Read the rhetoric used by political and military leaders for wars in the past few decades, and you will be struck by the repeated references to ‘credibility’. The justification of war is very often that it is necessary to uphold our reputation for strength, without which we would become targets for attack. The Vietnam domino theory was a good example of this mode of thought, and similar thinking continues to drive foreign policy today. Yet academic studies into the origins of war suggest that upholding your ‘credibility’ does not actually make you less likely to be attacked. Would-be aggressors pay very little attention to whether you have proved willing to fight in the past. Authors such as Daryl Grayson Press in his book Calculating Credibility and Christopher Fettweis in a number of related articles, have illustrated this very well. What this means is that waging wars for reputation makes no sense. Why then do states persist in doing so?

Richard Ned Lebow’s 2010 book Why Nations Fight perhaps contains the answer, although Lebow himself does not address the question. Lebow argues, on the basis of a quantitative analysis, that very few wars are fought for material or security purposes. The great majority are about ‘standing’, in other words honour. Nations fight above all because they feel that their status in the international community depends on being seen to be strong and willing to fight. But this is not due to reason. It is not that honour serves an instrumental purpose; rather it is, says Lebow, a product of ‘the universal drive for self-esteem.’ Following Aristotle, Lebow sees human behaviour as deriving from three drives: spirit, appetite, and reason. Honour is associated with spirit, and ‘the spirit’, he writes, ‘is the principle cause of war across the centuries.’ In short, political leaders fight because fighting boosts their self-esteem, whereas not fighting makes them feel inadequate. This would explain why they accept so readily the instrumental arguments about credibility. The fact that these arguments are not actually true, and that a reputation for strength doesn’t make you safer, are neither here nor there, because safety isn’t really what the leaders in question are worried about. When they talk about credibility, what they are actually talking about is their own self-esteem. So, for instance, if you hear arguments that NATO must stay in Afghanistan in order to protect the ‘credibility of the alliance’, this is not because that credibility will make NATO members any more secure, but because losing will be bad for the leaders’ self-image.

This is not something generally recognized in international relations theory, which insists on viewing matters of honour purely through an external and instrumental lens, ignoring the fact that the external facets of honour are intimately and inextricably tied up with the internal ones. It also reveals how a deeper understanding of the dynamics of honour can help us explain many otherwise inexplicable aspects of human behaviour, and shows that despite occasional claims of its obsolescence, honour remains vitally important in the modern world.