August 24, 2008
Rather as God cares about every sparrow that falls to earth, no crisis anywhere escapes the attention of the U.S. government. So it has been with the Russo-Georgian war. Words continue to flood forth from Washington”Georgia stands for freedom and democracy, Russia must be punished, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are part of Georgia, the U.S. and Europe must stand by Tbilisi. “NATO intends to support the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Georgia, and to support its democratically elected government,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gravely intoned. “This NATO which has come so far in a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace is not going to permit a new line to be drawn in Europe,” she added, apparently referring to Georgia, even though it lies far outside Europe. Rice also called the statement on the conflict issued by the NATO members” foreign ministers a “clear indication of NATO’s interest and NATO’s concern.”
Yes, it was”in ways she didn”t anticipate. Moscow’s response was a sneer and an insult. NATO then did precisely nothing.
In fact, there’s not much the alliance could do. Georgia is not actually a member, of course, and when the NATO ministers met in Brussels on August 19 few European states had the stomach for confronting Russia despite France’s threat of “serious consequences.” Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that the NATO-Russia Council would not meet for the foreseeable future and the alliance would create a similar forum for dialogue with Georgia. Otherwise it would essentially be business as usual with Moscow.
The Bush administration was less than pleased, but America’s policy levers also are few. Kick Russia out of the G-8, says John McCain. Block Moscow’s entry into the World Trade Organization suggests Georgia. Bomb Tbilisi with aid dollars, plans the administration. None of these steps will change the regional balance of power or Russia’s behavior.
A growing chorus in the U.S. and Europe advocate one other option: Speed Tbilisi’s entry into NATO.
NATO, the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization. NATO, formed to protect war-torn and disunited Western Europe from the Soviet Union (and, perhaps equally importantly, from a revived Germany). NATO, which declares through Article 5 that an attack on one is an attack on all. Into NATO should rush Georgia, a new nation in the Caucasus, which was never viewed as strategically important by America or the West, and which, except for three years after the Russian Revolution, was part of the Russian and Soviet empires for two centuries.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO has been more of an international social club than a military alliance. Other than Poland, the post-1989 entrants into NATO have been military midgets, security black holes requiring the U.S. to pay to rearm and retrain militaries that remain too small to do anything useful in a real war. While adding little of military value, the new members have brought along a multitude of territorial and other disputes with Russia.
The view that NATO is a Social Register for countries, something anyone who is someone must join, has grown only more pronounced. Croatia and Albania have begun accession talks; Bosnia has initiated an Individual Partnership Action Plan; Macedonia is a likely member if it can resolve its name dispute with Greece; Montenegro and Serbia are viewed as longer-term prospects. Ronald D. Asmus of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center even wants to cover Azerbaijan. What, pray tell, do any of these nations have to do with American security?
At the April summit the U.S. pressed NATO to give Georgia and Ukraine a green light to alliance membership, by initiating a Membership Action Plan (MAP) with them. The Europeans, led by Germany, said no. Even for them, the jump to the Caucasus was a region too far. But the U.S. already was treating Georgia as if it were a formal ally”supplying equipment, training troops, and providing cash. Congress approved the “NATO Freedom Consolidation Act“ to provide assistance to Tbilisi and other alliance candidates as if they were members of NATO and President Bush promised that membership would eventually come.
Now Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas contends that failing to extend the MAP in April was “a principle mistake.” Taking that step now would “clearly show to Russia how unhelpful it is to even try flexing its muscles,” he claimed. Certainly, in his view, if Georgia had been a member of NATO, Russia would never have dared respond to Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia. Peace and harmony”other than for South Ossetians, anyway”would have been preserved.
That opportunity has been lost, but the NATO ministers recently called Georgia a “valued and long-standing Partner of NATO” and the clamor is growing to fast track Georgia’s application. Better late than never, seems to be the thinking. After all, Russia must not be allowed to have a veto over NATO membership, even if that means accepting as a member a country in a state of war with its neighbor. If Georgia joins NATO, the presumption is that Russia won”t dare attack anywhere along the Baltic-Eastern Europe-Caucasus crescent.
But that would be true only if NATO stopped being the international social club it has become in recent years and returned to being the military alliance it was during the Cold War. That is, if any member was threatened with attack, the other members really would go to war if necessary to back up the endangered state. In this case, that would mean willing to go to war with nuclear-armed Russia in its backyard over interests it views as important or vital. Not only would the West have to be willing to embark upon such an insane policy, but to be deterred, Russia would have to believe that the leaders of the NATO member states were suffering from mass psychosis and would commit multilateral suicide to defend the small former Soviet republic from the large former Soviet republic.
The argument that NATO membership would bring peace and stability to the Caucasus also presumes that Georgia as member of the alliance would act more responsibly than Georgia as aspiring member of the alliance. Yet Washington insists that it repeatedly warned Georgian President Saakashvili not to provoke Russia. The Europeans apparently made a similar point. In spite of these warnings, America’s supposed good friend and ally went out of his way to ensnare the U.S. in a confrontation with Russia”a highly unfriendly act. Saakashvili acted this way because he believed Washington would back him up. With the formal Article 5 guarantee he almost certainly would grow even more provocative and take even greater risks. Since Washington took his side this time even after he triggered a war, why wouldn”t he try again with NATO formally on his side?
Under these circumstances, why would the U.S. government put its very existence on the line for the irresponsible government of a small, unimportant country thousands of miles from home, no matter how admirable these Georgian democrats might be?
It is time to reconsider what principles guide American foreign policy. Apparently anything but America’s national interest in the view of today’s Republican hawks. President George W. Bush denounced Russia’s violation of Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Senator John McCain looked into Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s eyes and saw a big, warm and fuzzy Teddy Bear, deserving of U.S. protection. Others talked of democracy, advocated defending a friend and ally, insisted on standing by the victim of aggression, or spoke ominously of parallels with Munich and the Rhineland.
But what about America’s interests? What interests are at stake in the conflict between Russia and Georgia, and are any of them vital, or even particularly important? And are they worth risking confrontation with Russia and a potential nuclear war? The members of today’s anti-Russian caucus rarely ask those questions.
The starting point is to recognize that Russia is not Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, the Bosnian Serbs, Serbia, Afghanistan, or Iraq, America’s most recent military opponents. Russia was a great power turned superpower, and despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow still possesses a significant conventional military capability as well as the world’s second largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. That means U.S. military intimidation is of extremely limited utility.
Of course, in the view of those who typically cite the importance of “unity,” “toughness,” and “resolve,” a little bluff goes a long way. Russia need merely be denounced and threatened, and it will respond by cowering in the corner, leaving America again triumphant. If Washington simply wills Russia’s surrender, it will be so.
Indeed, this has been NATO’s consistent post-1989 policy. Merely issuing alliance membership cards is supposed to deter the Russians from doing anything. No need for the new members to actually develop credible militaries. No need for the U.S. to have the slightest geopolitical interest in defending the new members. NATO’s name is safety enough.
Perhaps that strategy worked under President Boris Yeltsin, but those days are long gone. Today’s authoritarian Russian government is in no mood to play dead for America; the Russian people feel pride in their nation’s resurgence. Just as American politicians declare that surrender is not an option and warn against the consequences of accommodation and “appeasement,” so can Russian policymakers be counted on to make the same arguments in Moscow’s counsels of power. Indeed, given the West’s consistent policy of treating post-communist Russia with contempt, as if that venerable nation was of no account even in its own backyard, leading Russians would likely be even more insistent that concessions not be made and humiliations not be countenanced.
While Georgia’s formal membership in NATO might cause Moscow to be more cautious, the Russian government would be far more likely to view NATO’s commitment as bluster and bluff. And Moscow almost certainly would be right to do so. How likely would have been a massive American and European military airlift to Georgia over the last couple of weeks had Tbilisi previously signed on NATO’s dotted line? Not much. And if the allies failed to defend a full NATO member, the alliance’s credibility would have been destroyed.
In this world, Washington needs good judgment rather than ideological obstinacy. The U.S. must evaluate its interests involved and adjust its policies accordingly. Moving from bully pulpit to military confrontation should require a commensurate increase in interests at stake. Many things in life are desirable. Few are worth risking a real war with a real power which possesses the ability to incinerate America’s leading cities. For that something truly vital should be at issue.
Certainly that was the judgment of successive U.S. presidents who refused to challenge the U.S.S.R. when it suppressed riots, liberalizations, and revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. So too with the Soviet-inspired Polish crackdown on the labor union Solidarity and even Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan. Tragic, awful, ugly, and immoral all of these interventions were. But none of them threatened America’s survival, the only possible justification to risk initiating a global conflagration which could consume America, the Soviet Union, and many if not most other nations.
The U.S. interests implicated in the Caucasus are rather minor at best. At base, two former constituent parts of the former Soviet Union are arguing over the disposition of two much smaller parts of the former Soviet Union. The issues are of interest to the participants, but to no one else, especially the U.S., which successfully confronted the Soviet Union when the latter incorporated these territories and more. Even formal reincorporation of Georgia into Russia, which seems extremely unlikely, would be ugly for those affected, but would have little impact on the U.S. In the worst case, Moscow would enhance its influence over international energy markets because of Georgia’s role in energy transshipment. However, the Caspian Basin is but a modest energy source and Moscow would lose more than it would gain by shutting off supplies.
Russia’s move against Georgia matters geopolitically to America only if it presages a general offensive against the West. But Moscow, though resurgent, is incapable of engaging in a global hegemonic struggle even if it desired to do so. It is a traditional Great Power, able to exert significant force along its borders against smaller states, but not much more. There is no Red Army capable of rolling through the Fulda Gap and westward to Paris, Madrid, and Lisbon. There is no Red Navy capable of interdicting American shipping in the Atlantic and Pacific. There is no collection of allied states capable of assisting Moscow in a bid for world domination. Rather, that is the position Russia sees the U.S. holding today.
That doesn”t mean Russia is quiescent, but it has fallen back on pre-World War I Great Power politics, not Cold War tactics. The game still isn”t particularly friendly, as the people of Georgia found out, but it has only limited stakes. There’s going to be no Russian march on Budapest or Warsaw, let alone Berlin. Moscow is likely to focus on expanding its influence over strategically located small states along its borders.
Relations are likely to be rockiest when those countries, like Georgia, ostentatiously turn themselves into U.S. outposts. Washington might not have intended to “encircle” Russia by moving NATO from 1200 miles to 60 miles from St. Petersburg, but it probably seems that way in Moscow. Imagine the Warsaw Pact extending membership to Mexico or Canada. The U.S. obviously has no security interest in Georgia. So why expand the Western alliance to Tbilisi, threatening to go to war to, in effect, endorse Mikheil Saakashvili’s territorial ambitions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia? (Yes, the “international community” recognizes those lands as being part of Georgia, but the “international community” also recognized Kosovo as being part of Serbia. America’s commitment to the “international community’s” principles is elastic at best.)
Thus, American advocates of confrontation and, ultimately, a willingness to go to war with Russia over Georgia prefer to talk about values rather than interests. They are not concerned about protecting the United States”its territory, people, wealth, liberty, prosperity, and constitutional system. Rather, they embrace Georgia, or at least what they seem to believe that nation stands for. Accept for a moment Sen. McCain’s rosy view of “Misha””forgetting Saakashvili’s populist nationalism, authoritarian outbursts, military campaign against people seeking self-determination, willingness to risk war with a far bigger neighbor, and concerted effort to entangle America in his geopolitical pretentions. Georgia plays the biblical David versus the Russian Goliath.
But even if this view of the conflict was not a fantasy, it would provide a flawed basis for American foreign policy. Promoting liberal democracy around the world, all other things being equal, is a good thing. But all other things are not equal in the Caucasus. Attempting to establish friendly, democratic regimes along Russia’s borders, and to turn them into military outposts as members of the historic American-led, anti-Soviet alliance, is profoundly aggressive geopolitically. No wonder Moscow has reacted badly.
Moreover, the democracy about which we most need to worry is our own. The Bush administration’s policy of interventionist war-making has deformed our constitutional system, killed our citizens, emptied our public treasury, and risked our historic liberties for a dubious international crusade. To reignite the Cold War by attempting to exercise military superiority along Russia’s very borders in order to protect fragile satellite states would require an even more fevered military build-up. The U.S. already accounts for half the globe’s military outlays and is spending more in real terms than at any point since World War II. How much more must this nation spend, how many more lives must this nation sacrifice, and how many more risks must this nation take to impose its will on countries around the world including, apparently, ones with nuclear weapons?
Doing nothing about Georgia, with whose people (but not government) we should sympathize, may be a bad option. But far worse would be doing something stupid. Doing nothing merely risks credibility that never should have been put on the line. Doing something stupid creates a real possibility of another world war, one in which the two major players are capable of destroying each other and each other’s allies and friends. That is a risk worth taking only in the most extraordinary circumstances, circumstances certainly not present here.
Planting the American flag around the globe might seem to be a grand thing. But the U.S. has little interest in promising to defend its many new friends. It certainly shouldn”t risk war to do so. Put bluntly: Georgia doesn”t matter geopolitically to America. Washington’s job is to defend America and America’s vital interests, not conduct an ideological crusade around the globe on behalf of any foreign ruler or any foreign nation.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.