“In both the U.S. and abroad, it is be­com­ing a com­mon re­frain to hear that U.S. cred­i­bil­ity has been dam­aged as a re­sult of these moves, and that this has the ef­fect of erod­ing U.S. power and cre­at­ing more geopo­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“Po­lit­i­cal science” emerged as an aca­demic dis­ci­pline in the 19th cen­tury out of a de­sire to treat pol­i­tics like a science – to de­fine its truths in terms of em­pir­i­cal data, not an­cient Greek philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples. But ex­clu­sive re­liance on data is no bet­ter than ex­clu­sive re­liance on the­ory. And un­for­tu­nately, es­pe­cially in the United States, po­lit­i­cal science has be­come not just data-driven but data-ob­sessed.

The lim­i­ta­tions of this ap­proach can be ob­served clearly in a de­bate rag­ing over the im­por­tance of U.S. “cred­i­bil­ity” in the world. The U.S. made three ma­jor for­eign pol­icy moves this month: It pulled out of the Iran nu­clear deal, it has been in­con­sis­tent on trade dis­putes with China, and can­celed, at least tem­po­rar­ily, a planned sum­mit with Kim Jong Un next month. In both the U.S. and abroad, it is be­com­ing a com­mon re­frain to hear that U.S. cred­i­bil­ity has been dam­aged as a re­sult of these moves, and that this has the ef­fect of erod­ing U.S. power and cre­at­ing more geopo­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity.

De­ter­min­ing whether this is true is more dif­fi­cult than it may seem. Af­ter all, how does one mea­sure cred­i­bil­ity? We could sur­vey a large sam­ple of peo­ple in a for­eign coun­try and ask whether it is com­monly be­lieved that the U.S. will fol­low through on its prom­ises, but the re­sults would be im­pre­cise – and mostly ir­rel­e­vant. An­swers would vary based on the is­sue, and more important, it’s for­eign gov­ern­ments, not their ci­ti­zens, that must de­cide whether the U.S. is trust­wor­thy af­ter the for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions of this month.

And Amer­i­cans them­selves are un­re­li­able judges of U.S. cred­i­bil­ity abroad be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the term in Amer­ica. The cred­i­bil­ity question was ubiq­ui­tous in the 1960s not be­cause of the United States’ re­la­tion­ship with for­eign gov­ern­ments but be­cause a “cred­i­bil­ity gap” opened up be­tween the Lyn­don B. John­son gov­ern­ment and the Amer­i­can elec­torate.

The John­son gov­ern­ment re­lied on key statis­tics (like “body count”) to claim that the U.S. was win­ning the Viet­nam War even as the sit­u­a­tion was get­ting no bet­ter. Richard Nixon’s Water­gate scan­dal widened the trust gap still fur­ther. Iron­i­cally, when Amer­i­cans re­fer to the cred­i­bil­ity of the U.S. abroad, they are of­ten pro­ject­ing their own lack of con­fi­dence in their gov­ern­ment onto oth­ers.

Yet de­spite the shape­less­ness of the term cred­i­bil­ity, and de­spite the po­lit­i­cal land­mines sur­round­ing dis­cus­sions of it, it is not a dis­cus­sion that can be avoided. The re­li­a­bil­ity of U.S. prom­ises is not an aca­demic question. The U.S. be­came in­volved in the Viet­nam War pre­cisely be­cause it feared the im­pli­ca­tions for its con­tain­ment pol­icy against the Soviet Union if it al­lowed Viet­nam to fall into com­mu­nist hands. What was at stake was not so much Viet­nam but the value of a U.S. se­cu­rity guar­an­tee.

The same is true, al­beit on a much smaller scale, of Rus­sia’s 2008 in­va­sion of Georgia. Rus­sia was not in­ter­ested in con­quer­ing Georgia so much as it was in­ter­ested in demon­strat­ing that a U.S. se­cu­rity guar­an­tee was worth­less, and there­fore that coun­tries in the Cau­ca­sus would do well to make their peace with a resur­gent Moscow.

Cred­i­bil­ity, then, is as much per­cep­tion as it is re­al­ity. The Iran nu­clear deal is a use­ful ex­am­ple. The stated goal of the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion (as it is of­fi­cially known) was to pre­vent Iran from ac­quir­ing nu­clear weapons. But the U.S. and Iran each con­ceived of the JCPOA in very dif­fer­ent terms.

The U.S. wanted a will­ing part­ner in the fight against the Is­lamic State. It got a part­ner that was too will­ing, be­cause af­ter IS was all but de­feated, Iran ag­gres­sively pushed into the re­gion and be­gan test­ing mis­siles. Iran wanted to re­join the global econ­omy and se­cure le­git­i­macy for its for­eign pol­icy moves in the re­gion. The deal was con­cluded by two weak ad­min­is­tra­tions, and in the U.S. it wasn’t even given the sta­tus of a treaty, mean­ing it was easy to can­cel.

Those who ad­vo­cate re­main­ing in the JCPOA ar­gue that leav­ing the deal is cat­a­strophic for U.S. cred­i­bil­ity. They find use­ful cor­rob­o­ra­tion of this po­si­tion from Iran’s pres­i­dent, for whom the U.S. with­drawal is dis­as­trous, and from Euro­pean lead­ers who are pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in buy­ing cheap Ira­nian oil. Those who ad­vo­cated leav­ing the deal think that Iran is a men­ace with no cred­i­bil­ity of its own and that it is bet­ter to take the hit to U.S. cred­i­bil­ity than to re­main in a po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ment that em­pow­ers a U.S. ad­ver­sary. It’s hard to ar­gue that U.S. cred­i­bil­ity has been dam­aged while Iran is try­ing to buy the Iraqi elec­tion and is build­ing bases on the Is­raeli bor­der.

The U.S.-North Korea is­sue is dif­fer­ent, if less im­me­di­ately weighty. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­peared poised for a sum­mit with Kim Jong Un, only to with­draw from the sum­mit via a letter that boasted of the United States’ own nu­clear arse­nal and gave the pri­mary rea­son for the can­ce­la­tion to be the “tremen­dous anger and open hos­til­ity” of re­cent North Korean state­ments. The Trump letter came days af­ter the U.S. in­sin­u­ated that Libya was a good model for North Korean de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, an eye­brow-rais­ing sug­ges­tion con­sid­er­ing the U.S. helped top­ple Moam­mar Gad­hafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. Now the U.S. and North Korea are talk­ing again, and the sum­mit may be back on – or it may not. The whole is­sue has be­come a farce.

But it is a farce that could be dam­ag­ing to U.S. cred­i­bil­ity. North Korea re­leased U.S. pris­on­ers, toned down its crit­i­cism of U.S.-South Korea mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, and ap­peared to dis­man­tle a nu­clear test site. Though Iran, strictly speak­ing, was not vi­o­lat­ing the terms of its deal with the U.S., Wash­ing­ton could at least point to vi­o­la­tions of the spirit of the agree­ment. Not so with North Korea.

The U.S. has also been los­ing the larger cred­i­bil­ity bat­tle in East Asia. U.S. cred­i­bil­ity in the re­gion won’t rise and fall de­pend­ing on whether Trump and Kim share a cheese­burger, but it mat­ters whether coun­tries in the re­gion trust the United States. And on this is­sue, North Korea al­ready achieved a ma­jor ob­jec­tive months ago when it ex­posed deep cracks in the U.S.-South Korea se­cu­rity re­la­tion­ship by push­ing the U.S. to the brink of a mil­i­tary strike. North Korea also suc­cess­fully demon­strated to U.S. al­lies like Ja­pan that U.S. re­solve in halt­ing North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gramme is mainly rhetor­i­cal.

What this all re­ally comes down to is that the United States is at the cen­ter of the world or­der, and when the United States acts in ways that other coun­tries don’t like (or that po­lit­i­cal fac­tions within the U.S. don’t like), it of­ten man­i­fests as the weak­en­ing of U.S. cred­i­bil­ity. Some­times the is­sue of re­duced U.S. cred­i­bil­ity is real, as it is in Asia, where the power of the U.S. is de­clin­ing (com­pared to China and Ja­pan), and where the United States’ in­con­sis­tent ap­proach to the North Korea is­sue is pro­duc­ing un­ease, not a tac­ti­cally use­ful level of un­pre­dictabil­ity. Some­times, how­ever, cred­i­bil­ity is sim­ply a scape­goat for a pol­icy dis­agree­ment or di­ver­gent strate­gic in­ter­ests. Ei­ther way, the is­sue is not so much that the U.S. broke this or that agree­ment as it is a much broader lack of strate­gic clar­ity dat­ing back to 1991 about how and to what end the U.S. wields its power in the world.

More than any­thing, the con­ver­sa­tion about cred­i­bil­ity is a ve­neer that hides the true na­ture of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Ul­ti­mately, the best in­di­ca­tor of how a coun­try is go­ing to be­have is not what its lead­ers have said or agreed to, but what its in­ter­ests dic­tate. Consider that in 1939, Nazi Ger­many and the Soviet Union signed a non-ag­gres­sion pact. I can think of no two po­lit­i­cal regimes whose cred­i­bil­ity in keep­ing the terms of such a pact could have been lower – and yet they signed the pact, even though both were plan­ning on even­tu­ally break­ing it. Those who worry about U.S. cred­i­bil­ity have a no­tion that U.S. ex­cep­tion­al­ism means the U.S. keeps its word when all other coun­tries don’t, or more op­ti­misti­cally, that politi­cians can be trusted. That’s a pleas­ant fic­tion. The U.S. is a coun­try like any other, and it can be trusted to act in its in­ter­ests at all times. The prob­lem isn’t so much that the U.S. can­not be trusted, but that the U.S. is of­ten un­clear about what those in­ter­ests are, an un­for­tu­nate byprod­uct of think­ing about pol­i­tics as an al­ge­bra prob­lem.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.