The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
Former President Donald Trump did much to undermine U.S. credibility on the world stage. His administration openly questioned the value of important alliances, reneged on international commitments, and made bombastic threats—often without following through. For four years, both friends and foes of the United States questioned Washington’s commitment to its relationships, its values, and the international institutions it helped to build.
President Joe Biden has vowed to restore the United States’ reputation as a resolute and dependable power, but some analysts and academics worry that the damage done over the last four years may be long-lasting. “The lingering long-run question of whether allies can trust America not to produce another Trump cannot be answered with complete assurance,” the Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr., cautioned recently. And to be sure, Biden faces a difficult task in shoring up strained relations and regaining the confidence of the world.
But there are good reasons to be more optimistic. My research shows that every leader establishes his or her reputation anew. Leaders’ reputations are distinct from those of their predecessors and the states that they lead but bear heavily on the perceived credibility of their nations. In other words, new leaders are not bound by the reputational legacies they inherit. They forge their own reputations that in turn shape their nations’ credibility. Biden thus has an opportunity to restore U.S. credibility—but only if he acts swiftly and avoids the mistakes that leaders often make when trying to establish reputations for resolve.
Policymakers understand intuitively that reputations matter. But some academics are skeptical that past actions shed enough light on the character of states to predict their future behavior. How a state acted in the past says little about how it will act in the future, according to these skeptics. Rather, strategic interests and relative power determine states’ credibility. In this view, attempting to “restore” the reputation of the United States in the wake of Trump’s presidency would be a fool’s errand.
This view of reputational politics has received a great deal of attention, in particular after former President Barack Obama drew a “redline” on chemical weapons use in Syria and then refused to enforce it. Reputation skeptics argued then that Obama should not feel pressure to act out of concern for U.S. credibility, since credibility is not determined by state actions. But reams of academic research demonstrate that past actions—and the reputations states acquire because of them—do in fact affect credibility. Studies repeatedly show that states that back down from international threats are more likely to be targets of future aggression and that states with poor reputations for honesty or resolve have difficulty issuing credible threats. States also acquire reputations for being reliable or unreliable alliance partners, which in turn affect their ability to forge new alliances.
My research shows that reputations, especially for resolve, help not just states but individual leaders achieve favorable foreign policy outcomes. Drawing on extensive analysis of Soviet and U.S. archival documents from the 1950s and 1960s and results from survey experiments, I demonstrate that leaders who are perceived as resolute can issue more credible threats, extract greater concessions, and better achieve other foreign policy goals than leaders who are perceived as irresolute. These leaders establish their own reputations, distinct from those of their predecessors and their nations, based on their actions and rhetoric in foreign policy. Those personal reputations, in turn, shape broader perceptions of national credibility.
But early missteps, and even lack of clarity on important foreign policy issues, can cost them credibility in the eyes of other world leaders.
My research also shows that leaders have a narrow window after taking office in which to establish their reputations. New leaders may believe that they have time to work out the kinks in their foreign policy. But early missteps, and even lack of clarity on important foreign policy issues, can cost them credibility in the eyes of other world leaders. Take, for example, one of President John F. Kennedy’s earliest foreign policy challenges. In June 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany and cut off Western access to Berlin if the West did not formally acknowledge the existence of two separate German states. On the campaign trail, Kennedy had spoken forcefully about the need to defend U.S. interests in West Germany and Berlin, but once in office he vacillated between combativeness toward Moscow and efforts at conciliation. As a result, Khrushchev came to believe that Kennedy was uncertain about how to achieve U.S. goals in Berlin and unwilling to bear the necessary costs. As the Soviet diplomat Arkady Shevchenko later wrote, Khrushchev thought Kennedy was “wishy-washy” and lacked determination. Khrushchev did not see Kennedy’s threats and promises regarding Berlin, and later Cuba, as credible.
Kennedy’s failure to establish a reputation for resolve early in his presidency contrasts sharply with the experience of his predecessor. President Dwight Eisenhower deliberately worked to establish a reputation for resolute action vis-à-vis the Soviets. From the earliest days of his presidency, he made clear and measured statements about his foreign policy goals and about what outcomes he was willing and unwilling to accept. He then backed those statements up with direct and consistent action—for instance, by maintaining a hard-line position in negotiations with the Soviets that clearly communicated he would not renege on U.S. commitments in Berlin. As a result, Eisenhower cultivated a reputation for resolve that allowed him to engage in constructive diplomacy with the Soviets and even deter Khrushchev from following through on an earlier threat to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany in 1958.
Taken together, the Kennedy and Eisenhower examples illustrate another finding of my research: reputations formed early in a presidency are sticky and difficult to shake. Leaders who fail to follow through on their first foreign policy threats and promises will struggle to project resolve for the rest of their tenures.
Biden has a narrow window in which to build a reputation for resolve that can restore U.S. credibility after the wreckage of the Trump years. He will have to clearly communicate his policy objectives on important international issues and then consistently work to advance them. And he will need to avoid early missteps, knowing that other world leaders are harsh judges of new presidents and have long memories.
Biden has assumed the presidency at a particularly perilous time. He faces not only a deadly pandemic but continuing tensions with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, among others. A credible U.S. stance on these issues will require clarity, consistency, and specificity. Biden has staked out positions in some of these policy areas, but in others his objectives are vague or his strategies for achieving them are ill-defined. For example, he has not made clear how his administration will address North Korea’s improved nuclear capabilities or what these capabilities will mean for diplomatic efforts with allies in the region. Pyongyang could decide to test Biden in the early days of his presidency with renewed weapons testing or escalatory rhetoric. But the Biden administration has not communicated what it would do in response—a notable omission from the president’s first major foreign policy speech last week.
Leaders can be tempted to make grandiose threats and promises where they lack specific policy proposals. But they get into trouble when they overpromise and fail to adequately back up their rhetoric. Saber rattling can also back leaders into corners, necessitating harsh policy responses that they may not be willing or able to provide.
This lesson is one that Trump clearly failed to learn and that Biden, who is prone to going off book during speeches and other public remarks, would be wise to heed. Reputations for resolve and credibility are built by staking out clear policy positions and then following them up with direct and consistent action. What Biden does to make good on his promises will determine not just his reputation as president but the fate of U.S. credibility.