He took the rules-based international order for granted and wouldn’t defend it.
When Ukraine emerged from the corpse of the Soviet Union, a significant arsenal of Soviet-era nuclear weapons was left on its territory. The Clinton administration devoted much of its diplomatic energy to persuading Ukraine, along with Kazakhstan and Belarus, to return those weapons to Russia.
As President Clinton told the Irish news service RTÉ last week, the Ukrainians resisted American pressure to denuclearize: “They were afraid to give them up because they thought that’s the only thing that protected them from an expansionist Russia.” But Americans, as Mr. Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright once put it, “stand tall. We see further than other countries into the future.” And so the Clinton administration pushed another message on the Ukrainians: The rules-based international order would protect Ukraine’s future better than anything as anachronistic as nuclear weapons.
“I feel terrible about it,” Mr. Clinton told RTÉ, arguing that now Americans must help Ukraine in a crisis brought on in large part by their trust in our word.
The real situation was complicated. Russia still controlled the nuclear weapons left on Ukraine’s territory. They were less a Ukrainian hedge against Russian adventurism than outposts of Russian power on Ukrainian soil. Nevertheless, with hindsight it appears that trusting the word of a U.S. president and the rules of the international order rather than relying on a nuclear deterrent was a blunder of historic proportions.
Bill Clinton’s reflections come as the barriers to nuclear proliferation are rapidly weakening around the world. Russia and China are abandoning all pretense of opposing the North Korean arsenal. In South Korea, polls show that 70% of the population believes that the time has come to follow the North’s lead. In the Middle East, Iran’s relentless progress toward nuclear weapons is touching off the long-feared regional proliferation cascade. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking the first steps toward acquiring the capability to enrich uranium. Turkey is unlikely to lag far behind as nuclear weapons become a normal part of the arsenal of middle powers. Nationalists in countries such as Brazil and Argentina will want their countries to join the expanding nuclear club.
The fight against nuclear proliferation has been a centerpiece of American foreign policy since the first bombs fell on Japan in 1945. American diplomacy tried and failed to stop the Soviet, British, French, Chinese, Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and North Korean programs. The Non-Proliferation Treaty went into effect in 1970 and was permanently extended five months after the 1994 signing of the Budapest Memorandum. In that memorandum, Russia, the U.S. and U.K. agreed not to threaten or attack Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and to consult on helping if they were attacked; also, the three former Soviet republics joined the NPT as nonnuclear states. The NPT has been hailed as a cornerstone of the rules-based international order. Backers hoped that nonproliferation was only the start. Ultimately the nuclear powers would follow the example
History will name Barack Obama as the man on whose watch nonproliferation definitively failed. His waffling response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine not only marked the end of the post-Cold War holiday from history; it also marked the death of the dream that the leaders of the democratic world had the strength and vision to uphold the principles of the rules-based international order in the face of a ruthless opponent. It further taught the world that nuclear weapons are a better defense than American pledges. Coupled with the failure to address North Korea’s nuclear progress and the Iran deal’s sunset clauses, which made the treaty about delaying rather than blocking Tehran’s nuclear advances, Obama-era diplomacy made clear that, despite high-flown rhetoric to the contrary, Washington had no plan to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Nonproliferation was always more dream than practical program. Improving technology makes it easier and cheaper for countries to develop nuclear weapons, and aspiring members of the nuclear club have more sources for the technology and expertise they need. The NPT slowed but couldn’t stop proliferation. That was better than nothing, but we must now learn to live in a post-NPT world.
Mr. Obama’s real error was to base his foreign policy around a rules-based international order that he lacked the skill and will to defend. He couldn’t bring about the world he wanted, or prepare the country for life after the death of the dream.
In the Budapest Memorandum, Mr. Clinton made a moral commitment to Ukraine that Mr. Obama declined to honor. The results include an accelerating decay of the nonproliferation regime, a vicious war, the closest alliance between China and Russia since Stalin’s era, and a global decline in the value of America’s word.
This is a sobering legacy. We must hope that President Biden and his advisers think carefully
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Appeared in the April 11, 2023, print edition as ‘How Obama Killed Nuclear Nonproliferation’.