Commentary

Woodrow Wilson’s War

Liberal internationalists in the Clinton administration share the blame on Georgia.

Last week, a host of Clinton administration officials emerged to identify and lament the causes of the Russia-Georgia war. Strobe Talbott, Ronald Asmus, and Richard Holbrooke — all Democratic former State Department officials — fingered a variety of actors for blame in Moscow, Washington, and Tbilisi. But they ignored one place they could have found another guilty party: the mirror.

Asmus and Holbrooke scolded that the Kremlin’s actions could jeopardize the Clintonite vision for Europe — where “realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by new cooperative norms and a country’s right to choose its own path.” The road to this Wilsonian Shangri-la, they insisted in the 1990s, would be paved by the rapid expansion of NATO to include former Soviet republics.

Recall, too, that Asmus, Holbrooke, and Co. waved off early warnings that their idealistic future was an illusion — capitalizing on what the New York Times then called “the public’s lack of interest in foreign policy in the aftermath of the cold war.” At that time, the Times pointed out during the non-debate over expanding NATO, 63 percent of Americans favored NATO expansion, but only 10 percent could name one of the three countries that were scheduled to join.

Asmus has since offered a few solutions that in his view could have prevented the Russia-Georgia conflict. First, he argues that neutral peacekeepers should have been inserted into Georgia alongside the Russian ones. But who would have deployed them? Russian “peacekeepers” were already on the ground in South Ossetia under a 1992 agreement with Georgia that explicitly authorized them to be there. The chance of any country trying to force its way in under those circumstances — be it the U.S. or, even less likely, Western Europe, China, or India — was roughly zero.

Asmus also said NATO’s 1999 action against Serbia, and the decision to pry out Kosovo and then grant it independence earlier this year, “helped create the pretense for Putin’s latest move.” Asmus’ solution? Someone should have “shield[ed] Georgia from the possible fallout from Kosovo.” How? By granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the recent NATO summit, which would have “reassure[ed] Georgia and deter[red] Russia.”

But Russia had been raising the temperature on the South Ossetia question for years, and would have been unlikely to back down. A MAP does not guarantee the military protection that full NATO membership confers, and it would have taken years to get Georgia into NATO as a member. So rather than Asmus’s “reassure and deter” effect, granting Georgia a MAP more likely would have made Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili even more reckless in his South Ossetia policy, and made all the more urgent Russia’s desire to conclude the territorial dispute to their advantage.

It has been left to Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, to make the case that the Kremlin’s carefully cultivated Kosovo analogy should not apply. Talbott complains that the analogy is absurd, since “only after exhausting every attempt at diplomacy did NATO go to war over Kosovo.” Presumably the Russians felt, however — to the extent they were interested in diplomacy at all — that diplomacy had failed the moment Saakashvili launched an artillery barrage into South Ossetia and sent an armored column into a province occupied by Russian troops.

The fact is: the questionable step of expanding NATO closer to Russia’s borders — a process urged forward at every step by Clinton officials — is what set the stage for this war. True, Russia-Georgia tensions would still have existed without any NATO involvement. But instead of causing hand-wringing in Washington that “a new cold war” has emerged, those tensions would have been dismissed as a regional political squabble far detached from U.S. interests.

In 1997, no less an authority than George F. Kennan warned that such a NATO expansion would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war,” because it would inflame Russian militarism, stifle democracy, and generally “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Each of those troublesome developments, of course, has come to pass. Holbrooke, eulogizing Kennan in a 2005 op-ed, recounted a 1996 dinner in which Kennan argued to a distinguished audience that expanding NATO would represent “an enormous and historic strategic error.” Holbrooke bragged in that article that “events, of course, proved Bill Clinton right and Kennan … wrong.” Perhaps in the wake of this war, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether NATO expansion, the recognition of Kosovo, and the general tendency in Washington to ignore the national interests of Russia really has been worth the cost.

Justin Logan is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.