Let me second Yglesias’ recommendation of this Dave Meyer post on signaling. Meyer concentrates on the public relations aspect of signaling behavior in a democracy, but here are some assumptions that have to hold for a strategy of “signaling”, such as invading small countries in order to demonstrate that we’re tough, to work:
- Signals are unambiguous: The meaning of our signaling is not subject to interpretation, such that different people could, based on different priors, carry away different meanings.
- Signals always indicate what we want them to indicate: This is related to the first; if we are trying to send a signal of strength, then we send a signal of strength, not a signal of mean, stupid, crazy, etc.
- We never develop a bad reputation, except for weakness: This is related to the first two; our effort at signaling strength doesn’t have reputational costs. If we invade his country, the Other will understand us as strong, rather than as brutal, imperialistic, crusading, evil, etc.
- No one ever considers that we might be trying to deceive through signaling: This is probably the most important. If signaling is about creating a reputation for strength, and if a reputation for strength is a positive good, then obviously there’s an incentive to lie about being strong. The entire premise of signaling depends on no one noticing that we have an incentive to lie about our own strength.
- We know our own strength: Our effort to communicate the true level of our resolve is dependent on knowing what that level is. However, the resolve of the American people to crush enemies of the American public is a value that is unknown to anyone, including our leadership. At best we’re guessing, which basically means that every effort to signal is essentially deception.
Unfortunately, none of these assumptions hold. Worse, in an effort to signal that we have the will to crush small countries under our boot, we often seem to gut our capability to do so; even if attacking Iran were a good idea, the military deployment in Iraq has made such an effort impossible.