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Wim Vanrie

Dear professor Schliesser,

I have two questions about this.

Throughout this post, you ascribe agency, intentions, etc. to nations. How do you understand this? What, for example, does it mean that 'We cannot expect countries that have nuclear weapons or weapons-making capacity to voluntarily give these up'? I am asking because I am often a bit puzzled by such talk.

About (1): why can we not expect this? Is there something natural about wanting (to adopt the above kind of speech) to have the capacity to kill millions of citizens?
Suppose some high-tech weapon was available which, with the press of a button, could kill exactly all inhabitants of a single nation (an area of land) in a non-preventable way. Would each country want to possess such a weapon? Would a country be rational in doing so?

Best regards,

Eric Schliesser

Dear Wim, the question of collective agency is hotly debated topic in philosophy. But, if you have qualms about such language you can simply substitute, 'regimes' or 'governments,' (or 'team') where I use 'countries.'
On (1), sure, if governments/regimes/countries thought they could give up nuclear weapons without endangering their own survival, territorial integrity (etc.), they probably would. (This is why I mention the case of South Africa.)

David Wallace

I think 2 is too quick, or at least that it needs to distinguish different grades of guarantee. There are several reasons Ukraine didn't join NATO, but one clear one was that the West wasn't prepared to offer the kind of solid security *guarantee* to Ukraine that NATO membership entails. Now, ultimately who knows if the North Atlantic Treaty would be honoured if an actual NATO country was invaded, but my own guess is that it would, and it's at the least not obvious that it would. And the Cold War certainly furnishes examples (most obviously over West Berlin in the early 60s) where credible threat of war by the US seems to have prevented the Soviet Union from annexing NATO territory.

David Wallace

Sorry for double posting, but I've just read the Memorandum in the original post. It contains promises by the USA and UK not to carry out acts of aggression themselves, but there's no clause about guaranteeing Ukraine's security against third-party acts. The nearest thing is a commitment to consult the UN Security Council if someone uses nuclear weapons against Ukraine. As security guarantees go, this is close to contentless.

By contrast, here's article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Now that's a real security guarantee.

Eric Schliesser

On Ukraine not joining Nato. We'll have to wait until the archives are opened, but I suspect that (a) there were side-agreements that put Ukraine in the Finland/Austria category (apologies to our friends there); (b) during the last two decades, Ukraine was not really -- de facto -- wholly independent from Russia, so the Nato-option was never really a live one (although I am sure we can find folk that advocated it).
Anyway, let's stipulate what you say is true, and, perhaps, that considerations of it will prevent a country like Germany (and, as long as US troops are present, South Korea and Japan,) going down the nuclear option road in the future. But it is not obvious why it would apply to the vast majority of Non-Nato countries. So, my claim is that the US and UK have just squandered the very real, hard-won credibility they gained during the Cold War. I am not claiming this could be avoided, but I think the dismantling of Ukraine will haunt us all for a long time.

David Wallace

I agree that a functional US/UK security guarantee doesn't apply to the vast majority of non-Nato countries. But I'm not sure anyone ever thought it did. No serious source I've seen has suggested it was ever an option for the West to go beyond the current route of sanctions and international opprobrium and actually intervene militarily. So I'm not really sure what has been squandered here. The "credibility [the US/UK] gained during the cold war" was credibility in the issuing of actual security guarantees - backed up with treaties, status-of-forces agreements, joint command frameworks, and boots on the ground. It wasn't ever credibility in going beyond economic measures to act militarily against others' aggression to third parties. (Note that we conspicuously did not intervene openly in Afghanistan*)

I suppose a corollary of this is that I do think it was strategically very unwise for Ukraine to give up its nuclear deterrent. In general (and putting aside Wim Vanrie's moral concerns) I'd have thought the normal calculus for a vulnerable small country balances the strategic benefit of deterrent against the difficulty of running a weapons program, the greater difficulty of developing a functional delivery system, and the fact that during the extended process of acquiring weapons you become a pariah state. Ukraine had an opportunity to skip directly to a functional weapon system.**

Obviously (and much as in our previous conversation on US politics at NewAPPS) I'm somewhere between "informed observer" and "dilettante" here; I'm open to persuasion.

* Conversely, if Russia annexes large chunks of Ukraine I would cautiously expect Afghanistan-1980s-style covert intervention.

** though I did hear from an IR colleague that there is serious doubt whether the Ukrainian government possessed the necessary launch codes to use their Soviet-era weapons in any case!

Eric Schliesser

I am also a dilettante on these matters. (And I don't trust the experts!)
But if we agree that Ukraine was very unwise, then that is de facto an argument for my claim (1) and (2).
Yes, we agree that the US/UK did not offer to go to war over Ukraine. (Presumably lessons from WWI have been learned.) And, indeed, the lack of enforcement mechanism is a serious flaw of the treaty (which is why I am not blaming current politicians--it strikes me that the design flaw is really of the original signers). But that's the whole point; that treaty and its present violation generates a far more dangerous world that generate the problems I am pointing to. If a 'guarantee' is only a de facto guarantee if you become a military protectorate of the US, then the cause of nuclear proliferation will have been set back.

David Wallace

I'm not sure how much we're really disagreeing. Here's my variant of your (1)-(2):

(1'): we cannot expect countries in geopolitically dangerous situations, once they are protected a nuclear deterrent, to relinquish that protection. (So South Africa, whose geopolitical situation changed out of recognition when apartheid fell, fits that model; I can imagine a situation where a NATO country disarms, but only because it falls under the overall NATO umbrella.)
(2'): Security *guarantees* from the USA/UK are actually pretty valuable, but don't confuse an actual guarantee (which goes beyond words on paper to actual concrete steps to integrate the guaranteed nation into the sort of military framework that can succeed in protecting from and deterring aggression) with vague statements of sympathy and support.

(On 2': I repeat that there is so far as I can see nothing even vaguely resembling a security guarantee in the 1994 accord: just separate promises from the contracting parties to themselves respect Ukraine's territorial integrity (at most the accord would plausibly provide legal cover if the US *did* want to intervene militarily). The US is not in violation of the 1994 accord, as it would be in violation of the North Atlantic Treaty if it did not defend Estonia or Latvia, or the equivalent treaties with respect to South Korea or Japan.)

I *think* that what you're advocating is some sort of security guarantee that doesn't require military integration or military bases. I'm sceptical that that's realistic, because
(i) unless you actually have troops, armour and air power present in a country, you're not going to be able to do much to resist an invasion from a powerful neighbour. The best you can do is mobilise to drive the invader out afterwards. But that gives status quo advantage to the aggressor: it's much easier and more plausible for a nuclear-armed aggressor to snap up territory and then threaten nuclear retaliation if attacked.
(ii) Given how highly dangerous a war between the US and a nuclear-armed opponent would be for the US, a "guaranteed" country - and its aggressor - might well be suspicious that the guarantee would not in fact be honoured. Having a significant US military presence in the country, and integrated into its defensive strategy, does a lot to guarantee that an invasion of the country will pull the US into war (and therefore, hopefully, makes that war less likely in the first place).

Eric Schliesser

David, we are not far apart. I am not making any claims about the US/Uk being in violation of the Treaty. But it strikes me that you underestimate the significance of what has just happened in 1994 & 2014. Nuclear arms were given up for "words on paper." (And, again, we don't know if/what the side-agreements were.) Those words were take to imply the territorial integrity of Ukraine (etc.), and could be pointed to in the context of attempts to get other countries to follow its example. That treaty has turned out to be a colossal blunder not just because Ukraine is being dismantled (and all kinds of innocent lives being damaged/destroyed, etc.). But rather because, henceforth, securing nuclear disarmament will require a very high price, and because it incentivizes countries to obtain nuclear arms if they cannot get some nuclear armed security blanket.
I am not advocating anything; I view one role of philosopher to call attention to things being overlooked by the news-reports of the day. So, I am noting that folk seem to be overlooking the significance of the situation. (I can't advocate anything [not an expert wouldn't know where to start, etc.] because on my view -- with the benefit of hindsight -- the treaty strikes me as very badly flawed, and we should reflect on that.)

David Wallace

I don't want to underestimate the significance of what's happening in 2014. I think the current situation in Ukraine is terrifying. If I'm lowballing the significance of the 1994 accords it's because I think what's demonstrated is that this sort of vaguely stated paper agreement is pretty worthless absent some serious deployment of power to back it up, and I'd already priced that into my geopolitics and mostly assumed that non-aligned nation-states had done so too.

Put another way: if some non-aligned country had (the great misfortune to have) me as its national security advisor, and asked me if they should give up nuclear arms for words on paper, I'd tell them that would be insane. But I'd have told them that before 1994 too. (That's not to say that it makes strategic sense for Ukraine or a similarly-positioned country to have nuclear arms, especially given the displeasure that would incur from the West. I'm not at all sure it does; I'd trend towards 'yes' but I can see counterarguments. It *is* to say that if the 1994 Ukrainian government disarmed just for the sake of this paper agreement, they were crazy to do so.)

There's a nice quote by (US conservative commentator) Charles Krauthammer that the difference between liberal and conservative foreign policy is that conservatives believe in power and liberals believe in paper; on this at least, I'm with the conservatives.

Eric Schliesser

David, I suppose the insight I am stumbling toward is that if Liberals generate badly designed treaties (and Clinton's is the key signature on that 1994 treaty), then they make themselves vulnerable to conservative, told-you-sos. But it doesn't follow that paper is powerless. (It depends on context/norms/rules, etc.)

David Wallace

Fair enough. I'm not sure there was anything well-designed that could have gone in its place, short of NATO membership, but ultimately I'm out of my depth.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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