The Russian invasion of Georgia has opened a sore point in the foreign policy of the United States, and the presidential election campaign threatens to magnify the problem to the point of exaggeration and even distortion. The Russians have left (sort of), and the crisis may fade. It may also fester if it becomes a foreign policy cause celebre as we move toward November.
Georgia is, on the face of it, an unlikely flash point for U.S. foreign policy. It is a small country not quite the size of South Carolina with a population of 4.6 million (July 2008 estimate courtesy of CIA Factbook). It has a population that is about 84 percent Georgian ethnically and an equal percentage of Christians. Other than the pipeline that carries Caspian Sea oil to the Black Sea, it has little geopolitical significance (its proven oil reserves are 35 million barrels, less than half a days consumption worldwide). It has been enmeshed in civil strife with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both a of which are pro-Russian, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, so the current crisis is hardly shocking. The only thing that has been shocking is the brutality and illegality of the Russian invasion. Still, it is hardly much more controversial than the U.S. invasion of Iraq five years ago.
Does Georgia warrant the level of rhetoric that rings from Washington and the campaign trail? The response on the political right is to punish the Russians; the Bush administration warns of international isolation; McCain calls for kicking the Russians out of G-8 and admitting Georgia to NATO. Obama threatens to ostracize the Russians, and Biden reminds us he visited the noble Georgians only weeks ago. Where does all this go?
There are two ways to look at the issue. One is through the eyes of the “democracy promoters” of the Bush administration. Led by the idealistic neo-conservatives, they argue that pushing for political democracies should be priority business for the United States and that Georgia, as a democracy, must be supported and its oppressors punished. Moreover, the Georgians are pro-American and both want and expect our help, which should be forthcoming. At the bottom line, the conclusion is that Russian behavior is unacceptable and that something must be done about it. The parallels between this position and Jimmy Carter’s advocacy of human rights as the foundation of US foreign policy are obvious.
The other way to look at this is geopolitically. This argument begins from the unacceptability of Russia invading a sovereign state. Although Georgia is not of particular importance to the United States otherwise, the precedent set by the invasion is important and must be opposed on that ground. The difference between the two positions is the level of moral righteousness and indignation that underlies them.
The flashpoint in this debate,which threatens to whirl out of control on the campaign trail, is over Georgia and NATO. As noted in an earlier entry, Georgia has applied for membership in NATO, but no action has been taken on their application. Were Georgia a member of NATO, McCain argues, the Russians would not have dared invade for fear of the consequences. The other side of this argument is that the fact that Georgia is not a member of NATO meant the alliance was able to avoid a military action in defense of that country which none of them truly wanted nor were prepared to mount.
What does this mean for the future? Should Georgia now be admitted to NATO? From a democracy promotion viewpoint, a case can be made it should, if promoting and protecting democracies everywhere is the heart of US policy. Such an advocacy, of course, would have put us chin-to-chin with Russia over a place most Americans would be unwilling personally to defend, and probably opens the door for a lot of worldwide interventions in the future. Will a post-Iraq America embrace such a path? My own analysis in What After Iraq? suggests not.
Keeping Georgia out of NATO does not have the same high-sounding ring as protecting the defenseless, but it makes more traditional geopolitical sense. Other than sharing democracy (in the Georgian case, a limited form), there are essentially few American vital interests in Georgia, and thus Georgia is not a place to which we should be militarily obligated. That leaves the Georgians in a vulnerable position, but it also results in a security policy the United States is likely to be willing to support in actuality.
And the Russian position is not irrelevant here. The United States did not, to put it mildly, act magnanimously when the then Soviet Union tried to erect missile systems in Cuba, and they would likely see a NATO Georgia in the same light as the U.S. saw Cuba; the installation of missile defenses in Poland of which the Bush administration is so proud is only another extension of the one-finger salute to Russia. The Russians have acted badly (which Russians tend to do). Does that justify the Americans acting equally badly (or stuoidly, as the case may be)?
One hopes Georgia fades as an election issue, because if it stays alive, it will likely escalate to increasingly untenuous levels of support for the Georgians. McCain may have revealed what a presidency bearing his name would be like in these situations: tending toward military solutions to arguably non-military problems. If the national security issue comes down to a contest over who can seem tougher, will Obama and Biden be forced to follow suit and dumb down their own positions to match McCain’s? The prospectsare not very pleasant to contemplate.