Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine shattered the security assurances Moscow committed to in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Now, Russia’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons to seize battlefield advantage has the world on edge. Are “nuclear umbrellas” and other security assurances for non-nuclear weapons states in the Asia-Pacific a thing of the past? Four authors share their views in this edition of The Pulse.
Lorenz Anthony T. Fernando
First Licensing Division Chief of the Philippine Strategic Trade Management Office
Nuclear weapon states (NWS) have issued and signed declarations on the non-use of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), the latest of which was last January 2022. However, the effectiveness of these assurances comes into question when considering what is happening in reality. For instance, the Budapest Memorandum did not stop Russia from invading Ukraine and making nuclear threats against it. Moreover, the persistent non-committal stance on arms limitation and disarmament from NWS is a source of disillusionment for states parties and observers of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Such realities beg the question, where do we go from here? Do we forego these agreements? The answer is no.
NWS should propose concrete steps to move beyond political declarations toward clear action points to ensure full and effective implementation of nuclear security guarantees. Moreover, assurances should be legally binding to all parties concerned, and clarity should be made on the repercussions of violating such commitment, given the geopolitical divisions at the UN.
NNWS and civil society should play constructive roles in the NWS’s development of concrete steps to implement security guarantees. NNWS may leverage economic factors to highlight salient points relevant to security guarantees as this may open unexplored possibilities and touch down areas of concern commonly overlooked in the previous discussions.
Furthermore, civil society plays a significant role in mobilizing public opinion and pressuring governments to shift their perspectives and uphold the nuclear taboo.
Thus, it is high time for NWS, NNWS, and civil society to engage in this type of dialogue.
PhD candidate, Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, UK. Former researcher and adviser in the Nuclear Security Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.
Viability of security assurances in the nuclear order
The issue of security assurances sits at the very heart of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Unfortunately, the external security environment has been plunged into a state of disarray where such guarantees are losing the traction they once had. Starting with former U.S. President Trump’s wavering commitment towards the nuclear umbrella and towards NATO allies, to Russia betraying its security assurance to Ukraine as promised under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, allied nations are losing faith in the credibility and intent of the West to preserve their territorial integrity. With each passing day, the domestic rhetoric in South Korea is turning strongly favourable towards nuclearization whereas a ‘rogue’ state like North Korea gains further leverage for continued possession and advancement of its nuclear arsenal.
It is important to note that a security assurance in any alliance is only as strong as the trust that the allies place in the arrangement. A security alliance, more than anything else, is an indication of the political intent of the guarantor. Hence, unequivocal official policy commitments and the governing administration’s public rhetoric are important markers for sustaining allies’ trust in security assurances.
However, at the same time one also must weigh the continued viability of such assurances against the larger goal of general and complete disarmament as laid down in the cornerstone Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT). Such assurances have provided continued justification for the possession of nuclear weapons by the Great Powers without them taking any concrete steps towards disarmament. Balancing this bargain is a daunting challenge that faces the global nuclear order.
Professor, Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA), Nagasaki University.
How to ensure the security of non-nuclear weapons states, in particular those under threat from nuclear weapons, has been a traditional challenge in the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Japan, too, had a very difficult decision to make when it abandoned its nuclear option and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, surrounded as it is by nuclear-weapon states, namely the Soviet Union and China. In the end, Japan’s decision to join the NPT was made possible through the provision of the nuclear umbrella, a positive security guarantee by the United States.
In this sense, Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine creates a situation that will certainly shake the international nuclear nonproliferation regime to its core, given that Russia promised in the Budapest Memorandum security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine returning to Russia the Soviet Union’s legacy nuclear weapons.
Even in Japan, a nation said to be “allergic to nuclear weapons,” many now argue that if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear weapons it would not have been invaded by Russia. Thus, since Japan is surrounded by nuclear-armed states and is increasingly under the threat of their nuclear weapons, the argument goes that positive security guarantees in the current form of the nuclear umbrella are insufficient to deter aggression, and that, at the very least, some form of nuclear sharing should be discussed, drawing lessons from NATO nuclear sharing arrangements. This new thinking comes from a vague sense of uncertainty about whether the traditional security guarantee by the US will really work. In this sense, it is clear that the credibility of the traditional security guarantee is beginning to be called into question.
This does not mean that security assurances in the context of the nuclear non-proliferation regime have been rendered meaningless. Security assurances may be objectively moving in the direction of irrelevance, but the only way to maintain the nonproliferation regime is to halt this negative progression and enhance security assurances’ credibility. There is no other option. The question is how to make security assurances, positive or negative, sound.
One can only achieve this by enhancing the credibility of the nuclear weapons states that are providing such assurances. This means not only enhancing the credibility of the security assurances themselves, but also the credibility of nuclear weapons states’ commitments made in past NPT Review Conferences, and seeing them through to their steady implementation. Just like human relationships in general: while it is easy to shatter one’s credibility, gaining credibility is not something that is achieved overnight. Rather, credibility is something that can be gained only through a long accumulation of actions.
Chair of the international advisory board of the Taejae Academy (Future Consensus Institute) and chair professor of Kyung Hee University.
Fifty years since the finalization of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, states are struggling to patch up their differences and strengthen the NPT. Nuclear umbrella states, including US allies in Europe and Asia, are beginning to doubt the credibility of positive security assurances. The renewed nuclear arms race, along with the specter of nuclear winter in the wake of Russia’s threat of nuclear retaliation following its invasion of Ukraine, is only exacerbating their anxiety. A recent poll sheds light on this growing danger, as an overwhelming majority (70%) of South Koreans support South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons even though they believe the US nuclear umbrella remains credible. This reflects South Koreans’ changing threat perceptions vis-à-vis their bigger nuclear neighbors as well as North Korea.
The declining value of positive security assurances must be addressed urgently and seriously. The defection of any state from a nuclear umbrella will spell the beginning of the end of the NPT regime. The five nuclear weapon states must set aside their differences and work together on a credible plan to stop the nuclear arms race and reduce their nuclear arsenals. Then, they must send a clear signal that no defections from the NPT regime will be condoned under any circumstances, and without any double standards.
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to email@example.com.
Image: A soldier from the Armed Forces of Ukraine training in a security exercise as part of Rapid Trident 2019 near Yavoriv, Ukraine. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Caleb Minor.