Face: does it really matter?

Am reading a fascinating book right now on the question of reputation: Daryl Press’ Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats.

His bottom line? That although states often fight or prolong wars in order to safeguard their international reputation for keeping commitments and to avoid being thought of as irresolute, this world view may be mistaken.

Most onlooking rivals and competitors don’t usually judge a state’s credibility according to its historical behaviour. They do so on a different basis: Current Calculus, or an overall judgment about the state’s power and the extent to which its interests are at stake.

Press draws a distinction between the way states reason in matters of high importance and how folk analyse in their personal lives and in matters of lower importance – for example, judging a friend’s reliability at keeping appointments according to whether they have shown up on time in the past. Whereas judgments about military credibility in a high-stakes crisis, whether the Berlin, Cuba or even in interwar Europe, usually are more careful, cooler and contemporary. And Press shows that this is compatible with psychological theory, if we accept that the heuristics that influence how people analyse situations of low importance get less influential in cases of higher stress and importance.

Temperamentally I am hugely biased in favour of this argument, as it adds to others’ warning that our rivals do not usually generalise about our overall credibility and willingness to defend our interests from our performance in peripheral wars (such as Vietnam or Afghanistan).

Thus the argument has a powerful policy implication: if one reason for America’s continued war in Afghanistan is to avoid embarrassment and invest more lives and money over a longer period to look respectable as it eventually draws down, this may be an error. If Press is right (and that’s still an If), in a confrontation with Iran or China during the decades ahead, those regimes probably won’t analogise from what happened in Kandahar.

There are some problems, however. We do know, quite convincingly from interviews and released documents, that Saddam Hussein for one did analogise heavily based upon America’s historic behaviour. His analysis was crudely Occidentalist (assuming that Americans were so materialistic, casualty averse and sensitive that they would never actually launch a ground invasion and that his greater enemies therefore were internal). Moreover, Saddam drew these conclusions not only from specifically Iraqi-American cases, but from the Serbian and Vietnam wars. He miscalculated – but it was a form of ‘Past Action’ Theory.

Does this mean Press is wrong? Not if Saddam was atypical. The international system does not necessarily prompt actors to analyse reasonably and carefully. But it does penalise those who get it wildly wrong, who make dogmatic and unfounded assumptions, and who fall prey (like Saddam) to crude stereotypes.  If anything, Saddam demonstrates the penalties of crass analogising.

So is America’s reputation worth the lives of hundreds or thousands more combatants, as well as billions more dollars? Some would say no. But the very question may be based on a false premise. Beijing, Tehran, or Moscow are probably not as obsessed with Washington’s credibility as it is.

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