Trust – real, solid trust – takes a long time to build, but it can be lost in an instant. The American public is now getting a real-time demonstration of how that concept applies to our hard won and carefully-constructed alliance system, especially as it applies to extended deterrence.
At a rally in Florida last week, President Trump told an audience, “We lose four and a half billion dollars to defend a country that’s rich as hell and probably doesn’t like us too much.” He was almost certainly alluding to the ongoing negotiations between the United States and South Korea about cost-sharing for U.S. troops in the country. These remarks were not only undiplomatic, they were completely misleading.
As shocking as this type of rhetoric might once have been, it was very on-brand for Mr. Trump. Indeed, in an administration marked by inconsistency, one of the only consistent things has been the President’s steady stream of complaints about America’s closest allies.
President Trump talks about our alliance relationships like they are mafia-style protection rackets, giving no sign that he understands the benefits that the United States derives from them. He fixates on the costs that the United States incurs from its alliances with no acknowledgement of how much it would cost to defend an America that is truly alone. He reduces complex alliance relationships to simplistic personal terms that serve only to increase tensions. Bullying and intimidation may work in real estate, but they are anathema to strategic alliances. The overall effect has been corrosive.
By putting more effort into bashing alliances than defending them, Trump is squandering decades of careful, persistent diplomacy that has helped stabilize security, including U.S. policies regarding extended deterrence.
The irony is that many of his defenders look the other way at all of this egregious behavior, but immediately invoke the concerns of our allies when faced with any discussion of changes to our nuclear declaratory policies.
Consider the emerging debate about how a U.S. No First Use policy, or NFU, would affect extended deterrence requirements. Detractors argue that maintaining the option to use nuclear weapons first is essential to the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence guarantees. An extreme prediction suggests that the United States’ adoption of an NFU policy could induce allies to consider acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Some have suggested that even discussing a change in policy endangers U.S. alliances.
These arguments completely fail to account for the fact that extended deterrence is about much more than nuclear weapons. Forward deployments of U.S. conventional forces actually play the most immediate roles in deterring aggression against the United States and its allies. Advanced conventional capabilities like precision-guided weapons, increasingly accurate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools, and regional missile defenses all serve to deter aggression. More importantly, extended deterrence is about trust. For the concept to work, countries have to believe that the United States will come to their aid in a time of crisis.
President Trump has already thrown doubt onto that guarantee. Asked why U.S. troops should fight to defend Montenegro, a new NATO member, in a regional conflict, he left the clear impression that he has doubts about whether the United States should uphold our legal commitment to protect a NATO ally. That is far more dangerous to the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence than a policy designed to reduce the threat of nuclear preemption.
To be sure, the trust on which alliances are built should be preserved and the United States must keep its promises. At the same time, we must reexamine and replace policies that no longer serve allied interests effectively. It is also clear that as tensions between nuclear-armed states intensify and the risk of nuclear war increases, we need to prioritize policies that reduce the chances that nuclear weapons are ever used again. If the United States comes to the conclusion that an NFU policy would suit our security needs and those of our allies, the policy change should be made in close consultation with those allies. Allied concerns can and should be addressed carefully and respectfully. Under no circumstances should their apprehension be tossed around as fodder at a campaign rally.
Some allies have already expressed unease about the implications of a U.S. NFU policy, but it is important to note that others have not. In fact, public polling in allied countries like Germany and the Netherlands has demonstrated broad support for the shift in policy. In its consultations with allies, Washington must make clear that taking “starting a nuclear war” off the list of policy options will not change the United States’ ability to defend their security, including by responding to any nuclear attack with nuclear weapons. There should be zero doubt that Washington’s assured second strike capability will continue to deter nuclear threats, while our substantial and unparalleled conventional forces will continue to deter non-nuclear attacks.
The United States has invested time, blood, and treasure into building the strongest alliance system in the history of the world. At its core, this system functions because American leaders have managed, through word and deed, to make clear that we are a trustworthy partner. Over the decades, the United States has been able to work with its allies to manage and adapt to new threats and risks, including those that affect extended deterrence guarantees. Discussing changes to our nuclear declaratory policies is just another phase of that ever-evolving process.
In the end, the real threat to the long-term viability of U.S. extended deterrence is the fact that we elected a leader who doesn’t seem to believe in the concept. If there are any doubts in our commitment to our allies, they stem from the President’s almost monomaniacal need to undercut, undervalue, and debase them – not from thoughtful discussion of measures that would help to save us all from nuclear catastrophe.