Fighting for Credibility: US Reputation and International Politics

  • Published

Fighting for Credibility: US Reputation and International Politics by Frank P. Harvey and John Mitton. University of Toronto Press, 2016, 300 pp.

Fighting for Credibility is a relatively recent addition to the international relations debate concerning the importance of state reputations. Most policy makers believe that reputations matter, but several scholars contend that they are wrong and that a state’s reputation for resolve, or its credibility to carry out threats, has no bearing on the behavior of others. Therefore, states should never act out of reputation concerns. Scholars on the other side of the debate contend that state reputations are critical determinants of other states’ behavior and should be a factor in decision-making. Harvey and Mitton take on the critics by suggesting that credibility matters and that states might even want to go to war for their reputation. They also importantly challenge reputation critics who, in making policy recommendations for Syria, suggested that they held the consensus opinion on reputation.

Frank Harvey is dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University where he also holds the Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Politics. John Mitton was a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University at the time of publication and is more recently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary.

The authors’ central argument is that there are conditions under which state reputations not only matter but are worth fighting for. Specifically, they assert that leaders will refer to past crises to identify a state’s reputation for resolve, sometimes called credibility. By examining US resolve in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, as well as the outcome of those cases, Harvey and Mitton seek to explain how states like Syria, Iran, and North Korea might perceive current US credibility.

First, they discuss some of the main critics of reputation, identifying the weaknesses in those arguments. This is the strongest part of the book and probably the best literature review on reputation, though several good articles and books on reputation were published after the release of this book. That is not to diminish the quality of their literature review, especially since much of the new works address questions raised by this book. It does mean someone new to the reputation debate will have to search to find the most up-to-date scholarship.

Harvey and Mitton then offer their own theory of reputation, which is that a state’s past actions can reinforce or undermine the credibility of its future threats. Their theory suggests that states seek reputation signals from an adversary’s past actions, in addition to current capabilities and interests. Despite their desire to provide nuance to the debate, they focus almost exclusively on those reputation signals and provide little explanation for when reputation matters more than other factors. While I am sympathetic to the argument about reputation signals and agree they are important, those signals are simply one data point that states can use to forecast the behavior of others. Finally, their theory suggests that reputations are transferable in that a state’s behavior in one crisis will influence how other states view its reputation, at least during similar crises. I am also sympathetic to this point, though it is difficult to measure similarity. The book focuses on US involvement in asymmetric crises since the end of the Cold War. While those crises are similar in some respects, they are not clearly generalizable to other situations involving other countries or international organizations, or even other types of reputations. As a result, more clarity specifying the conditions under which reputations matter would strengthen their theory.

The authors use three post–Cold War cases to test their theory: Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–95), Kosovo (1998–99), and Iraq (1991–2003). While they offer some interesting anecdotes from the cases, each study is less than 15 pages long, which necessarily misses important elements. The recency of these cases also means that the authors rely on assumptions about the thought processes of key decision makers, despite that being a critical component for understanding how reputation influences decisions. These cases also suffer from a levels of analysis problem in that the first two often conflate US and NATO reputations, while all three confuse presidential and national reputations. This is a challenge for all studies of reputation; it is difficult to separate individual leader reputations from those of the state, and still more difficult when the state acts as part of an organization. Lumping these reputations together weakens the applicability of their theory but does highlight an important area for further reputation research.

Harvey and Mitton use the rest of the book to discuss the implications of their theory on current and potential cases, with a focus on Syria (the case that seemingly inspired the book). These chapters highlight a major flaw in the book, which is the authors’ unique assertion that President Obama’s reputation grew as a result of the red-line incident in Syria. The authors insist that Syria was a victory for Obama and US credibility—despite providing little evidence for this claim; despite the evidence that Obama’s inaction, after Syria used chemical weapons, hurt US credibility; despite Syria continuing to use chemical weapons; and despite Russia following up its diplomatic victory in Syria with an invasion of Crimea that further tested US resolve. The authors’ interpretation of Syria does not delegitimize their literature review or their arguments in the first part of the book, but it does call into question their method for identifying success and failure in a crisis, and thus determining how and when reputations improve or decline.

In conclusion, for students of international relations wanting to understand the reputation debate, the first two chapters provide the best literature review on the subject. The final chapter also highlights the dangers of transferring theories to policy when there is still debate over the validity of those theories. On the other hand, the case studies of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Iraq—though illustrating post–Cold War asymmetric conflicts where reputations for credibility were at stake—lack enough compelling evidence to support the authors’ claims, especially regarding the perceptions of foreign leaders about US reputations.

This is a significant book in the debate about reputations that I wanted to praise because many of the authors’ claims are consistent with my own findings on reputation. Unfortunately, this book mostly speaks to scholars who already accept the importance of reputation. I suspect that Harvey and Mitton, though making powerful arguments and identifying several important questions for further research, offer too little empirical support to help any of the reputation critics see the flaws in their own work.

Dr. Gregory D. Miller
Air Command and Staff College


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."