My philosophical colleague, Thomas Sturm, has been calling attention to the significance of the Budapest Memorandums. This 1994 treaty encouraged Ukraine to give up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in exchange for territorial and security guarantees by Russia, USA, and the UK. Whatever one's views are about the legitimacy of the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, its creeping military involvement in Eastern Ukraine is a clear violation of the treaty. (Something predicted, in effect, by John Mearsheimer two decades ago.) Rather than entangling myself in the variety of debates over the quality of Ukrainian and Russian democracy, I call attention to two terrifying consequences of these events:
- We cannot expect countries that have nuclear weapons or weapons-making capacity to voluntarily give these up (unless, perhaps, when they are surrounded by weaker and relatively impoverished neighbors (e.g., South Africa; maybe Brazil)) and very distant from spheres of influence of nuclear powers.)
- Security guarantees by the USA/UK are ultimately worthless if the aggressor is another nuclear power. (An exception is allowed for countries that have clear, strategic mineral wealth.)
From 1 it follows that the age of nuclear disarmament is over.* Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and India will not be enticed to give up their nuclear weapons.
From 2 it follows that nuclear proliferation is very likely; it is pretty much inevitable that as China grows in economic and military power, several of its neighbors will decide either to submit to its influence or that they need their own independent nuclear deterrent; in the latter group, I have in mind most obviously Japan (which is also in a territorial dispute with Russia). But with simmering border disputes all over Asia, it is an open question how long the security blanket of American naval power will be trusted in light of the events in Ukraine. In the Middle East, one can now expect Saudi Arabia and Egypt to explore the 'nuclear option' more seriously.
Of course, one need not assume that nuclear proliferation is an unmitigated bad (again, see Mearsheimer). Perhaps, nuclear powers are more cautious and more prudent around each other (as well as in their domestic affairs). But even if that is so on average, any outlier will have devastating consequences. In light of humanity's capacity for folly, if not mutual misunderstanding, it is likely that this will not end well.
*Arguably, this was already a likely consequence from the fate of Qaddafi.