In an August 30 piece for BBC News, Shashank Joshi, a graduate student at Harvard University and associate fellow at a major U.K. think tank, argued that strong statements from American officials about Syrian president Assad’s loss of legitimacy would help advance the Syrian revolution by committing the U.S. to stronger courses of action. Joshi writes (emphasis added):

The Syrian revolution of 2011 could also have been one more of those many abortive uprisings whose blood flecks the history of the modern Middle East, yet could not change its course. Things are no longer so clear. The outside world is slowly getting its act together. The US finally issued its “magic democracy words” (a term coined by US Middle East scholar Marc Lynch) and called for President Assad to go. No-one expects that the words will wound themselves, but they tie American hands and thereby force the machinery of US foreign policy to churn out fresh ways of hounding Damascus.

This isn’t the only place I’ve seen it said that sharp pronouncements from American officials about a foreign leader’s right to rule or the need for regime change “tie American hands.” This might sound nit-picky, but that phrasing’s not quite right, and it makes a difference for how effective we might expect those “magic words” to be.

The language about hand-tying comes from game theory. In multiplayer games, each player’s course of action often depends, in part, on its expectations about what other players will choose to do. This interactive aspect of the game means that one player can influence the others’ choices by committing him or herself to following or eschewing a specific course of action. For that commitment to be credible, it has to be visible (or audible) to the other players. More important here, it also has to be something its maker can’t undo, or, if he or she can undo it, something that would obviously be costlier to undo than to follow.

A classic example of hand-tying comes from the game of chicken. Imagine a contest with two cars hurtling toward each other. If the cars smash into each other, both drivers lose badly. If both cars swerve, neither driver wins, and they both look a little cowardly. The only way to win the game is to hold the course longer than the other guy. To scare your rival into swerving first, you might commit yourself to holding course by, say, visibly locking the steering wheel into a fixed position. (To see these ideas in action, watch Kevin Bacon on a tractor. Technically, that’s foot-tying, but you get the point.)

Credible commitments differ from weaker forms of signaling. Signals don’t foreclose any courses of action; instead, they affect other players’ beliefs about what course of action the signal’s issuer will choose. Game theory tells us that signals should have a weaker effect on other players’ actions than credible commitments do. They don’t lop any branches off the game tree; they just modify receivers’ beliefs about which branch of the tree they are probably heading down.

“Magic democracy words” are not credible commitments; they are weak signals. They are audible, but they neither lock in nor foreclose any specific policy options. After saying that a ruler like Assad must go, the U.S. government might do more to make that happen, but it can also do nothing, and it can even work to support that ruler’s continuation in office. Whichever path it chooses, it can also change course at any time. Doing so might somehow diminish America’s reputation, but the costs of a diminished reputation must be balanced against all kinds of other interests, many of which will probably weigh more heavily than ephemeral concerns about consistency and likeability. International relations is replete with flip-flops, hypocrisy, and duplicity, so it’s hard to imagine many situations in which reputational concerns would compel a government to pursue a course of action that was otherwise judged to be counter to its national interest.

To my mind, magic democracy words are more like trash-talking than hand-tying. They might get players and fans a little hot under the collar, but they don’t really tell us much about the action to come. Smart players and coaches will ignore the jawboning and will look for their signals in the play that follows instead.

* * *

This post appeared earlier this week on my own blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp. Joshi left a comment there that deserves to be carried over here. He wrote:

I’ve had a good discussion with Jay on Twitter about this. But to the commenter above, just wanted to add that this (allies) was my intended focus. The next passage in the article (after the one excerpted here) was: “They also send a powerful signal – not to Mr Assad, but to US allies and partners who now know that there may be a cost to hedging their bets. For example, their firms may be caught up in sanctions, as has occurred in the course of US policy towards Iran.” I grant that I shouldn’t have said “powerful”. But, technically, this is a case of commitment or tying hands, and not signaling. Even creating weak costs for inaction still qualifies as tying hands, e.g. https://jcr.sagepub.com/content/41/1/68.abstract.

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