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Will Afghanistan Hurt U.S. Credibility?

August 27, 2021

Many American commentators – from reporters to columnists to former policymakers – claim that President Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, combined with the Taliban’s rapid capture of Kabul, has done substantial damage to U.S. credibility. Their views are apparently shared overseas. One former German diplomat argued that “the credibility question is now being asked all over the place, in Europe and beyond.” Even Chinese state media got into the game, seizing the opportunity to warn Taiwan that after Afghanistan, “once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and US military won’t come to help.”

Others have pushed back against this line of criticism. Quite a few claim that political scientists and historians have conclusively demonstrated that backing down doesn’t hurt credibility; that reputation doesn’t operate the same way in international politics as it does in interpersonal relationships. Some argue that governments, whether allies or rivals, may judge credibility based on factors specific to the matter at hand, such as the balance of military force and the interests at stake. Many contend that great powers can take a variety of steps to reassure nervous allies or deter emboldened rivals, and that these invariably count more than past actions.

The problem is that neither of these perspectives is quite right. Many recent studies show that observers do draw inferences about other actors’ credibility and reputation based on past behavior, at least under particular conditions. These inferences often hinge on factors like situational context, leader psychology, and organizational biases. In consequence, they don’t play out in the straightforward way that politicians and journalists assume.

One major issue in discourse about credibility is that policy and media elites often conflate a group of interrelated but distinct concepts: credibility, reputation, and resolve.

Credibility is the perceived likelihood that an actor will follow through on her threats or promises. Reputation is a belief about an actor’s persistent characteristics or tendencies based on her past behavior. Resolve is the willingness to stand firm and pay costs in the face of pressure to back down.

If we want to predict how foreign governments will react to U.S. foreign policy decisions, then we need to understand their theories about how the world works.

In theory, an actor’s reputation for resolve — along with her capabilities and interests — contributes to her credibility by shaping observers’ estimates whether she is likely to follow through on her commitments.

However, reputation and credibility are ultimately beliefs held by others. If we want to predict how foreign governments will react to U.S. foreign policy decisions, then we need to understand their theories about how the world works. We should never assume that allies or adversaries draw inferences the same way that U.S. policymakers and analysts would.

Reputation does matter

A slew of recent work indicates that reputations actually do matter to policymakers in international affairs.What does it show? States that back down from challenges are more likely to receive subsequent ones. Reputations often develop in the context of interstate rivalries, and they influence how those rivalries unfold. Similarities between previous situations and the current one — in terms of who is involved and what the stakes are — make reputational judgments more salient. Leaders’ reputations form early in their tenure and can be difficult to change once established. Observers may draw distinctions between the credibility of a specific leader and that of the state they head.

U.S. behavior in Afghanistan could have reputational consequences in future conflicts – of a similar nature and with similar stakes. Given that the U.S. has spent a lot of the post-Cold War period using relatively limited force to coerce known human-rights abusers and other unsavory characters, future observers may infer that there are limits on how far the U.S. is willing to go in promoting values like democracy and individual freedom.

Given that the crisis is occurring relatively early in Biden’s presidency, it may be pivotal in establishing the reputations (in the plural) he develops with different foreign audiences. Biden campaigned on withdrawing from Afghanistan and followed through on this pledge, so observers are likely to conclude that he is a man of his word. But the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Kabul and elsewhere may still hurt his (and the United States’) reputation for competence and good judgment in foreign policy.

Credibility isn’t necessarily everything…

The sky probably isn’t falling; the US isn’t going to suffer a dramatic and devastating loss of credibility.

However, reputation and credibility are not all-encompassing. Some kinds of people – especially those with different psychological profiles – worry more about them than do others. Observers draw different inferences from the same behavior. Even following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Soviet officials did not uniformly believe either that American credibility was shattered or that the U.S. would not fight to protect its core interests. During crises, decision makers may lean more on their assessments of capabilities and interests than of past behavior; policymakers are also more likely to judge adversaries as resolute and allies as irresolute due to the fundamental attribution error.

The point is that the sky probably isn’t falling; the US isn’t going to suffer a dramatic and devastating loss of credibility. After the U.S. spent 20 years and $1 trillion in Afghanistan, neither allies nor adversaries are likely to believe that America won’t uphold its commitments when the chips are down. Allies might think that Biden’s decision was a moral abomination. They might express frustration over his apparent failure to consult with partner countries on the timing and speed of the withdrawal. But such matters are likely to blow over with time.

…but many policymakers think it’s the only thing

If reputations do form, but credibility is more contingent and context-specific, then why are policymakers so worried about building and preserving credibility in the eyes of others?

In my own research, I find that bureaucratic politics strongly shapes who is willing to fight for credibility and why. Diplomatic officials care about credibility through the lens of signaling commitment; they want allies and adversaries to know that their government will keep its pledges and are often willing to show or use force to back up that impression. By contrast, military officials think about credibility through a military capability lens; they are willing to take armed action in line with their assessment of whether military forces and weapons are up to the task. I find that the combination of diplomats’ concern for signaling commitment and military officials’ capability-based assessments yields policy advocacy that encourages leaders to stay the course or escalate during crises. Thus, even if some analysts believe that credibility is “not a thing” in international politics, many (but not all) policymakers believe that it is and behave like it matters a lot, so as political scientists, we should probably care about it, too.

It’s tempting to make Afghanistan into a black-and-white issue — either it hurts U.S. credibility or it doesn’t. That doesn’t reflect what our best evidence tells us about reputation, credibility, and resolve.

Yet what’s curious about Biden — who has been a prominent figure in foreign policy for decades — is that he probably rejected a boilerplate argument about sticking around in Afghanistan for the sake of credibility at some point during internal deliberations this winter or spring. For a seasoned Washington hand to buck the received wisdom of “The Blob” might seem surprising at first glance, but perhaps less so after considering Biden’s long-held, pointed skepticism of continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. And if this decision is really about finally making that “rebalance to Asia” happen, withdrawing from Afghanistan might actually bolster U.S. credibility insofar as it frees up resources for those missions.

It’s tempting to make Afghanistan into a black-and-white issue — either it hurts U.S. credibility or it doesn’t. That doesn’t reflect what our best evidence tells us about reputation, credibility, and resolve. We should challenge arguments that don’t reflect that evidence, while doing our best to tease out Afghanistan’s likely complicated implications for the reputation and credibility of the United States.

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Don Casler is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Columbia University, where he studies topics at the intersection of international security and international political economy. His research has been published in World Politics and the Journal of Conflict Resolution.