International agreements involving the abdication of strategic assets in exchange for vague ‘assurances’ of future support are not worth the paper they are written on
We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow– Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons, March 1, 1848.
For what is a binding peace [agreement] among sovereign nations when one of the attributes of sovereignty is the right to change one’s mind? —Henry Kissinger, in “White House Years”.
Recently, I had occasion to attend a dinner at which the keynote speaker was Yossi Cohen, the former director of Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence service. The focus of Cohen’s wide-ranging and thoughtful address was the impact of global events on Israel’s strategic security.
No one came to save a single infant…
Although he touched only briefly on the ongoing war in Ukraine, what he said was perhaps more significant and incisive than his observations on topics to which he devoted most of his time—Iran, the Arab world, the Russian deployment in Syria, and the United States.
After giving a brief tour d’horizon of the combined military might of NATO (on both sides of the Atlantic), he pointed out poignantly, that despite this potentially awesome prowess, “no one came to save even one Ukrainian baby.”
Indeed, for Ukrainians, the situation must be particularly galling. After all, it was barely twenty years ago that the Budapest Memorandum was signed, in which Russia, the UK, and the USA pledged to refrain from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against Ukraine and undertook—among other things—to respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing (1994) borders.
Clearly, there have since been blatant Russian violations of the Memorandum, notably with the 2014 annexation of Crimea and even more so with the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Western democracies are unreliable
In a caustic review of Ukraine’s fate—and the chain of events that led up to it—Erielle Davidson of George Mason University berates the “stark failure of the Budapest Memorandum.. In it, she recounts the “host of lessons that might be drawn from the collapse of the Budapest Memorandum.”
She writes: “… Western democracies are unreliable and fickle. International agreements involving the abdication of strategic assets in exchange for vague ‘assurances’ of undefined future support are not worth the paper they are written on.”
She notes: “Ukraine, despite having a strong historical foe on its borders, made real sacrifices for the fanciful Western ideal of denuclearization. But once it paid that price, those who had pushed for the deal largely hung the nation out to dry.”
Extending the scope of her analysis of Ukraine’s experience, Davidson continues”: “Ukraine is not the only country the U.S. and European countries have insisted make dangerous concessions for paper peace with an undemocratic, bellicose neighbor.”
Demanding Jerusalem repeat Kiev’s mistakes?
She then goes on to trace the pertinence of the events in Ukraine for the situation Israel is facing in the conflict with Palestinian-Arabs and the wider Arab world.
She observes: “…this has been the entire blueprint of Western democracies’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: push the Israelis to cede strategic territorial depth in the hopes that governments run by terrorists will behave. In exchange, Israel would ride a brief wave of Western plaudits and vague assurances of assistance, if the Palestinians were to seek to destabilize or attack the smaller Israel.”
According to Davidson: “An Israeli deal with the Palestinians would surely be met, like the Budapest Memorandum, with fanfare and goodwill in the short term. The world, supposedly, would have become a more peaceful place. But little-remarked upon are the long-term consequences for the party that sacrificed its own security policy on the altar of quixotic Western delusions.”
Thus, as she asserts: “… Ukraine’s concessions in the 1990s are hardly remembered today… Thus, the Ukrainian war also represents the failure of a Western peace process—a failure that our ally Israel should certainly remember when an unchastened American and European foreign policy establishment inevitably asks Jerusalem to repeat Kiev’s mistakes.”
Israel: The failure of international guarantees
Indeed, in a paper entitled When International Agreements Utterly Failed, David Makovsky, distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute, analyzes the events that led to the 1967 Six-Day War, which erupted after Egypt closed the Tiran Straits to Israeli navigation. This comprised a critical blow to Israel, which at the time relied on strategic oil imports from Iran supplied via the Straits.
Significantly, for the purposes of this discussion, Israel believed it had secured a guarantee of freedom of navigation through the Straits from the US and the international community in 1957—when it withdrew its forces from the Sinai peninsula following the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Moreover, Israel declared that any future closure of the Tiran Straits to Israeli shipping by Egypt would be considered a clear casus belli. Despite this warning, on May 23, 1967, Egyptian president Abdul Gamal Nasser ordered the closure of the Straits to Israeli vessels.
Israel dispatched foreign minister Abba Eban on an urgent trip to Paris, London, and Washington, to urge the international community to re-open the Straits and avert war. However, Eban encountered an apathetic, obtuse and cynical international response. For example, even though the then French president, Charles De Gaulle conceded that a commitment had been made to Israel to keep the Tiran Straits open, he curtly dismissed the pledge, declaring, “that was 1957…now [is] 1967.”
No guarantee can guarantee a guarantee
Accordingly, Israel’s strenuous diplomatic efforts to persuade the western powers to pressure Cairo to reopen the Straits proved to no avail.
Along with the closure of the straits, Egypt began mobilizing forces along Israel’s southern border –thus triggering Israel’s pre-emptive strikes against Egyptian positions and airfields that heralded the outbreak of the Six-Day War.
In his paper on failed international guarantees, Makovsky remarks: ” we should not forget one of the enduring lessons learned from the run-up to the conflict. Namely, that agreements need to stand on their own merits and cannot be based on abstract international guarantees about the future“; and laments: “When the political context changed …the guarantees evaporated.”
Clearly, this vividly underscores the merits of Henry Kissinger’s characterization of the anarchic international system (see introductory excerpts)—i.e. that sovereign nations have the right to change their minds at will, making any international agreement/pledge potentially ephemeral by its very nature.
Indeed, as the late Menahem Begin once reportedly remarked to US Foreign Secretary Cyrus Vance a decade later: “In the whole world, there is no guarantee that can guarantee a guarantee.”
No one will come…
For Israel, the message is starkly unequivocal.
It must remember that should it cede vitally important strategic territory at the behest of foreign governments, this could well tempt its adversaries to launch a deadly assault on it, being far more vulnerable and exposed than before. Moreover, it should remember it can expect scant support from other countries, which will be reluctant to come to its aid.
For, as Yossi Cohen warned in his address, if Israel is attacked, it must be prepared that “no one will come.”
Dr. Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-israel.org), and a member of the research department of Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum.