The concept of reputation is central to classical realist thought. States are not just judged by their capabilities but also their willingness to use them. Demonstrating resolve was therefore considered to be a key part of deterrence during the Cold War, for example. The threat of using nuclear weapons was only credible if the state and its leaders had a reputation for keeping their word. Similarly, alliances only worked, it was believed, if a state’s promise to protect its friends was reliable. If not, one’s allies would quickly look for new friends.
The issue of cost is also something to be considered when discussing reputation. Reputation was particularly important when it came to making costly or unpopular decisions. It is one thing to keep your word when it does not cost anything or if its the popular thing to do, but what about when it is not. Will a leader walk the walk when the price is “blood and treasure”?
The reputation question has been raised several times under the Obama presidency. First, he drew a line in the sand, so to speak, in Syria. He promised to intervene if the Syrian government used chemical weapons. When they did, Obama did not follow through. He allowed the Russians to broker a deal in which the chemical weapons were removed from Syria, but no punishment was levied against that Assad regime. Second, Obama struck a deal with Iran concerning the latter’s nuclear program. The problem here, Obama’s critics claim, is that undermined the US’ reputation among its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Neither state feels it can continue to trust Washington, and the Saudi’s in particular have builyt up their military and become much more assertive in the region. Clearly they are no longer willing to trust the US to bail them out, or at least, so its argued.
The reputation argument however, is more complex. This article argues that reputation is often overstated and used for partisan rhetorical purposes, such as the criticisms levied at Obama. However it also argues that reputation should not be dismissed. Rather, context needs to be considered.
- “…..the idea that Americans can safely discount reputation remains equally problematic. The importance of reputation varies for different countries and is most important for those that possess widespread commitments and interests, such as the United States. American leaders must worry about potential challenges in multiple theaters: Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe. Like Britain before it, the United States has the ability to concentrate its military at many points to deter aggression by, for example, Russia against the Baltics, North Korea against South Korea, China against Japan, and Iran against Israel. It cannot concentrate forces everywhere simultaneously, however. A strong reputation that deters initial challenges thus reduces the probability that the United States ends up confronting more simultaneous challenges than it can hope to manage, as Britain did as its empire dissolved.”
- “At the same time, this conclusion implies that we should expect to see leaders vary in the importance that they attach to reputations for resolve. In an ongoing research effort, one of us found significant variations among American presidents in their concern about reputation for resolve. While President Carter resisted repeated calls from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to fight for reputation, President Clinton repeatedly invoked reputational considerations in his decision-making during crises. In contrast, President Obama said that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” To explain this variation in leaders’ concern for reputation for resolve, one must look beyond situational or strategic factors to focus instead on the psychological dispositions and beliefs of national leaders.”