The challenges for U.S. foreign policy leaders. Chief among

The dissolution of the Soviet Union
marked a tectonic shift in international relations. For the United States, it
meant the end of the Cold War and the precipitous decline of their long-time
geopolitical and ideological rival. It also meant the risk of a full-blown
nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was drastically reduced. To
many, these were welcome changes. But the drastic shift in geopolitics brought
with it an entirely new set of challenges for U.S. foreign policy leaders.

Chief among these was negotiating the consolidation and disarmament of nuclear
arsenals still possessed by three of the newly independent former-Soviet states
– Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine.

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In the decades before its demise,
the Soviet Union amassed an enormous nuclear arsenal: nearly 40,000 nuclear
warheads at its peak.i
Those weapons, once controlled by a single unified state, were now in the hands
of four sovereign nations. The lack of unified control meant a heightened risk
of proliferation. To best minimize this risk, U.S. foreign policy leaders took
a two-pronged approach. First, existing
nuclear weapons had to be consolidated and dismantled. Second, measures had to
be taken so scientists with the knowledge to build new nuclear weapons did not fall under the sway of unprincipled
foreign actors.

U.S. foreign policy leaders were
tasked with persuading the three former Soviet states to relinquish their
nuclear weapons. The negotiations were shaped by two competing considerations.

On the one hand, the nuclear arms represented a valuable bargaining chip for
the three nascent nuclear powers in the fight for limited resources and support
from Moscow and the United States. On the other hand, the collapse of the
Soviet Union brought with it a severe shortage of medical supplies and food.

This desperate need for aid meant that the U.S. had the upper hand in the
ensuing negotiations.

Unlike
Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Belarus was quick to denuclearize. The reason was
simple. As one Western ambassador to Minsk put it, they denuclearized without
question “because the Russians told them to.”ii
Belarusian President Shushkevich did not want to test their fragile political
position by defying Russia. Ukraine and Kazakhstan, however, did not follow
Belarus’s example of speedy and unquestioning cooperation.

Both
Ukraine and Kazakhstan felt their heftier political stature had earned them a
seat at the bargaining table with Moscow and the United States. Worried he
would be left out of the negotiations, Kazakh President Nazarbayev attempted to
delay the disarmament process by feigning insurmountable logistical problems.

In one address he declared that the nuclear warheads could not be removed from
Kazakhstan because “moving them to another place is just impossible.”iii But in the end, Kazakhstan
yielded. Like in Belarus, the Kazakh leadership realized the fragility of its
position, and worried that demanding control over their nuclear arsenal would
alienate important actors in the international community – like the U.S. – who
could offer critical foreign assistance and investment.

Of
the three new nuclear powers, Ukraine represented the greatest potential
international security risk, commanding what was now the third-largest nuclear
arsenal in the world. Ukraine sensed that international and U.S. interest was
confined primarily to their nuclear arsenal, and they worried that if they
returned the weapons they would lose political leverage in the fight for
limited foreign aid.iv To this end, the new
Ukrainian leadership attempted to delay the removal of their nuclear arsenal.

Once again, however, the United States leveraged its superior negotiating
position, rendering their ploy unsuccessful. In early April of 1992, Secretary
of State James Baker reminded Ukraine that U.S. aid could be reduced and the
planned Bush-Kravchuk meeting cancelled if Ukraine continued to prolong the
consolidation and disarmament process. Ukraine’s pressing need for foreign aid
and their desire to gain legitimacy as a sovereign state proved too great, and
in the end, they relinquished their nuclear arms to Moscow.

Once
all three countries had agreed to give up their nuclear arsenals, the work of
disarmament could begin. To guide the process, Congress passed a bill designed
to facilitate a “cooperative threat reduction” of nuclear arms, commonly
referred to as the Nunn-Lugar Act after its main sponsors in the U.S. Senate.

The bill laid the groundwork for an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to
reduce their country’s strategic nuclear arsenals and has now led to the deactivation
of 7,601 strategic nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union.v

This
was a remarkable achievement for U.S. foreign policy leaders. However, the risk
of proliferation remained. American security officials worried that Soviet
scientists, looking to recoup their crumbling economic prospects abroad, might
be tempted to share their nuclear expertise with bellicose and unstable nations
who would misuse it. Once again, James Baker intervened. He partnered with the
Foreign Minister of Germany to establish the International Science and
Technology Center in Russia. This, Baker hoped, would redirect former Soviet
scientists and engineers to more peaceful purposes. A number of other centers
were established with similar intent, including the U.S. Civilian Research
& Development Foundation for the Independent States of the former Soviet
Union and the NATO Science Program. Without the timely implementation of
programs within the former republics, attendant proliferation risks would have
been significantly higher.vi

The disintegration of the Soviet
Union spurred another dilemma: what would replace the communist political and
economic systems in the newly independent states? The U.S. offered an answer:
free-market democratic governance. With this goal in mind, U.S. foreign policy
experts designed a set of policies to incentivize a smooth transition to a
Western liberal democratic political system. The crux of the plan was simple:
the U.S. would provide aid and assistance programs in exchange for commitments
from Russia and the newly independent states that they would adopt the
necessary economic and political reforms.

After securing these commitments,
policymakers turned their attention to the next hurdle: determining the
appropriate level of aid to give to the newly independent states. This was the
topic of extensive debate within the U.S. Congress. Many felt hesitant providing
aid to a long-time rival. But as relations continued to warm, Congressional
leaders agreed to pass the
FREEDOM Support Act, a legislative proposal that set guidelines for a technical
assistance program. In its final form, the bill authorized $505.8 million –
$410 million in humanitarian and technical assistance; $70.8 million for
educational exchange programs; and $25 million for State Department expenses in
the region.vii

The
aid wasn’t merely a gesture of good faith. It was designed to accomplish two
objectives. First, to promote democratic governance. And second, to help
establish competitive market economies and provide investment and trade
opportunities for America. The conditionality of the aid was highlighted by
U.S. foreign policy leaders. On September 10, 1991, while on a trip to the
Soviet Union, Secretary of State Baker emphasized that former Soviet nations
had to have made a commitment to a path toward free market economic reforms and
democratic governance in order to receive U.S. aid.viii

But the aid was not entirely effective
in meeting its objectives. The underlying assumption of the aid program was
that support for a free-market economy would ensure the development of a
liberal democratic society. In retrospect, it is clear that this approach was
flawed. Although the focus on establishing
free-market institutions and practices did, in many cases, improve productivity
and living conditions for citizens of the newly independent states, the aid failed
to sufficiently nurture labor unions and democratic political parties and civic
associations – fundamental building blocks of a thriving democracy. The failure
to support these efforts deprived pro-democratic and reform unions of
potentially valuable institutional and grassroots support.

The legacy of U.S. foreign policy in
the post-Soviet period offers two important lessons for today’s
world leaders. First, a focus on structural economic reform should not
supersede supporting democratic institutions. Indeed, the failure to adequately
promote democratic

institutions during this period may be partially responsible
for the geopolitical instability and oligarchical tendencies observed in the
former-Soviet states today. Second, the precedent of Soviet-era Cooperative
Threat Reduction offers critical insight into successful nuclear disarmament
procedures. It is more vital than ever that U.S. foreign policy leaders
consider these precedents to meet the nonproliferation challenges of today.

Though the nuclear capacities of Russia and the former-Soviet states have
declined significantly, the nuclear capacities of other nations, like North
Korea and Pakistan, continue to grow.

 

 

i Norris,
Robert, and Hans Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories
1945-2010.” Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, 1 July 2010.

ii Reiss,
Mitchell. Bridled ambition: Why Countries
Constrain their Nuclear Capabilities. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995.

(p. 136)

iii “Weapons
of Mass Destruction: Reducing the Threat From the Former Soviet Union: An
Update.” U.S. Government
Accountability Office, 9 June 1995.

iv Reiss,
Mitchell. Bridled ambition: Why Countries
Constrain their Nuclear Capabilities. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995.

(p.25)

v Lugar,
Richard G. “WMD Eliminations Lessons Learned” The Nonproliferation Review, 8 September 2016.

vi “Weapons
of Mass Destruction: Reducing the Threat From the Former Soviet Union: An
Update.” U.S. Government
Accountability Office, 9 June 1995.

vii Ibid

viii Ibid