The Credibility Paradox

5 February 2009


Some weeks ago in The Nixon Principle I wrote of “the perverse logic of political credibility” and remarked that while only Nixon can go to China, “The global struggle for hearts and minds continues apace, and today we have different Nixons and different Chinas.” What I there called the Nixon Principle, with its perverse logic, could also be called the Credibility Paradox.

the "first responders" of socialist industrialization.

Heroic Soviet workers: the "first responders" of socialist industrialization.

Here is an illustration. It is a fact of history that more peoples have been industrialized under self-identifying communist regimes than under market economies. This is the case because Russia and its client states, as well as China and its client states, were all industrialized under regimes explicitly professing their communist orientation. Given that this is the case, we can speculate that only communist regimes possessed the requisite ruthlessness to overcome the acculturation to absence of change (a phrase I introduced in my Political Economy of Globalization) that has so strongly marked the masses in the heretofore poverty-stricken regions of the world in which communism has realized its greatest successes.

Equally heroic Chinese workers, speading the good news of the Revolution.

Equally heroic Chinese workers, spreading the good news of the Revolution.

This is both ironic and understandable (and therefore perverse and paradoxical). Communist regimes come to power with promises to improve the lot of the masses, and because the communists are believed to be sincere in this aspiration, communist regimes have a popular credibility which allows them to undertake extreme measures. If any other regime were to act as brutally and ruthlessly to destroy the way of life of traditional peoples and to force such peoples to give up their lives and traditions and to modernize, joining the industrialized world, any such regime (i.e., any regime other than one that self-identifies as communist) would be assumed to be acting against the will of the people. As a result, the actions of such a regime would be resisted at home and abroad, if not transformed into a rallying point against such a government.

Heroic Nazi workers did their part too.

Heroic Nazi workers did their part too.

To survey the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Credibility Paradox was also operative in the machinations of Nazi Germany: the German people were promised a return to a “pure” Germany, purged of lesser races, as well as being promised a return to an idyllic pastoral life of communal agrarian bliss and an end to the offensive features of industrialization and capitalism (we often forget the extent to which the Nazis were socialists). The war effort, however, turned Nazi Germany into a vast industrial nation-state to a greater degree than at any time in the past. To man its wartime industries the Nazi authorities imported foreign labor into German industrial cities, and therefore accelerated the racial mixture that they had promised to purge. But the Nazis could do this because they had credibility with the German people.

I have used a couple of murderous examples of credibility — Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany — partly to make a point. In contemporary sociology, social capital is the buzz word, while in contemporary political science there is talk of soft power. These three concepts — credibility, social capital, and soft power — are intimately related. It would take a sophisticated inquiry beyond our present scope to sort out the relations and contrasts between them. The point here is that all are tools, and potential resources for any regime. Machiavellian ingenuity can turn all of them to account for any purpose, good or ill. Let us not forget this.

Credibility, even if undeserved, means the difference between being able to carry through a project or being prevented from doing so. In some cases, talking the talk means not having to walk the walk. Again, this is a lesson for good or ill. But as certainly as we should not forget this, we should also not be blind to the opportunities. If we were to consider any hard-fought and deeply devisive issue of our time, we can reflect that if a person or an institution with real credibility on a given issue — by which I mean credibility that would impress even those most staunchly opposed to a given policy — were to be put in charge in a meaningful way, much opposition to such a divisive policy could be mollified.

Take, for example, drilling for oil in ANWR. This is extremely controversial. Moreover, I am not advocating doing so. As I see it, any oil left in the ground will only appreciate over time. It is being saved in the ground, banked for the future when it will be more valuable yet (and when improved extraction technologies will be both more efficient and cleaner). But suppose one wanted to make it politically possible to drill in ANWR. Is this impossible? No. But to do so would take bringing on board serious environmental organizations with real clout and influence. Having an industry hack assuring people that everything is going to be fine simply is not going to fly.

Such organizations would demand concessions. Real concessions, not fake ones that look good in the popular press. After all, their credibility is on the line. Their rank and file would abandon them if they act in way that is obviously at odds with their mission. Petroleum exploration and extraction, suitably modified to conciliate environmentalists with real credibility in the environmental community, would make the difference. When we look at the attempts so far to open ANWR to oil exploration, and we reflect on the nature of credibility, we can see how high-handed, ham-handed, and ineffective these efforts have been. There is no word for it other than “stupid.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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