Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Georgia: The Larger Issues

Steven Meyer


August 29, 2008
On August 8, Russian military forces poured across the border into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two provinces of Georgia. A former Soviet Republic, Georgia gained independence when the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s. But the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are ethnically and culturally different from the rest of Georgia and the overwhelming majority in both provinces has never accepted Georgian rule.

All of this seems like a throwback to nineteenth-century imperialism and to a certain extent it is. But it goes beyond that and contains important lessons for the larger global order and the direction of American foreign policy.

There are at least four lessons we need to learn from the Russian attack on Georgia.

First, Russia is well on its way to returning to great-power status. Although Moscow overplayed its hand a bit, Russia was looking for a provocation to enter Georgia and the Georgians cooperated by trying to force the South Ossetians into line. When Russia responded to “protect” South Ossetia, it was announcing that the Caucuses are in its sphere of influence and that it would do what is necessary to protect Russian interests in the province, just as the US exerts power in its sphere of influence.

Second, despite dire predictions from some pundits and politicians in the United States, the Russian action does not signal a return to the Cold War. The current East-West relationship lacks the major confrontation of military forces that marked the Cold War; the Soviet Communist Party is gone; Europe is now heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil; Russia is now much smaller and weaker than it was during the Cold War; and the overwhelming majority of former Soviet territory is irrevocably lost. Moreover, in the globalizing, multi-polar world emerging in the twenty-first century, the US also is less powerful and influential than it was during the Cold War.

Third, the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world is being driven by ethnic discontents that are helping to upend the established order of states. With the collapse and reformulation of states in many parts of the world, ethnic communities frequently are finding themselves on the “wrong side” of new borders and are determined not to accept the new reality. The circumstances become even more complex and dangerous when a larger patron, such as the United States or Russia, takes up the cause of a discontented ethnic group or stateless nation. For example, the Bush administration has done this in Kosovo on behalf of the Albanians and in northern Iraq on behalf of the Kurds, just as Russia is now doing it for the South Ossetians and Abkhazians.

Fourth, the incident between Russia and Georgia demonstrates the fecklessness, stasis, and hypocrisy of American foreign policy. The US has been courting Georgia since its independence, convincing the Georgians that their future lies with Western institutions such as NATO. Over the past decade, Washington has helped train the small Georgian armed forces, provided strong rhetorical support for Georgian democracy, and assured the Georgians that the US is a friend they can count on. But when the chips were down, the Georgians quickly discovered that Washington is powerless to help, that US support amounts to little more than rhetoric.

Washington needs to understand that the Georgian situation is symbolic of a larger problem. In a rapidly changing world, posturing, bluster, and chest thumping about the benefits of democracy and American fidelity are no substitute for solid policy that deals with the hard realities of the world. Moreover, twentieth-century institutions, such as NATO, are poor vehicles for twenty-first-century US policy and provide little value to American allies. The complexities of the postmodern world call for a comprehensive retooling of US policies and of many international institutions.
—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    The National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”