The Foreign Policy “Credibility” Argument Is, Well, Not Credible

With respect to Korea, for example, as Jonathan Mercer, the author of Reputation and International Politics, notes, for all of the Truman administration’s concerns about how U.S. “weakness” in Korea would be perceived by its European allies, the view in Europe was quite different. French leaders, for example, were more concerned “that American resolve would lead to a major war over a strategically inconsequential piece of territory.”

As for Vietnam, Mercer highlights the work of Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, which suggests that the Soviet Union, rather than seeing weakness in the American retreat from Vietnam, was surprised that its rival would sacrifice so much in pursuit of a strategic objective tangential to direct U.S. interests.

Today, it’s certainly possible that Chinese leaders will conclude that the U.S. has undermined its credibility by withdrawing from Afghanistan, even after 20 years of war. But China’s calculus about a potential U.S. response if it invades Taiwan, for example, is based on a very different set of factors. The U.S. has maintained its commitment to Taiwan for more than four decades, and the only major variation in the policy has been to occasionally take steps that suggest openness to a Taiwanese declaration of independence, which is a red line for Beijing. Chinese leaders would have a difficult time looking at the historical evidence and concluding that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s territorial integrity is less than sincere.

Second, Chinese leaders could easily draw the opposite conclusion from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, Biden’s Afghanistan policy “might convince China that we are more serious about a shift to Asia or to Great Power competition.” In her view, the withdrawal is “unlikely to produce any concrete changes in their foreign policy approach, since they were already contesting U.S. hegemony.”

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