The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Georgian dreams

June 11, 2008

My offhand comment about Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s warnings to Russia over its increased activity in Abkhazia has, thanks to Rob Farley, produced some interesting commentary.

Matthew Yglesias fails to sugar coat his take:

It would be appallingly stupid for the United States or our other key allies to put anything whatsoever on the line for the sake of Georgia’s efforts to reassert control over its rebellious province. The question of maintaining a good relationship with an important country, Russia, versus standing up for the independence of Russia’s neighbors poses some tough dilemmas. But when the issue is Georgia’s effort to rule over a province that by all indications doesn’t want to be ruled by Tblisi, the dilemma really isn’t difficult at all. We should just stay far, far, far away from this dispute and try to make it clear to our friends in Georgia that we don’t encourage them to do anything stupid.

Joshua Keating disagrees:

think it’s wishful thinking on Yglesias’s part to pretend that this has nothing to do with US foreign policy. Abkhazia isn’t just some obscure, post-Soviet backwater conflict that emerged on its own. Russia’s recent actions — normalizing trade relations and sending hundreds of “peacekeepers” into the region — were taken in direct response to Western recognition of Kosovo and talk of NATO expansion. Telling Georgia that it has to resolve this issue on its own before we’ll even think about NATO membership is basically an open invitiation for Putin to continue meddling.

I agree that tradeoffs and concessions will have to be made with an increasingly assertive Russia, and Georgia’s territorial integrity may be less of a priority than other goals. But being willing to make concessions is not the same thing as looking the other way when Russia responds to U.S. and EU policy by annexing territory from Western allies. I don’t really see why de Hoop Scheffer saying that Georgia and Russia “should engage quickly in a high-level and open dialogue to de-escalate tensions” is some sort of bombastic provocation.

For the record, the Georgians have put quite a bit on the line to help the United States reassert control in Iraq with the hope that they might gain NATO membership in return. That gambit is starting to look “appallingly stupid.”

As I’ve argued before, one basic problem for the United States and NATO is that Saakashvili’s government tends to view signals of western support as a justification for a harder line on Abkhazia. Another is that anyone with a brain knew how Abkhazia and Russia were likely to react to Kosovo independence: if the U.S. and the Europeans can dismember Serbia, then why can’t Abkhazia have its independence as well? The Russians view themselves as playing the same game as the United States and many of the Europeans. And, in many respects, they are.

At the most basic level, the chances of Abkhazia ever rejoining Georgia are close to nill, while the lack of resolution to the conflict makes Georgian accession to NATO very risky for the alliance. There are options short of fully sovereign independence, membership in the Russian Federation, or a return to Georgia for Abkhazia, but finding them and making the stick will require a great deal of creative thinking. It may be that part of the package should include MAP for Georgia.

Georgia warms the hearts of many US foreign-policy wonks. It’s a quasi-democratic country, run by a man with a western education who knows how to say all the right things, and the US even backed the “color revolution” (the “Rose Revolution,” to be precise) that brought him to power. And Georgia wants to be both a US client and a major strategic asset. What’s not to like?

It isn’t hard to see why the Georgians want to be Uncle Sam’s outpost in the Caucuses. The Russians consider Georgia to be part of their sphere of influence, and border Georgia on the north. Their southern neighbor, Armenia is more or less a Russian client.

Does greater integration of Georgia into Europe and the Atlantic Community make sense? Certainly. But the US and Europe need to proceed with extreme caution, as they need to juggle a wide range of potential downsides: from further antagonizing Russia to inadvertently increasing the chances of armed conflict.

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.