Georgia and Russia: the widening transatlantic gap (with 18 August update)
It's increasingly depressing to observe what appears to be a steadily widening gap between the reactions to the Georgia crisis in the US and those of liberal and other opinion in Europe, revealing fundamental differences of political philosophy and perception (please see some initial observations on the issues here and the comments appended to them).
One shouldn't generalise about opinion in such a disparate country as the United States, but from watching and listening to even quite liberal commentators on (e.g.) CNN, in the New York Times (for example this), and various American pundits interviewed on UK television current affairs programmes, as well as the comments of Senators McCain and Obama, there seems to be an evolving consensus behind the belligerent President G W Bush and Condoleezza Rice. By contrast much informed comment in the British media — including in the right-of-centre London Times, e.g. here, and by the conservative commentator Simon Jenkins here — takes a radically different view.
At the risk of over-simplifying complex issues, the two conflicting viewpoints are looking like this:
The principled idealists and tough guys:
"Georgia is an independent, sovereign state. As such, it has an absolute right to form and join whatever international alliances it chooses, including NATO and the EU (if they will accept it). It also has every right to resist bullying and interference from its big neighbour, Russia, which for centuries has sought to dominate it, as it has sought to dominate other smaller countries on Russia's borders. It's not surprising or improper for Georgia to look westward rather than eastward for support and friendship, given the rocky history of its relations with Russia. Georgian membership of NATO would represent no military threat to Russia: but it would serve as a useful warning to Russia of the possible consequences of continued Russian interference in Georgia's affairs.
"The oil and gas pipelines passing through Georgia with supplies for the west that don't pass through Russia (and are therefore not potential instruments of Russian blackmail) are an important western interest justifying the west in supporting Georgia against the threat of Russian interference.
"If Georgia had been admitted to NATO membership at the NATO meeting in Bucharest last April, as some of us proposed, it's unlikely that Russia would have dared to send its tanks and troops into Georgia itself on the flimsy pretext of protecting its own citizens in South Ossetia. Many of these Russian "citizens" are anyway only nominally Russian because the Russians have handed out Russian passports to numerous South Ossetians. South Ossetia is still legally part of Georgia and Russia has no business encouraging it to secede.
"Russia's policies and actions are a throw-back to by-gone Soviet days and have no place in the Europe of 2008. Its military invasion of Georgia has no legal basis and constitutes clear aggression. It's important that the international community should not allow aggression to succeed: a military response is ruled out as disproportionate and too dangerous, but Russia must be subjected to other penalties as a deterrent to any repetition of this unacceptable behaviour. These could include postponement of Russian membership of the World Trade Organisation, suspension from the G8, a western boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and other kinds of boycott and isolation, until Moscow realises that aggression and other bullying do not pay."
The alternative view may be summed up as that of —
The realists with a sense of history:
All big and powerful countries inevitably use their power and influence to ensure that their vital national interests are not subverted or threatened by their smaller neighbours. This is the essence of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 according to which the United States claims the right to prevent outside interference in the affairs of the western hemisphere — and even goes further than that:
Most recently, during the Cold War, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (added during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt) was invoked as a reason to intervene militarily in Latin America to stop the spread of Communism.
American action against governments in Cuba and Grenada, Panama and Chile comes to mind. A further implied extension to the Monroe Doctrine was represented as entitling the US to invade and occupy Iraq in defence of its own interests and allegedly in defence of the interests of the Iraqi people.
The concept of a major power establishing a local sphere of influence and defending it, if necessary by force, against external incursion has a long history, and while not formally enshrined in international law, is simply a statement of how big powers inevitably behave in order to protect their security and advance their interests. No country attaches more importance to preserving a cordon sanitaire as a defensive moat around itself than Russia, invariably and traditionally paranoid (for obvious reasons) about being attacked from the west. The steady expansion of NATO and the EU in the direction of Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, has inevitably fed this paranoia, as has the proposed stationing of American Star Wars missile defences and missile sites in nearby Poland and the Czech Republic. Other diplomatic rows over issues large and small have added to Russia's sense, not wholly illusory, of being under siege. In the 1960s the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba, just a few miles from the coast of Florida, caused a major global crisis and the Americans were prepared to take any steps to get them withdrawn; we should not be surprised that the Russians feel much the same about their increasing encirclement by NATO and by western missiles and Star Wars installations. The west's attempt to freeze Russia out of the Kosovo negotiations and participation in the internationalisation of that Serbian province in 1999, in an area where Russia has major and legitimate interests, was both misconceived and unsuccessful. Now, with South Ossetia similarly seeking to secede from Georgia, the tables are turned.
In these circumstances Georgia's sudden abandonment of its peace proposals for ending small-scale violence in South Ossetia (where Russian troops were already present in a peace-keeping role) and its launch of an extremely violent attack on the break-away province, which had been autonomous de facto from 1922 to the end of the USSR, was bound to be taken by the Russians as intolerably provocative, and as demanding a response. It's not unreasonable, indeed, to suspect that Saakashvili launched his attack in the deliberate attempt to provoke a Russian military response which in turn would force the US, and perhaps the rest of NATO as such, to come to his assistance. The consequences are plain to see. Saakashvili was clearly in the wrong to attack South Ossetia just when peace talks were scheduled to begin; Russia was equally or more wrong to over-react and to send its troops and tanks into Georgia proper, where they still are. President Sarkozy, holding the EU Presidency, has negotiated a cease-fire which both sides have now signed, and the Russians will presumably honour it by withdrawing from Georgia in its own good time, but perhaps not while US "humanitarian aid" forces remain in the country.
If Georgia had been admitted to NATO earlier this year, the effect would almost certainly have been that Saakashvili would have been emboldened to launch his provocative assault on South Ossetia even earlier, in the confident belief that any Russian military response would have been met by NATO military support under the terms of NATO's North Atlantic Treaty. Georgia's status as a NATO member would hardly have deterred Russia from responding as she did to the attack on South Ossetia since the risk of an all-out war between NATO and Russia would undoubtedly have given cooler NATO heads pause. Failure to honour its treaty commitment to Georgia would have exposed NATO as a paper tiger and NATO membership as worthless, while Russia would have been correspondingly strengthened, much as has actually happened.
The western response to this unsavoury and dangerous episode should plainly be to engage Russia much more actively in international institutions and consultations: further to isolate her (as the Americans seem determined to do) can only make matters worse. There should be a halt to any further NATO or EU expansion into countries bordering Russia and an explicit acceptance of Russia's primary responsibility for maintaining order, resolving conflicts and settling disputes in her own back yard, provided that she acts exclusively in accordance with the rules set out in the UN Charter. Given Russia's huge importance as a supplier of gas and oil, there's a strong western interest in encouraging full Russian participation in international affairs and in firmly discouraging Russian paranoia about western intentions towards her. Russia is a major country — a legitimate nuclear power, a permanent member of the Security Council, the most important player in her own region, with significant military and economic resources. She is entitled to be treated with more respect and attention than she has been accorded by much western policy in the last decade. This is a matter of practical realism and self-interest for the west, not an occasion for moralistic finger-wagging from the west's glass house.
No prizes for guessing which camp I'm in. Unfortunately it looks as if the two positions are irreconcilable. The despatch of American troops to Georgia with a mission to deliver humanitarian aid, while there are still Russian forces at various locations in the country, is hardly likely to help in cooling the temperature: there are plenty of other sources of humanitarian aid, eg through the Red Cross or the UN, without risking a confrontation in a semi-war situation and in a small country where law and order have broken down, between American and Russian troops at a time when their respective governments are engaged in a vitriolic slanging match. There are surely less dangerous ways for Mr Bush to try belatedly to construct a legacy for himself in his remaining weeks in office.
Update (18 Aug 08): Another Conservative but clear-eyed commentator, Sir Max Hastings, sets out in an article in today's Guardian, with penetrating and not unsympathetic insight into the Russian psyche, the irrefutable case for not accepting Georgia or Ukraine as members of NATO. Writing in the Sunday Times of 17 August another usually perceptive Tory, Michael Portillo, arrives more reluctantly at the same conclusion, but only after a prolonged lament over the absence of Blair-like grand-standing in the form of the seizure of a hollow role for Britain in the Georgia crisis (the column is headed A world role for Britain slips away — thank goodness, some of us say; and about time, too). Meanwhile the gun-toting macho cold warriors demanding NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine are joined, not only by David Cameron after his visit to Tbilisi [see comments below], but even more ominously, and surprisingly, by the hitherto soberly realistic Angela Merkel after her own visit to the Georgian capital. What is Saakashvili putting in his visitors' cabernet sauvignon? Our own young Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is to be despatched by Gordon Brown to Tbilisi shortly: let's hope that he at least will stick to bottled water. As Hastings and others point out, if Georgia joins NATO and is then subjected to a further Russian invasion, perhaps provoked by a fresh act of folly by its madcap President, NATO will have to choose between honouring its NATO treaty commitment to go to war with Russia in Georgia's defence, or doing nothing, thereby exposing NATO's pledge of mutual military support as worthless. The Guardian's front page lead today points up the humour implicit in the western position with its splendid headline: Russia warned: withdraw from Georgia, or else (or else what?).