Prestige and Power in Statecraft

President Obama, responding to widespread criticisms that his handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis was clumsy and ad hoc, said, “I’m less concerned about style points, I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right.” This idea that foreign policy crises are about finding and applying the right objective formula in order to solve problems, just as one does in engineering or mathematics, is a peculiarly modern prejudice. For most of history, those who thought about the rivalries and conflicts among great powers knew that the subjective perceptions that states and leaders develop about one another, and the prestige they granted or refused, rational or not, are critically important factors in the relations among states and must be taken into account during a crisis. And the most important perception that creates prestige is of a state’s power and willingness to use it.

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