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America Can’t Be Trusted Anymore

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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........

© Foreign Policy