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Avoiding rash vows

America must be careful not to make foreign policy promises it will not keep—and keep the promises it makes

From left: Russian President Boris Yeltsin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and British Prime Minister John Major sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994. Associated Press/Photo by Marcy Nighswander (file)

Avoiding rash vows
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When Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border at 6 a.m. local time on Feb. 24, it was anyone’s guess what would happen next in the tangled webs of global diplomacy. But of one thing almost everyone was certain: The United States was not about to declare war on Russia and respond with direct military force on Ukraine’s behalf.

But there is a good case to be made that the United States had promised to do precisely that 28 years ago at the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. There, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia had all mutually agreed to guarantee the security and territorial integrity of the newly independent Ukraine in return for a surrender of the former Soviet republic’s vast nuclear weapons stockpile.

Russia, for its part, shredded its paper promises when it annexed Crimea in 2014, while the United States and Great Britain, technically obliged to come to Ukraine’s assistance, contented themselves with howls of outrage and mild economic sanctions. Of course, few sane people would argue that the United States should have gone to war with Russia over Crimea in 2014, or that it should do so today—as long as its more sacrosanct NATO obligations are not triggered by further Russian aggression. No one, after all, wants to be responsible for starting World War III, and however much Americans may sympathize with the Ukrainians’ plight, sympathy does not translate into willingness to enter into war with Russia. Americans sympathized with Britain and France in 1914 and 1939 but showed no national support to go to war until the United States was attacked.

National honor is a precious commodity that, once lost, can take decades to rebuild.

The point, then, is not that America should go to war in defense of Ukraine but rather that it should never promise—or even appear to promise—to make foreign policy and defense assurances we really do not mean to keep. Promises are tricky and treacherous things. On the one hand, a sworn word can help steel one’s resolution and clarify an otherwise murky situation, and if the promise is a threat of punishment, it can act as a deterrent such that it will never need to be followed through on—but only if the threat is credible. A promise once made can easily become a millstone around the neck of him who makes it—as the Biblical story of Jephthah reminds us. We may find ourselves in an impossible bind: to keep our promise might prove disastrous, and yet to break it will destroy our credibility, making it hard for anyone to trust any future promises.

Promise-making is especially tricky in international relations. Whereas a righteous man may “swear to his own hurt” (Psalm 15:4), keeping a promise whatever the painful personal consequences, the leader of a nation has the well-being of his entire people to consider. Should the statesman follow through on a promise to help an ally even at the cost of national suicide? Probably not, despite the blow to national honor inflicted by such betrayal.

In democracies, the problem becomes even more acute. Whereas in the past, a crowned monarch could take personal responsibility for all diplomacy and war-making, putting his or her personal honor on the line in a commitment to an ally, democratic governments can only go to war if and when public opinion will adequately sustain the decision. Indeed, this is part of Christian “just war” teaching—a war is just only if fought in a just cause and with a reasonable probability of success. Defending an invaded ally may certainly be a just cause, but if a nation’s heart is not in the war, they are unlikely to fight with conviction, and they should not start a war they do not intend to finish successfully.

In short, nations, even more than individuals, should be extremely careful of making rash vows. They should give their word sparingly and be prepared to follow through scrupulously whenever they do. National honor is a precious commodity that, once lost, can take decades to rebuild. “If we guarantee any country on earth,” declared the great American statesman Henry Cabot Lodge in the debate over the League of Nations in 1919, “that guarantee we must maintain at any cost when our word is once given.” In the heady aftermath of the Cold War, the United States forgot this principle, handing out security guarantees like candy. Today, we are reaping a bitter harvest that leaves the United States in an uncomfortable position.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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