Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria

CSP_Blog_15_02_JohnMittonphoto2Do reputations matter in international politics? This fundamental question figured prominently in debates regarding the appropriate American response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013, in which 1,400 civilians were killed.

Having previously issued a ‘red-line’ against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, many prominent journalists and policy-makers argued that the Obama administration had to respond to the attacks with military strikes or suffer consequences with respect to American credibility. This position was informed, largely, by a research tradition made famous by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling: maintaining credibility requires following through on threats and commitments so as to establish a reputation for resolve.

Contrary to such ‘conventional wisdom’, however, many academics actually argued against the threat of airstrikes noting that traditional concerns about reputation are overblown. Citing new research, they claimed that credibility is a function of the current balance of capabilities and interests and not of past behavior. As such, backing down in Syria was the right policy option. There would be no consequences for American credibility in future crises.

In the end, the Obama administration continued to make the case for air strikes against Syrian government targets. As a result of this threat, the Assad regime backed down and the US was able to secure a disarmament deal. The Syrian government agreed to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantle and destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles. The debate between Schelling’s concern for reputation and the ‘new consensus’ pushed by his critics remains central, however, to discussions regarding American credibility and coercive diplomacy.

What are the parameters of this debate? Prominent anti-reputation theorists, such as Daryl Press, Jonathan Mercer and Ted Hopf, all discuss (and dismiss) the theory offered by Schelling. According to these authors, Schelling argued that behavior anywhere mattered everywhere – that credibility was exclusively a function of one’s reputation for action/resolve in previous crises, even if said crises occurred against different opponents in different places all over the globe. This position is logically flawed and empirically inaccurate, they argue, and has led to disastrous foreign policy outcomes in which leaders fight wars or conduct military strikes solely to maintain their reputation.

What these authors miss, however, is that Schelling’s arguments were considerably more nuanced. First, Schelling also recognized that fighting solely to maintain one’s reputation was foolish. As he writes: “That preserving face – maintaining others’ expectations about one’s own behavior – can be worth some cost and risk does not mean that in every instance it is worth the cost or risk of that occasion.” In other words, the decision to follow through with threats or commitments must also consider the circumstances of the coercive encounter in question.

Second, many of Schelling’s arguments on the importance of past behavior are primarily concerned with the Soviet-American Cold War rivalry. They are not definitive statements regarding his theory of reputation in all circumstances. In the context of ‘pure bargaining’, reputation constitutes one of the manipulable aspects of the encounter, and is therefore related to the tactics by which an outcome (concession) can be ‘won’ by one or the other party. Maintaining a reputation is important so that the commitment of one’s reputation in a particular encounter is effective.

So do reputations matter? A detailed re-engagement with Schelling’s seminal work suggests that the answer is a qualified yes. First, reputations are likely to matter the greater the link and connection between one round of bargaining and the next (a situation Schelling describes as ‘continuous negotiations’). This includes situations of ‘enduring rivalry’ (long-standing enmity between two states and the expectation of future conflict) as well as ‘protracted crisis’ (in which a strategic sequence of interaction/negotiation plays out between two parties over time).

Second, and more generally, the extent to which crises approximate one another along a variety of dimensions (opponents, power balances, issue areas, geographical region etc.) can serve to either augment or diminish the relative importance of reputation in any particular case. Again, not as definitive or determinative but rather complementary and/or additive components of credibility.

Ultimately, a reputation for resolve is not a magic bullet. Balanced debate as to when and where it should be protected must focus on the merits and dynamics of the particular situation, not on recourse to either/or positions related to a ‘conventional wisdom’ or a ‘new consensus’. This conclusion has broad implications for US foreign policy, including relations with Iran (in particular the continuing implementation of the nuclear deal), Russia (with respect to both Eastern Europe and the Middle East), China (in a variety of contexts and potential flash points) and North Korea (in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear program).

Maintaining a reputation for resolve will be important but should not be chased at all costs. Parsing the fine-grained dynamics with respect to each crisis or confrontation in a chain of negotiations is admittedly complex, leaving room for reasonable disagreements as to when, in a particular instance, specific reputational considerations are in play. Yet entirely dismissing reputation in the context of international crises is dangerous. Committing one’s reputation, as Schelling argued, remains an important component of a nation’s bargaining strategy. We must remember, in other words, that reputation can be an ingredient for peace, and not merely a pretense for war.

John Mitton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He is the author of “Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.36, No.3, 2015, pp.408–431. Access here.

The Awakening Samurai: Interpreting Japan’s Security Policy Emancipation


Some revolutions are neither observable at first sight nor are they of the same type. It is very easy to realize the importance of certain historical events such as the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some historical events, or trends to be more precise, on the other hand, are subtle, but they can be just as dramatic in the long-run.

One such case revolves around the decision of the Japanese government to move from national self-defense to collective self-defense. On the face of it, the shift approved by the Japanese government in July 2014 is of little importance and merely suggests a symbolic turn of events. In reality, however, Shinzo Abe’s quest for greater Japanese defense emancipation is anything but trivial or symbolic.

This pivotal decision by the Japanese government to follow a new interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits the formation of an army and outlaws the use of force as a measure to resolve international conflicts, enabled Japan to extend the notion of self-defense to allies under attack and broaden its regional military outreach. With this highly controversial decision, later approved by the upper House of the Diet in September 2015, the Japanese government changed Japan’s security posture in a way that has the potential to impact regional peace and stability.

Why should we pay any attention to this development? First, Japan is currently embroiled in a rather bitter territorial conflict with China over a group of islands in the South China Sea. While China has already taken a number of highly contentious actions – including the creation or expansion of islands in order to gain control over strategic naval routes and extend China’s territorial sea – a bolder Japanese military posture may generate additional friction. Second, the US-Japan security agreements suggest that in case the situation in the region escalates there is a possibility for American involvement.

The Japanese motivation to revamp their established security posture emanates from worsening external circumstances. The rise of China, both militarily and economically, threatens to marginalize Japanese regional interest and erode Tokyo’s ability to influence the dynamics in East Asia. The fact that North Korea has defiantly pursued a military nuclear program and an advanced missile program generates considerable peril in Tokyo. And the fact that Pyongyang has also experimented with these capabilities vividly exemplifies the prospects of war and conflict across the Korean peninsula.

Lastly, since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 senior Japanese policymakers and strategic planners have openly begun referring to American decline as a major motivator in their pursuit of defense reforms. According to this line of reasoning, the US is neither capable nor willing to uphold its responsibilities in East Asia. Several leaders have also referred to the American reluctance to intervene on behalf of the Ukrainians after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 as an indication for the prospects of American support of Japan in case of a Sino-Japanese military conflict.

But if the Japanese had such compelling reasons to shift their security posture, why did they merely decided to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution rather than discard it altogether and embark on an unrestricted arms race? The answer is that despite the eagerness of Abe’s government to address these negative external conditions, there are major domestic constraints that make such efforts extremely problematic to accomplish.

To begin with, the Japanese economy is currently unable to sustain a major effort in military procurement that can really compete with the Chinese economic and military resources. While Abe’s economic reforms, dubbed as Abenomics, were initially successful in generating growth and fiscal stability, they yielded mixed and disappointing results later on. Consequently, it became impossible to convince the Japanese public that the Japanese economy is capable of supporting Abe’s vision of Japan’s security posture.

Additionally, and very much related to the economic features of the country, Japan has lost its technological edge in favor of the Chinese. While Japanese companies were traditionally situated in the frontline of innovation, decades of economic and technological stagnation enabled China to pursue massive investments, acquisition of foreign companies and also cyber espionage to gain access to the most advanced military technology today.

Other domestic hurdles that prevented Abe from fully pursuing his defense reforms included the general public’s notion of pacifism or antimilitarism. This war or military-averse mindset resulted from the traumatic experiences of the Second World War and especially the physical destruction and the emotional duress that followed the bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The American occupation, furthermore, successfully uprooted the fascist and militaristic ideologies and institutions through peaceful education and the introduction of democracy.

During his first term as Prime Minister, between 2006 and 2007, Abe attempted to reprogram the Japanese psyche and inject more patriotic or nationalistic content into the educational system to counter the more pacific sentiments. As for the institutional settings, Abe established a National Security Council and formed an advisory committee asked to review the legal basis for revising Article 9 of the constitution given the changes in Japan’s strategic environment. While education was a long-term investment, the advisory panel provided Abe with the legal justification to reinterpret Article 9 and move towards collective self-defense. Unfortunately for him, he was forced to resign due to his failure to address Japan’s poor economic conditions.

As Abe returned to power in 2012, he essentially continued to pursue his efforts to reboot the domestic discourse and institutional setting with regards to Japan’s security posture. Convinced that external circumstances had only worsened, he resumed the work of the advisory committee and pushed implemented reforms in the education system. Yet unsupportive public opinion continued to limit his ability to fully abrogate the constraints on Japan’s use of military force. His major coalition partner, the Buddhist-based Komeito, supported his legislation during the Diet votes, yet they curbed the scope of the reforms and imposed a more incremental approach to reforming Japan’s security policy.

External developments such as North Korea’s most recent nuclear test will undoubtedly force Japan to change its approach to national defense and revamp its security posture. Yet the domestic opposition to such sweeping reforms will clearly make the process laborious. It is unclear how much longer Abe can survive in office given Japan’s economic slowdown, and how much political capital can he muster in order to complete his plans. Continued reforms in Japan’s security policy will, however, change East Asia as we know it. We need to pay closer attention to Tokyo’s policies alongside the monitoring of China’s or North Korea’s behavior in the region.

Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Schusterman visiting assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, California. He is the author of “Growing Pains: Neoclassical Realism and Japan’s Security Policy Emancipation”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.36, No.3, 2015, pp.498–527. Access here.