The Hill

Ukraine Is Just the Latest Victim of the West’s Broken Promises

Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
A pedestrian walks amid debris following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 7, 2022. (Photo by Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks amid debris following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 7, 2022. (Photo by Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

The failure to prevent or deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine joins a long list of unfulfilled commitments by the “international community,” the West, and the United States because of a lack of ability, will, or both. The political, economic and human costs are increasingly exorbitant.

At the end of the Cold War, the newly independent Ukraine, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, gained possession — though not operational control — of a significant arsenal of formerly Soviet nuclear weapons. Ukraine agreed to surrender these arms in exchange for assurances of its sovereignty and territorial integrity by the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. These assurances, codified in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, proved to be of little value when Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and today, as Russian forces advance on Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities.

The casual bulldozing of the Budapest Memorandum is reminiscent of what has happened to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which has proved to be flimsy under the weight of China’s assault on Hong Kong’s political autonomy. Meanwhile, the promises of the Genocide Convention must seem like a cruel joke to the Uyghurs being tortured, indoctrinated and sterilized in China’s Xinjiang internment camps.

Then there’s the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In 2015, the deal’s proponents sold it as a miracle of arms control that would block all of Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons. Yet the ease and speed with which the regime has been able to violate its commitments make clear that the JCPOA blocked nothing.

No less damning has been the international response to Iran’s violations. The U.S. and its European negotiating partners assured Israel and the Gulf states that stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program was of paramount importance, and that unauthorized Iranian nuclear activity would be deterred or, at worst, responded to with the heavy hammer of snapback sanctions and even the use of force, if necessary.

Instead, as Iran’s violations became increasingly flagrant, it became increasingly evident that the United States and the European Union had sanctified the deal over its content. Iran’s march toward the nuclear weapons threshold has been met, at most, by press releases from Western governments expressing their grave concern. This hollow deal, and its authors’ unwillingness to enforce even its meager terms, have left decision-makers in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and the other capitals within Iranian missile range to draw their own conclusions.

What are the lessons to be learned from this series of Western promises made and broken?

First, America’s rivals are happy to strike deals and sign treaties with the West, but their commitment to keeping the terms of these agreements is dubious and often ends up presenting a test of wills where the West blinks first. The United States loses twice: suffering unmet foreign policy goals and severely damaged credibility. Talk, it turns out, really is cheap.

Second, America’s friends and allies, in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, understand that trusting the United States carries potentially existential risks. It is hard to blame the Ukrainians, the abandoned Afghanis, the Israelis, the Gulf Arabs, the Taiwanese, and others if they come to trust only themselves — or at least start hedging their bets by developing partnerships with America’s competitors. How can they be sure the United States will stand by them at their moment of peril?

Third, as international law again reveals itself to be toothless, and with successive American administrations broadcasting muddled and irresolute messages about regional pivots, “America first,” and an idealized multilateralism, Washington’s friends and foes alike have become more likely to pursue nuclear weapons. The Ukrainians wonder how their fate would have been different had they not ceded their arsenal in the 1990s. The Taiwanese are undoubtedly asking similar questions, having ended their own incomplete nuclear weapons program under U.S. pressure in the 1980s. And the ghosts of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, who lost and gave up their nuclear weapons programs, respectively, are whispering in the ears of leaders across the Middle East, from Cairo to Tehran.

The loss of American credibility is making the world a more dangerous place. Reasserting American leadership — in word and in deed — could reverse the process. Retrenchment and bluffing will accelerate it. The costs of the former are high. The costs of the latter are unbearable.

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