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Over the next several weeks President Putin of Russia is going to be granted some sort of substantive geopolitical concessions by the Ukraine government, or NATO, or both, or he will initiate some sort of combat operations and attempt to force the concessions, or he will be so politically weakened that he will find himself at risk in the hardball world of Russian politics.
In East Asia, China - and Emperor Xi - is ever more eager to assert its claim over Taiwan, and is watching how the world responds to Putin for an indicator of what response he might get if he acts.
North Korea is once again testing missiles.
In Tehran, the Iranian government is clearly not interested in any agreement that will seriously impair their nuclear weapon development program.
In the Middle East a resurgent Iran is supporting insurgents in Yemen and Syria and the diplomatic advances of the last 4 years have frozen in place.
In Europe, winter has settled in and Europe is buying ever more energy from Russia.
And President Biden has given the green light for Europe to grow more dependent on Russian energy.
In the US, as a direct result of a one year old energy policy, the US has gone from a net exporter to a net importer of energy and US energy prices continue to climb.
And as a direct result of legislation and regulations guiding trucks and drivers, US Pacific port backlogs continue to climb; as of 20 January, 190 container ships were waiting to offload off the West Coast, up from 170 in October when Washington “fixed the problem.”
None of these things just happened, none of these things are a result of Moira descending from Olympus to decide how each will live and die. These events are the consequences of deliberate choices.
President Clinton assured Ukraine that the US would “guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty” if they would give up their nuclear weapons. It was a foolish promise; the US was then and is now, and will in all likelihood always will be, unable to enforce such a guarantee, short of the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons.
Further, it placed a burden on future administrations that they simply were not equipped - intellectually or emotionally - to address.
The willful deterioration of our nuclear force since that promise, leaving it less capable, less flexible and thus, less credible as a deterrent, made a difficult situation worse.
This was then compounded by the anemic response of the Obama administration to the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. It does no good to defend this response by, as some have said, noting that Crimea really was Russian. The same argument can be made for the city of Kiev. In fact, the argument for Kiev as a Russian city is stronger (much stronger) than the argument for Crimea being Russian. None of that is any longer relevant. The question was then simply whether we would strongly respond to this Russian action. We did not.
Add to that the events of 2011, when the US orchestrated the destruction of Libya, Col. Qaddafi having conveniently given up his WMD and nuclear weapons programs.
Perhaps most important, the fact that North Korea gets away with all sorts of things, but Ukraine is threatened, and Col. Qaddafi is long dead and Libya is a failed state, sends the signal that nuclear weapons let you say and do what you want. And not having nuclear weapons is a massive handicap.
President Obama was given a Nobel Prize for (this from the Nobel committee’s web page): “… his support - in word and deed - for the vision of a world free from nuclear weapons.” That didn’t quite pan out.
Where does all this leave us, what lesson might drawn from the Russian squeezing of Ukraine?
The sad truth is that the first lesson many heads of state will draw is the incredible value of nuclear weapons. Iran has already learned this. Said differently, if Ukraine had kept her nukes in 1994, instead of crawling under Bill Clinton’s promise of a guarantee of sovereignty, would this be happening? It’s always impossible to answer those kind of “what ifs,” but for any “not quite great power” (said differently, in the top 20 in GDP, but non-nuclear), the number one lesson learned here is: “Nuclear weapons count.”
For any “not so great power,” how much trust can now be placed in the US? Sure, one president may guarantee your borders. But will that promise hold water in 20 years?
The “adults” are now in charge. The cognoscenti of Foggy Bottom have brought us what may well be the de facto unraveling of a half century of nuclear non-proliferation; the foreign policy and national security elites assured one and all that a new global system would be the answer to all ills, but what we’re witnessing is the demonstration of the inability of the UN to protect member states (again); and on top of it the inadequacy of 100 years of weapons control treaties (in the hands of these same elites), drawn up with great fanfare and the awarding of awards and prizes. Pretty good record in only 12 months in office. Just think what they might be able to accomplish in another 36 months.
We as a nation need to fix our energy policies, trim our budgets, and be prepared to seriously address our real defense and national security needs. Is anyone in Washington capable of doing so?
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...