CAMBRIDGE – As Russia masses troops along its border with Ukraine, fears of an invasion are mounting. The United States has warned that Russia would pay a heavy price, exacted first and foremost through economic sanctions. But President Joe Biden has also declared that he would not send military personnel to defend Ukraine. It is [...]

Sunday Times 2

The US must not make empty threats


CAMBRIDGE – As Russia masses troops along its border with Ukraine, fears of an invasion are mounting. The United States has warned that Russia would pay a heavy price, exacted first and foremost through economic sanctions. But President Joe Biden has also declared that he would not send military personnel to defend Ukraine. It is the right approach.

On one hand, the threat of economic sanctions – in particular, exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT international payments system and cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany – might be enough to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, any threat that the US and its allies would intervene with troops would not be believable – inviting Putin to call the West’s bluff.

But if Americans and Europeans are unprepared to send troops to Ukraine, why did Western leaders in 2008 promise eventual NATO membership to Ukraine, as well as to Georgia? After all, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty declares that an armed attack against one NATO ally is effectively an attack against all of them. And yet nobody was prepared to come to Georgia’s defense when Russia invaded in 2008, or to Ukraine’s defense when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Nor has the West done anything to stop Russia from occupying Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Against this background, talk about Ukraine joining NATO has merely provoked Putin, while undermining the West’s credibility.

This reflects a broader problem with US foreign policy since the end of World War II: a poor match between the signals it sends and what it is subsequently able to carry out.

For starters, the US has often overstated its resolve in military engagements. For example, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, it failed to achieve its goals and eventually decided to cut its losses. The speedy collapse of the US-backed governments in Saigon and Kabul showed just how little progress had been made – and dealt heavy blows to America’s global reputation.

This is exactly what then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger feared in 1969, when he told French President Charles de Gaulle that a “sudden withdrawal” from Vietnam might create a “credibility problem.” But America lost far more credibility when it withdrew its troops four years later, after spending much more blood and treasure. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the US should have left sooner – or never intervened at all.

America’s intervention in Lebanon was blighted by a similar mistake. A multinational force, including hundreds of US soldiers, arrived in August 1982, in order to oversee the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s withdrawal from the country. By early September, that mission was complete, and US troops left.

But a massacre of Palestinian refugees by a Christian militia brought Western troops back to Lebanon, where they remained with a far hazier mission. In October 1983, Lebanese terrorists drove a truck full of explosives into the US Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American military personnel. (Meanwhile, a separate attack killed 58 French paratroopers.) The US and its allies withdrew their troops in a matter of months.

Some have argued that the withdrawal was a mistake in that it sent a message to America’s enemies, such as Osama bin Laden, that the US was a “paper tiger.” This is the wrong lesson. In fact, US President Ronald Reagan should have quietly disengaged once the original mission was complete. Like Kissinger, he worried that doing so would damage America’s credibility. Even after the bombing, he repeated vows to keep US forces in Lebanon. But, as in Vietnam and Afghanistan, this served only to compound the reputational blow dealt by the subsequent withdrawal.

The lesson is clear: the US should ensure that any declaration of a willingness to use military force corresponds with what a leader can actually deliver. And this means more than not overstating one’s commitment. Understating it is also a strategic blunder. After all, a credible threat from a military power like the US can act as a powerful deterrent.

The US has, at times, failed to take advantage of this reality. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson defined America’s defence perimeter in Asia, but did not include the Korean Peninsula. Six months later, North Korea invaded South Korea – and the US led a United Nations command to defend the country. That command ultimately restored the line dividing the peninsula, but only after three years of fighting and more than 1.7 million casualties. While it is impossible to know whether a credible threat of US intervention would have averted the invasion, it seems unlikely that such a threat would not have affected North Korea’s calculations.

The same goes for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990. Just a few days before the invasion, with Iraqi forces already gathering on the border, the US sent signals that it would not respond militarily.

To be sure, three days after the invasion, US President George H.W. Bush declared, “This will not stand.” And in January 1991, after a series of failed negotiations with Iraq, the US made good on that pledge, leading a 35-country coalition in a massive military assault that drove Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait in a matter of weeks. But with more advance warning, Saddam might not have sent them in the first place.

One successful US intervention characterised by consistency between word and deed unfolded in 1999. President Bill Clinton warned Yugoslavia’s leader, Slobodan Milošević, to withdraw Serbian security forces from Kosovo. When he refused, NATO launched a bombing campaign. Serbian forces agreed to withdraw, and the Serbian people forced Milošević from office the following year.

During the Cold War, US President Richard Nixon saw benefits in being viewed as an irrational and volatile leader, in an effort to deter any provocations. But the so-called madman theory has strict limits, especially for a hegemon and its allies. Ensuring consistency between signals and actions is much more likely to deter conflict, not least by boosting long-term credibility.

Jeffrey Frankel, Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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