Thanks But No Tanks: Geogia’s Lesson in Realpolitik


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A couple days ago an prominent though irate Kenyan journalist wrote a piece a the Washington Post bemoaning the Russian response to Georgian maneuvers in South Ossetia and suggested that Russia’s “international standing [was] in tatters.” His lament seemed valid in one sense, but laden with misplaced faith in a lofty, unified consensus of what “international standing” meant — symptomatic, I’d posit, of the one sweet/flat world theory floating around.
On the contrary, Russia just stomped all over its neighbor and easily reasserted its sphere of influence in the caucuses, and while doing so, threw some huge elbows — to its near abroad former republics, to NATO, and to any up and coming Eurasian great power challengers reconsidering their aversion to cross-border conflicts. Eurasian expert and Lehigh University Professor Rajan Menon best summed up my reaction when he wrote:

Another unpalatable truth is that Russia’s behavior in this instance is the norm, not the exception: Great powers impose their will on weaker neighbors and limit their freedom of action — all the time.
Airy discourses about the commerce-driven dynamics of globalization and new norms of international conduct will not vanquish realpolitik. Just as other powerful states have done, Russia will be persistent in preventing weak neighbors that it considers to be part of its legitimate sphere of influence from forging links with its adversaries; the means used will vary, but not the ends. In today’s Russia, Vladimir Putin personifies this policy, but it reflects deeper realities rooted in balance of power politics.
In this crisis, America and Europe have also behaved as states invariably have: They do not want to spend blood and treasure when the risks are too high and vital interests are not involved. In this instance, no state within NATO wants to pick a fight with Russia right on its doorstep. Nor do they wish to offer Georgia a guarantee of future protection…
Russia’s attack on Georgia also illustrates how little gratitude matters in the politics among nations and how easily it is trumped by the dictates of power.
When Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, sent troops to Iraq, and was hailed as a steadfast democratic ally by President George W. Bush, he no doubt expected to win some good will that could be redeemed in an hour of need. Perhaps he believed that the United States would mobilize its allies and admonish Russia if it were to attack Georgia — perhaps even offer tangible assistance…
Utterly unsentimental and thoroughly cynical, Putin understands the arithmetic of power. In attacking a small and weak state located across Russia’s border he did not take any big risks; and he bet that the West wouldn’t either.

Sure, there will be costs for Russia’s behavior — it will certainly cost them in future international cooperation games but given the direction those efforts are going these days (failure of EU ratification, death of Doha, NATO’s soul-searching, standoffs at the UN, and abrogated international treaties that litter the trail of this administration’s tenure) it just might be banking on higher payoffs with the route it has chosen.
— Sameer Lalwani


5 comments on “Thanks But No Tanks: Geogia’s Lesson in Realpolitik

  1. peppermint patty says:

    Is it possible that she is a complete invention of the republican


  2. navarro says:

    please correct the spelling of georgia in the headline for this posting. once you’ve done that please feel free to eliminate this comment.


  3. Mary says:

    Instead of John McCain’s policy of rogue state rollback, I would
    suggest that we adopt a policy of rogue neocon rollback. I’m
    sorry. That’s redundant. All neocons are rogues. And I can tell
    you right now. We will not be holding the Silk Road. Russia will
    take it out as a point of pride. That’s just the way it is.


  4. JohnH says:

    Two excellent pieces on US ambitions in Georgia. Pepe Escobar shows that the foreign policy mafia has now gotten what it sorely missed for the last 20 years–a credible rival. Forget Al Qaeda. Forget Iran. Now they have Russia to villify and demonize as a way to justify even more massive and extravagant “defense” spending. And the fight between the “realists” and the “neocons?” Mostly rhetorical. A distinction without a real difference. McCain, Holbrooke, and Madeleine Albright are all caught on video repeating identical hypocrisy about “unacceptable behavior in the 21st century.”
    Also, read about the real stakes in Georgia: “The Silk Road Strategy is defined as a “trans-Eurasian security system”. The SRS calls for the “militarization of the Eurasian corridor” as an integral part of the “Great Game”. The stated objective, as formulated under the proposed March 1999 Silk Road Strategy Act, is to develop America’s business empire along an extensive geographical corridor.
    While the 1999 SRS legislation (HR 3196) was adopted by the House of Representatives, it never became law. Despite this legislative setback, the Silk Road Strategy became, under the Bush Administration, the de facto basis of US-NATO interventionism, largely with a view to integrating the former Soviet republics of the South Caucasus and Central Asia into the US sphere of influence.”
    Does anyone remember public discussion or Congressional debate about this? No, some things are just too important to be discussed in a democracry!


  5. rich says:

    Excellent analysis.
    Now can we all agree that a ‘Concert of Democracies’ is hardly in the American national interest and just plain wrongheaded?
    It’s clear that message needs to get across loudly and clearly in certain quarters.
    The U.S.-Georga-Russia experience effectively puts the lie to the ridiculous idea that China and Russia should be or can be asked to give up their permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. They’re not there because they mirror our form of government or due to some cultural consonance, nor because they’re allies or good guys. Their status is permanent because they are powerful. And because they are not our allies.
    Realpolitik dicates that the United States is safer and more secure when we know up-front where our adversaries stand on critical issues—such as their own security and national interests—and what they will and will not put up with.
    It shows a poor grasp of power and Realpolitik to imagine Russia can be evicted from the international order, or excluded from the international conversation. Economic reality dictates Russia will not be dumped from key trade relations, formal or otherwise, and that’s in the short run.
    It displays a real lack of sophistication to think that a ‘Concert of Democracies’ could ever replace the U.N. as a legitimate institution for international decision-making. To propose such an option—even if only to siphon more money into one’s think tank by indulging wealthy contributors—is as irresponsible as it is intellectually bankrupt.
    It’s reckless because it destabilizes international institutions, which was of course, the point. But there’s more to it.
    The ‘Concert of Democracies’ is the U.N. what Dick Cheney’s Office of Special Plans was to U.S. intel agencies and lawful American decision-making about going to war. It’s an end-run. It cannot claim the legitimacy of prevailing law or the math of political reality.
    But it’s worse than that. Think: Bush/Cheney failed to recognize the laws of Realpolitik. They substituted ‘Try and stop us.’ They:
    –poked the Russian Bear right in the eye, by arming Georgian troops and encouraging Georgia to solidify control.
    –assumed Russia would not respond when Russian troops & Russia-leaning S. Ossetians were attacked and killed by the U.S.-armed/allied Georgian military. We wouldn’t let such a thing go unanswered; no one in their right minds believes the Russians would just do nothing.
    –mistook Georgia for Afghanistan
    –willingly traded in Russia’s entangelment in an Afghanistan quagmire for American’s entanglement in an Afghanistan quagmire. The best and the brightest really are so very brilliant.
    As much as it’s popular to say the real fight is in Afghanistan, the occupation is not going well there either. The politics of the Taliban and al Quaeda are not going to matter in the end.
    It would behoove the next President to acknowledge that Afghanistan cannot be held, and that the war cannot be won in any conventional sense. Not using our best counterinsurgency techniques; not using The Salvador Option. Salvaging anything positive would requie respecting the political interests of our adversaries, responding to them, and establishing a set of productive relations that eliminate any intent to harm America. That’s hard-nosed Realpolitik. It’s a vast country, and imposing our will in a top-down mode won’t yield anything but grief. Close the borders? Yeah. Respect local custom? Know the terrain? Win local loyalty? We’d better start adjusting our game plan to come to term with local interests and realities. B/c it doesn’t look like the folks bearing the brunt of this conflict are the enemy we’re presumably fighting. That’s not a winnable recipe.


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