In the eyes of the DC foreign policy establishment, issuing threats without any intention to back them up with action is a cardinal sin. Bluffing, the thinking along think tank row goes, dangerously undermines U.S. credibility abroad. As Vice President Joe Biden succinctly put it, “big powers don’t bluff.” While this pillar of presidential policymaking is often presented as a truism, it is not as uncontroversial as it may seem. And, importantly, it is not supported by our collective lived foreign policy experience. Fear of losing a nation’s credibility should not be a reason to go to war, nor should it prohibit a U.S. president from issuing calibrated empty threats under certain circumstances. It turns out that, sometimes, big powers should bluff.
Recent media coverage has prompted renewed examinations of President Obama’s infamous "red line" at the use of chemical weapons in Syria. In 2012, Obama stated that any Assad regime movement, or use, of large quantities of chemical weapons would “change my calculus.” Most, including the president’s own staff—who reportedly had not anticipated the comment—interpreted that to mean significant U.S. military involvement in Syria.
One year later, when Assad used warheads filled with chemical weapons against the Syrian people—killing 1,400—the U.S. national security apparatus began to prepare for targeted strikes on the regime. But at the last minute, the president called the strikes off, and waffled in a press briefing soon thereafter: “First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” Critics were unsparing, claiming that the episode was an embarrassing display of amateurism and would hinder the United States’ ability to advance its interests abroad in the future.
Critics argued that a United States that does not make good on its word emboldens U.S. opponents around the world who will cease to fear U.S. reprisal for bad behavior. Now, not only would Syria be less inclined to respond to Washington’s policy preferences, but so would Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Dr. James Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote at the time that President Obama broke a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy: “Do not threaten what you are not prepared do.”
Does bluffing actually undermine a nation’s—or even a single president’s—credibility? Careful historical studies suggest that this “never bluff” principle and its underlying logic are not supported by evidence. To the contrary, the evidence suggests that leaders do not assess their adversaries’ credibility solely by evaluating their history of upholding prior commitments. Instead, in practice, when weighing the credibility of a threat, opponents assess a nation’s overall power and its interest in the specific crisis—not its promise-keeping score card. This would indicate that the costs of breaking commitments—and failing to enforce ‘red lines’—while not nonexistent, are likely lower than U.S. foreign policy elites generally believe.
Because available evidence suggests that the failure to enforce a threat does not decimate a nation’s credibility, big powers should be willing to hold their hands in the right circumstances when the terms of a threat are breached —as the President did in Syria. To use the President’s words: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” For these same reasons, decision makers should be more willing to issue threats in the first place, even if they have minimal intention of following through. Put simply, if being called on your bluff won’t remove you from the table, consider bluffing.
Certainly, issuing a threat—even if sincere—is not the best policy decision in all cases. Indeed, empirically informed game-theory analysis suggests that in crises where nations have a relatively low vested interest (such as the United States in Syria) deterrent threats are unlikely to succeed. Threats in these cases become more effective only when leaders take great efforts to make the costs they would suffer (whether political or monetary) extremely high should they back down. Unsurprisingly, historians find that threats of military force alone have not been a particularly effective means of achieving U.S. objectives. That said, despite the generally low probability of success, threats—especially ones that appear costly to an international audience—still afford leaders some chance of influencing a belligerent opponent’s behavior in a low national security interest conflict. Consider Bill Clinton’s success in convincing Haitian generals to leave after initiating a massive military mobilization to prepare for an invasion that the United States never carried out.
Accordingly, coercive diplomacy—diplomacy against the backdrop of military force—remains an important deterrence tool for U.S. decision makers in dealing with belligerent adversaries in the 21st century. An exaggerated fear of losing international credibility places undue constraints on the extent to which U.S. presidents can talk tough in efforts to shape the behavior of dictators. Recognizing a more limited impact on long-term credibility, the potential benefits of a more muscular diplomacy towards opponents may, at times, outweigh the risks of such a stance.
Whatever President Obama’s intention to enforce a “red line” over chemical weapons when he drew it in 2012—either insincere from the beginning or only after a change of heart—Assad ignored him and lived to tell the tale. The threat failed to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons and save innocent Syrian lives, and yet the President was still ultimately able to accomplish his primary goal relating to U.S. security in Syria: the removal of chemical weapons from the nation. Through a deal brokered by Russia in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons supplies. This drastically decreased the chance that loose WMD would end up in the hands of extremists.
Despite the crossed red line, President Obama was still able to leverage the threat of U.S. military retaliation over the use of chemical weapons in Syria to influence Assad’s behavior, and achieve a U.S. security objective. President Obama’s red line threat, even after it was breached and not immediately enforced, still worked in some ways, if not all.
Of course, there is a limit to the ability to bluff, both in scale and number of threats, without suffering significant adverse consequences over time. Consider the frequent and absurd provocations of the Kim Jong-un regime, and the minimal international respect they garner.
Still, there is some space in which to maneuver before hitting the threshold for severe consequences from “empty threats,” particularly for countries with as much military power and global engagement as the United States (even if both are arguably declining). While domestic political and raw monetary costs incurred are real, big powers should not forfeit the possible benefits of calculated threats based on overstated risks about the international ramifications of non-enforcement. After all, if the threat works, they’ll never know you were bluffing, and if it doesn’t, historical evidence would indicate that U.S. deterrent credibility will survive.