Artillery Row

Why is the US facing a “crisis of credibility”?

It is a crisis that has been created by the hubris of the establishment

Concerns about U.S. credibility are consistently brought up when discussing what foreign policy Washington should adopt, most recently: the development of a strategy with Ukraine, U.S. commitments to Taiwan, and as a response to various attacks on US troops, and shipping in the Middle East. It can be difficult to define or quantify the concept of international credibility, and unlike a state’s more concrete economic or strategic interests, it is defined by the perception of foreign government, existing “only in the eye of the beholder”. Historian Robert McMahon describes it as a “blend of resolve, reliability, believability, and decisiveness.” In sum, the United States cannot be credible unless other states believe that it is credible.

This dynamic around credibility is clear in policy rhetoric addressing key issue areas. Aid to Ukraine is frequently justified on the basis that continued assistance is imperative to credibly maintaining U.S. commitments in Europe and deterring Russia from further aggression. The policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan is consistently undermined by rhetoric that coming to the defense of Taiwan is paramount to demonstrating resolve to East Asian allies and checking Chinese ambitions across the region. The United States is even willing to continue admittedly operationally ineffective strikes against Yemen’s Houthis as a means of proving U.S. resolve.

The most recent foreign aid package for $66.3 billion, coming from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House — and competing with a $95 billion foreign aid package which passed the Senate — seems to encapsulate the stress of how American credibility is spread thin across various issue areas. The duelling bills are focused on military assistance, designating pots of funding to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel, thus attempting to tie American resolve in three areas of global conflict up into one neat funding package that will serve as universal evidence of U.S. commitment. As if these disjointed international commitments weren’t enough for one funding package, the House version also includes a provision reinstating the “remain in Mexico” policy as a border security measure.

While these unrelated issue areas are strung together with a quippy title, the “Defending Borders, Defending Democracies Act,” the lack of cohesion amongst the foreign aid bills is indicative of two overarching issues facing American credibility abroad. First, that America’s global overreach has left it without a prioritised central strategy. Second, unresolved crises within the domestic political sphere are hurting the U.S. international image as well.

Ultimately, the United States is facing a credibility crisis of its own creation. Washington has refused to follow a strategy that makes hard choices and prioritises. As it attempts to balance all its goals and desires in various corners of the world, it has found that it simply does not have the resources or the capability to do everything it would like to do at the same time.

At the same time, deep political polarisation and dysfunction have continued to plague the United States since the 2016 election, increasing under the weight of a global pandemic, a contentious 2020 election, an ongoing economic struggle, and what will certainly be an unusual 2024 election cycle. Ongoing domestic dysfunction only serves to hurt international credibility. How can the United States be trusted to keep its commitments abroad when it cannot even manage its own domestic affairs? The rest of the world has watched as the superpower has spread itself thin both at home and abroad.

The U.S. should not expect to solve the issue of credibility in each individual foreign policy area until it reflects upon what its overall global overreach has done to decay its credibility overall. A 2018 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report argues that, “credibility, like deterrence, is a function of perceived capability and perceived resolve to use it, and America’s current credibility gap reflects shortfalls in both of these areas.” But as long as the United States remains overstretched and over-involved, even where its core interests are not at stake, credibility will remain a plaguing issue. The reality that the United States continues to have a hard time accepting is that its commitments simply are not credible in areas where its core security interests are not at stake, especially when facing adversaries that have a much greater stake in the issues than Washington does.

The United States needs to prioritise its global interests around its core security and economic interests

Like it or not, the United States is simply not going to get everything it wants all the time and cannot single handedly enforce an entire international order. It simply does not have the capabilities to do so, and other countries are aware of its limits. Where core interests aren’t at stake, resolve will always come under question as well. The United States needs to prioritise its global interests around its core security and economic interests and pursue realistic strategies around those priorities. Rather than obsessing over the credibility of a myriad of peripheral threats and commitments, the United States could focus its limited resources around a responsible competition with China that is open to cooperation in areas of mutual interest and assessing the security measures that are actually necessary to protecting U.S. access to full participation in the global economy. A reduction in international commitments would then allow the United States to focus its attention on resolving domestic dysfunction.

Ultimately, a restrained focus on core interests and the reduction of global obligations will counter-intuitively serve to bolster credibility, because threats and security commitments are ultimately most credible when backed by unencumbered capability and when tied to concrete interests.

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