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.
MAGGIE HABERMAN: And if not?
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.”
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.
In 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.