Saturday, February 04, 2006


How much does resolve matter in international relations? There are some who argue that resolve is unimportant. Dr. Farley argued that one's enemies will interpret one's actions however they wish. While this is true to some extent, I have to dispute it. Stalin closed off Berlin in an attempt to force the West to surrender it. Instead, the US initiated the legendary Berlin Airlift. After it became clear to Stalin that the US was determined to keep Berlin, Stalin called off the blockade.

There are other examples as well. An Iranian frigate attacked two American military aircraft. In response, US fighters sunk the frigate. If memory serves, Kenneth Pollack argues in The Persian Puzzle that the Iranian government took a lesson from this incident, namely that they could only push the US before the US would respond.

Finally, I feel obliged to bring an example in from World War II. Yes, I'm going to talk about Munich. I know that's the most cited example of the need for resolve, but it's a good one. Hitler was having problems at home, so he did what he always did. He went looking for trouble abroad. He demanded the Sudetenland, and he got it. Some experts argue that, had the British and the French stood up to him, the military would have initiated a coup and removed Hitler from power. Instead, Hitler got a strategically vital section of Czechoslovakia, and the German military stayed loyal.

Now, does that mean standing fast is always a wise idea? Of course not. Quite simply, some things aren't worth fighting over. Mexico disputed a small section of the Texas border (the Rio Grande had moved since the border was drawn); eventually, the US agreed to give it up in return for increased oil sales from Mexico. Attempting to hold onto that land would have simply been stupid.

What I'm saying is that resolve matters. It's not everything, but it does matter.


Rusalka said...

Also, events don't happen in a vacuum. You enemy may not interpret just your actions as intended, but your actions plus a public statement of intent are a pretty obvious message.

Robert Farley said...

Fair enough, but I don't think that the examples you cite have much to do with reputation.

Did the United States establish a reputation for resolve through the Berlin Airlift, or did it establish a capability to supply Berlin, as well as make a specific statement regarding the value of West Berlin? That's not reputation; if the US had established a reputation for resolve, and the Soviets had then refrained from supporting the invasion of South Korea because of that reputation, then you might have something...

The Munich example, as you pose it, also has nothing to do with reputation. It could credibly be argued that the Allies lacked resolve in 1938, but that's not the same as arguing that having a reputation for resolve is an important thing. Ironically enough, Hitler believed that the Allies would go to war over the seizure of the Sudentenland, so it's pretty hard to argue that the Allied reputation had any independent effect at all.

As for the Iran case, it looks like a measured response to a measured provocation. If you can demonstrate that a belief in US resolve (that is, US reputation) had an independent effect on Iranian behavior (apart from US capabilities), then I'd like to hear it.

But, then, I'm biased.

Robert Farley said...


Right, but sending a message is different than establishing a reputation. If, in a bar, I say that I'll defend my stool and then, later, I fight to defend my stool, have I established a reputation for resolve, or simply that I like my stool and am willing to fight for it?

Note that these are different things; the second is about a specific response to a specific value that I have. The first is about whether or not I'm tough. According to reputation theorists, observers will conclude (from my fight to defend my chair) that I will also fight to defend my peanuts.

And that's what I dispute; I doubt very much that observers will learn anything about me other than that I'll defend my chair.

This is going to be fun. Three more weeks before the actual class on reputation.

Cavour said...

Re the Berlin Airlift: From what I've heard, Stalin called off the blockade once it became clear that the US was determined to hold onto West Berlin. That sounds like an indication of resolve.

I've also heard that Hitler was convinced the British and French wouldn't fight over the Sudetenland, after their acquiescence in his seizure of Austria. Given the Sudetenland's strategic importance, I wouldn't have expected Hitler to demand it if he didn't think he could get it without a fight. Perhaps I'm wrong on this. It's been a while since I studied World War II, and different historians interpret things differently.

As for demonstrating an independent connection between altered Iranian behavior and the US response, I'm not sure that's possible. Most people don't make decisions soley on one factor; I know I don't. Given the additional difficulty of understanding the decision-making process of revolutionary Iran, I don't have the information to prove it. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that means it's necessarily false.

As for resolve vs. reputation...errr, that was a typo on my part. I originally was writing a post about reputation, then realized we had actually been discussing resolve in class. I apparently forgot to change the title of my post. Mea culpa.

Robert Farley said...


But that's the point; everyone, including myself, thinks that resolve is important. I question whether having a reputation for resolve is important. I concur that the Berlin Airlift indicated to the Soviet Union that the United States had the resolve to maintain West Berlin, but that's not the same as talking about reputation.

The Austria and Czechoslovakia questions are different. Austria joined the Reich more or less voluntarily, and the Western Allies possessed no defense treaty with Austria. They did with Czechoslovakia, which is why lots of people (including Hitler) suspected that they would risk war.

Mike said...

Resolve? Or perhaps, signaling to sophisticated potential enemies, and allies, what your true intentions are regarding the issue at hand. It would seem more important in IR that parties have quality understandings of each others positions.

Jesco said...

I also think reputation for resolve plays at least some role. A more recent example comes to mind... H.W.Bush's failure to "finish the job" in the Gulf War. I think Hussein might have ignored Security Council resulutions because he didn't feel very threatened by U.S. resolve, thus, the US had establshed a reputation for lack of resolve in Iraq. I'm just going to sit and wait for Dr. Farley to pick apart my argument :) I've also had trouble wrapping my head around "reputation for resolve doesn't matter."