Over the past decade, there has been a bunch of scholarship challenging the conventional wisdom about credibility and international relations. Dan Drezner summarizes it and the context. While I have been struggling with Schelling and the logics of coercive diplomacy lately, Dan's piece suggests that I might have been doing my students wrong.
You see, every year I taught Intro to IR, I would compare and contrast prisoners' dilemma and chicken as two ways to think about IR. I would always reference Footloose (the original) when talking about chicken as the tractor scene was a great exemplar. As time went on, I had to show the scene with the new generations of students who did not grow up on Footloose (yes, our culture is in decline). The scene was great because it showed multiple dimensions:
The youtube version starts too late for my purposes but has most of the key content--that Kevin Bacon becomes tied to the tractor, that their race is being watched by friends (audience costs), and so on. What the shorter version misses is that the bad guy smokes some pot beforehand, which would allow me to ask the students what he did wrong, and when they said that he smoked pot, I would say: no, he failed to tell his opponent he smoked pot. All about the signaling.
But perhaps this is all wrong--that reputation matters not that much. That countries do what they do because of the stakes involved and not so much the credibility of the other guy. Which means I wasted much time over the years teaching something that might be wrong. Well, not entirely a waste, since this is how the folks in national capitals think about it even if they are wrong. The game is played even if the outcomes are driven by other stuff than credibility. The other saving grace, I guess, is that chicken does work for a metaphor in IR in some ways, even if it is less about the signaling stuff and more about the problem of a game where giving in is often the best strategy. Hmmm.
So, I give in. And I am glad, for a change, that I am not teaching Intro to IR right now--I would have to change one of my lectures...