What’s at stake with Syria? Reputation, Credibility, and Future Deterrence

The seemingly imminent intervention in Syria has recently been the talk of the town. As a nation, we appear overwhelmingly divided over whether a military response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons is warranted. Public opinion on the why of intervention appears just as divided as on the question of whether we should act or not. Only a small number of arguments have focused on the long term credibility of the US deterrent, which, it has been argued, underwrites current levels of global stability. Moreover, insufficient attention has been paid to the cost to US reputation and credibility through the lens of existing theory or empirical evidence. Yet, it is this very long-term calculus which is necessary to determine whether it is  in America’s interest to intervene in Syria.

Undoubtedly, the administration must clarify its objectives in Syria before it can begin to discuss strategies. I argue that rather than focusing the debate on whether we can or should remove Assad or protect civilians, we should be focusing on whether we can deter the future use of chemical weapons and protect civilians from chemical weapons. This was the original red line, this was the reason we are even discussing intervention, so this should be the focus of any US response. Towards this end, all US military action has to do to be effective is impose high enough costs on the Assad regime so that the benefits gained from using chemical weapons are offset by military intervention, and be public enough that the costs incurred by Assad are transparent. Moreover, if intervention is about punishment and deterrence, it does not necessarily have to be aimed at military targets or erode Assad’s warfighting capabilities.

Assuming that this is the goal of intervention, the long-term implications of the US decision on intervention can be understood by extending the metaphor of the repeated “entry-deterrence” game, which models a monopolistic firm attempting to deter the entry of competitors into a market (see, for example, work by Tingley and Walter, 2011 available here). The idea behind the model is that by incurring the short term costs of punishing players who attempt to enter the game (for example, sacrificing profits by undercutting competitive prices), the firm builds a reputation for credibility, signaling to other potential players that any attempts to enter the market will bring higher costs than benefits, thereby deterring subsequent entry attempts. The monopolistic firm, by incurring short term costs for punishing competitors, sends a credible signal that it will punish players in the short term in order to preserve long-term benefits.

While the metaphor of monopolistic firms does not apply to the US, which is not trying to maintain a monopoly on the right to use chemical weapons itself, the logic of the game is identical: by setting red lines and threatening military action, the United States is attempting to deter the entry of other actors into a “forbidden market” (the use of chemical weapons). By failing to invest in reputation early, the United States is signaling that it will not act as a barrier to entry into this market. Even more damaging, by clearly stating the red line and then failing to carry out threats, the US signals not only that it will not act to deter when it remains silent, but that it will not act to deter even when it says it will. This not only increases the risk of the use of chemical weapons by other regimes in the future, but also increases the risk of interstate conflict in the future by increasing the belief that the United States will not carry out its threats.

Experimental evidence on reputation-building in these situations indicates that players who invest in their reputation early reap larger profits than those who do not (see figure 7 in Tingley and Walter, 362). This is because the credibility of their deterrent threat is established early, implying fewer attempts to enter the market by other players. Thus, in the lab at least, the long-term benefits of US military action have been established. This raises a number of important questions. First, how much do we (publics as well as politicians) discount the future? Are we willing to accept long term costs to save in the short term, especially if future costs are highly uncertain? Second, we must ask ourselves whether the United States should continue playing the role of the globe’s monopolistic firm (policeman) in an era where it is clear that no other actor has the capacity to overcome the barriers to collective action that it faces. Certainly, Americans have reason to be weary of war and wary of leaders who advocate for it, however we must always consider the potential long-term consequences of action (and inaction). The question we as Americans must ask ourselves is this: what do we picture our role to be on the global state in the future? Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether the chemical weapons taboo is worth enforcing. The answers to these questions are what should determine our decision to intervene.


1 thought on “What’s at stake with Syria? Reputation, Credibility, and Future Deterrence

  1. The prohibition of chemical weapons is worth enforcing the question is how. The risk of a regional war after the announced strikes is too high. Is America ready for that?

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