Words Can Break Deterrence

For deterrence to work and have the intended effects, the material capability must be fused together with credibility. Even if the next White House occupant turns out to be a committed transatlanticist, the rupture of trust between Europe and America may, in fact, linger on.

Words mean little to U.S. President Donald Trump. He eagerly repeats urban legends and tweets in emotional outbursts. His defenders would counter, however, that people are too fixated on the President’s style of communication. Instead, they argue, it is his policies that count.

Take, for example, NATO. Despite Trump’s personal torrent of negative comments regarding the alliance, the United States is still heavily invested in bolstering the security of Eastern Europe. So how are we to square this sharp divide between words and policies on the ground? Is it possible to quarantine the transatlantic alliance from the U.S. presidential rhetoric?

The current White House routinely denigrates traditional allies by suggesting that NATO takes and drains American power, rather than magnifying and multiplying it. And yet, the U.S. has not pulled back militarily from Europe. Far from it. On a concrete policy level, somewhat paradoxically, the Trump administration has been quite reassuring towards Eastern European needs and made sound policy choices. Through the European Deterrence Initiative, for example, Washington has provided substantial monetary investments to NATO’s front-line states: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

At the NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016, the alliance took a major step in strengthening deterrence by forming four multinational battle groups, around a thousand troops each, in the Baltics and Poland. The United States assumed the lead-nation role in the latter and has remained highly committed to this mission. It is during Trump’s presidency that the vision for an American permanent base in Poland has gained momentum.

To defend the territorial integrity of the most exposed members

The alliance also recently held its largest military drills since the end of the Cold War, during which it practised rapid reinforcement of allied nations by road, rail and sea. It is worth recalling that ten years ago, NATO did not even have contingency planning in place for defending the Baltic states. In summary, if we look at the 70-year old alliance solely through the prism of implemented policies on the ground, then one can conclude that it has adjusted reasonably well in order to defend the territorial integrity of its most exposed members.

The current White House routinely denigrates traditional allies by suggesting that NATO takes and drains American power, rather than magnifying and multiplying it.

At least outwardly, the leaders of Eastern Europe have played along and displayed confidence in the Trump administration. They have repeated tightly scripted and familiar lines about the importance of relations with Washington. When the U.S. President welcomed, for example, the heads of the Baltic states in Washington in April 2018, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, trying to keep up appearances, praised the gathering by tweeting that the partnership between the U.S. and the Baltics had been renewed and that America’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5 collective security guarantees was “ironclad”.¹

It was months later that the respected French newspaper Le Monde pulled the curtain on what had happened behind the scenes. It revealed that the U.S. President had opened the gathering, intended to emphasize U.S.-Baltic solidarity, by blaming the Baltics for the war in Yugoslavia. Confused, the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia slowly came to the realization that the host had mixed up the Baltic states and the Balkans.² Diplomatic fiascoes like this, however, have largely remained hidden from the public eye.

Poland and the Baltics embraced Trump

In fear of losing its most valued strategic partner, Eastern European lawmakers have been withholding criticism of the Trump administration. Despite the growing chorus of voices, both domestic and international, suggesting that the 45th President of the United States is manifestly unfit for the office, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians have offered an affectionate embrace. This is due to obvious geostrategic realities. Whereas some of the larger EU countries are in a position to consider alternative arrangements and hedge their bets, the Baltics and Poland cannot afford to disrupt their relations with the U.S.

Whereas some of the larger EU countries are in a position to consider alternative arrangements and hedge their bets, the Baltics and Poland cannot afford to disrupt their relations with the U.S.

Ultimately, there is no other nation that can project power in the Baltic theater like the United States; no other regional ally that possesses the type of high-end weaponry that can deter and defeat a major aggressor.

Arguably, things could have been worse. In the early days of the Trump administration, for example, a high-ranking U.S. National Security Council official, in his willingness to ease relations with Moscow, had flouted the idea of withdrawing U.S. forces from the Baltic region.³ Equally, the US president himself had openly hinted at stopping military drills in Eastern Europe. Neither of these policy suggestions have come about. The ‘America First’ mindset has not fully materialized as a policy in Eastern Europe. Still, this does not mean that Trump’s presidency has not already weakened the transatlantic alliance.

The line of defense: “ignore the tweets and focus on tangible policies” misses the point of what deterrence is made of and how it functions. Undoubtedly, placement of U.S. military equipment and troops on NATO’s eastern flank is a tremendous relief to the region. This is only, however, one part of the deterrence equation. For deterrence to work and have the intended effects, the material capability must be fused together with credibility. If a potential foe assumes that in the ‘moment of truth’ the U.S. will be reluctant to intervene on behalf of its treaty allies, then all this added military hardware loses its value.

A Molotov cocktail at the core pillar of NATO

To suggest that the words coming out of the U.S. president’s mouth do not matter is to be willfully blind as to how the transatlantic Alliance ticks politically. The infamous Article 5 collective security pledge does not exist in a vacuum. It is conditioned not only by material forces but also by a political willingness to back allies in times of crises. The forceful and clear message from the Oval Office hardens deterrence while ambiguous statements essentially serve as an invitation to Russia to test NATO’s red-lines.

Donald Trump’s careless tweets may well be intended for a domestic political base, but this is not how it plays out on the other side of the globe. Keeping others guessing about your next move might be a shrewd tactic in the real estate business, but it is of little use in global affairs where your objective is to deter a potential aggressor. This lack of message discipline and willingness to put allies on the edge reverberates strongly in countries located at Russia’s doorstep. Even John Bolton, now the President’s national-security adviser, had to admit before joining the administration that “if the leader of the NATO alliance shows weakness or uncertainty it destroys those structures of deterrence that we worked for more than 65 years to build up”.4

Keeping others guessing about your next move might be a shrewd tactic in the real estate business, but it is of little use in global affairs where your objective is to deter a potential aggressor.

Bitter disagreements and policy divisions between allies have existed since the founding of NATO. The Iraq war is, perhaps, the most notable example when Washington found itself at odds with Europe. The discord however, was policy-based. Donald Trump’s posed challenge is of a different nature. He has thrown a Molotov cocktail at the core pillar of NATO – commitment to the security of allies. Since the signing of the Washington Treaty in 1949, no U.S. president has done that.

Trumpism could outlive Trump himself in some form

While we tend to think of NATO primarily in military terms, it is worth keeping in perspective that it is equally a trust-based institution. Ivo Daalder, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, makes the argument that, “The entire system the United States set up is based on trust and that trust is now broken down. And just like in a marriage when the trust breaks down, it is extraordinary difficult to repair it.”5

The decisions of leaders do not always manifest themselves immediately in foreign policy. It may take years to see just how permanently Trump’s war of words with allies have altered the world’s preeminent security organization.

The decisions of leaders do not always manifest themselves immediately in foreign policy. It may take years to see just how permanently Trump’s war of words with allies have altered the world’s preeminent security organization.

The extent of the damage will depend, to a large degree, upon whether he is a one or two-term president. But even if the next White House occupant turns out to be a committed transatlanticist, the rupture of trust between Europe and America may, in fact, linger on. Trumpism, understood as the questioning of the core values of NATO, could outlive Trump himself in some form.


  1. Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of Lithuania official Twitter page: https://mobile.twitter.com/i/web/status/981226142496710656
  2. Sylvie Kauffmann, “Le divorce Europe-Etats-Un-is: la famille occidentale sous tension”, Le Monde, 9 November 2018, https://www.lemonde.fr/long-for-mat/article/2018/11/09/europe-etats-unis-la-famille-occidentale-sous-ten-sion_5380997_5345421.html
  3. Spencer Ackerman, “White House Official Floated Withdrawing U.S. Forces to Please Putin”, Daily Beast, 1 September 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/white-house-official-floated-withdrawing-us-forces-to-please-putin
  4. CNN, “Bolton criticized Trump’s NATO stance in 2016”, 7 July 2016, https://edition.cnn.com/videos/politics/2018/07/18/john-bol- ton-trump-putin-defending-nato-allies-comment-ip-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/trump- and-nato/
  5. Deep State Radio, “1-on-1 with Ivo Daalder: A Discussion of the New Book “The Empty Throne””, October 19, 2018, https://deepstateradionetwork.com/1-on-1-with-ivo-daalder-a-discussion-of-the-new-book-the-empty-throne-americas-abdication-of-global-leadership

Andris Banka

is Assistant Professor in International Relations at Çag University in Turkey. He earned his doctorate at the University of Birmingham, U.K. He also holds advanced degrees in International Relations from the United States (Florida), the Netherlands and Latvia. His research interests are primarily related to U.S. foreign policy and the security of the Baltic region.

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