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Fighting for Credibility: US Reputation Building in Asymmetric Conflicts from the Gulf War to Syria (1991–2013)

  • Frank P. Harvey (a1) and John Mitton (a1)


Do international reputations matter and are they transferable from one context to another? These critically important questions continue to frame policy debates surrounding US responses to crises in Syria and Ukraine. For skeptics, past actions and reputations for resolve have no bearing on an adversary's assessment of US credibility; relative “power” and “interests” explain behaviour (Hopf, 1994; Mercer, 1996; Press, 2005; Walt, 2013; Zakaria 2013). We argue that scholars who dismiss the relevance of reputations typically sidestep important questions about how adversaries actually acquire relevant information about US interests and power. Building on an extensive collection of qualitative and quantitative studies of US deterrence encounters in asymmetric conflicts over the last two decades, we argue that lessons from past actions inform an adversary's interpretation of US interests in any given case and provide crucial information about Washington's willingness to deploy military force (capabilities). By implication, lessons learned from Bosnia 1992–1995 informed actions in Kosovo 1999, which, in turn, informed subsequent assessments of US interests and commitments in Iraq 1991, 1998 and 2003. Similarly, lessons about US reputations and credibility in Iraq from 1991 to 2003 were critically important to successful WMD diplomacy in Syria. Policy implications are addressed in the conclusion.

La réputation internationale des États est-elle importante et dans quelle mesure peut-elle être transférable d'un événement à l'autre? Ces questions, d'une importance capitale, continuent d'encadrer le débat sur la réaction des États-Unis aux crises syrienne et ukrainienne. Pour les sceptiques, les actions passées et une réputation de fermeté n'ont aucune incidence sur l'estimation de la crédibilité des États-Unis aux yeux d'un adversaire potentiel. Selon eux, la puissance et les intérêts relatifs expliquent davantage le comportement des États (Hopf, 1994; Mercer, 1996; Press 2005; Walt, 2013; Zakaria 2013). Dans cet article, nous soutenons que les chercheurs qui rejettent la pertinence de la réputation ont tendance à ignorer des questions cruciales sur la façon dont les États acquièrent l'information pertinente sur la puissance et les intérêts des États-Unis. En s'appuyant sur un vaste corpus d’études qualitatives et quantitatives sur la dissuasion américaine lors des conflits asymétriques des deux dernières décennies, notre analyse suggère que les leçons du passé influencent la façon dont les adversaires des États-Unis interprètent les intérêts américains ainsi que la volonté de Washington de déployer ses capacités militaires. Ainsi, les leçons tirées des interventions en Bosnie 1992–1995 ont éclairé les actions au Kosovo 1999, lesquelles, à leur tour, ont renseigné les évaluations des intérêts et des engagements militaires américains en Irak 1991, 1998 et 2003. De même, les interventions en Irak de 1991 à 2003 ont permis de tirer des leçons importantes sur la réputation et la crédibilité des États-Unis qui furent essentielles au succès des pourparlers diplomatiques lors de la crise des armes de destruction massive en Syrie. Nous aborderons les ramifications politiques de notre analyse dans la conclusion.

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Corresponding author

Department of Political Science, Dalhousie University, 6299 South St, Rm 301, PO Box 15000, Halifax, NS, Canada, B3H 4R2, Email: and


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Fighting for Credibility: US Reputation Building in Asymmetric Conflicts from the Gulf War to Syria (1991–2013)

  • Frank P. Harvey (a1) and John Mitton (a1)


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