THE GHOST OF MEMORANDUM PAST
December 5, 2017
As the 2017 Christmas holidays approach, the recently escalating bellicose behavior and rhetoric between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and the President of the United States has put the entire world on a dangerous precipice of a nuclear Armageddon. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that there are no good military options – every conceivable variation of the use of force to compel the de-nuclearization of North Korea will result in massive civilian casualties, especially in the South Korean capital of Seoul which has over 10 million inhabitants. Many believe that the United States is bombastically and blindly walking into a “schoolyard” fight that will produce no winners - all will be “Great” losers. How did the United States tie itself into this Gordian knot? To find some answers, it would be historically prudent to visit the “Ghost of Memorandum Past”!
On December 5, 1994, Ukraine agreed to remove and to have destroyed all nuclear weapons on its territory. All that Ukraine asked in return was to be given security assurances by the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom upon its accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state. These security assurances were given and are commonly known as the Budapest Memorandum. In reliance on these assurances, Ukraine surrendered approximately 1900 nuclear warheads, the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The Budapest Memorandum was a significant and dramatic step in furtherance of the United States' long term strategic goal to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries and to reduce the existing nuclear arsenals around the world.
In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine on its eastern border and audaciously annexed Crimea, all in direct and brazen violation - not only of the Budapest Memorandum - but also in breach of long established norms of international rule of law. This war continues to this day. One would have expected the United States, as party to the Budapest Memorandum, to vociferously react to Russia's breach of the security assurances it gave to Ukraine. After all, this was the quid pro quo for Ukraine surrendering its nuclear weapons of mass destruction - defensive as well as offensive. Regrettably, the US response was, at first deafening silence, followed by anemic economic sanctions imposed on Russia at glacial speed.
During his election campaign and in the first year of his presidency, President Trump has embraced a muddled foreign policy grounded on pseudo-nationalism and geopolitical isolationism. He has approached international treaties and covenants with an iconoclastic fervor refashioning the slow walking of America’s obligations under international agreements to a virtual stop - including nuclear nonproliferation accords - even suggesting that America’s allies should independently develop nuclear capability to defend themselves. Although the US Congress has mandated sanctions against Russia, President Trump openly displays his disdain for Congress’s directives and is unabashedly declining to implement any uptick in sanctions against Russia. If this behavior continues, the “ghost” of America’s international leadership in the future is extremely bleak.
All of this is centerstage before the entire world – including North Korea. Observing such disregard for and even disengagement from its international commitments, why should any country, including America’s allies, give any credence to any commitment that is made by the US? Why should North Korea accept a diplomatic nuclear non-proliferation accord to defuse the present crisis considering America’s tepid response to Russia?
Historically, the United States has always prided itself on its veracity and credibility proclaiming that Americans always "stand by their word". Will the President of the United States have an “Ebenezer Scrooge Moment” and pivot American foreign policy back to its historical roots? But alas, we do not live in Charles Dickens’s fable “A Christmas Carol”. The reality that we live in suggests that such a pivot, unfortunately, is highly unlikely. Rather, the world will unwittingly drift back into the schizophrenic twilight zone of MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction –where many nations will come to believe that nuclear nonproliferation agreements are not worth the paper they are written on and will acquire, and stockpile nuclear warheads aimed at their real or imagined enemies. Such a state of world affairs will exponentially increase the likelihood of human error and MAD may come to fruition.
Myroslaw Smorodsky, Esq.
Former Public Member of the United States Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Madrid, 1980
Past President and Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Ukrainian American Bar Association