Tag: reputation

When promises are credible signals

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

While there are all sorts of actions people can take to signal that they are trustworthy, sometimes simply making a promise can get the job done. When two parties will be dealing with each other for an indeterminate amount of time it is advantageous to both if they are viewed as trustworthy. Lying would mean being punished in the future by the other party. In this way, talk isn’t simply cheap–it’s a credible signal.

Case in point, the potential reconciliation of the Health Care Reform bill:

Now, it’s true that the Obama administration achieves its policy goals once the House passes the Senate bill, and doesn’t need a follow-up reconciliation bill except insofar as it’s necessary to guarantee House passage. But the reconciliation bill is going to consist of a lot of popular provisions that Democrats will be eager to vote for — canceling the Cornhusker Kickback, boosting middle-class tax credits, delaying the excise tax and instead raising taxes on the rich.

Moreover, the House is only going to pass the Senate bill first if it gets ironclad assurance on the reconciliation bill from the administration and the Senate. Why would Obama and the Senate nakedly double cross the House? It would mean never being able to pass a piece of legislation again. The reputations of the double-crossers would be destroyed, both inside Washington and, to a lesser extent, nationally. No remotely rational politician, no matter how evil, would do something like that.

What makes (or, would make) this a credible signal of trustworthiness by Senate Democrats?

  1. Shadow of the future: It isn’t known ahead of time when House and Senate Democrats will need to stop cooperating on various measures, therefore both have a strong incentive to keep their word. Now, it is true that come November one or both chambers could come under Republican control, but that doesn’t negate the need for the parties to cooperate across the House and Senate. To some degree, it may actually increase it;
  2. Explicit/Public commitment: By explicitly promising to use reconciliation to enact changes sought by House Democrats, the Senate Democrats would be placing their reputations for trustworthiness on the line. While the shadow of the future certainly creates incentives for them to cooperate regardless of what they may say, explicit declarations make it very difficult for them to rationalize or explain away any non-compliance after the fact. What would be better is if every Senator (or, at least, the 51 needed to pass the measure) publicly declared their intention before the House votes. A blanket promise from only the leadership isn’t as valuable. Sure, the leadership would strengthen their own incentive to ensure a majority supports the measure, but that leaves open the possibility that individual Senators whose constituents are against reconciliation could back out–especially since the majority leader may not even be around come November;
  3. Ability to verify actions: There will be no way to hide whether Senate Democrats follow through on their promise to the House. Reconciliation will require each Senator to publicly declare their support or opposition to the measure. Making it easy to verify if someone follows through on a promise ensures that their incentive to lie is reduced, since they know they’ll be caught and punished in the future. Ambiguity is the enemy of verbal signaling.

(Hat tip Cheap Talk)

Update on Burma

The government crackdown on democracy protesters continues in Burma. The official death toll is nine, including a Japanese photo-journalist, but opposition sources claim that the true number is many times higher. One report I heard claimed that there are over 100 bodies in hospital morgues, and more bodies in the streets. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to get good information about what is going on. The junta has realized the effect of the dramatic photos being electronically sent out of the country and has been actively working to sever internet and telephone connections to the outside world. Internet cafes have been closed, and the main internet service provided has been raided by government troops. There are also reports that troops are actively targeting anyone carrying a camera. Hundreds, maybe thousands of monks have been arrested, and those protesters who remain in the streets are now overwhelmingly civilians.

There are unconfirmed reports of “unusual” troop movements in Yangon. A caller to this morning’s Diane Rehm Show, who claimed to have sources on the Thai-Burmese border, asserted that the wife of one of the junta leaders has been spirited out of the country (to a hotel in Dubai) and that the army has split into two factions, pro and anti-regime. There are also reports that there is disagreement among the leadership over the crackdown. The Irrawady News Magazine has a running account on its homepage; the site is very slow, probably due to heavy traffic.

Much seems to rest on where China chooses to put its weight. Few expect that China would support the democracy movement, but given the importance of economic ties to the west, they may be reluctant to support the regime if it engages in a Tiananmen-style massacre–both because of the bad publicity associated with its support for the junta and for the inevitable comparisons (like the one I just made).

Expediency vs. Ideals or Intrinsic vs. Reputational Interests in Uzbekistan?

[Cross posted at “Discord and Elaboration“]

I think Patrick is on to something when he writes that the current dilemma facing the US in Uzbekistan isn’t strictly one of security-vs-morality. Of course, one could (and many have) frame the issue in this way. However I think there is another way to look at the issue. I see the problem as strategy-vs-strategy, or more specifically, intrinsic interests-vs-reputational interests. The Defense Department sees the K2 airbase (K2 is shorthand for Karshi-Khanabad) as an intrinsic interest, one that is vital operationally to fighting the GWOT (Greater War on Terror) and for maintaining the US ability to project power in the region. The State Department on the other hand sees the Andijan massacre and US actions regarding K2 as a reputational interest, one that is important not for its immediate strategic value but rather for the inferences others will draw about the US.

The current situation in Uzbekistan offers a wonderful example of the dilemma that statesmen face from time to time between intrinsic and reputational interests. It also illustrates the difficulties in implementing a grand strategy that includes a component as amorphous as spreading democracy. A little background (if you already read Patrick’s post you can skip this):

Back on May 13th an estimated 200 Uzbek protestors were gunned down by government troops as a result of a massive protest in Andijan’s main square (another 500 reportedly fled across the border into Kyrgstan). The Uzbek government has claimed that less than 200 protestors died and the bulk of those were Islamic militants. However, eyewitness accounts and NGO investigations have put the official account into question. Human Rights Watch issued a report about the incident in which they claim that the protests were in no way connected to Islamic militants or calls for an Islamic theocracy. The report said in part:

Interviews with numerous people present at the demonstrations consistently revealed that the protesters spoke about economic conditions in Andijan, government repression, and unfair trials–and not the creation of an Islamic state. People were shouting ‘Ozodliq!’ [‘Freedom’] and not ‘Allahu Akbar’ [‘God is Great’].

At last week’s meeting of defense ministers in Brussels, Russia and the United States collaborated to kill any joint demand by NATO for an international probe into the events in Andijan. Several sources told the Washington Post that the eventual wording of the joint communique regarding the meeting (which merely stated that “issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan” had been discussed) was the result of a fierce battle between “U.S. defense officials, who emphasized the importance of the base, and others, including State Department representatives at NATO headquarters, who favored language calling for a transparent, independent and international probe into the killings of Uzbekistan civilians by police and soldiers”. There was some debate as to whether Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was openly opposing stated US and State Department policy towards the Andijan massacre (as Secretary Rice and President Bush have both openly denounced the action and called for an investigation) or simply being noncommittal because he was not involved in recent high-level discussions regarding the issue.

In either case it is clear that the US faces a dilemma in Uzbekistan specifically and with the democratization strategy in
general. The Washington Post has a nice quote that sums up the problem:

It’s like the dilemma we have in the democracy agenda in many places. We have to both press the democracy agenda and still, for example, cooperate when we need to on the war on terror,” another senior U.S. official said.

Patrick is right when he notes that the debate within the Administration is not between ‘narrow defenders of the national interest’ and ‘idealistic proponents of a normative consensus’. Both are in fact making value-judgements regarding security policy. The way I see it is that each side is, for whatever reason, placing a greater emphasis on one of two interests—either instrinsic or reputational—both of which are critical to US grand strategy.

What is the exact difference between these two types of interests? First espoused by Glenn Snyder and Paul Deising in Conflict Among Nations (and echoed by Robert Jervis), intrinsic interests are defined as those that are valued for their inherent and immediate material/military quality (e.g. a strategically located airbase, energy resources, high ground, etc.). Reputational interests differ from intrinsic interests in that they are valued not for their immediate value but for how they affect an actor’s later bargaining position and the image that other actors will have of a state (e.g. a resolved, powerful actor that cannot be threatened).

An example of a reputational interest is the US concern over Taiwan. Most observers agree that the US gains little strategic (i.e. military) advantage by maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Straight. Some have noted that we might value our informal alliance with a relatively (if not juridically) independent Taiwan because it allows us to develop naval choke points against the Chinese, but this is not a view that is widely held. Maintaining Taiwan’s present status is viewed as a reputational interest because of what inferences we believe others draw from our behavior on this issue. The US believes that other actors (including the Chinese, but also other potential adversaries and current allies) use Taiwan as an index or metric from which to deduce information about the US–our resolve, commitment to allies, credibility, etc. If we were to abandon or sell-out Taiwan in the face of Chinese threats the belief is that others would draw the inference that the US lacks resolve in the face of threats and that we are not reliable allies.

So how does this apply to the current case of Uzbekistan? In my estimation the Defense Department views the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Uzbekistan as a critical logistical hub in the region for both NATO and US operations. In this sense, DOD views the situation as one were the immediate strategic (i.e. military) value of K2 is of utmost importance. In contrast, a group of US Senators (including John McCain who wrote an opinion piece in the FT yesterday on this very topic), the State Department, and probably a number of other foreign policy officials within the administration view our response to the massacre in Andijan as pertaining to our reputational interests.

Reputation matters a great deal for our current grand strategy because of our stated commitment to democratization. Rhetorically and strategically, the administration’s grand strategy views the spread of democracy as a critical component (as I have argued here). The key word is “spread”. Actors in the second camp are concerned about the inferences current and potential allies (as well as those regimes we are trying to coerce into democratizing) will draw about our commitment to democracy depending upon our response to Andijan. Morality does not have to play a role in the State Department’s calls for an open, international investigation into the massacre. Rather, it is how the State Department conceptualizes the interests that are at stake that is most likely determining its position on this issue.

The inferences others draw about our commitment to democracy are of critical importance for a number of reasons. First, if the US is going to convince citizens in target countries that it is committed to democracy above all else. Ignoring the massacre in Andijan because of our intrinsic interest in K2 will certainly work against that goal. The conclusion citizens will (or may) draw is that the US is only committed to democracy in those countries where our strategic/military interests are minimal or that we deem immediate security threats (i.e. Iran and North Korea—cite post article from this morning). Second, despotic rulers who do not wish to democratize may draw the same inference. These rulers may decide that one way to maintain their rule without being pressured to democratize is to provide some vital strategic “good” (such as military basing or intelligence) to the US. Third, appearing to be uncommitted to the spread of democracy may disrupt support from existing allies (and potentially recruiting new ones), especially if those allies have legitimized their aid to the US to their citizens in terms of democratization. If US actions seem to signal that they are only rhetorically committed to democratization allies may have to cut off support.

This certainly isn’t the first intrinsic/reputational dilemma a state has found itself in. In fact, one could argue the US is perpetually facing such choices. My guess is that this one will be resolved more by the actions being taken by the Uzbek government than by the US. In response to recent criticism by Secretary Rice about the incident the Uzbekistan government has limited US access to K2. The US has already began re-routing air traffic to Bagram airbase in Kabul (post article). Additionally, the US today issued a statement denying that the Pentagon was trying to obstruct an investigation in order to maintain access to K2 and noting that $11 million of US assistance was being witheld from Uzbekistan. My guess is that the longer the Uzbekistan government refuses to allow an investigation as well as restricts access to K2 the US will simply adjust its logistic needs and thereby sink costs into some of these other (more sub-optimal at the moment) bases. But don’t quote me on that…

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