Saturday, February 21, 2009

Being a Bully Isn't the Best Bet

First, I should note that I have been greatly enjoying Foreign Policy mag's expanded blogger lineup (Tom Ricks, Dan Drezner, Stephen Walt, and Marc Lynch). It's quite an impressive group of analysts, and part of my regular reading routine these days. Walt recently pointed out a great paper on international relations by Todd Sechser. Walt summarizes it as follows:
[G]reat powers often fail to get their way when they issue coercive threats (which is surprising at first glance), and that this problem may in fact get worse the more powerful they are. The basic logic here concerns reputation: weak states will worry about giving in to a great power’s demands (even when the demands are fairly minor), because they will fear that the great power will just demand more later. So they resist now, to enhance their reputation for being stubborn and to convince the great power to leave them alone in the future. The core of the problem is that a very powerful state can’t make a credible commitment of restraint; it can’t reassure the weak state that it really, truly, wants just a modest concession, one that the weak state might be willing to grant if it were confident that this would be the only demand. And the bigger and stronger the coercing state is, the harder it is for that state to reassure the weak power that its aims are actually limited.
It's not a shock that coercive threats against other states are generally unsuccessful (I think that's been a semi-regular theme of foreign policy discussions on this blog), but I think the point about being able to credibly commit to restraint is useful. This is one of the great values of international institutions. It has long been fashionable for conservatives (generally, but often liberals too) to scoff at the UN for hindering our ability to get things done. Ironically, the fact that working through institutions like the UN does to some extent tie our hands can make them more useful. A commitment to work through institutions in which our actions are restrained and other parties have meaningful voice makes our actions less threatening and more constructive.

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