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Would You Die for That Country?

Why the United States needs to think twice before calling Ukraine an ally.

Now that Russia has taken Crimea back from Ukraine, what does the rest of the world owe Kiev? Not surprisingly, Russia's act has made many (though not all) Ukrainians eager for stronger connections to the West, and as sure as the sunrise, plenty of American politicians are eager to embrace them. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) thinks the United States ought to be sending Ukrainians small arms so they can protect themselves, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already said it's time to get busy expanding NATO further. Plenty of Democrats are of like mind, with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) declaring in a statement, "The United States must stand with the people of Ukraine in the wake of Russia's attack on and occupation of Crimea."

It's one thing to offer verbal support, but a concrete security guarantee is something else again. Indeed, one of the more disturbing aspects of the current debate over Ukraine is the widespread assumption that if Ukrainians really, really want to be part of the West, then the United States and Europe are obliged to lend them money, offer them trade deals, and eventually let them into NATO itself. Thus, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week, "We should step up our assistance to Ukraine, and I am sure it will happen."

This way of thinking rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what alliances are about. Although alliances can perform different functions, at root an alliance is a formal agreement for security cooperation between two or more states. By enabling states to combine their capabilities and coordinate some aspects of their foreign policies, alliances seek to make each member more secure.

In most cases, an alliance entails some sort of commitment to mutual defense. This is certainly the case for an alliance such as NATO, as Article 5 of the NATO Treaty makes abundantly clear. When the United States supports letting another state into NATO, therefore, it is saying that it is willing to send its citizens to fight and possibly die to defend that foreign country. Any commitment of that sort should immediately make one stop and think carefully. Just because a country's leaders or its people want an alliance with the United States does not mean it is in the U.S. interest to let them have it.

The United States used to be very selective in its choice of alliance partners, and it took advantage of its favorable geopolitical position to avoid costly commitments with others. Until the 20th century, in fact, the United States avoided "entangling alliances" and believed (correctly) that it was safer that way. Indeed, avoiding permanent or overly intimate alliances was one of the central messages of President George Washington's famous "Farewell Address." Given America's location far from the other great powers, it made more sense to stay on good terms with them, remain aloof from their quarrels, and concentrate on building up power in North America.

Even after the United States became a great power around 1900, it remained cautious and selective when making commitments to others. When it came to international alliances, in other words, the United States played "hard to get." Until 1945, in fact, the United States remained a "buck-passer" and let the other great powers compete to maintain a balance of power in Europe and Asia. Only when the Eurasian balance of power broke down -- as it eventually did in the two world wars -- did the United States mobilize its own resources, take on major alliance partners, and join the fray. And both times it got in last, suffered fewer losses than any of the other major combatants, and was in an ideal position to win the peace afterward.

The United States could not "pass the buck" during the Cold War, of course, because the other major powers were too weak to stand up to the Soviet Union on their own. But U.S. leaders were often quite strategic in making alliance commitments and tended to play hardball even with their closest partners. U.S. alliance commitments initially focused on what diplomat George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power" in Europe and Asia, because keeping these regions out of Soviet hands ensured that the global balance of power would remain strongly tilted in Washington's favor. At the same time, Washington did not hesitate to force Britain and France to give up their colonial empires and accept U.S. dominance in the major postwar international institutions. Similarly, President Dwight Eisenhower did not shrink from punishing Britain, France, and Israel during the 1956 Suez crisis, and even close allies of the United States like West Germany and South Korea faced strong pressure from the United States to forgo nuclear weapons.

As the Cold War wore on, however, U.S. leaders gradually lost this ruthlessly realistic approach to alliance politics. Instead of concentrating on maintaining strong alliances with reliable and capable partners, the United States ended up supporting a number of weak, unreliable, and/or corrupt regimes that added little to U.S. power and in some cases (e.g., Vietnam) ended up costing it a bundle. Other allies became adept at manipulating the permeable U.S. political system and could invariably find lobbyists to press their case and gullible politicians who were eager to believe that these states deserved U.S. protection -- no matter how they acted and whether they were strategic assets or not. (Fortunately for Washington, Moscow turned out to be even worse at picking capable or loyal allies.)

The self-congratulation that accompanied the end of the Cold War made this problem worse. Intoxicated by its own self-proclaimed role as the "indispensable nation," the United States was increasingly willing to extend security guarantees to almost anyone who asked for them. Instead of playing hard to get and taking on commitments only when it was in the U.S. interest, America's leaders began to think it was a great foreign-policy achievement to take on the responsibility of defending weak and/or vulnerable client states, even when those same states couldn't do much for the United States.

Unfortunately, Americans didn't stop to ask whether these states added much to U.S. security or prosperity or consider whether expanding NATO endlessly would eventually undermine relations with Russia (as indeed it did). Nor did Americans ask whether they were really willing to send their sons and daughters to die to protect these new but distant partners. Instead, president after president simply assumed the pledges they were making would never have to be honored. The Ukraine crisis reminds us that other states do have interests of their own -- including an interest in having friendly countries nearby -- and that sometimes their pursuit of those interests will lead to serious conflicts. When it does, suddenly the security pledges made so freely in the past don't seem quite so abstract or theoretical.

As Americans contemplate the situation in Ukraine (and a few other places), it's worth keeping several things in mind. First, the United States is extraordinarily secure, and most of what happens in most parts of the world won't have much impact on U.S. security or prosperity. That's not an argument for isolationism; it's merely a reminder that others need the United States a lot more than it needs them. It's easy to understand why Ukraine wants to jump in bed with the European Union and NATO; what is not so obvious is why sharing the covers and pillows with Ukraine is something we should want to do. A country with a bankrupt economy, modest natural resources, sharp ethnic divisions, and a notoriously corrupt political system is normally not seen as a major strategic asset.

Furthermore, the fact that U.S. courtship of Ukraine happens to make Russian President Vladimir Putin angry is not a good argument for embracing Kiev either -- simply put, Russia is the more important country. And a long-term squabble isn't in Washington's or Moscow's long-term interest. Meanwhile, America's real, future security challenges will come from China, not Russia. No doubt more than a few strategists in Beijing are quietly smiling as they watch Washington get discomfited by another self-inflicted distraction.

The right question when potential allies come calling is: What's in it for us? What have they got that we want, and how badly do we want it? U.S. power and protection is still a significant asset, and America shouldn't be offering it to anyone on the cheap. Truly valuable allies provide the United States with reliable intelligence, basing rights, advanced technology, and sometimes even troops sent to fight alongside those of America -- and the best allies don't get into senseless quarrels with their neighbors (or maintain illegal occupations that make the United States look bad). Other allies are valuable not because they do that much for America, but because they happen to control resources the United States wants and so the country has to tolerate some of their foibles. Foreign policy is not philanthropy, and the United States should not leap to embrace allies that can't or won't do plenty for it.

Finally, with rare exceptions, the more help a potential ally needs, the less valuable that ally is likely to be. Strong, secure, competent, and efficient states make the best allies because they usually have capabilities that are of considerable value to their partners. By contrast, weak, isolated, corrupt, unpopular, and feckless governments often find themselves in big trouble and are therefore desperate for help -- but those same qualities make them of little strategic value to anyone who is unlucky or unwise enough to take them under their wing (see under: Hamid Karzai). So the next time some unlucky country comes knocking on Washington's door, remember these words: caveat emptor.

Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

COLUMN

The Ukes and Their Nukes

Why the Bomb wouldn't have helped Kiev protect Crimea from Russia.

Vladimir Putin's justification for invading Crimea may be more contorted than even his girlfriend, but the discussion of whether nuclear weapons would have helped Ukraine defend itself has been nearly as bad.

In 1994, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR. Now, the usual suspects, including the strategic planning staff at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and peacocking Ukrainian politicians, are arguing that none of the past weeks' nastiness would have happened if Kiev had kept the Bomb. In most of these accounts, a nuclear arsenal is some sort of magic wand that can wave away all of Putin's bullying and, for more partisan sorts, swiftly return us to the glorious past when it was Morning in America. If only that were so. (Well, the part about stopping Volodya's bullying -- I'll take a pass on a reprise of the Reagan administration.) The reality is that nuclear weapons wouldn't have saved Crimea and can't protect Kiev from Moscow.

I'll spare you the review of the academic literature on whether states with nuclear weapons (or more nuclear weapons, or better nuclear weapons) are more likely to get their way in dealing with other countries. There is a healthy debate over at the Duck of Minerva that can introduce you to the contours of that discussion. Here, I will simply say that you can find a study to support any particular view. I think there are severe methodological and data problems with many of the studies. At best, I'd say the most interesting hypotheses about how nuclear weapons affect outcomes in the international system remain unproven.

A brief survey of similar crises, however, offers no reason to think a Ukrainian bomb would have deterred Moscow from seizing Crimea. In 1973, Israel possessed both nuclear weapons and, to Anwar Sadat's annoyance, the Sinai Peninsula. On Yom Kippur of that year, the Egyptian military launched a surprise attack across the Suez Canal in an attempt to retake the peninsula. (The Syrians joined in for good measure, attempting to retake the Golan Heights.) Similarly, in 1982, the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons and, to the irritation of Argentina's ruling military junta, the Falkland Islands. The British also had Attila the Hen herself, Margaret Thatcher -- no small matter given the tendency of the most shrill American partisans to blame President Obama for everything. No matter, while the Brits were dancing to "Seven Tears" by the Goombay Dance Band, Argentina seized the Falklands. (Don't ask the Argentines how that turned out, it's a sore subject.) Leaders in Cairo and Buenos Aires had calculated that the territory in question wasn't an integral part of their intended victim's homeland and that fighting would remain conventional -- which it did. Israel and the United Kingdom responded with conventional forces, not nuclear weapons.

We now have a crisis over Crimea for precisely the same reason that fighting broke out over Sinai and the Falkland Islands: Putin figures Ukraine and the world will accept Russia's devouring of Crimea on the pretext that it isn't a "real" part of Ukraine. And, although I think that's a very dangerous distinction for us to draw, Putin seems to be getting away with it. Ukraine always had a credibility problem when it came to defending Crimea. Nuclear weapons don't solve credibility problems like this; they suffer from them.

What's more, unlike fences, good nukes do not necessarily make good neighbors. And, unlike Egypt or Argentina, Russia has nuclear weapons. While popular ideas about nuclear weapons tend to emphasize deterrence, there is another phenomenon worth considering: the so-called stability/instability paradox. The idea originated with Glenn Snyder, but our modern conception really belongs to Robert Jervis. Up to a certain point, the argument goes, nuclear deterrence makes the world safe for conventional warfare. When a nuclear-armed Pakistan seized Kargil from a nuclear-armed India or provided material support to terrorists who marauded through Mumbai, plenty of analysts in New Delhi concluded that India's nuclear weapons simply don't deter low-level conventional aggression below the "nuclear overhang." If Moscow wants to fund motorcycle gangs and other thugs to destabilize the Ukrainian government and whip up internal tensions, it can do that whether or not Ukraine is nuclear-armed. For those people advocating a Ukrainian bomb, take a look at Israel. If nuclear weapons are so great, why are the Israelis so worried about Iran getting one? Won't stable deterrence usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the Middle East? Not necessarily. A nuclear-armed Iran may well feel emboldened to expand its support to Hezbollah and other proxies that will attack Israel. Nuclear weapons don't do jack about biker gangs and suicide bombers.

What nuclear weapons might do reasonably well is to provide a measure of deterrence against existential threats, such as the Russians completing devouring Ukraine. Although I think analysts tend to downplay the credibility challenges to using nuclear weapons, completely annihilating a nuclear-armed state seems, well, sort of dangerous. Even Vladimir Putin, shirtless and astride a bear, would probably think twice about thundering into Kiev if the Ukes had the bomb. But look closely, and even this idea has some interesting subtleties. In 2008, Putin's tanks rolled in to Georgia and then ... stopped. Russia could have taken Tbilisi, swallowing Georgia up in one little bite. But something stopped Moscow then, just as Moscow -- for the moment -- has stopped in Ukraine. What was it? Because whatever it was seems like a far more promising route to secure Ukrainian territorial integrity than nuclear weapons.

Part of the reason that Russian armor did not roll all the way into Tbilisi has to do with Putin's reluctance to break completely with the West. He and his cronies have bank accounts, vacation homes, and girlfriends stashed outside of Mother Russia. Putin might think the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster, but there is enough Russian money floating around London these days to suggest that it wasn't all bad. Deterring Putin from dismembering Ukraine or his other neighbors means convincing him that the West takes Ukraine's independence and territorially integrity seriously -- deadly seriously.

Which is why Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the first place. A lot of folks are sending around John Mearsheimer's old polemic, "The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent." (Interestingly, his of-a-theme 1990 article "Back to the Future," which forecast that Germany and France would turn on one another in a resumption of great-power competition, gets less circulation. Scholars always look smarter when someone curates their work.) One of the overlooked passages is Mearsheimer's prediction that "it is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fears most." Of course, he was wrong about that. One might ask why, if Mearsheimer was so wrong about what motivated Ukraine's leadership, we should we believe the rest of his fairy tale about why states do what they do. But let's leave that aside for the moment. Instead, let's focus on why Ukraine gave the weapons back.

One reason is that, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the weapons on Ukrainian territory were disconnected from the systems of production and command that had sustained and controlled them. But the most important reason centers on how Ukrainian leaders conceived of their post-Soviet identity. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan surrendered their Soviet nuclear weapons for security guarantees from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. It is worth noting that those three states surrendered their nuclear weapons and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) not because they believed the West was likely to come to their defense in the event Russia attacked, but because they believed that Western support was unlikely unless they demonstrated that they were a normal European country. Joining international agreements and becoming a responsible member of the international community was a way of asserting their sovereignty, of persuading the West that they weren't simply Russian client-states accidentally cut loose from Moscow. Ukraine, obviously, has done better than, say, Belarus in this regard. In some ways, that decision proved correct -- Ukraine's troubles arise from the fact that plenty of Ukrainians see a European, not a Russian, future for their country.

In contrast to the spare neorealist conspiracy theories about the rational pursuit of interest under conditions of anarchy, the most interesting scholarship today emphasizes how leaders conceive of themselves and those interests. In the case of Ukraine's then-foreign minister, the country's identity was absolutely clear in 1993: "100 percent European." Eschewing the NPT and building nuclear weapons might have provided some small measure of security to Kiev in the most extreme instances, but it would have undermined the country's claim that it belonged in the West.

If Ukraine wants to preserve its independence from Moscow, Kiev has to complete its turn westward. Over the long run, that means reforming its economy and political institutions to the point that it can join the European Union and NATO. Of course, at the moment, Kiev needs to make sure there is a long run. That means managing Moscow. The strategy of placating a larger neighbor is usually called Finlandization, after Helsinki's accommodation of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Finlandization has a bad name as a weak sort of policy, although it is worth noting that the approach worked precisely because the Finns had inflicted terrible losses on the Soviets when they tried to seize borderlands during the 1939-1940 Winter War. The Soviets won, but the Finns fought hard enough that Stalin didn't want seconds. The world wouldn't see cold-weather fighting like that again until the Battle of Hoth. If Ukraine can persuade Russia that, after a point, it will fight, then deterrence with a little accommodation might see Kiev through Putin's lifetime. Finland managed to achieve this without nuclear weapons, as did its neutral neighbor, Sweden. (Though Sweden's renunciation of nuclear weapons came only after it came very close to building the bomb.) Accommodating Moscow is not a bad policy, given the substantial number of people in Ukraine who retain ties to Russia.

Kiev's long-term future lies in the West. And that's where nuclear weapons would become a tremendous liability. Although the North Atlantic allies had been reluctant to further antagonize Moscow with another round of NATO expansion, that may change now -- if Kiev can demonstrate that it is really a European country that needs only to end Russia's meddling to transition to a normal European society. Nuclear weapons, whatever benefits one might imagine they confer, aren't a part of that story.

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