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.