In the midst of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an unexpected war erupted between Russia and Georgia over its breakaway province of South Ossetia. Georgia’s pro-American president Mikheil Saakashvili wagered that his country’s commitment of troops to Iraq had left America in its debt. There had been talk for some years of expanding NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. He “talked the talk,” having been educated at George Washington University, frequently invoking human rights and democracy as themes in his rhetoric to western audiences. American military trainers for some years had periodically cycled through Georgia, teaching basic tactics to its military.
Saakashvili proved, in the end, the most dangerous kind of ally; one who cultivated a conflict that he could not win without the hoped-for intervention of the strong man in his corner. He miscalculated, badly.
The Post Soviet Landscape
The roots of the conflict had appeared some 20 years earlier. The Soviet Union, like the former Yugoslavia, was a multinational empire. When it was extant, the empire was Russia-dominated, in both geographic and demographic terms. Georgians, Chechens, Tatars, Ukrainians, and Moldovans all were under Russian domination, and everyone, Russians included, was dominated by the totalitarian reach of communist ideology and the Party.
When communism failed, the glue that held together the constituent republics of the Soviet Union gave way. In spite of 75 years of talk about the New Soviet Man—scientific, modern, idealistic—older loyalties, such as religious and national feeling, proved more durable markers for identity among the former Soviets, particularly among the ethnic minority republics on the periphery of the Soviet Union. These peoples experienced Soviet life as a double insult: as something both ideologically oppressive and inimical to national feeling. Tellingly, the lifelong communist and former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, ethnic Georgian Eduard Shevardnadze, returned home and was baptized into the Georgian Orthodox Church in 1991.
Non-Slavic Georgia was one of the first republics to declare its independence after a referendum in 1991. Its secession was preceded only by the earlier departure of the Baltic States, which were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet empire in 1940. During those years, “freedom” meant something specific for the people of the various Soviet republics. It was not so much free markets and free speech, as it was the rhetoric of national self-determination, the same anti-colonial ideology that had driven most conflicts since the end of World War II.
But national liberation, and wars of secession more generally, are tricky things. Objective justice or consistency is hard to find in these matters, as one’s point of view about who should rule, what the borders of a nation should be, and the relative rights of majorities and minorities depend mostly on one’s position in the existing social order, as well as upon the available alternatives.
Consider that America supported the breakup of the Soviet Union and the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, but balked at the breakup of Georgia and has treated the bloodless annexation of Crimea as the crime of the century. Russia favored the breakaway province of South Ossetia, while fiercely fighting against Chechen separatists in two separate wars. Few nations take a consistent position on these things.
Many of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union, while not majority Russian, themselves contained ethnic minorities of various ethnicities. Ethnic Russians had emigrated for economic and political reasons to the various republics of the Soviet Union and made up sizable minorities in many of them—often perceived as hostile colonizers by locals. Subnational groups that did not have their own republics often lived intermingled among other post-Soviet minorities, who would become the majorities in the newly created republics. These small minorities were wary of living under the domination of their newly independent and suddenly very nationalist neighbors. In Armenia, Azerbaijan, Transnistria, and Chechnya local ethnic separatist movements broke out. The same pattern prevailed in Georgia, where the tiny regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia preferred independence to living under Georgian rule.
While it garnered little attention in the West, the multi-sided Georgian Civil War of the early 1990s was a brutal affair, including coups, massacres, and all of the usual atrocities that characterize a civil war. When it had cooled down, the armistice brokered by the OSCE and newly independent Russia created “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia and Ossetia. These groups—ethnically, linguistically, and culturally distinct from the Georgians—lived for the next 16 years in their carved out sectors of Georgia; their safety was guaranteed by armistices policed, in part, by Russian peacekeepers.
Because of this tense situation, South Ossetia has a particularly friendly view towards Russia, viewing it as a protector that also contained its coethnics; on the other side of the mountains is North Ossetia, a federal administrative province of Russia populated by Ossetians.
Georgia Started It
While South Ossetians valued their quasi-independence, as well as peace, its existence was treated as an insult to independent Georgia. Like the Alsace-Lorraine to the French, its recapture became a subject of revanchism that united most Georgians in the years of independence.
Saakashvili, for all of his talk of democracy and being pro-western, also was a typical nationalist politician, concerned with local matters and desirous of permanent glory by recapturing South Ossetia. The perfect time seemed to be August 8, 2008. The rest of the world was entranced by Beijing’s Olympic spectacle. Russia’s formal presidential powers had been transferred to the seemingly weaker Dmitry Medvedev. Russia as a whole had been less bellicose since the Second Chechen War quieted down, and it had not exerted significant pressure on any of its neighbors since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
More important, Saakashvili had powerful foreign supporters, particularly the United States. He had personally hosted George W. Bush during a visit to Georgia, he had sent troops to Iraq, and cultivated the affection of America’s (then) influential neoconservatives, who were taken in by his combination of fluent English, democratic bona fides, and willingness to confront Russia.
So Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia, the ostensible cause being some friction along the South Ossetian frontier with Georgia proper. In the process, he killed several Russian peacekeepers. His troops also killed a significant number of South Ossetian civilians, running roughshod into its capital, Tskhinvali. Things looked grim for the South Ossetians, but Russia soon responded in a bold manner that took Georgia and the West by surprise: it sent an army through the Gori Tunnel. While the troops were not the modern-looking troops of the later Crimean intervention, they got the job done.
Russia’s troops were greeted as liberators by the shell-shocked South Ossetians, and the Russian forces quickly inflicted significant losses on the Georgians. The debonair Saakashvili nearly suffered a nervous breakdown, infamously being filmed eating his tie. The Russians didn’t march to Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital) but were content with enhancing the status quo ante, keeping the borders roughly the same, but recognizing South Ossetia as an independent nation. Few others followed, but Russia was making a point about its willingness, like the United States has often done, to act unilaterally when its self-proclaimed vital interests were at stake.
In its decisive, but measured response, Russia showed several things at once. First, Russia demonstrated that it would go to war to protect its allies, but that western allies may not go to war for theirs, particularly in peripheral locales like Georgia. Two, the campaign demonstrated that the Russian military, though somewhat worse for wear after the devolution of the Soviet Union and the costly Chechen Wars, still had the ability to project power in Russia’s near-abroad. This makes sense; Russia will always naturally care a lot more about what happens along its borders than the United States or NATO, and it is easier to project power nearby than halfway around the globe. America, with its Monroe Doctrine, has long proclaimed an analogous right to prevent European influence in the Western Hemisphere, and, even in the Nineteenth Century, had the ability to do so.
In this case, Russia also had a certain amount of justice on its side, as a peace treaty was in place, its peacekeepers were killed, and, using the western playbook, Russia claimed to be protecting the South Ossetian people from “genocide.” While this was an exaggeration, videos of Georgian troops shooting into random apartment buildings in South Ossetia did not buttress the Georgian claim that it was “liberating” South Ossetia.
The short conflict also showed something to the world about America: while the United States purported to be the “Sole Superpower” and a faithful ally, it would not risk nuclear war with Russia over a border dispute with a weak partner. While America’s demurral slightly diminished our credibility, it was an act of sensible restraint by the Bush Administration.
While realists conceive of all nations’ internal affairs as mostly matters of indifference, domestic politics in democratic nations are an important “human terrain” factor in formulating foreign policy. In other words, even actions that theory says are beneficial, may not be possible for the United States due to the inevitable rejection by the public of long and costly wars in places they have never heard of like South Ossetia.
McCain ran for president in 2008 proclaiming, “We are all Georgians now.” After the Iraq disaster, he did not hit the right notes. In general, “realist” foreign policy should be appropriately restrained, and realistically conform to the likelihood of long-term, sustainable public support.
South Ossetia today appears to be anything but flourishing, but at least there is peace. Saakashvili, a globalist at heart, ended up in Ukraine for a while, but he has since been deported. And Georgia, as well as certain short-sighted westerners, are again pushing for Georgia to join NATO.
As in 2008, it is worth asking, “What’s in it for us?” The restoration to Georgia of a disputed province roughly the size of Rhode Island hardly seems worth the risk of a potential nuclear exchange. The sleight of hand that labels such policies “idealist,” masks the ugly reality of military conflict in the pursuit of expansive goals like “unipolarity.” The sturdy foundation of realism is a more reliable path to achievable “real world” goods like peace, stability, and mutual respect among nations.
Foreign policy idealism, as practiced in the West—and most obnoxiously by the neoconservatives—implicitly dismisses the interests and perspectives of others. It is the foreign policy equivalent of narcissism, as exemplified by the robotic invocation of American exceptionalism by those unmoved by the expressed concerns of others and who remain untaught by the poor results of “idealism” in places like Kosovo, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. As in other forms of human conflict, other nations get a vote.
Trump’s America First view, while seemingly aggressive at first glance, has at its core the empathetic recognition that other nations have interests, concerns, and beliefs too. It is fundamentally a limiting belief, a prioritization of our own good over that of others. As in other forms of self-restraint, it is necessary to prevent exhaustion and to permit the focus and prioritization necessary to achieve results that can actually be achieved. It grounds any foreign policy decision, ideally, in the tangible interests of one nation’s people to whom leaders are connected and accountable. It rejects more abstract and open-ended concerns like “human rights” or “promoting democracy.”
As the Russian writer Dostoyevsky observed, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” As with individuals, so with nations. America First is both practical and just, the foreign policy equivalent of the virtues of loyalty, humility, and self-restraint.
Photo Credit: Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images
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