Putin, Snowden, and How Credibility Works in International Politics

Our old friend Max Boot has a post at Commentary that demonstrates a common confusion about how credibility works in international politics. Boot argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin offered NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum because he doesn’t fear Obama because Obama hasn’t yet gone to war in Syria… or something. I’ll let him explain:

Obama understandably doesn’t want to get stuck in the Syrian morass. But he should understand that when the president of the United States makes threats and then fails to make good on them, that has consequences for America’s dealings with the rest of the world. It sends a message of irresolution that cunning predators like Putin can smell from half a world away. The result: Snowden will have an opportunity to upgrade his tastes from pizza and fried chicken to caviar and blinis.

Boot was more succinct in the tweet accompanying the link to his post: “Putin’s decision to grant #Snowden amnesty show’s he doesn’t fear Obama’s wrath.”

In essence, he is relying on a largely discredited idea, “Past Action Theory,” to describe how Putin estimates U.S. credibility in demanding the return of Mr. Snowden. However, credibility in international politics is not based on an assessment of prior commitments. It is based on a state’s capabilities and the interests at stake in a given situation. As Daryl Press explains in his book Calculating Credibility, threats are credible when “backed by sufficient power and serve clear interests.” He explains that two questions matter when leaders are determining credibility: “does our adversary have enough power to do what he threatens?” and “are the interests at stake large enough to justify the adversary’s costs and risks?” (On the subject of U.S. credibility regarding Syria specifically, see Jonathan Mercer here and Press and Jennifer Lind here).

The United States certainly has the capability to coerce Russia in a variety of ways. But given the U.S. interest at stake, how does Boot think the Obama administration should express its “wrath” in order to induce Putin to return the wayward whistleblower? Coercive threats against Russia, in this case, are not credible because the interest at stake, Edward Snowden, is simply not worth the cost or risk of inflicting the type of punishment that might actually have an effect. Putin knows this and it’s why he can momentarily thumb his nose at America by offering Snowden asylum. “[C]unning predators” like Putin calculate they can succeed on issues of minor interest because the costs of carrying out threats associated with stopping them outweigh the benefits of following through. He can claim a minor victory over a relatively minor issue while the United States retains clear and incontrovertible advantages in the means—namely, military power, economic vitality, and political prestige—to follow through on issues of far greater consequence than a high-profile extradition.

Moreover, drawing a causal link between U.S. military intervention in Syria and the extradition of a fugitive is simply mind-boggling. What signal would U.S. intervention in Syria have sent Russia about the consequences of not returning Mr. Snowden anyway? That America will support dissident groups seeking to overthrow Putin’s regime? That Washington will establish a no-fly zone over Moscow? That the U.S. military will invade Russia and forcibly bring Snowden home to face trial?

I can only speculate on why Max Boot—and he is hardly the only one—doesn’t care to understand how credibility actually works in international politics. It likely has less to do with being able to scare the Vladimir Putins of the world into giving up the next Edward Snowden, than it is about making sure, whenever there’s a war somewhere in the world, the United States won’t fail to get involved. Fortunately, he’s wrong that nonintervention damages credibility. We can only hope that policymakers continue to ignore his advice.

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