THE BLOG
07/28/2016 10:27 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

Trump, NATO and the Baltics - heed the hard-earned lessons

Trump, NATO and the Baltics - heed the hard-earned lessons.
By: Joergen Oerstroem Moeller.
For the third time since 1945 U.S. risk to be drawn into a war of its own making.
Mass media reported from the republican convention that asked about Russia's threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations have "fulfilled their obligations to us. If they fulfill their obligations to us," he added, "the answer is yes."
The first observation is that the purpose of the alliance is to prevent an attack on any NATO country. The whole idea of NATO and a strong U.S. military capability are to forestall a situation where the U.S. President needs to undertake a review. Going to war is by far much more costly, not the least in human lives and sufferings, than removing any doubt in the mind of a potential aggressor that the resolve is there to respond militarily.
In the case of the three Baltic States it should be added that before Mr. Trump has made the sums these small nations would have been overrun so if the decision was 'yes, they have fulfilled their obligations' the options would be either to say 'sorry, we should have defended you' or escalate into a full war to liberate them - not enviable options most people would think.
Twice in the 20th century obfuscating policy statements similar to Mr. Trump's pronouncements were read by potential aggressors who drew the - as it turned out - wrong conclusion that the U.S. gave them a free hand. In both cases U.S. subsequently went to war that could and would have been avoided by clarity about U.S. intentions.
12th of January 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech saying that the U.S. Pacific "defense line" or "defensive perimeter" "runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes back to the Ryukyus.... We hold important positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and these we will continue to hold... The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands." This statement explicitly excluded the Republic of Korea from the American defense perimeter. Six month later on June 25th 1950 North Korea attacked. We do not have firm evidence of the impact of Acheson's speech, but it is known that Stalin was reluctant to give the green light as he feared an American intervention and only consented in April 1950. Whether Acheson's speech allayed his fear or not cannot be documented, but the sequence of decision-making points in that direction.
Prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait 2nd of August 1990 President Saddam Hussein held a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie. It is disputed exactly what was said, but transcripts reveal that Ambassador Glaspie voiced the opinion that "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts" and "the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."

In the January/February 2003 edition of Foreign Policy John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt conclude that Ambassador Glaspie's comment plus earlier signals from Washington that the U.S. had 'no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait' inadvertently gave Saddam Hussein the impression that the U.S. would not interfere if he invaded Kuwait.

It would be disastrous for the U.S. and its allies if Mr. Trump's words are interpreted as the green light for an aggression. Statesmen know that their words and actions are being weighed by friends and foes alike.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Former State-Secretary, Royal Danish Foreign Ministry
Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School.
Honorary Alumni, University of Copenhagen.