The Importance of Being Predictable: Why It Matters that Trump Won't Verbally Commit to NATO


Donald Trump is a man of few meaningful words. He talks quite a lot, overuses the same phrases, and often what comes out of his mouth is completely indecipherable. When he failed to verbally commit to Article 5 of NATO (which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all members) during his first international trip as president, foreign leaders took notice. Article 5 is essentially the reason that NATO exists; it has only been invoked one time – in the aftermath of September 11. It deters adversaries such as Russia from encroaching too far on European territory, it binds the member states together against global terrorism, and it sends a message to our European allies that should a crisis break out, the US will come to its aid in whatever capacity necessary. While Trump mentioned “the commitments that bind us together as one,” he did not specifically mention Article 5. Why does this matter? It would seem that this comments basically do signal American commitment. Why does it need to be spelled out in such explicit terms? In international relations, words are easily wielded as tools. Soft power, a way of accumulating strength and influence by means of diplomacy, often consists of verbal (and written) agreements and commitments that build states’ relationships with one another and typically improves outcomes for both. Soft power enhances predictability by creating partnerships with like-minded allies that share common goals and values. Therefore it matters that states are predictable, especially within alliances; an unpredictable partner is a volatile and untrustworthy partner.

By verbally and publicly declaring American adherence to Article 5, Trump would have faced something which he has continued to evade: accountability. There is a current onslaught of articles which seek to expose Trump’s campaign rhetoric, holding him accountable for failing to bring back coal jobs, for flopping on passing a new healthcare bill, and for deciding not to “lock her up” (which, in fairness, was a smart backtrack). It’s true that we are only a few short months into the Trump presidency, but broken promises to voters materialize in the voting booth, as citizens remember the words, slogans, and catchphrases that were shouted at rallies and speeches and judge the politician accordingly. Trump in essence created a rod for his own back, forging the constraints around his presidency by hollering about his first 100 days and what he would do the day he entered the office. For a man who ran on a platform of no-nonsense promises and blatant honesty, he should be prepared for early judgement.

This is not a phenomenon entirely specific to Donald Trump; all politicians are held accountable in some way or another. Former President Barack Obama, for example, will probably never be able to live down his retreat on the “red line” in the Syrian civil war, and it will forever be a stain on his legacy. Failing to keep campaign promises has the potential to get politicians voted out of office, but failing to commit to long-standing and indispensable commitments on an international level sends signals that reverberate beyond our shores and borders.

World leaders who are far more seasoned than Trump, such as Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin, recognize the importance of soft power in ways that Trump appears frightfully incapable of understanding. Where Merkel sees such hesitation as a sign that the US is no longer a reliable partner, Putin likely looks on with glee as the frayed relationship between two of the most powerful Western states continues to wither. As a power-hungry Russia looks to further encroach on what Putin perceives to be a crumbling and divided Europe, Donald Trump’s ambiguity towards international alliances comes as a welcome wave of the hand.

It is probably too soon to speculate that Trump refused to verbally commit to Article 5 for a specific reason. That would imply that Trump is smart enough to understand basic foreign policy and/or relationships with our closest allies, and I truly don’t believe that he is that smart. What I do believe is that he is just dumb enough to not grasp the unassailable value of NATO nor the consequences of his ambiguity. Reaffirming Article 5 would not have been concrete evidence that Trump is willing to take a public stand against Russia, therefore collusion during the election must have been impossible. It might not have cancelled out the entire investigation, but it would have been a decent start. It was an opportunity for Trump to align with Europe instead of with Russia and consequently could have put a band-aid on the collateral damage from the Flynn fiasco. Instead, it has the potential to set a dangerous precedent, one that Trump seems intent on pursuing: equating unpredictability with strength. Similar to the Madman Theory of President Nixon in which he tried to make the leaders of the Soviet Union think he was volatile and unstable in order to avoid a provocation by the US, in his delusion Trump is applying what some may perceive as a comparable course of thinking. We witnessed the same mistakes in Trump’s supposed secret strategy to defeat ISIS that he boasted of during the election. Trump’s political strategy may be ‘America First,’ but in an age of required international cooperation, a unipolar world in which we are on our own and refuse to commit to our allies is not a safe world at all. Pointing fingers at our European allies who are not meeting monetary requirements yet refusing to verbally commit to Article 5 is hypocritical and short-sighted. General H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, two Trump administration officials, co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that illustrates this hypocrisy: while the authors state that “America first does not mean America alone,” we are undeniably isolating ourselves on the global stage. The Europeans take Article 5 very seriously, and rightly so, considering they upheld the Article in our time of need. There is simply no political climate in which boasting “America First” does not raise eyebrows among our partners, and there are no circumstances in which unpredictability and refusal to commit are signs of strength while cooperation and an open dialogue fall to the wayside.