The Magazine

Standing Down

How popular should America want to be?

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The concept of standing does indeed lend itself to polemics. For that reason among others, it's difficult to pin down. It's hard to say what standing is, where it comes from, and what you can do with more of it that you can't do with less of it. The APSA report says standing has "two key elements: credibility and esteem." It goes on to define credibility as "the U.S. government's ability to do what it says it is going to do" and esteem as "America's stature, or what America is perceived to 'stand for' in the hearts and minds of foreign publics and -policymakers." It notes that the two components of standing "can be mutually reinforcing, but they can also be difficult to pursue in tandem--a trade-off implied by Machiavelli's famous dictum, 'It is much safer to be feared than loved.' "

Krasner and Nau, though writing in dissent, mainly agree with the report in its assessment of the importance of credibility. They also rightly recognize that the report's definition seems incomplete: Credibility is not something you enjoy solely on the basis of the ability to do what you say you will do, but also on the basis of a record of doing what you have said you would do. "Ability" frames the issue prospectively: Do you have what it takes to do what you say? That's not wrong: The prospective question of "ability" or capability is highly relevant when the subject is, for example, nuclear deterrence, and your capacity to blow your adversary to smithereens stands as a kind of proxy for your willingness to do so if provoked. Certainly no one will take seriously a promise made when the ability to fulfill it is obviously lacking. But everyday "credibility" is more about your record--a product of having kept promises and refrained from making promises you can't keep.

The APSA report makes the claim that " 'standing' is significant for both scholarship and policy," and certainly that is easy to see with regard to the "credibility" component. Policymakers pay careful attention to the record of their adversaries and allies alike in assessing the likelihood that they will keep their word. A reckoning of the balance of military power in Europe in the 1990s would have shown that those European countries most concerned about ethnic cleansing in the Balkans had the ability to go to war to stop it on their own, without the United States. But Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic responded not so much to capability as to their recent record on the use of military force. He was undeterred. Credibility as capacity as well as a record of making good on promises (or failing to do so) is always worth studying. Israelis talk about the need to "restore" deterrence from time to time--that is, to take action to back up their threat to punish attackers. Such actions seek to demonstrate credibility.

But is credibility always an element of standing? A lack of credibility will presumably lower one's international standing, but high credibility will not necessarily increase it. That depends on the nature of the promises one makes. One does not advance in standing by credibly promising to do things no one else likes.

This is where "esteem" comes in. But esteem is a much more elusive concept. The report's first crack at a definition, "stature," is distinctly unhelpful. You could just as easily say that the two components of standing are "credibility" and "stature," defining the latter as "the esteem in which others hold the United States." If one is esteemed, one has stature. If anything, stature is a broader category than esteem. Stature might be construed as importance or consequentiality for better or worse, with esteem denoting positive stature.

The rest of the definition, "what America is perceived to 'stand for,' " begins to get us somewhere, but it needs examining. First, we need to know what others think America stands for. Then we need to know whether they like it--and why.