Promises Must Be Kept

Published May 12, 2022

The American Conservative

Pacta sunt servanda: promises must be kept. This maxim was the foundation stone of the Westphalian order of nation-states, and its abandonment may mark the demise of that order. As the world witnesses the unraveling of the Pax Americana, which has maintained peace between sovereign states on the European continent for nearly eight decades, it is worth taking a look back at the broken promises that got us to this point, and the warnings issued by earlier generations of American statesmen.

The roots of the current crisis in Ukraine date back to 1990, when, in the twilight days of the Cold War, American and western European diplomats tried to reassure their reeling Soviet counterparts that the collapse of the Iron Curtain need not entail an existential threat to an ever wary Russia. During a series of negotiations in January and February of that year, West German vice-chancellor Hans-Dietrich Genscher and U.S. secretary of state James Baker sought to smooth a path for German reunification by insisting that the newly incorporated East Germany would not become part of NATO. 

It is worth pausing to let this sink in. A generation ago, the U.S. secretary of state was willing to go on record that even a large portion of Germany would never fall under NATO jurisdiction. Although many Western officials have since tried to claim that Baker’s promise “not one inch eastward” was never meant to apply to other Eastern Bloc countries, the historical record suggests otherwise. Genscher, in a highly publicized speech in the midst of the negotiations, declared, “Whatever happens to the Warsaw Pact, an expansion of NATO territory to the east, in other words, closer to the borders of the Soviet Union, will not happen.” No wonder Mikhail Gorbachev later bitterly complained, “What happened to their promises?”

Just as the broken promises at Versailles seven decades earlier helped nurture the rise of the Nazis, this betrayal became a root of resentment and paranoia in the hearts of Russian leaders, a “stab in the back” story that paved the way for Putin’s revanchist agenda.

The parallels to Versailles do not end there. In their utopian zeal to fashion a new world order upon the ashes of a shattered empire, Western leaders in both 1919 and 1990 quickly debased the currency of international diplomacy by handing out its most precious asset—the sacred pledge of national honor—like candy. Shattered empires left fragmentary nation-states in their wake, fiercely resentful and yet too weak to secure their own independence against their former masters. The solution, naturally, was for the great Western powers to guarantee their independence, promising to guard their borders against all conceivable future aggressors. 

Few paused to count the cost of the promissory notes being handed out willy-nilly to a host of fledgling Slavic countries, convinced that the mere act of promise-making would ensure they would never have to make payment. Who, asked Woodrow Wilson in 1919, would dare the wrath of a Western League of Nations by taking a bite out of Czechoslovakia—somehow forgetting that in 1914 Germany had dared the wrath of three great powers in violating their guarantee of Belgian territory.

Seventy-five years later at Budapest, his Democratic successor Bill Clinton signed a memorandum guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the young nation of Ukraine, in return for the dismantling of all its nuclear weapons installations. No doubt he imagined, with the hubris typical of the Pax Americana, that the promissory note would never come due. Who, after all, would ever dare to test the resolve of the world’s most powerful nation? Anyone, it turned out, who had already tasted the empty worth of American promises.

Most Western leaders reacted with shock and bewilderment when Vladimir Putin dared to tear up the Budapest Memorandum with his annexation of Crimea in 2014 and with even greater consternation when he invaded the rest of Ukraine this year. An earlier generation of American statesmen would have been rather less surprised—least of all Henry Cabot Lodge.

The intensely cerebral scion of a Boston Brahmin dynasty dating back to the glory days of Federalism, Lodge became one of the first three men in America to receive a PhD in history before embarking on a long and storied career as a U.S. senator. A lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Lodge shared his more ebullient colleague’s determination to apply the lessons of history to their study of world affairs. The result, for both men, was an eagle-eyed perception of the dynamics of great power conflict that could verge on the uncanny, as when Roosevelt warned in a 1914 letter of future war between the U.S. and Japan.Seeking to awaken their habitually isolationist countrymen to American responsibilities, Lodge and Roosevelt repeatedly beat the drum of military preparedness, warning that the paper treaties that long maintained a watchful peace in Europe would have little worth if not backed by firm resolve and credible force.

While unabashedly realist, theirs was not a foreign policy of Machiavellian cynicism. Unscrupulous foreign leaders might seek shortcuts to power confident that might makes right. Doe-eyed idealists like William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, nurtured the fantasy that right makes might, in other words, that moral leadership alone might substitute for the traditional instruments of statecraft. Roosevelt and Lodge insisted that only might and right together, the diligent cultivation of national power paired with the scrupulous guarding of national honor,could offer success over the long run.

For Lodge, there was scarcely any principle of statesmanship more important than “the strict observance of all treaties existing with other nations.” Why? Because, he observed, “the nation that disregards its treaty obligations will soon find the world unwilling to enter upon agreements with it and, what is far worse, will also find itself constantly embroiled with other nation in regard to questions of good faith and upright dealing which are more likely than any others to bring on war.” In other words, God had constructed the moral universe such that, over the long-term, duty and interest coincided: the nation that did its duty would find other nations more eager to befriend it, while untrustworthy nations might gain short-term advantage but would soon find themselves international pariahs.

In this conviction, Roosevelt and Lodge were simply channeling the wisdom of Federalist statesmen Washington and Hamilton and, going further back, the ideas of Emer de Vattel, the great theorist of international law beloved by the Founding Fathers. In his magisterial The Law of Nations (1757), Vattel had insisted that every good statesman has a duty to promote not merely the nation’s material interests but its glory. “The glory of a nation,” he wrote, “is intimately connected with its power, and indeed forms a considerable part of it. [A nation] whose glory is illustrious is courted by all sovereigns: they desire its friendship, and are afraid of offending it.” This may sound like a recipe for pompous boasting and bluster, but Vattel cautions that “true glory consists in the favourable opinion of men of wisdom or discernment” and is thus inseparable from virtue. And nothing contributes so reliably to such glory as that most difficult of national duties, promise-keeping. 

Few things are easier to talk about and harder to practice than promise-keeping. Promises are temptingly cheap to make and often painfully dear to redeem, especially for nations. Whereas a righteous man may “swear to his own hurt” (Prov. 15:4), keeping a promise whatever the painful personal consequences, the leader of a nation has the well-being of his entire people to consider. Should the statesman follow through on a promise to help an ally even at the cost of national suicide? Probably not, despite the blow to national honor. In democracies, the problem becomes even more acute. Whereas a monarch could take personal responsibility for all diplomacy, putting his or her personal honor on the line, democratic governments can only go to war if public opinion will enthusiastically sustain them in it. 

Public opinion is a terribly fickle thing, especially in America, which has long had a habit of lurching back and forth between dreamy idealism and self-absorbed isolationism, one moment preaching a crusade to rid the world from evil, the next withdrawing into its continental shell. Observing this tendency, Roosevelt wrote to Lodge regarding one important treaty debated in 1911: “I think the treaty will give immense satisfaction and be very popular, and if ever any need comes for executing it the people will repudiate it with the most cheerful lightheartedness; we are a funny nation.” When the Great War engulfed Europe, Roosevelt and Lodge sought in vain to rouse their countrymen to the likely eventuality of American involvement, only to find pacifism had taken hold of the national imagination. Clearly theirs was not a nation ready for open-ended military commitments. 

Once America was drawn into the war, both men argued that seeing the struggle through to victory would also entail taking some responsibility for the shape of the postwar order. “The United States cannot again completely withdraw into its shell,” wrote Roosevelt the week after the armistice. Lodge concurred: “We cannot escape doing our part in aiding the peoples to whom we have helped to give freedom and independence in establishing themselves with ordered governments, for in no other way can we erect the barriers which are essential to prevent another outbreak by Germany upon the world.” 

They were nevertheless appalled by how quickly Wilson pivoted from leading isolationist to triumphant architect of world peace, casually handing out blank checks of American security guarantees to underwrite the new framework of national self-determination in Europe. Noting that most Americans had apathetically shrugged their shoulders even when Germany had torpedoed the Lusitania and sent 128 of their countrymen to the bottom of the Atlantic, Roosevelt wondered aloud why they should be expected to rally to the defense of far-off nation-states that hadn’t even existed months before. Did Wilson mean to go to war “every time a Jugoslav wishes to slap a Czechoslav in the face”? “The American people,” warned Roosevelt, “do not wish to go into an overseas war unless for a very great cause and where the issue is absolutely plain.” Accordingly, “let us with deep seriousness ponder every promise we make so as to be sure our people will fulfill it.

When Roosevelt unexpectedly passed away on January 6, 1919, his friend Lodge took up his cause, waging a relentless war against Wilson’s visionary League of Nations Covenant. In a stirring Senate speech on February 28, Lodge counseled that Article X of the proposed covenant, which guaranteed territorial integrity to all members of the League, “is a very grave, a very perilous promise to make, because there is but one way by which such guarantees, if ever invoked, can be maintained, and that way is the way of force.” In vain did Wilson insist that the promises, once made, would take care of themselves, since America would frighten all potential aggressors into inaction. No, warned Lodge. “If we guarantee any country on earth…that guarantee we must maintain at any cost when our word is once given, and we must be in constant possession of fleets and armies capable of enforcing these guarantees at a moment’s notice.”

Many Republican opponents of Wilson complained that his posture smacked of Caesarism, bypassing Congress’s constitutional war-making powers with an open-ended commitment from the executive. Wilson tried to smooth ruffled feathers by tweaking the language of Article X, the final version of which read: “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.” In other words, the nations committed to taking some kind of decisive action to punish aggressors, while remaining cagey on exactly what action. 

Even more significantly, Wilson insisted that even if the council called for war, this would not impose a strictly legal obligation on the United States. Article X, he told concerned congressmen, “constitutes a very grave and solemn moral obligation. But it is a moral, not a legal obligation, and leaves our Congress absolutely free to put its own interpretation upon it in all cases that call for action. It is binding in conscience only, not in law.”

To Lodge, these assurances utterly failed to address the essential issue: pacta sunt servanda. If America was going to sign a treaty guaranteeing any nation’s territorial integrity, it had better face up to the seriousness of such a commitment and the likelihood that war would be the only means to enforce it. Moreover, what was the point of telling the American people that they had made a moral commitment but were legally free to disregard it? This guaranteed nothing but the forfeiture of national honor. Promises mustbe kept. A nation had no more precious commodity than a reputation for integrity. With such a reputation, together with economic and military strength, it would find that its adversaries quailed at the mere hint of displeasure; if known for hypocrisy, it would find even the loudest saber-rattling completely ineffective. 

Much better, thought Lodge, to make very few commitments but ones that the nation would stand behind to the end. As his Senate ally Elihu Root put it,

If it is necessary for the security of western Europe that we should agree to go to the support, say, of France if attacked, let us agree to do that particular thing plainly, so that every man and woman in the country will understand that. But let us not wrap up such a purpose in a vague universal obligation, under the impression that it really does not mean anything [is] likely to happen.

It is tantalizing to consider how the future course of European history might have been different had America undertaken such a specific commitment in 1919. Instead, Wilson fought to the bitter end for the blank check of Article X, and Lodge just as stubbornly resisted, sending the whole treaty down to ignominious defeat in the Senate.

It is not difficult to see parallels between Article X and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that theoretically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As with Wilson’s weasel word “guarantee,” the U.S. in Budapest took care to give the appearance of making a commitment while leaving the details conveniently hazy. As before with the League of Nations, the weaker nation was assured that it could safely entrust its security to others, while those nations retained discretion over what concrete action, if any, should be taken. Sure enough, when push came to shove in 2014 and again in 2022, hardly anyone in America thought seriously about going to war in defense of Ukraine—and for good reason! Public opinion would never have sustained such a dangerous intervention.

Ukraine, however, understandably felt betrayed when the annexation of Crimea was met with a collective shrug from the West. The United States’s chief negotiator in 1994, Steven Pifer, complained that the U.S. had violated the spirit of the memorandum and worried that it would be harder for foreign nations to take America’s word as seriously in the future. 

Germany in 1918, like Russia in 1990, agreed to back down and make peace on the basis of magnanimous terms from their Western counterparts. In both cases, however, the defeated superpower imploded in the months that followed and its geopolitical rivals could not resist the urge to start feeding off the carcass of its dismembered empire. By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed, earlier promises were a dead letter, leading Germany to nurse a deep and bitter grudge. Likewise, by the time the Budapest Memorandum was signed, American diplomats were laughing into their shirtsleeves about their earlier promises not to expand NATO “one inch eastward,” and the Western powers continued to add insult to injury in the years that followed.

As a depleted Russia nursed its own wounds and grievances for the next twenty years, it had every reason to doubt the reliability of American promises, until, in 2014, it too made a bid to rebuild its lost empire. Confirmed in its contempt for the West by the non-reaction to Crimea’s annexation, Putin’s full-on invasion of Ukraine this year must have seemed like an eminently rational decision.

Faced with the wreckage of our own duplicitous diplomacy, it is high time to reconsider the wisdom of Roosevelt, Lodge, and Vattel. There are plausible cases to be made both that America was too soft on the collapsing Soviet Union in 1990, and that it was too harsh. The same goes for 1994 and America assuming responsibility for Ukraine. Prudence and national interest could have justified several different courses of action. But one course seems extremely difficult to justify: making a promise with little intention to be bound by it. 

Political philosophers often argue about whether the rules of private morality apply to state actors. Surely diplomacy is a slippery business, necessarily rife with deceit and self-interested maneuvering? There are some actions, though, that are self-destructive for states as for individuals, and promise-breaking is one of them. It is hard to make much headway in diplomacy if other nations do not think you mean what you say. Statesmen will protest that it is difficult to foresee all eventualities in advance and a commitment that seems sensible one day may look impossibly costly the next. In a democracy, the vagaries of public opinion can make it very hard for administrations to follow through on the promises of their predecessors.

All of this is true—and yet Lodge and Roosevelt would have insisted that this is precisely why statesmen should be exceedingly slow to enter into foreign commitments. For every ten promises that look smart in the moment, nine are liable to become an albatross around the nation’s neck before the treaties expire. The shrewd leader will learn how to cultivate understandings, build friendships, and make credible threats, all without forfeiting future room for maneuver or putting himself in a situation where he is likely to perjure the nation’s honor. 

As America seeks to take stock of a changed world after the end of the end of history, in which great power conflict is back, it is high time to rethink our approach to foreign policy. Many of our recent commitments—to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Ukraine—are mere scraps of paper on the rubbish heap. Others—to NATO, for instance—are too foundational to think of reneging on. Going forward, America will have to forge and formalize new commitments to give our allies confidence and our enemies pause. But we must do so in full recognition of the seriousness of such pledges, treating national honor as the priceless and irreplaceable asset it is, and mindful of the American public’s shrinking appetite for global responsibility. “Let us,” as Roosevelt admonished a century ago, “with deep seriousness ponder every promise we make so as to be sure our people will fulfill it.”

Brad Littlejohn is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program and president of the Davenant Institute.

Photo: Frederic Bulkeley Hyde/Library of Congress

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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