Georgia: breakdown of vision the west had for a New Europe.

AuthorHunter, Robert E.
PositionCover story

Since the Russian Federation sent tanks, troops, and planes slicing into Georgia, commentators have reached for a variety of historic parallels. 1968 and the Soviet Union snuffs out Prague Spring. 1939 and the Nazis thrust into Poland. 1938 and the Czechoslovaks are sacrificed to the unwillingness of democracies to confront evil. None of these supposed parallels catches the current situation. A better--but still imperfect--parallel is 1914, when an assassination in a remote corner of the world set larger and destructive events in motion. The trigger-event with outsize results this time was Georgia's attempt with military force to reoccupy South Ossetia.

Of course, this is not 1914. Great Powers are not treaty-linked so that one event can start a whole chain of disasters. There is no prospect of a wider war. After a first wave of strong language on both sides, tempers have begun (slowly) to cool, even though the Russians are falling short of their pledge to withdraw from Georgia and have now recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. But there is still something in the parallel: the world of Europe and of its powers and other countries will not be the same. The implications will be lasting; the requirement for wise and temperate leadership on all sides is critical to contain the consequences of what has already happened.

As always, the post-mortems offer clear insights that could and should have been there in advance. At the local level, tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been slowly approaching the boiling point, but never so close as to energize the Western powers or the United Nations to do something serious about them. At the same time, the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had repeatedly stated his intention to reintegrate the two semi-breakaway provinces back into Georgia--as he had done successfully in May 2004 with Ajara, the Black Sea enclave on the Turkish border. And Russia had warned about what could happen if he tried.

At a larger level, many leaders and commentators in NATO countries, notably the United States, had pressed for admission of more countries to the alliance, notably Georgia and the other near-term contender bordering Russia, Ukraine. That followed logic of helping fledgling democracies, but it ignored a basic characteristic of NATO membership that was clearly missing for both these candidates: NATO is first and foremost about its guarantee that "an armed attack against one or more of them ... shall be considered an attack against them all." If current allies are not prepared to give such a pledge, without reservation, then offers of membership must not be made and great care must be taken not to give a false impression. And NATO--again led by the United States--also forgot the basic principle of the Alliance's post-cold war policies that efforts to increase any one nation's security must also at least consider the potential impact on the security, real or perceived, of other nations.

All this happened, in fact, at the NATO summit in Bucharest last April. President George W. Bush was pressing to see Ukraine and Georgia advanced along the path to NATO membership through the development of a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Many other allies, notably Germany and France but backed by most of the others, resisted the move and had made their objections clear. Much commentary at the time focused on these countries' concerns about Russia and some U.S. critics even hinted at the dark word from the 1930s: appeasement. Much less commentary noted the inherent problem of most allies' unwillingness to provide security guarantees even at some point in the future.

At Bucharest, NATO reached what was represented as a compromise. MAP was to be postponed until later consideration in December 2008. In its place, the allies "agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO." Meant to be a throwaway line, a sop and a stopgap, that was in fact a profound statement, it was in effect the moment at which the allies declared that they were prepared to give their solemn security guarantees to these two countries--the essence of NATO membership. Most of the allies did not see it this way or at least believed that they would be able to push off any practical consequences of what they had done into the indefinite future.

But two people clearly took NATO at its word: one was Russia's president Vladimir Putin, for whom--in the case of Georgia--this was NATO's embracing a country that was by no stretch of the imagination important to the West in terms of preventing a future conflict in Europe. Its situation did not involve any of the uncertainties about the strategic status of countries in Europe's heartland, uncertainties that had been proximate causes of the First and Second World Wars. From Putin's perspective, this was a provocation, at least politically, an action of "disrespect" for Russia and its interests. And, it transpires, he was prepared to show the allies "who was boss" in the South Caucasus.

The other person who apparently took NATO at its word was Georgia's president. Mikheil Saakashvili, who then acted as though he had license to act as he saw fit in South Ossetia, apparently in the belief that, faced with a fait accompli, the NATO allies would back him up. Tragically, he was proved wrong. In an effort at its Bucharest summit to push off a difficult issue and to avoid embarrassing the U.S. president, NATO had helped set the scene for a gross miscalculation on the Georgian...

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