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." For the president and many politicians in both parties, problems, whether domestic or foreign, are about policy solutions; perceptions of the policy or its implementation, what Obama calls "style," are irrelevant. As he said about Syria, "The chemical weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with."
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.
The great Athenian historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, recognized this critical factor in state relations. In his history, he has an Athenian ambassador catalogue the causes of state behavior towards rivals and enemies: fear, honor, and interest. Fear we can understand, and "interest," in the sense of material or territorial gains, will not surprise us. "Honor," however, we might dismiss as an archaic relic from our less enlightened past, when people lacked knowledge of the psychological, sociological, ideological, and environmental springs of behavior that we believe we possess.
But honor is bound up with prestige, the reputation and influence a state possesses based on a public estimation of its achievements, status, or power. Notice that whether those bases of prestige are true or not at times can be irrelevant. As the Roman poet Virgil wrote, "They have power because they seem to have power." It's enough that people believe them to be true. This is the modus operandi of every schoolyard bully, who robs his schoolmates of their lunch money by projecting an image of fighting skills and ferocity. Often when those skills are challenged, the bully's prestige vanishes, and he is routed. We should remember that the origins of the word "prestige" lie in the Latin word praestigiae, which means "juggler's tricks."
Of course, in order to maintain prestige, a great power eventually must be able to back up the perception of its military power and its willingness to use it. But history documents many occasions when states have successfully run bluffs and achieved their aims. Adolf Hitler's early foreign policy successes were due in part to exploiting the over-estimation of Germany's military power by France and England, their bestowing upon the Reich a military prestige far beyond the reality at that point. In 1936, he remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty with 36,000 policemen and green troops, while just across the Rhine nearly 100 divisions of French and Belgians merely watched.
In 1938 when he invaded Austria, many of his tanks ran out of gas and scores of abandoned vehicles lined the road. France and England's passivity, and the willingness of most Austrians to be absorbed into Germany made the invasion a success. And the seizure of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia later that same year would have failed had England and France supported the Czechs, who had more than a million men under arms, the Skoda armaments works-one of the most productive in Europe-and state-of-the-art defensive fortifications in the mountainous Sudetenland.
Hitler's generals trembled at all three moves, as they did not believe the Wehrmacht was ready to take on two powerful enemies like England and France as it would in 1939. But the British and the French had the perception that Hitler's military was that strong, and that perception became a force multiplier. But perception is a two-edged sword. All France's and England's military might did not impress Hitler, because he did not believe that they had the will to use it. Here we see the truth of Napoleon's dictum that "morale is to the physical as three to one." No amount of material power can compensate for the accurate perception that a state has weak morale and is unwilling to fight. And even if false, that perception can invite aggression.
Great powers, then, must nurture and periodically confirm their prestige, those global perceptions of their power, the belief of their allies and rivals that they will consistently help friends and punish enemies. Britain, at the height of its Empire, understood the need sometimes to take military action not to acquire territory or resources, but to demonstrate the wages of challenging their prestige. In 1868, they sent an expeditionary force to Ethiopia to rescue the British consul and several other Europeans being held hostage by the erratic and cruel King Theodore.