ABKHAZIA, KOSOVO, EAST TIMOR AND SOUTH OSSETIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN (and will again somewhere else)
There are many tragedies in the Caucasus this month. There are the obvious tragedies of the people of the region. There is the second order tragedy of the stresses on Georgian democracy which will lead to the empowerment of “hardliners”, those invested in border struggles which has led to the Kashmir issue dominating Pakistan or the Eritrean boundary dispute distracting Ethiopia from its democratic development and own route to sustainable prosperity.
But there are also two tragedies for western foreign policies as we seek to expand the number of people living safely under the rule of law and the role of the rule of law in arbitrating international disputes. First, we have lost (in this instance irretrievably) an opportunity to decontaminate toxic post-colonial residues, to detonate landmines of political neglect and to create a rule of international law in a complex dispute. Secondly, the word of the United States, which has made arrogant promises it couldn’t keep to the Georgians is now worth less. This has undermined even further the credibility and clout of the United States in the world and despite the schadenfreude which is so tempting, this is not good for the world, as actors like Sarkozy seem to understand. It is a final legacy of the Bush Administration and a reason that an Obama Administration is now the only way U.S. credibility might be restored and, in the language of U.S. electoral politics, U.S. reputation and security increased.
There are offsetting optimistic signs, an innovative Finnish foreign minister, Alexander Stubb whose moral role is enhanced by the unique historical role of Finland in global affairs, the continuing ability of Sarkozy-Kouchner to attempt to fill the vacuum of failed American policies in the promotion of democracy, the strong moral presence of the Polish, Ukrainian, Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian Presidents in Tbilisi.
At the time of this writing, though, the story of Georgia is a story of extraordinarily incompetent American foreign policy with great worries for the ongoing promotion of democracy. By its unwillingness to understand how NATO expansion, the bizarre preoccupation with U.S. manufactured missile shields in eastern Europe and the significance of the Kosovo precedent, the Bush Administration left Georgia exposed and raised for another generation the eerie specter of how American undermines its allies whether Kurds in the 1980s, Shia Arabs in the early 1990s or now Georgians.
Putin’s Russia is obviously complicated. Putin’s behaviour is worrying, but hardly surprising. His historical role is now almost like that of Napoleon, and will be is as controversial in two centuries time. He has restored a broken Russia to a major place in global politics. He has produced more democracy than ever before and has also allowed a petro-state to develop. Russia has little to thank the Americans for, given their disastrous ‘big bang’ privatizations of the 1990s, but has behaved responsibly enough for a “Great Power” when asked (e.g. on the Iran nuclear file, where Great Power interests have been balanced with a moderately responsible multilateral role). But the key to this crisis is the desperate need of the U.S. neo-conservative movement to invent enemies, turning adversaries into mortal threats and Putin is the target of the day. Abkhazia and Ossetia, like Tibet and Taiwan should have been strategically negotiable. Instead, they were ignored and the Americans encouraged Georgians, who have their own extreme nationalists, to believe they could poke the bear without consequences.
In entrenched disputes, right and wrong quickly become confused as lake-bottom mud turns clear waters into murky ones. It is not even with the reinterpretation of history: was William Wallace (Braveheart) good or bad? Was William Tell good or bad? How about Napoleon, while we are on the subject? Entrenched nationalist disputes blur “right” and “wrong”. The only “right cause” in cases like South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a process which produces negotiation and compromise.
In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to the reasonable observer, the Russian case made sense in the abstract. Abkhazians had been integrated into Georgia in a moment of Stalinist cartography with many motivations, none of which were “democratic”. The situation regarding South Ossetia is less clear in legal terms, but, at minimum, South Ossetia was not consulted about its future in the break-up of the former Soviet Union. The landmines of decolonization (discussed in From Durand to Ahtisaari on my website) have contributed to the crises of Iraq and Afghanistan. On the Somali-Ethiopian “border”, the Uzbekistan-Kyrghizstan “border”, and the India-Pakistan “border”, the next generation of foreign-policy makers will confront many more toxic residues of a colonial past. Americans constantly want to fall back on issues of “territorial integrity” as a way to avoid confronting complex historical dilemmas.
U.S. foreign policy has always been reluctant to look at the creation of new states as anything other than a last resort. For this reason alone, the U.S. backing of Kosovo’s independent status was an encouraging sign for the new global politics. Even then, the Americans lost an opportunity to put this in a global rule of law driven context. Kosovo was treated as a special case (i.e. “we like these guys”) and the opportunity for the precedent was lost. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been as distracting to Georgia’s political and economic development as Kashmir has been to Pakistan’s. Since the arguments (viewed from 10,000 kilometers away) are the kind of arguments that all extreme nationalists like to make, it is ironic that in the same month that we celebrate the dispatch of Karadzic to the Hague and the emergence of an independent Kosovo, separate from both Serbia and Albania, this crisis in the Caucasus heats up. If only they had approached Abkhazia and South Ossetia as strategic issues which Georgia could benefit from if they were resolved successfully.
This moment has been lost, to the great tragedy of lives lost in the last week. It also is the political tragedy of the embarrassment suffered by the inspiring heirs to the Rose Revolution in Georgia. If western democracies fail to confront how we got into this mess, we face a prospect of the worst of both worlds. On the one side, we have a Georgian nationalism fed towards self-defeating extremism because the Americans over-promised and under-delivered. On the other side, we have a Russian arrogance being empowered because no one took the legal claims of Abkhazia to be analogous to those of East Timor or Kosovo. This is the final act of incompetence by a U.S. Administration that wanted to do well, but was so limited in competence, intellect and world experience that it almost always made bad situations worse. If there was ever a game-set-and-match argument for the need for a new paradigm in U.S. foreign policy, this is it.
In the short term, diplomatic efforts have to minimize the damage. Russian interests in South Ossetia and Abkhazia should not be turned into an excuse to destabilize Georgia. The mistake of “building the Georgian military” as a taunt has to be admitted. The accountability of the Russian government for smuggling activities in areas of their now de facto control has to be underlined. The failure of the west to deal with legitimate arguments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia has to be subtly acknowledged. Our commitment to the emerging Georgian democracy must be unconditional; the commitment to the inclusion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in that new state has to be based on the consent of those to be governed, or conditional. This will require imagination, subtlety, and a great bit of political courage.
Most importantly, before we end up having our next crisis next year, people serious about using foreign policy to create a safer and more democratic world should start familiarizing themselves with the details of Ogaden and Kashmir. Maybe these landmines of arrogant decolonization can be detonated relatively harmlessly if we confront them now. Then maybe the rule of international law can start to expand so more people live under the protection of legal principles and not the arbitrariness of the decisions of people long gone like Churchill and Stalin.
Some useful discussions of Georgia-Russia can be found on the following websites (not all of whom would agree with this analysis):
James Joyner in Outside the Beltway
Ari Rusila in Atlantic-Community.Org
Rob Farley of the University of Kentucky in Lawyers, Guns and Money
This essay is intended to address the immediate issues of Georgia-Abhazia-South Ossetia in the context of the dangers to global security created by unresolved residues of 20th Century decolonization and 19th Century colonization. The related, but separate, issue of influencing Russia has to be addressed in a subsequent piece. In seeking to apply rule of law principles, it is clear that Abkhazia sets no precedents for the Russia-Baltic State relations. In realpolitik, this argument has to be reinforced and the consequences of cyber-intimidation, energy blackmail and the deviation from the rule of law (as it is manifested in the BP case) have to be confronted. The market response to BP is a first level warning. The superb piece by Chrystia Freeland in the Financial Times on August 22, 2008 makes an innovative leap on how to influence Russia by de facto a mix of market signals (disinvestment) and oversight of the Russian oligarchs who have a stake in globalization and integration. As we sort out these relationships and learn a foreign policy technique which influences Iran, China, and Russia as opposed to intimidating them, Freeland’s piece will stand out as one of the clearest statements of a new approach to foreign policy. Nothing in this essay should be read to suggest that Russia doesn’t need serious “influencing”. The Abkhazia-South Ossetia disputes are not the best place to convince the next generation of Russians that global rule of law is not just superpower intimidation by another name.