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.