The 2016 Republican and Democratic Party conventions are history, but nothing said there can be aptly labeled historic. Of course, partisans on both sides insisted that their favorites delivered oratorical performances that were one part Winston Churchill and two parts Hank Aaron. The preferred phrase was: “He (or, equally often, she) hit it out of the ballpark.” In fact, even though many speakers did creditable jobs reading the words others wrote for them, no one really hit it out of the infield.


But if most of the noise was sound and fury signifying nothing inside the convention halls, at least one memorable statement was made outside. That statement was made by Donald Trump, and it was a statement that he, the nation, and the world, may live to rue.  

On July 21, Trump met with David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times to discuss foreign policy. Sanger, recently returned from the Baltics, mentioned the deep concern in that region over the “new Russian activism.” He asked: “If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?” Trump initially evaded the question, claiming he didn’t want Vladimir Putin to know his plans. Then he raised the problem of some NATO members not paying their bills. Sanger pressed: “My point here is, can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia?” This exchange ensued:

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.


TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

This equivocal approach to meeting our NATO obligations, if adopted, would mark a sea change in American foreign policy. Just two years earlier, Barack Obama, the same Obama Republicans have been attacking throughout the long campaign season as feckless and unreliable, visited the capital of Estonia and said:

[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London. Article 5 [of the NATO Treaty] is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.

Now Obama has drawn lines in the sand before, and let others cross them. Witness Syria’s Assad. But on the Baltics, at least he said the right things and so sent the right message to Putin.

Trump’s position, if adopted, would not only mark a change in policy, it would also increase the chances of mischief and war. History provides painful lessons.

In July 1990, Saddam Hussein massed troops on Iraq’s border with Kuwait, and issued a series of bellicose statements. U.S. ambassador April Glaspie met with Saddam, and asked him about his intentions. He told her that he wanted total control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, but was willing, for a time, to pursue negotiations with Kuwait. Glaspie responded: “We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960’s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.”

SADDAM   Ambassador Glaspie may have thought her words would soothe the mercurial dictator, and facilitate a peaceful resolution of Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait. In fact, they had the opposite effect. Eight days later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. After a brief but brutal war, Iraq annexed the country. Five months after that, the United States and its allies went to war to undo the annexation. Although American and Coalition casualties were light, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Kuwaitis died, and half the population of Kuwait was displaced. The consequences of the war reverberate today.

Saddam Hussein, a butcher and warmonger, may not have needed much encouragement to invade Kuwait. But there is little doubt that Ambassador Glaspie’s non-committal message worsened the situation, emboldening him to believe that he could conquer his neighbor on the cheap.

Some forty years earlier, a comparable event took place. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson spoke at the National Press Club and defined the American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific as a line running through Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines. Noticeably omitted was any reference to South Korea, which the United States had earlier pledged to protect. Six months later, North Korean armed forces crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea, initiating a gruesome struggle that led to the deaths of over five million soldiers and civilians, including nearly 40,000 U.S. servicemen.

ACHESONIn his defense it must be said that Secretary Acheson never intended to signal the North Koreans that the United States was willing to abandon the South. Years later, he pointed out that his speech also omitted Australia and New Zealand, allies to whose defense the United States was obviously committed. Dean Rusk, then Undersecretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, noted in his memoirs that several drafts of the speech had been prepared, but Acheson disliked all of them and chose to speak extemporaneously. After the speech, Rusk realized there was a risk that his boss would be misinterpreted. He and his State Department colleagues considered issuing clarifiers, but decided that doing so would only make matters worse. So the record went uncorrected, and events took their bloody turn.

If history teaches that vacillating messages about American resolve to defend strategic areas may encourage war, it also teaches the converse. Unswervingly firm messages about American resolve may help preserve peace.

For the 45 years of Cold War, West Berlin was a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union. As an urban enclave surrounded on all sides by communist East Germany, it was militarily indefensible. And yet while vast territories and hundreds of millions of people fell to communism during the Cold War, West Berlin remained free. The reason may be found in the constant articulation of American resolve.

In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut road and canal access to West Berlin. The United States and its allies responded with a massive airlift, lasting a year, that supplied the city with food and fuel. American and allied military contingents remained in the city. In October 1961, ten combat-ready American tanks faced an equal number of Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie at a distance of about 100 yard for 24 hours, before the Soviets pulled back. In January 1962, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the same man who, while serving under Dean Acheson 12 years earlier, had seen firsthand the dangers of sending ambiguous messages, bluntly told the Russians that the United States was prepared to defend West Berlin “at whatever cost.”

For 45 years, nine American administrations, five Republican and four Democratic, issued the same consistent message: If you attack West Berlin, the United States will go to war. And for 45 years, the Soviet Union heeded that message and kept its hands off.

These lessons from history demonstrate the danger in Donald Trump’s statement about the Baltic States. Reasonable people may differ on whether the United States should extend a protective shield over such distant, inconveniently located lands, just as reasonable people could differ on whether it made sense for the United States to pledge protection for South Korea, Kuwait, or West Berlin. But once the pledge is made, it is not reasonable to signal people like Vladimir Putin, who already has a track record of invading and destabilizing neighboring states, that the United States may not be relied upon to honor its commitments.

Even if Trump loses the election, he has done damage. Merely by injecting the idea into the campaign, Trump has undermined international confidence in our nation. For many observers overseas, friend and foe alike, may assume that the notion of abandoning the Baltics must command significant domestic support – else why would a candidate propose it?

Donald Trump is not good at taking advice, but on this point he should take advice from his wife. As Melania Trump said – and as did Michelle Obama and Melvyn Douglas and J. Cole and the Bible and who knows who else –your word is your bond. As it is with people, so it is with nations. At some convenient juncture, he should “clarify” his statement to the Times. That may prove embarrassing. But it will be much less uncomfortable then answering charges later that Trump unwittingly induced Putin to test our credibility by making the Baltics the next Crimea.


Filed under Foreign Policy, Politics


  1. TRUMP: “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes…right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.”

    This is good; Donald Trump is talking about NATO commitments as though they’re part of a protection racket.

  2. John Barton

    More to the point this blowhard shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the White House.

  3. It is interesting. Many people seem to think “The Donald” was talking about some NATO members not paying dues or into some kind of fund. Actually, he’s presumably talking about some NATO members not spending 2% of their GNP on defense as required. When people think its the former, it gathers some sympathy. When they learn its the latter, they seem perplexed.

    I confess for a time I was intrigued and yes even tempted by Mr. Trump especially since I think Hillary’s vision for the country is to just add more Federal programs and I don’t particularly trust her. But now I will just have to swallow hard. Hillary struck home when she said, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” She could resurrect her infamous 3 o’clock in the morning telephone call commercial. It didn’t work in 2008, but it seems especially apropos this time around.

    Absent a major terrorist attack in the U.S., I suspect the debates will decide this election, unless of course “The Donald” continues to shoot himself in the foot. As the Chinese allegedly cursed, “May you live in interesting times.”

  4. Jonathan Seder

    Trump was ambiguous and non-committal about what his response in an actual confrontation – I believe that is the correct response. Certainly it is better than drawing a line and then ignoring it when others cross, as Mr Obama has done. It’s not clear that we should go to war with Russia over the Baltics – would that be better for them, particularly if it escalates to tactical nuclear weapons? – or that the American people will support a candidate who promises war. This is all about the election, remember. Better to station a few battalions as deterrent/tripwire than to bloviate.

  5. Jonathan

    Trump was correctly ambiguous and non-committal. Better to be vague than to draw a line and ignore it when someone crosses. In any case, it is not clear that we should go to war with the Russians over the Baltics – would they better off, particularly if it escalates to tactical nuclear weapons? This is all about the election, anyway, and voters will not support war with Russia. I am no fan of Mr Trump – his protectionism and xenophobia are wrong – but he will do far better in foreign affairs than his opponent who is a proven failure.

  6. Jake

    “So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance…” Except the NATO ‘alliance’ has no armed forces to speak of, save those of the USA. A mutual defense ‘alliance’ that depends solely on one nation to defend all the rest is no alliance at all. Never mind that fact that a NATO member, Turkey, has become more or less hostile to the rest. Trump is right to highlight what a one-way street NATO has become.

  7. MikeOfAges

    Yes, but. The United States collectively ought to brush up on NATO. NATO was never intended to be an ever growing political octopus. It was a military alliance of the the modern liberal democracies ringing the North Atlantic. NATO also always represented a cultural community of the same, with a few additional countries part of the cultural community but for various reasons not part of the alliance.

    In the mid-1970s, all of the nations of Europe and the North Atlantic participated in a post-World War II strategic settlement. The end of result of this process was the Helsinki Accords.

    As the result of these accords, they constituted a legal agreement rather than a treaty, all of the parties recognized the boundary changes which occurred as a result of the outcome of World War II. The West recognized the boundary of the Soviet Union and the boundaries of the East Bloc countries, notably Poland. The West recognized the Democratic Republic of Germany, aka East Germany, as an independent country. The Federal Republic of Germany, aka West Germany, gave up its claims to its former lands in the east. The Soviet Union in return recognized West Berlin as part of the territory of the Federal Republic. The East Bloc, as part of the price of obtaining these agreements, fatefully agreed to certain human rights protocols as well. The Soviet government rightfully represented the Accords as a great diplomatic victory. But the efforts the East Bloc had to engage in to adhere to the Helsinki human rights protocol played a considerable role in the political erosion of the East Bloc over the next 15 years.

    The Helsinki Accords, which are still in legal force in spite of the fall of the Soviet Union divide Europe into four de facto zone. These are, the West, Eastern Europe west of the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, the former Soviet Republics other than Russia, and the Russian Republic. The Russian Republic is the legal successor to the Soviet Union, responsible for the obligations entered into by the Soviet Union and due the obligations other entities have to the Soviet Union.

    American policy has de facto been to treat the breakup of the Soviet Union as a decolonization process akin to the decolonization process in Africa during the period of the late 1950s and 1960s. The Western-imposed national boundaries were treated by the outside powers as inviolable. The argument made was the the national boundaries cut across so many tribal, linguistic and cultural boundaries that once an attempt to rearrange them began, the process would never end and would leave the region in a terminal state of disarray.

    Recently, the West, meaning the United States, has attempted to insist that there can be no boundary rearrangement east of the boundary of the former Soviet Union. This pertain primarily to the recent Russian reannexation of the historic Russian territory of the Crimea. The West, meanwhile, already had arranged a change of government in the Ukraine and astoundingly sought to make the Ukraine part of NATO, Excuse the sarcasm, but that does raise the question, What part of the North Atlantic is the Ukraine located in anyway?

    The current situation in Europe calls for a diplomatic resolution which recognizes that Russia was our former ally in the war against Nazi Germany and the entity that did most of the bleeding and dying in this desperate struggle.

    What is needed in not an effort by the West to dictate according to some dubious principle what happens beyond the boundary of the former Soviet Union, but a second stage of the Helsinki process. Of course we have an interest in what happens beyond the boundary of the former Soviet Union, just as the Soviet Union had an interest in what would happen in the West. But the point is, one interest has to be recognized as the predominant one.

    We agreed to recognize the boundary of former Soviet Union. That boundary is still there, in the form of the eastern boundaries of the the Easterbn European nations. There is not one shred of evidence that the Russian Republic seeks to rearrange the boundary. We need to restart the Helsinki process, and when we do, we can go into this with only a pair of preconception. One of them is that the independence and boundaries of the Baltic Republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia be considered inviolable and the other is that the inviolable borders be established beyond within the territory of the former Soviet Union.

    Going on the issue of the current American election, just consider carefully which candidate is more capable of accepting a valid theoretical framework for a settlement in Europe which also defines the purview and future of NATO. Donald Trump has no experience as an officeholder. His assets are that he is willing in his way to consider limitations and to rethink things and that no stage is so big that it could overwhelm him. Hillary Clinton has experience in government but her history has shown that in spite of her youthful capability in academic, she is no intellectual and not the one to see policy in the context of an theoretical framework.

    You decide.

    Parties to Helsinki Accords:

    Federal Republic of Germany
    German Democratic Republic
    United States of America
    United Kingdom
    Hungary Hungary
    Republic of Ireland
    Poland Poland
    Romania Romania
    San Marino
    Holy See
    Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

  8. Funny how these European “countries” think they are so tough and fully recovered from WWII (ALMOST 80 YEARS LATER!) that they can’t pay for their own defense. Trump’s answer is perfect…you didn’t carry your weight? If you are attacked….well, enjoy the definite maybe.

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