The Georgia Crisis and the Global Balance-of-Power

The political and military crisis in Georgia is no surprise for insiders. But it indicates dramatic changes in the world balance of power. By Christoph Rohde

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gambled and lost. He thought he could quickly regain South Ossetia in a fait accompli or, if he got in trouble, the United States and other NATO nations would send forces to his rescue. But this has proven to be a fatal misjudgment. In this respects the current situation in Georgia resembles the situations in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968: In both cases the Russians violently defended their spheres of influence. They were not impressed by the rollback doctrine the Eisenhower administration verbally declared. Instead, they protected their geopolitical interests. The Russians knew that the West would not risk a nuclear confrontation by projecting troops in Russia’s neighborhood. But in August 2008, Georgia became an aggressor against a minority on its own territory. And Russia had good reasons to intervene on behalf of the Russian minority. They did it without compromise. Once again, the Western powers were helpless witnesses.

The developments in the region

The two breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia were mostly lost in 1993 when Georgia agreed to allow Russian “peace keeping” troops on its soil. Just no one bothered to confront that reality – for Tbilisi the fiction of a “truce” was easier to accept than to shoulder a conflict with Russia. Things in the regions have gone worse since then. Chechnya was one big problem for Russia. If one region would separate, then Russia would fall into pieces. So Russia decided to beat down the “rebellion” in that region. And it started to regain international power by gambling the new “great game” with alliance partners in the Caspian region. The territory of Georgia makes it a geopolitical hot spot, because the pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan (BTC) that crosses Georgia, stands as a symbol for an energy system that is independent of Russia.

Russia uses Western arguments

Russia has been humbled since the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The enlargements of NATO and EU had to be accepted with silent anger. The partnership for peace (PfP) was not an adequate compensation for the former superpower. Then NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 and enforced Kosovo’s independence in March 2008. Additionally, the U.S. missile defense shield in central Europe is seen as a devaluation of Russia’s strategic capabilities. Russia has some reasons to mumble and complain.

The United States are called a regional hegemon in the Western hemisphere. That means they claim to intervene if an outside nation would intervene in the affairs of American nations. This doctrine was originally meant as a protection against colonial powers and is known as the Monroe doctrine of 1823. Theodore Roosevelt enforced this doctrine in the beginning of the 20th century in order to be able to control the newly built Panama Channel. For US presidents the American strategic neighborhood is considered as US sphere of interest. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, John F. Kennedy would have rather preferred a hot war against Russia than allowed Russian missiles to be placed near Florida. And in 1983, Ronald Reagan intervened in Grenada without further justification – in order to stop the Communists that took over the government. These imperialistic assumptions that the US claim – their own spheres of influence – have never been questioned seriously.

Potential future developments

Was it a European mistake to block Georgia’s NATO application? Or Ukraine’s? Russia should not be able to block any country’s desire to join the NATO, but it is. The Western rhetoric no longer necessarily deters the Russians from executing aggressive attacks on their neighbors. George W. Bush proclaimed that the United States “stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia,” and that “we insist” that the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity be respected. He also gave vague threats that Washington might no longer support Moscow’s ambitions for integration into important international diplomatic and economic institutions. But is Moscow really dependent on them? Is not Russia itself building alternative political institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation that can become more than an energy alliance? And do not the Western institutions like the International Monetary Funds (IMF) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) lose influence?

Dangerous escalation?

George W. Bush announced that he was directing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to execute a “humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia, headed by the United States military.” Bush added that a C-17 transport plane loaded with humanitarian supplies was already on its way, and that in the days ahead US military aircraft and naval forces would be delivering aid. The humanitarian justification is likely – at least in part – a cover for an attempt to establish a bridgehead of US military and political influence in Georgia to thwart the advance of Russian power. The Bush administration is taking an extraordinary risk for very limited stakes.

The costs of American unilateralism

It is time to ask some realistic questions. Did not the neoconservative doctrine of preemption – stated in the US National Security Doctrine 2002 – lead to military cooperation between great powers like Russia and China? Was it not a wrong US policy of encirclement against Russia and China that forced these states into coordinated balancing efforts? Did the US not abuse its own “war against terrorism” for the expansion of its own geopolitical sphere?

The unipolar moment is gone. But a soft hegemony of a stable US would be an advantage for all the powers in the international system. There are too many risks – economic, ecological, social and cultural – to allow a new cold war to get started. John McCain tries to escalate the dispute with Russia. It would be wiser to find a common solution – perhaps a neutral international status for Russia’s neighbors.

The copyrights of the pictures holds Eric Draper (Portrait) or are public domain (Map/ Flag).

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