The Duck of Minerva

We can’t seem to get this reputation thing down

29 October 2005

I recently wrote about the misuse (or, more to the point, apparent schizophrenic understanding) of reputational logic in the war on terror. Administration officials have repeatedly utilized rhetoric which rationalizes US policy against terrorists and rogue states on the basis of maintaining a reputation for resolve–i.e. we need to show our enemies that we won’t back down just because the going gets tough, therefore staying the course is paramount lest we encourgae and embolden these actors. Rob Farely over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money followed my post with an excellent one of his own. Whether or not the administration actually believes this logic is another story (although I have my reasons for believing that at a fundamental level they do, but that does not take away from reputational rhetoric being used as a strategic frame for public consumption), one that I will likely write about in the future. For the time being, I think it is important to tease out the ways that reputation (or image) may matter and to evaluate how successful the US has been in understanding and implementing policy that makes the most of reputation.

Reputation is defined by the American Heretige Dictionary as “a specific characteristic or trait ascribed to a person or thing: e.g. a reputation for courtesy.” The implication is that both individuals and corporate actors can have reputations. But reputations for what? The security literature emphasizes a reputation for resolve, willingness to use force, reliabilty as an ally, and recently honesty in diplomacy. But there are other types of reputations states and individuals can have. Generosity, morality, an ethical disposition–all of these are types of reputations that states can acquire, reputations that as of late have been ignored by the current administration. While most of our energy and rhetoric has been focused on maintaining a reputation for resolve, our other reputations have been slighted and allowed to atrophy. This myopic view of reptutation is utterly counterproductive given the importance (explicitly cited by the adminstration I might add) of “winning hearts and minds”.

The recent earthquake and subsequent relief effort in Northern Pakistan illustrates the importance of what one might term “soft power reputations”. According to recent reports, the significant US aid operation has had the effect of altering the image of the US in the minds of many Pakistanis. From a Washington Post article:

Even the conservative clergy, who have long been in the vanguard of anti-U.S. feeling in Pakistan, have grudgingly praised the U.S. response.

“Obviously, this is the other side of the United States,” said Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Shujabadi, a prominent religious scholar in the port city of Karachi. “For the first time in so many years I have seen the American planes dropping relief and not bombs on the Muslim population.”

While the significance of this should not be exaggerted (since what will matter more is whether these feelings are lasting in any way) it illustrates the dilemmas that have arisen in the war on terrorism, specifically what I term a “signaling dilemma”. Signaling dilemmas arise whenever an actor needs to send different (many times, contradictory) signals to different actors. Some of my early, fuzzy thoughts on the subject can be found here. The existence of multiple audiences complicates the art of signaling, especially for states, since they often need to garner support from domestic and international actors as well as send blunt/harsh signals to international adversaries. The current war on terror offers an excellent example of how difficult navigating this dilemma can be.

Dan has posted and written about the related notion of multivocality and multivocal signaling, both in the domestic and international context. Multivocal signaling is one way that actors can solve this dilemma. Padget and Ansell offer an excellent description:

the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations can be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego.

The war on terror has made it difficult to master the art of multivocal signaling. The need to speak and act “pagan” so-to-speak in order to garner domestic support as well as signal resolve seems to have further alienated populations whose support (or least, whose government’s support) is strategically necessary. Eccentric Star has an excellent post that captures the essence of this dilemma. The recent episode in Pakistan should illustrate the importance of paying attention to the signaling dilemma and force the adiminstration to work harder at crafting signals that are designed to speak to multiple audiences at once.

The war on terror requires both military action and deft public diplomacy. The attention thus far as been on military action and the kind of reputations that are typically thought to support that action. Recent public diplomacy has been abysmal and reveals a lack of understanding of this art by current leaders. If we are to gain greater leverage over transnational terrorists as well as rebuild US credibility and legitimacy abroad more attention needs to be paid to the signaling dilemma and the logic and importance of reputations related to aspects of our image other than simply the resolve to use force.

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