‘The U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War precisely because it feared the implications for its containment policy against the Soviet Union if it allowed Vietnam to fall into communist hands” (Jacob Shapiro, “A Question About American Credibility”: Geopolitical Futures, June 5, 2018).
How credible is U.S. foreign policy? If Shapiro’s comment above is correct, it holds enormous importance for Americans. Did we spend our blood and treasure (and Vietnam’s) in the Vietnam conflict because we didn’t want to look weak to the Soviet Union during the Cold War? Did we care about the welfare of the Vietnamese at all?
That approach sounds more like what occurs among high school adolescents who want to impress each other than it does world leaders shaping foreign policy.
How does one determine how credible a nation will be? Shapiro uses two criteria. One approach is to do a survey of public opinion. But the public doesn’t make the decision, the nation’s leaders do. So how credible is that measure? Shapiro asserts American foreign policy is data obsessed while it ignores political theory.
The second approach was seen during the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson used body counts (data) to indicate success. The American public was not convinced and a credibility gap arose. A Vietnam combat vet once told me no American G.I. would want to go out to count bodies where the Viet Cong might still be and risk death in the process. Soldiers often guessed rather than risk their lives.
President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal further weakened American credibility at home.
Americans projected that distrust abroad, thinking other nations perceived as they did, which may or not have been the case.
When Vladimir Putin invaded the nation of Georgia in 2008, he was not interested in occupying the country. He wanted to show the surrounding nations that the U.S. was not to be trusted because it did not come to Georgia’s aid.
There are often comments about President Donald Trump and his erratic foreign policy. Foreign leaders are left confused and unsure whether the U.S. will follow through with its foreign commitments. It’s a valid concern.
Trump’s rejection of the Iranian agreement did more to weaken Iranian President Rohani’s image at home than it did to actually make the U.S. less credible with other nations. Rohani made the agreement with the western nations because he wanted to help Iran regain some economic prosperity. President Barack Obama’s political position was so weak that it was never ratified by a Republican-dominated Senate. Two-thirds of the Senate must ratify any treaties. Therefore, it was easy for Trump to nullify the Iranian agreement once in office. Even if U.S. credibility was damaged, in Trump’s view it was better than empowering a potential adversary. European leaders were more interested in obtaining cheap Iranian oil than they were in stopping Iran’s nuclear development.
The on-again-off-again meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un did little to ensure American credibility with South Korea because Trump unilaterally suspended joint military exercises, with no thought for what the South Korean government might think. The same is true of Japan. Can the Japanese trust Trump to protect them as promised in case of an attack by Kim Jung Un after the U.S. backed off on its nuclear demands for North Korea? Would you?
Japan may be forced to develop nuclear weapons and a navy of its own to feel safe in East Asia as China extends its reach into the South China Sea and beyond. A lack of U.S. credibility in East Asia can and will change the dynamics in the region, increasing the risk of another major power with nuclear weapons.
Credibility matters a great deal. As Shapiro noted: “Ultimately, the best indicator of how a country is going to behave is not what its leaders have said or agreed to, but what its interests dictate.”
Part of the U.S.’s problem is that we are not really sure what we want. Certainly, that is the case with Trump. His impulsivity, ignorance, “America First” emphasis and outrageous decisions and tweets, create uncertainty and doubt. That uncertainty may be a negotiation strategy, but it also creates a credibility gap with other nations, which decreases trust.
Trust is the glue that ties peoples and nations together. Take it away and the world order begins to fragment.