Last week, the British intelligence agency GCHQ took the rare step of debunking as “utterly ridiculous” the Trump administration’s insinuation that Britain spied on Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. On Monday, FBI Director James B. Comey testified plainly that “I have no information that supports” President Trump’s accusations that his predecessor ordered the “wires tapped” at Trump Tower. These false statements from the White House are part of a disturbing pattern of behavior that poses real and potentially profound dangers to U.S. national security.
The foundation of the United States’ unrivaled global leadership rests only in part on our military might, the strength of our economy and the power of our ideals. It is also grounded in the perception that the United States is steady, rational and fact-based. To lead effectively, the United States must maintain respect and trust. So, when a White House deliberately dissembles and serially contorts the facts, its actions pose a serious risk to America’s global leadership, among friends and adversaries alike.
First, U.S. power is frequently a function of our ability to rally other countries to join our cause. President George H.W. Bush famously gathered some 30 countries to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. President George W. Bush enlisted NATO and other countries to fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11. President Barack Obama built broad coalitions to combat the Islamic State; impose sanctions on Iran after the discovery of a secret nuclear facility at Fordow; punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine; conclude the Paris climate agreement; and halt the Ebola epidemic.
For the United States to mobilize collective action, other nations must accept the validity of our facts and the seriousness of the challenge. Often, U.S. requests are costly and politically difficult for other nations to heed. They do so only when convinced that the cause we champion is legitimate and that their interests are served by publicly aligning with the United States. Thus, should America someday determine that Iran is violating the nuclear accord, we may struggle to convince other nations to re-impose sanctions if they doubt our intentions or the evidence we present.
Second, our treaty allies and closest partners depend on the United States to back them against enemies. For decades, they have trusted our commitment because the United States has honored its obligations. Yet when America’s word is frequently found to be false, doubts arise and allies may hedge their bets by reducing their reliance on the United States and seeking improved relations with traditional adversaries. This potential dynamic may be exacerbated by recent flip-flops on foundational, bipartisan U.S. policy — such as our commitment to NATO and Asian allies, the one-China policy and the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that leave U.S. partners off-balance and questioning our reliability.
Third, our friends must be able to trust the word of the U.S. president. For example, when Edward Snowden in 2013 disclosed reports of eavesdropping on the personal communications of the leaders of Germany, France, Brazil and other countries, the United States faced crises in key bilateral relationships. It was essential to repairing those ties that fellow leaders accepted as truthful Obama’s personal assurances that he was unaware of such alleged activity and that such surveillance would not happen in the future.
Fourth, adversaries continually seek to divine our intentions, limits and ambitions. They may be more prone to miscalculate, thus risking conflict, when they doubt whether the United States means what it says. Is Russia certain we will defend every NATO ally at all costs? Does China think we want a trade war or stable economic relations? Does Kim Jong Un fear we may use force preemptively to counter his nuclear and missile capabilities? The United States’ words matter. Critical calculations are based on our perceived credibility.
Finally, many Americans, not just the broader world, recoil in anxiety and confusion when a U.S. administration fosters counterfactual assertions and projects unpredictability. When the American people question the commander in chief’s statements, his ability to harness public support to confront a national crisis is undermined.
First impressions matter, and an unsettling pattern has already been established. Still, it is possible to mitigate the long-term effects of this vacation from veracity — if the White House and the president quickly and convincingly return to the tradition of endeavoring to tell the truth from the Oval Office and the White House briefing room. If they do not, one is left to wonder whether the damage inflicted on U.S. global leadership is the deliberate derivative of the “deconstruction of the administrative state” or simply the lasting consequence of compulsive mendacity. Either way, the United States’ national security will suffer.