Credibility under Constraint: Crimea Shouldn’t Unnerve Tokyo

April 15, 2014

Does American vacillation over Crimea bode poorly for Japan? Some observers think so.

Recent media coverage has revealed that some officials in Japan see the U.S. response in Crimea as a litmus test for its willingness to intervene in a Senkaku contingency. According to this narrative, Washington’s failure to uphold the 1994 Budapest Memorandum portends U.S. complacency if Japan faces an attack in the East China Sea. It is tempting to attribute this to an acute case of “resolve anxiety,” but it is also important to parse why the failure of one international agreement does not imply the frailty of them all. If the United States is to remain powerful and engaged in the world at a time of great resource constraints, it will need to choose its battles wisely. This, in turn, requires that we acknowledge that not all international commitments are created equal.

The 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity after it inherited and then relinquished the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. The document, signed by Ukraine, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation, was a multilateral, negative security assurance—the signatories agreed amongst themselves not to infringe upon Kiev’s sovereignty. The Budapest Memorandum, like many negative assurances, had no real mechanism for enforcement. It promised only “consultation” among the signatories in case “a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments.” Because negative assurances proscribe unwanted actions, but do not usually explain how violators will be punished, they may embody important principles, but are difficult to enforce.

Contrast this to the 1960 U.S.–Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Originally signed in 1951, this bilateral defense commitment has a similar Article V commitment to all of the United States’ other defense treaties, including NATO, the U.S.–ROK alliance, and ANZUS. It is a positive security commitment and promises that an attack on Japan will be treated as a threat to the security of the United States. It also includes standard Article IV and Article VI provisions, which provide for peacetime defense consultation and the forward deployment of U.S. troops on Japanese soil. It therefore includes both a positive defense commitment and the mechanisms that make the agreement credible, and gives Washington every incentive to act if Tokyo does become the victim of an attack.

The fact that the Budapest Memorandum was decimated by Russia is lamentable, but it does not presage the collapse of all other defensive commitments to which the United States is a signatory. Budapest did not rise to the level of a true U.S. extended deterrence commitment, and all parties involved were aware of this fact. Ukraine continued to seek NATO membership and Putin likely calculated that he could succeed in a fait accompli grab of Crimea precisely for this reason. When it comes to the implications of the moribund Budapest Memorandum, Japanese officials presumably understand this distinction. Policymakers in Tokyo have a sophisticated knowledge of the U.S. treaty commitment—they must, since the country has largely relied on Washington’s security umbrella to guarantee its sovereignty for decades.

Beyond the manifest differences between the Budapest and U.S.–Japan treaties, Washington has gone to great lengths in recent months to assure Tokyo and reaffirm its extended deterrence commitment, including in the East China Sea. The United States stood close by Japan following China’s ADIZ announcement. The two countries have announced their joint development of the Littoral Combat Ship—a capability that is designed for amphibious interventions in shallow waters and would potentially be brought to bear in an East China Sea scenario. Washington recently announced its decision not to participate in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium after Beijing excluded Tokyo. And during a trip to China last week, Secretary of Defense Hagel unequivocally reiterated the U.S. security commitment to Japan. While in Tokyo, he reaffirmed that Article V of the U.S.–Japan treaty applied to the Senkakus. In contrast, Washington never made commensurate attempts to signal its support for the Budapest agreement before Putin’s March land grab.

Scholarly work suggests that states assess their opponents’ interests and capabilities with respect to the particular object under dispute, as opposed to their diffuse reputations for resolve towards all commitments in all cases. Nonetheless, credibility is necessarily perceptual and difficult to measure, and we do not have a firm understanding of whether and how it transfers across domains. It is, therefore, helpful to return to the formal definition of credibility itself: do the actors involved have the incentive to behave as they say they will?  The Budapest Memorandum and U.S.–Japan guarantee could not look more different where incentives are concerned.

Analyzing the differences between these international agreements and their attendant credibility is more than an academic exercise. If the United States is to retain its geopolitical influence despite significant fiscal constraints, it will have to accept some tradeoffs. This not only means the careful selection of battles, but having criteria by which to adjudicate among them. Security guarantees allies—to whom Washington has promised and invested a great deal over time—will presumably remain high on the list of international priorities. But if the United States is to retain the resources to guarantee the security of thirty countries worldwide, it will not be able to make the same promises to states that do not hold those commitments. Put simply, for its true security guarantees to be credible, some of Washington’s other commitments may have to be less so.

There is no doubt that Putin’s brazen Crimea annexation raises a number of important questions that may have applicability in East Asia. Among them is how interested parties can respond to violations of sovereignty and international law when the balance of capabilities and interests favors the challenger. Answering this, however, is a fundamentally different endeavor than one that conflates manifestly distinct commitments in sweeping credibility arguments. Analysts and practitioners alike will need to acknowledge nuance and tradeoffs if their aim is sustainable strategy that is credible in the long term. If international commitments are to be upheld, they must necessarily be placed in some hierarchy. We ignore this fact at the peril of our true priorities.


Mira Rapp-Hooper is Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.  Her work focuses on extended deterrence and alliance politics. Mira can be found on Twitter at @MiraRappHooper.


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense