America Can’t Be Trusted Anymore

It's hard to be powerful when nobody believes a word you say.

An actor portrays President George Washington as he poses for a selfie with visitors at the Mount Vernon Estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on Feb. 22, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
An actor portrays President George Washington as he poses for a selfie with visitors at the Mount Vernon Estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on Feb. 22, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One of the most overused cliches in contemporary U.S. diplomacy is Ronald Reagan’s invocation of a Russian proverb: “Trust but Verify.” Originally used in the context of the Cold War, it conveyed that Washington should be willing to reach agreements with its adversaries but only if it could be sure the other side would live up to its commitments. It was a nice way to indicate both flexibility and toughness, which is of course why people refer to it whenever the United States is contemplating new negotiations with one of its adversaries.

Implicit in Reagan’s dictum is the idea that Americans are honest, plain-speaking truth-tellers who can be counted upon to keep their word and fulfill their promises. America’s opponents, by contrast, are a slippery bunch of deceptive charlatans who will exploit any loophole and seize any opportunity to hoodwink the country. Accordingly, U.S. negotiators must insist on all sorts of intrusive measures — such as the extraordinarily stringent inspection regime incorporated into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran — to make sure they can verify what others are really up to. Reagan’s proverb notwithstanding, the importance the United States attaches to verification is really a reminder that there is damn little trust involved.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering whether this wariness has things backward. Is the real problem that Washington can’t trust others, or rather that other states can’t trust it? Even before Deceitful Donald showed up, the United States had amassed a pretty good record of reneging on promises and commitments. At a minimum, Washington cannot claim any particular virtue or trustworthiness in its dealings with others. In the unipolar era, in fact, the United States repeatedly did things it had promised not to do.

To be sure, this is how one expects great powers to behave, especially when important matters are at stake. The Athenians famously told the Melians that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” and that logic did not escape U.S. leaders throughout the country’s history. Think about all the treaties U.S. officials signed with various Native American tribes and subsequently broke, modified, or reneged upon as the nation expanded steadily across North America. Or consider the Nixon shocks of 1971, when the United States unilaterally ended convertibility of the dollar into gold, in effect dismantling the Bretton Woods economic order it had helped create. President Richard Nixon also slapped a 10 percent surcharge on imports to make sure the U.S. economy didn’t suffer as the dollar rose in value.

Or consider some more recent events. As more and more documents come to light, it has become clear that U.S. officials convinced their Soviet counterparts to permit German reunification by promising that NATO would not expand further. Secretary of State James Baker told Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not go “1 inch eastward” and Gorbachev received similar assurances from a host of other Western officials as well. President Bill Clinton’s administration blithely ignored these assurances, however, in its overzealous rush to create what it thought would be a “zone of peace” well to the east. As a number of observers warned at the time, this decision poisoned relations with Moscow and was the first step leading back to the level of confrontation we are dealing with today. That blunder was compounded by the George W. Bush administration’s decision to abandon the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. While technically not a breach of trust (i.e., the treaty permitted either party to leave if it wished, provided it gave adequate notice), it was still a clear signal that the United States didn’t care about preserving good relations with Moscow and was not going to take Russian sensitivities into account.

Similarly, America’s handling of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea does not inspire confidence in its trustworthiness either. There is no question that North Korea violated the agreement by secretly working on an alternative enrichment path, but the United States never lived up to its commitments either. In particular, it failed to lift economic sanctions as promised, and the light-water power reactors it had pledged to provide were delayed for years and ultimately never arrived. As Stephen Bosworth, the veteran U.S. diplomat who headed the multinational effort to implement the agreement, later put it, “The Agreed Framework was a political orphan within two weeks after its signature.”

And then there’s the checkered history of U.S. policy toward Libya. Building on a successful multilateral sanctions program, the Bush administration successfully convinced Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to let American inspectors enter the country, dismantle his entire weapons of mass destruction program, and cart it away. To get the agreement, however, Bush promised Qaddafi that the United States would not attempt to overthrow his regime. It was a clear quid pro quo: Qaddafi gave up his weapons programs, and the United States promised not to do to him what it did to Saddam Hussein. But then a few years later, President Barack Obama’s administration ignored that earlier pledge and collaborated in Qaddafi’s overthrow.

But wait, there’s more! The multinational operation against Qaddafi was authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, and Russia agreed to abstain on the resolution because its stated purpose was preventing Qaddafi from attacking civilians in Benghazi, not toppling the regime. However, as Stephen R. Weissman has shown in an important article, regime change was on U.S. officials’ minds from the get-go, and they soon blew right past the terms of the resolution. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates later recalled, “The Russians felt they had been played for suckers on Libya. They felt there had been a bait and switch.” And they were right. So, if you’re ever wondering why Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly blocked Security Council action over the disaster in Syria, there’s at least part of your answer.

Needless to say, the lessons of Libya have not been lost on other countries. North Korean media have repeatedly invoked this example to justify the country’s nuclear weapons program and to warn against ever trusting assurances from the United States. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. If you were Kim Jong Un, would you rather pin your survival on a nuclear deterrent of your own or promises from the United States?

Which brings us to Donald Trump. The world is now dealing with a U.S. president who appears to have no firm convictions or beliefs, the attention span of a hummingbird, and who apparently makes important national security decisions on the basis of whatever fairytale he just saw on Fox & Friends. As near as one can tell, he never saw a treaty or agreement signed by his predecessor that he liked, even though he has trouble explaining what’s wrong with any of them. He just likes to talk about “tearing them up” no matter what the consequences may be.

Trump is also a serial fabulist who lies with facility and frequency yet has yet to pay any political penalty for his disinterest in truth. Determined to outdo his predecessor in every way, Trump uttered six times as many falsehoods in his first 10 months as president as Obama did in his entire two terms. Add to that the frenetic pace of turnover within the White House and the cabinet, and you have an environment where no policy utterance can be expected to have a shelf life greater than a week or two.

Under these conditions, why would any sensible government take America’s word for anything? Why would any halfway smart adversary make substantial concessions to the United States in exchange for U.S. promises, assurances, or pledges? Why offer up a quid in exchange for its pro quo? Based on its recent track record, and the character of the current U.S. president, no adversary would concede a thing unless it were 100 percent certain the United States would deliver as promised. “Trust but Verify” indeed.

Given this situation, how long will it be before those with whom the United States is negotiating start demanding intrusive verification procedures or other guarantees designed to ensure that America doesn’t sign a deal and then tear it up a year later or demand that it be renegotiated? How long before other important states decide they cannot base their foreign-policy decisions on expectations or assurances from the United States because Washington simply cannot be trusted to do what it says it will?

There are already worrisome signs of precisely this sort of trend. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of people who trust U.S. leadership has dropped from an average of 64 percent at the end of the Obama administration to roughly 22 percent during Trump’s first year in office. Even more remarkably, a larger percent of people around the world have confidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin will “do the right thing in world affairs” than the current U.S. president. When you’re trailing those two ruthless operators, it’s time to start asking why nobody trusts you.

To be sure, this is not to say that nobody trusts anyone from the United States anymore. U.S. business leaders continue to strike mutually beneficial deals with foreign counterparts; the beleaguered and understaffed diplomatic service continues to forge cooperative arrangements all over the world; U.S. intelligence agencies continue to collaborate with foreign countries under the protective umbrella of mutual confidence; and countless military-to-military engagements take place every day on a basis of mutual respect and regard. Indeed, given the time, money, attention, and lives that the United States has expended to reassure others about its credibility, it would be odd if other states had no confidence in Washington at all. It would be a vast overstatement, therefore, to conclude that past U.S. opportunism or the unreliable character of Trump had led others to conclude that the United States as a whole was totally unreliable.

Nonetheless, acquiring a reputation for being untrustworthy is costly. When trust disappears, reaching cooperative agreements inevitably requires more intrusive and formal stipulations and arrangements (like the JCPOA or most multilateral trade agreements) in an effort to cover every possible contingency and to make it easier to detect violations (and thus to deter cheating). A lack of trust also encourages states to make worst-case assumptions about what others will do and to prepare for those contingencies. The United States has troops in South Korea because it doesn’t trust the North, and North Korea went to enormous lengths to build a nuclear bomb because it doesn’t trust the United States.

And that’s why I’m not expecting a major breakthrough when Trump and Kim get together (assuming they do). Neither side is going to make significant concessions for the simple reason that they don’t want to be played for a sucker. We might get some sort of symbolic agreement (such as a temporary suspension of missile tests while broader talks on denuclearization continue ad infinitum), but I can’t imagine Kim will do anything that might put his own survival at risk should “perfidious America” change its mind.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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