On Wednesday, the U.S. delivered its written responses to Russia’s security demands amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. One of these demands was the formal recognition that Ukraine would not become a NATO member. While the contents of the U.S. written responses were confidential, at the request of the U.S. government, when asked about NATO, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken remained adamant that “NATO’s door is open, remains open, and that remains our commitment.” However, since it promised NATO accession in 2008, NATO has not provided Ukraine or Georgia a Membership Action Plan – the necessary first step to formally begin the accession process to NATO.
Looking at the historical record, it is evident how little Washington cares to defend liberal values when the U.S. has no national security interest to justify sending troops. Washington should abandon its pattern of empty virtue signaling in its false promises to Ukraine regarding prospective NATO accession. At a minimum, these countries deserve an honest assessment of U.S. intentions and interests, limiting our obligation to the defense of treaty allies and the reality of those who will become allies.
Frankly, the door is closed, at least to Ukraine and Georgia. When Ukrainian lives are at stake, it is a disservice for the U.S. to nominally support a step that in practice they will never take. It is against our interest and theirs to feign support when the U.S. has no intention of following through on these promises. It risks Kyiv’s security and hinders their ability to assess both their geopolitical reality and the potential risks they face. Washington’s credibility comes into question if the United States continues to pretend countries will be treated as or become treaty allies that it would protect, when the U.S. possesses no vital strategic or security interest, such as in Ukraine.
In 2008, Europe witnessed the first “major power aggression” since 1945 when Russia invaded Georgia in August of 2008. Just earlier that year, at the Bucharest Summit, NATO allies provided a vaguely worded commitment announcing support for Ukraine and Georgia’s accession to NATO. Further, the nations committed to the “territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of … Georgia.” However, both of these statements lacked an obligation to Georgia’s defense. Supportive U.S. rhetoric gave Georgia false assurances and thus, when calculating the prospective risks of escalation amid Russia’s threat, Georgia miscalculated and sent troops to South Ossetia. Washington had no intention of putting U.S. troops in harm’s way and its false promises of prospective NATO membership were not blameless in causing the conflict that led to 850 Georgians killed and 35,000 displaced.
In 1994, Russia, the UK, and the U.S. met to discuss Ukraine and its significant stockpile of nuclear weapons from its days as a member of the Soviet Union. All three countries agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine. However, as long as Ukraine was a non-NATO state, the American commitment to Ukrainian defense amounted to deterrence at best. The Budapest Memorandum was never meant to commit the U.S. to defend Ukraine militarily. No matter how little the U.S. cares to admit it, its aid to Ukraine would be capped at military aid, and not U.S. or NATO military forces. President Obama admitted at the end of his presidency the unfortunate truth that “Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do” because Ukraine is a core Russian interest, while it is not an American one. This remains true today, and Biden is acting accordingly.
A final example of empty American words in recent history was the Obama Administration’s rhetoric on the Syrian Civil War. In 2011, shortly after Assad cracked down on the ongoing democratic protests, Obama, as well as several other European leaders, called for Assad to “step aside” for “the sake of the Syrian people,” a position he would echo well into 2015. Shortly after in 2012, Obama articulated a “red line” of “chemical weapons … being utilized,” saying this move would “change [his] calculus.” A year later, in 2013, when American intelligence reported that the Syrian government was behind the chemical attack in Ghouta, the U.S. did not act and instead, brokered a deal with Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. It was clear that beyond light military aid to Syrian rebels throughout the war, the U.S. would not intervene against Assad, despite its nominal objections.
This is the weight of Washington’s rhetoric – the security of the countries we lie to and the futures of countries in conflict. As the U.S. looks toward Taiwan and assesses the likelihood of U.S. intervention, should China invade, we should look back on our history of mismatched rhetoric and action and grant Taiwan a realistic outline of U.S. intentions and commitments. As in Ukraine, Taiwan’s ability to properly defend, arm, and prepare itself for the concessions it is willing to make and risks it is willing to take depends on Washington’s honesty. The U.S. should watch its words.
Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities. The views expressed are the author's own.