Recent White House efforts to court former enemies with friendship, including summit meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, are relevant not just for future U.S. ties with Russia and North Korea. Leaders across the world are observing these events as they sort out this administration’s foreign policy strategy. Given the stark contrast between the president’s last meeting with NATO allies and meetings with Putin and Kim, how will these interactions affect the way other governments perceive the United States? Recent research on reputation in world politics provides some answers.
Many of us are familiar with the old adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Its origins date at least as far back as the 4th century BCE and Kautilya, the Hindu scholar who provided foreign policy advice to Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya Empire in ancient India. A less frequently quoted line in this adage is “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” As U.S. allies observe signals of new gestures of friendship with Russia and North Korea, it will be natural for them treat those signals as a degradation of their own friendship with America. Cooperation with Russia impacts America’s reputation for being a good ally and partner for every country at odds with Russia.
Recent research at the UNC-Chapel Hill finds that reputations systematically affect cooperation and conflict in world politics. Using a sample of all pairs of states interacting between 1817 and 2000, we examined the impact of reputation on alliance behavior and conflict. The research suggests that states that develop a reputation for breaking alliance commitments are less likely to be sought out by other states in future alliances, while a reputation for being a reliable ally can increase the probability of a new alliance by nearly two times.
Perhaps most disturbingly, this research shows that as states and their leaders develop a reputation for using military force and engaging in war with others —even if the intention is to demonstrate “toughness”— other states are more likely to misperceive a tough stance as an aggressive stance. A reputation for using military conflict can increase the chances of conflict with other countries by nearly four times.
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Michael Green, former Asia Director on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration, recently evaluated Trump’s summit with North Korea’s leader, stating, “The No. 1 problem with this, geopolitically, is that it suggests to our allies that we are just incompetent, that we don’t recognize the threat.” No single event will have a watershed effect on America’s alliances, but the effects are cumulative. The United States’ reputation has a vast reservoir of past events to rely upon, but as new alliance signals accumulate, the reputation of old will fade from memory. Moreover, President Trump inherited ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are likely to be perceived as aggressive by Iran.
Richard N. Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, surmises that President Trump “views these relationships as having no history, no baggage that constrains how these leaders may act.” This strategy can open up new avenues for dialogue in the moment, providing new opportunities that previously seemed impossible, but it would be a mistake to assume that such dialogue takes place in a vacuum.
Governments ignore their reputations at their own peril, and it is incorrect to think that they can control, turn off, or manipulate their reputations. Reputations are in the eyes of the beholder. When one state obfuscates its commitments, whether along security or economic dimensions, by treating old enemies as new friends, it does so at the cost of maintaining its current alliances and its ability to court new allies in the future.