The Fear of Looking Weak in International Politics

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“I know we oughtn’t to be there, but I can’t get out,” the president said to a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While he feared entangling the United States more deeply in an overseas conflict of uncertain strategic interest and unknowable duration, Lyndon Johnson was even more fearful of appearing weak both domestically and internationally, and several hundred thousand people died making sure he didn’t.

Weakness is a loaded word in international politics. Some theorists and statesmen argue that weakness is an invitation to future conflict, like a defenseless schoolboy slowly walking through a playground full of bullies. But should its avoidance be the basis of a nation’s foreign policy?

Critics of President Obama’s foreign policy have coated their language with historically tainted words like “appeasement” and “Munich,” referring to European relations with Hitler prior to World War II. On Syria, Obama’s implicit tolerance of Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons, they argued, broadcasted a global signal of wavering power. That he passed the decision to Congress on whether to respond with military force only fueled the argument that the president had lost his nerve, and that the United States was on the verge of losing its international credibility. On other issues like Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, a false narrative has attempted to equate deliberate and measured reactions with dithering passivity.

For fifty years American presidents have tended to build their foreign policy on the pillars of military strength. Both Johnson and Nixon escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a deterrent to perceived Communist aggression. Jimmy Carter lost his 1980 bid for reelection in part because he was made to look powerless during the Iran hostage crisis, paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s strategy of “peace through strength” and enduring credit for ending the Cold War. More recently, George W. Bush worried that if UN inspectors succeeded in gaining Saddam Hussein’s compliance during the weeks leading up the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he risked delays or an outright block of U.S. military action that would leave him looking weak.

The Iraq fiasco left a lasting impression on the American public, which has become skeptical of almost any military endeavor with questionable objectives and limited national interest. But Obama continues to find himself in a crossfire of critics who manage to make his every option on the world stage evidence for either his waning influence or the country’s, be it military intervention in Syria, crippling economic sanctions on Iran, checking Russian aggression in the Crimea, or the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

But what exactly does weakness mean? The United States is certainly not a weak military power, so we can rule that out. What about a weakening international resolve? Far from a retreat to the isolationist policies of the early 20th century, the United States has been continuously engaged in world affairs, both big and small, since the end of World War II. With Syria, some opponents of intervention even argued that missile strikes against the Assad Regime would have made the U.S. look weaker, not stronger. Others who supported intervention agreed, though for different reasons, citing the lack of a credible commitment if options for ground troops remain off the table. Even the serendipitous diplomatic agreement that began with a spontaneous remark from Secretary of State John Kerry met resistance from those who contended that Russia emerged as the solution’s true architect, ultimately leaving the United States with the role of ineffective bystander.

For an international system in which the United States is still the dominant superpower there are certain to be consequences no matter how the president decides to act on any matter of global significance. Of course, it is tempting to judge any agreement that demands concessions from an adversary as evidence of a nation’s strength just as any agreement that grants them is evidence of a nation’s weakness or lack of influence. But this risky view prizes quick results at the expense of potential long-term failure, particularly when considering the use of military force as a coercive tool without addressing the consequences with which we have become all too familiar.

When considering options during any present or future crisis that threatens international stability, the foundation of U.S. foreign policy should not be built on how it may appear to others, but on the best interests of the country. Determining the answer to that question is far more complicated than avoiding weakness, but infinitely more necessary – particularly when using force can undermine the nation’s image abroad.

In Vietnam, Johnson worried that if he failed to contain the threat of Communism, he would be “seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.” In the end, the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans and several hundred thousand Vietnamese were lost to this policy, and the world has spent forty years debating the purpose.

The fear of looking weak should not be the foreign policy foundation of the world’s leading power. Perhaps Johnson, though eager to appear strong throughout his presidency, understood this best when he said: “The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure.”

David Eisler is a second-year master of international affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs with a focus on international security policy.  Previously, he was a captain in the U.S. Army.