Talk for a Ruble

Some people think the Biden Administration hasn’t said enough to deter Russia from escalating in Ukraine. Others think the Administration has said too much to deter Russia from escalating in Ukraine.

But the problem isn’t with what the Administration is saying.

The problem is that the Administration—or, more accurately, America—isn’t willing to die either to restore America’s erstwhile sole great power status or to save Ukraine.

If America isn’t willing to die for status or for Ukraine, there’s not much America can do to deter Russia from using gas, plagues, or nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Too Much Talk

Some Europeans—and Mitt Romney—argue that the Biden Administration’s flat renunciation of direct military intervention in Ukraine is a lost opportunity to deter Russia through “strategic ambiguity”. The Biden Administration ought instead not to make a promise about intervention either way, they say.

The trouble with this view is that it assumes the Russians take the Administration at its word when the Administration renounces direct intervention. But there is no reason whatsoever for Russia to do that. For there would be almost no consequences for the Administration were it to break its word.

If the Administration’s promise not to intervene is a promise to anyone, it is a promise to Russia, the very country the Administration would threaten to attack were the Administration to break its word. The threat to go to war would alienate Russia whether the Administration broke a promise to make it or not.

Of course, some Americans who hope for peace would feel betrayed by the Administration’s change of policy. But while the Administration surely would lose some antiwar voters, it is not at all clear that the Administration would lose them because the Administration broke a promise rather than because the Administration threatened war.

The Biden Administration’s promise not to intervene is what game theorist’s call “cheap talk”—talk for the cost of a ruble. It’s an incredible threat. The mere fact that the Administration has stated that it would not go to war to defend Ukraine erects no barrier whatsoever to an Administration decision to go to war to defend Ukraine.

If Russia is at all wise—and she may not be—she should not and will not take the Administration at its word when it promises not to go to war to defend Ukraine. It is a mistake to suppose that the Administration’s message is not already ambiguous. From the Russian perspective, it must be ambiguous.

It is more than passing naive for the Europeans—and Mitt Romney—to assume that the Administration would not lie, or change its mind.

Switching to “strategic ambiguity”—refusing to take a position on intervention—cannot help. A worthless promise not to intervene is as ambiguous as silence. There are no consequences for the Administration of breaking either.

Indeed, the only thing the Administration could say that would be credible, and so might affect the Russian calculus regarding escalation, would be to promise to intervene in the event that Russia gasses, infects, or nukes Ukraine.

That threat would be credible because a failure to abide by a promise of direct military support for Ukraine would call into question the Administration’s commitment to protecting any other ally, especially NATO members. And that in turn would prevent NATO from acting with resolve in its dealings with Russia.

So the cost to the Administration of breaking its promise would be catastrophic, creating an incentive for the Administration to abide by its promise, and so making its threat credible.

The Administration has not in fact promised to defend Ukraine because the Administration is not sure that it is willing to die for either of the things that going to war with Russia would do: restore America’s erstwhile position as the world’s sole great power or protect Ukraine.

But if the Administration were willing to die for status or Ukraine, then it would be advisable for the Administration to make the threat, because ambiguity about resolve to go to war, when such resolve actually exists, is dangerous. If Russia does not wish to go to war with the United States, then ambiguity might lead Russia to trigger a war that neither the United States nor Russia wants.

So strategic ambiguity is a bad idea all the way around. It gets the Administration nothing in the event that the Administration does not wish to go to war—because a worthless promise not to fight is no different than ambiguity—and could well cause a war that neither side wants in the event that the Administration does wish to go to war.

Too Little Talk

Some argue, by contrast, that the Administration ought to start “drawing red lines,” presumably by making explicit that the Administration will escalate if Russia gasses, infects, or nukes Ukraine.

But it is not clear that these people understand that this is not a question of words—what to say in a crisis—but rather of resolve. If the Administration draws red lines as a bluff, and Russia calls that bluff, then Russia will be able to destroy or seriously weaken NATO without firing a shot at any NATO member.

Indeed, that is what happened with the Obama Administration’s red line over chemical weapons in Syria. Russia called the Administration’s bluff, and the Administration failed to follow through, accepting a deal for Syria to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons as a face-saving device that fooled no one.

Coming after America’s failure to respond to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Administration’s non-response put the last nail in the coffin of America’s sole great power status. Thanks to the Administration’s bluff, Russia was able to achieve this without having to fire a shot at the United States.

The Administration should only draw red lines if it has resolved to enforce them. In the context of the present war, that means that the Administration should draw red lines only if it is willing to go to nuclear war to defend them.

If not, then the Administration’s overall approach has, I think, been wise. The Administration has made a promise not to go to war that it does not need to keep.

And no promise to go to war that it cannot keep.