During the Cold War, Thomas Schelling famously asserted that “face might be the only thing for states worth fighting for.” By responding forcefully to political and military challenges, states can better deter future threats and adversaries. However, there are also numerous instances where states have acquiesced during crises, even in situations where its reputation for resolve is seemingly on the line. Why do states concede and deescalate crises in some cases and not during others? How can a state’s concerns for its reputation explain these decisions?
Challenging conventional wisdom, I argue that under certain conditions, leaders may conclude that a strong reputation is harmful to their national interests and subsequently choose to moderate their reputation for resolve. First, leaders are more likely to reach this conclusion when they fear ‘reputation races’. Such concerns arise when a state believes that their heightened level of resolve will lead to greater threats in the future as adversaries adjust their calculations accordingly. Second, leaders are also likely to adopt this approach when they value the process of negotiations over its outcomes. When this is the case, states are incentivized to moderate their reputation to convince adversaries to join the bargaining table.
I verify these claims through a series of case studies. First, I compare the Eisenhower administration’s reactions to the two Taiwan Strait crises that occurred during the 1950s. When China began attacking the island in September 1954, the US undertook a series of maneuvers that edged the nation to the brink of nuclear war. However, when a similar confrontation arose just a few years later, the Eisenhower administration adopted a different approach, instead opting to reinstall bilateral ambassadorial talks that the US had abandoned in late 1957.
Second, I examine the decision-making of President Chun Doo-hwan and Park Chung-hee as they each responded to assassination attempts by North Korea. After the Rangoon bombing incident in October 1983, President Chun demonstrated considerable restraint which surprised even American officials. He continued to adopt a conciliatory approach towards Pyongyang, accepting North Korean humanitarian aid in 1984, and engaging in inter-Korean negotiations under the auspices of the IOC regarding the 1988 Summer Olympics. In stark contrast, President Park was adamant about seeking retribution for the Blue House raid in January 1968. Though restrained by Washington, he nonetheless formed his own group of commandos to assassinate Kim Il-sung later that year.
Through these cases, I demonstrate that the deliberations even governments and leaders that exhibit various similarities may vary in how they assess the strategic need to maintain a strong reputation for resolve against adversaries, and that this fluctuates depending on the foreign policy objectives they pursue.
A working paper that outlines the theoretical framework and tests these claims through the first and second Taiwan Strait Crises is available on request.