Obama administration ultimately made a cynical yet necessary judgment: better to exhibit a lack of will than a lack of capability.

Given all the above truths, we need to conclude by stressing that the demonstration principle has become international security’s equivalent of the butterfly effect. Yes, we can safely assume that there are correlations between actions undertaken in the past and perceptions of future behavior. However, we will never be on analytically safe ground if we believe future consequences accompany every contemporary decision. It would thus be a colossal mistake to argue that notions of credibility warrant frequent resorts to military intervention, as history demonstrates. Moreover, overly aggressive steps can easily backfire, causing the very demonstration of weakness one sought to avoid in the first place. Just ask the Austro-Hungarians.

Timothy Stafford is a MA student in Security Studies at Georgetown University, and a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS. This blog, which has its roots in the WSD-Handa Global Opinion Leaders Summit held in Tokyo on September 6th, 2013, is part of an on-going partnership between the Pacific Forum CSIS and the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

For additional materials on this topic please see:

US-South Korea Relations

International Security Challenges and the Future of NATO

Strategic Shift: Appraising Recent Changes in US Defense Plans and Priorities

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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