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The strange truth about ultimatums

Between 1958 and 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued a series of ultimatums demanding that the Allies pull troops out of West Berlin. Khrushchev repeatedly backed down, reiterated his threats, and backed down again.

Between 1958 and 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued a series of ultimatums demanding that the Allies pull troops out of West Berlin. Khrushchev repeatedly backed down, reiterated his threats, and backed down again.

On June 14, 10 months after President Obama declared that Bashar Assad would cross a “red line” if he used chemical weapons against rebels or civilians in Syria, Obama moved to make good on his threat. After American officials confirmed that Assad had indeed deployed chemical weapons, Obama announced that the United States would begin arming rebel groups against the regime.

This came as a huge relief to many critics and observers—not just those worried about Syria in particular, but those who simply feared what it would mean for Obama not to follow through on his words. If a president threatens action, they said, he needs to back it up. “The credibility of the United States is on the line,” Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham argued in April, “not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a high-ranking State Department official during Obama’s first term, wrote in The Washington Post, “U.S. credibility is on the line....[Obama] should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore.”

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This position seems like common sense: A leader who backs down from a threat is irresolute, unsound, weak. A president who makes a habit of blustering on the world stage and then sitting on his hands would become a global laughingstock—“a joke,” as the military historian Max Boot put it in April, following early reports of chemical weapons use.

So what would have happened to America’s reputation if Obama hadn’t bothered to make a move? A handful of international relations scholars who have closely studied the outcomes when nations make public threats—and then do, or don’t, follow up—think the answer may be a surprising one: not much. In fact, they have found that when leaders back down from threats, they don’t necessarily suffer damage to their reputations. And, strangely, following through may not have the expected effect either: When leaders do go to war to back up their threats, their future threats may actually be taken less seriously.

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When you negotiate by threat—“coercive diplomacy,” as it’s sometimes called—the reputational principle at stake is as simple as the tale of the boy who cried wolf. If we couldn’t believe you last time, why should we believe you now?

In his 2006 book, “Calculating Credibility,” Dartmouth College government professor Darryl Press assessed three 20th-century cases in which threats and follow-up figured prominently: the run-up to World War II, the faceoff over Berlin between the Soviet Union and the West between 1958 and 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis. He picked these cases as ideal tests for what he calls a “past actions” interpretation—the idea that a state’s earlier actions will define its current credibility. “If this reputation hypothesis is right, it would have to be right in these cases,” Press explained.

“When I went into this, I was certain that backing down was going to hurt credibility,” Press said. What he found instead was that even in cases where leaders backed down, they were taken seriously the next time. France and Britain acquiesced to Hitler’s demands throughout the 1930s. But, according to documents Press found from the era, when Hitler and his generals debated their strategy in Eastern Europe—which France and Britain had pledged to defend—it was French and British military capabilities they reckoned with, not their history of backing down.

After the war, between 1958 and 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued a series of ultimatums demanding that the Allies pull troops out of West Berlin. Khrushchev repeatedly backed down, reiterated his threats, and backed down again. Yet the United States consistently took his bellicose rhetoric seriously, increasing defense spending and improving nuclear readiness.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy might have looked back at Khrushchev’s blustering over Berlin and decided that his threats were not credible. But when Khrushchev proposed placing Soviet missiles in Cuba, his previous irresolution was erased from memory. His move was taken as a grave affront to US security and nearly precipitated a nuclear war.

What Press found in his research is that leaders are very concerned about their own perceived credibility, but rarely pay attention to others’ histories of follow-through. Reading through thousands of pages of archived documents, he said, “I might have found two about what adversaries had done in the past and what [policy makers] should infer from that.” Yet those same policy makers were convinced that their own credibility was at stake with each major decision.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy might have looked back at Khrushchev’s blustering over Berlin and decided that his threats were not credible.

These historic cases are consistent with Todd Sechser’s findings. Sechser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has undertaken careful quantitative studies of threat-making, has found that following through on threats “seems to carry few reputation benefits; to the contrary, it seems to carry considerable reputation costs.”

Sechser compiled a list of 210 instances of “compellent threats” made by nations between 1918 and 2001 in order to evaluate whether and under what circumstances states that make threats tend to get what they want. He also looked at what happened to states after they issued threats. He found that when a state followed through on a threat, its next threat succeeded in only 19 percent of cases, whereas when it did not follow through, its next threat succeeded 31 percent of the time.

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Concern about credibility can have enormous costs. The domino theory that brought the United States into Vietnam was predicated on the notion that a failure to follow through on commitments to stop communists in one part of the world would guarantee communist expansion in the rest of it. “Surrender anywhere threatens defeat everywhere,” President Johnson asserted.

What Press concludes is almost precisely the opposite: “Fighting for reputation is a waste of lives and money,” he said. He describes the assumed importance of a reputation for credibility as an “analytic crutch” imported from our daily interactions with one another but, on a global scale, unsupported by empirical study of history.

None of this means we should predict that enforcement of Obama’s “red line” will fail. Indeed, Syria’s beleaguered people will be fortunate if US action protects them from chemical weapons. And depending on how the situation in Syria evolves, there may be good reasons for further US military involvement at some point. But bolstering America’s reputation won’t be one of them. The better approach, Press argues, is to worry about your current goals, not about “signals you’re hoping some unspecified future leader is going to take from your decisions.”

Given how essential reputation is in everyday life, it may be hard to accept that sometimes credibility isn’t worth fighting for. But when the matter at hand is not everyday life but life and death in the international arena, the history of foreign policy suggests it’s sometimes smarter to walk away.

Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review and has written for The American Prospect, Los Angeles Review of Books, and WBUR.
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