Blog Post - Views on the Economy and the World

History Advises Biden to Match Signals with Actions in Ukraine

Dec. 24, 2021

As Russian troops mass along the border with Ukraine, the White House has been calibrating its response. President Joe Biden has warned that in the event of an invasion, the US and allies would make Russian President Vladimir Putin pay a heavy price. Likely measures would particularly include economic sanctions such as a cut-off from the SWIFT payments system and turning off the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  Good. It is possible that such threats will deter Putin.

Biden has also said that he would not send military personnel.  Also, good, given that a threat to intervene militarily would be a bluff. Americans and Europeans are not in fact prepared to send troops to Ukraine. Even though the Russian invasion of a sovereign European country is a terrible thing, reminiscent of 1939, all perceive that Putin feels his country’s interests to be at stake in Ukraine more than Americans do.

In 2008, Western leaders promised that Georgia and Ukraine could eventually join NATO.  (President George W. Bush wanted immediate steps toward membership, while other NATO members agreed only “someday.”)  But the most important principle of the alliance, Article V, reads, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”  Nobody was prepared to come to Georgia’s defense in 2008, nor to Ukraine’s defense in 2014 and subsequently. Why, then, promise accession to NATO? It simultaneously undermines western credibility and yet provokes Putin.

Perhaps an economist should not wade into these waters.  But I want to offer a very simple point: America has not done a good job since the end of World War II inaccurately signaling what military intervention it was prepared to undertake and sustain.

The fantasy is that intervention would be so effective, and advance warnings would be so reliable, that potential foes would know to back down without a shot being fired, most of the time.  (Even in such a sought-after equilibrium, it would be unsurprising if the US occasionally had to follow through on its threats in order to maintain credibility.)  But the correlation between word and subsequent deed, which should be high, has been very low.

One category of such low correlation is cases where American governments made declarations of resolve that they were ultimately unable to back up.

Cases when the US staked its credibility on unachievable goals

Consider three conflicts, occasions when the US declared resolve but, it turned out, was unable to sustain intervention with ultimate success, whether due to eventual lack of public support or the inherent impossibility of accomplishing the task by military means.  The three interventions were Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, Lebanon in the 1980s, and Afghanistan in the 2000s.

The stories of the 14-year war in Vietnam [1961 to 1975] and the 20 -year war in Afghanistan [2001-2021] are too painfully familiar to require elaboration (as is the continuing engagement in Iraq).  In each case, some said that the United States should have had the perseverance to see the job through.  But the length and cost of those engagements and — after western forces finally withdrew — the speedy and complete collapse of the governments that they had been propping up in Saigon and Kabul, respectively, are evidence enough:  prolonging the deployments even longer would have been unlikely to produce better outcomes.

The point is that US goals would have suffered less of a setback if the military engagement had been discontinued at an early stage or if declarations of resolve had never been made in the first place. Typically, there comes a stage when large segments of the public begin to become disenchanted with the war.  Even the leaders have doubts, not to mention entangled allies.  The response of the hawkish faction is to double down, arguing that with so much already invested, the credibility of America will be lost if the superpower is seen to “cut and run.”

In 1969, French President Charles de Gaulle asked Henry Kissinger why the US did not just withdraw from Vietnam. The American National Security Advisor replied, “A sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem,” for example, in the Mideast [p.604].  But America lost far more credibility when, after much further expenditure of blood and treasure, the troops were ultimately withdrawn anyway, without having accomplished the declared mission.

The hawks seem to think that they are the only ones who appreciate the long-term importance of making US threats believable. If they were to think a few steps ahead, they might realize that the loss of credibility could become much worse in the future, as compared with disengagement at an early stage.

On October 23, 1983, 242 US service members (mostly Marines) were killed by a terrorist suicide bombing of their Beirut barracks.  The US responded by evacuating its remaining troops in February 1984, along with other allied members of the Multinational Force — British, Italians, and French. (The latter had also been bombed, losing 58 paratroopers.)

Subsequently, some have argued that it was a mistake to withdraw because Osama bin Laden concluded from the debacle that the US was a “paper tiger.”  But these critics drew the wrong lesson.  The right lesson is that President Ronald Reagan should have quietly ended the Marines’ presence before October 1983.  It had become clear that they did not have a clear mission and that Americans in Lebanon were terrorist targets.  (Their original missions, first, to facilitate the withdrawal of PLO officials and then to stabilize Lebanon, had become moot.)

Instead, the President treated the need for the Marines’ presence as an issue of American credibility.  Even after the bombing, he repeated vows to keep the forces in Lebanon. (“We must be more determined than ever” not to be pushed out.)  This made the blow to US credibility that much worse when Reagan withdrew the troops four months later.

The proposition – that a global power should match early signals with ultimate preparedness to follow through — could be misinterpreted as motivated by isolationist or pacifist tendencies.  Indeed, one could probably make a good case that there is a historical tendency to overestimate the efficacy of military force.  But the case being made here is a different one: whatever the willingness to use force, the prior warnings should correspond to it.  Leaders should generally seek neither to threaten more than the country is prepared to deliver nor less.

Cases when the US neglected to signal readiness to intervene

The flip side of making threats that can’t be carried out is to carry out threats that were never made.  Sometimes the US has turned out to be prepared ex-post to intervene militarily, and successfully, but had neglected to signal that ex-ante to its potential opponent.  A timely warning might have avoided the war altogether.  Two examples are particularly salient.

In a speech on January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson defined America’s defense perimeter in Asia without including Korea. Shortly thereafter on January 19, Congress rejected a $60 million aid bill for South Korea.  On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea.  The US-led a United Nations Command which ultimately restored the dividing line between North and South, but only after three years of bitter fighting, with an estimated 300,000 casualties on the UN side (and, on the other side, 520,000 North Koreans and 900,000 Chinese), plus, countless civilians.  One cannot know for certain whether North Korean leader Kim Il Sung would have attacked the South regardless. But surely the US government’s failure to think through in advance the price it was willing to pay and to send a consistent signal, was a very serious error.

A second example when the US turned out to be prepared ex-post to intervene, but had neglected to signal that position at a time when it might have deterred aggression, was Iraq’s August 2, 1990, invasion and attempted annexation of Kuwait.  It seems unlikely that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would have embarked on that disastrous adventure if he had known how the US would respond.

But one can see how he might have gotten the prediction wrong.  Earlier, when Saddam had invaded Iran (1980-88), the Reagan Administration had turned a blind eye.  Worse, it may have covertly helped Iraq early in the war, including by supplying intelligence.  Then, on July 25, 1990, just a few days before the invasion of Kuwait, with Iraqi forces already massing on the border, the US sent signals that were interpreted, understandably, as indicating that it would not respond militarily.  The US ambassador to Iraq conveyed directly to Saddam that the US had no opinion about a border disagreement between Iraq and Kuwait. On the same day, another State Department official confirmed in a congressional hearing that the US had “no legal obligation to come to the defense of Kuwait in the event of an invasion.”

When signals matched intervention

To be sure, there are cases where the US signaled an intention to intervene, and then duly prevailed.  Two examples.  First, on August 5, 1990, after Saddam Hussein had indeed invaded Kuwait, George H.W. Bush famously declared, “This will not stand.”  By February 28, 1991, a 35-nation coalition of forces led by the US, had made good on Bush’s pledge.

Second, on January 16, 1999, President Bill Clinton warned Slobodan Milošević the leader of what was left of Yugoslavia, to withdraw Serbian security forces from Kosovo.  Subsequently, a NATO bombing campaign, between March and June 1999, ended with an agreement by the Serbs to withdraw their troops from Kosovo. The Serbian people voted Milošević out of office the following year.

No doubt the success of these two military missions owed much to the achievability of the goal, pushing a country’s troops out of the particular territory, as compared to the infinitely more difficult goal of using armed force to convert a foreign country into a peaceful democracy.  But the episodes are useful reminders that a high correlation between word and deed is possible. In each case, matching prior warning with ultimate carry-through accomplished the immediate goal, while also building credibility for the longer term.

Hypothesized benefits of being unpredictable might apply for a small state, at times, or some other asymmetric actor fighting a more powerful global order; but it is not generally good advice for a hegemon or its allies.  After all, Richard Nixon [p.164] failed to make the “madman” theory, as it is called, work for him in Vietnam.

The bottom line: match signals to actions when possible.  At least, raise the correlation between the two.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: History Advises Biden to Match Signals with Actions in Ukraine.” Views on the Economy and the World, December 24, 2021,