There is a new Trump doctrine in foreign and security affairs emerging: be unpredictable about everything.
In general, there is something to be said for an element of uncertainty. Potential spoilers and adversaries should not be able to anticipate every single response to their different advances. So far, I guess Henry Kissinger would agree.
But in some respects there has to be certainty: The United States has to stand by its allies and friends. If this is put into question, the entire international order, built step by step during more than half a century, will start to crumble. Others will advance, and the United States will retreat.
Now Trump has told the New York Times that his willingness to honor NATO’s commitment to defend its Baltic members in the event they were attacked by Russia would depend on his judgment of whether they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” And Newt Gingrich has amplified Trump’s words by declaring that it’s not worth risking a nuclear confrontation over Estonia, since it is hardly more than “the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” It’s a statement that I fear has attracted more attention in Moscow than in Washington so far.
If there was ever the suspicion that this would become U.S. policy, it is probably the most profound strategic change of the United States in a generation. The implications are enormous.
It’s true that Estonia borders Russia and that the distance from its capital, Tallinn, to St. Petersburg isn’t great. There is certainly no ocean between them.
But to say that Tallinn is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg is to say that Tel Aviv is in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. There isn’t any ocean there, either. Or that Seoul can be seen, at least in terms of distance, as being in the suburbs of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Certainly it’s not only the suburbs, but the very center of Seoul, that’s within artillery range of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Both of these distances are, as a matter of fact, far less than the distance between Tallinn and St. Petersburg. If he doesn’t believe me, I would recommend that Gingrich check the maps.
If the United States were to say that it’s not really ready to take any risk to stand by Tallinn, Tel Aviv or Seoul, because St. Petersburg, Damascus and Pyongyang are pretty nearby, the implications for security in Europe, the Middle East and Asia would be profound.
This is not to say that Estonia, Israel or South Korea shouldn’t invest in their own defense. All of them do to an impressive extent. But their formal or informal links with friends and allies nearby or farther away still remain critical to their security.
If an America First doctrine is translated into an Allies Last doctrine, then all alliances lose their meaning, and we risk moving into a chaotic Hobbesian world of power without principle.
If there is one thing that has made the United States great since 1945 or so, it is its ability to make and stand by its friends and allies. During the long decades of the Cold War, the Soviet Union certainly had nuclear weapons and tanks in abundance. But the United States, in addition to this, also had friends and allies around the world, and in the end that’s what made the difference.
If the United States were to say that allies can’t really trust even treaties that have been ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, since geographic proximity to potential bullies and aggressors makes the United States afraid, then these treaties and friendships start to lose their meaning.
Trump seems to think it’s better to make deals with the bullies and aggressors than to contain and deter them through friendships and alliances. It is true that diplomacy should never be discounted, and even bullies need to be talked to and engaged. But if you fail to deter them and abandon your most exposed allies and friends, the lesson of history is indeed very clear: At the end of the day you will lose.
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