In fact, a new European Union report highlights the danger of extending U.S. protection to Georgia. Washington continues to press for NATO membership and in the interim has declared Tbilisi to be a “strategic partner.” The Georgian government had high hopes for the agreement; incoming Georgian Ambassador Batu Kutelia said that “cooperation with our strategic partner is almost the only assurance of our security.”
But what of American security?
Obviously, Georgia is geopolitically peripheral to the United States. Georgia was not only part of the Soviet Union. It was part of the Russian Empire. And the status of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has varied over time — they enjoyed special autonomy even during the Soviet era. Who rules which of these lands matters to the people there, not to Americans. The presence of energy pipelines in Georgia changes little. Caspian Basin energy is useful, not critical, to the United States and the West’s access is not likely to be impeded short of war. Americans should be sympathetic to the Georgian people, given misgovernment at home and threats from abroad. But friendly feelings do not warrant promises of military intervention.
Some alliance advocates believe that no harm would come from guaranteeing Georgian security, since Moscow would not dare test America’s promise. However, history is littered with defense commitments that failed to deter. The major World War I alliances proved to be transmission belts of — rather than firebreaks to — war. The British and French guarantees to Poland in 1939 did not stop Germany from attacking; instead, they pulled the two countries into a conflict for which they were not prepared.
Moreover, Russia already has demonstrated that it views its border security as worth war. Further, geopolitics in the Caucasus matters far more to it than to America. Moscow is likely to discount U.S. threats, figuring that American policy makers are unlikely to risk Washington to protect Tbilisi. Exactly how the United States would defend Georgia against Russia isn’t clear, and how the United States would prevent any conflict from quickly escalating is even less clear. Think of the Cuban missile crisis: Washington was able to stare down Moscow for a number of reasons, including the fact that the United States had far more at stake and could bring far more force to bear near its border. The situation in Georgia is reversed.
Formalizing a security guarantee for Tbilisi also would make conflict more likely by insulating the Georgian government from the consequences of its own provocative actions. Here, too, history is replete with disastrous examples. In the summer of 1914, both Serbia and Austria‐Hungary acted more provocatively because they could count on their allies’ support; Germany’s famous “blank check” to the latter made war a virtual certainty. More recently, former Taiwanese President Chen Shui‐bian spent eight years challenging China in the belief that the United States would come to his aid in any conflict. Washington’s attempt to moderate Chen’s behavior proved unavailing. Yet Beijing seemed to downplay the threat of American intervention. Similar irresponsibility was evident last August in Georgia. There was plenty of evidence of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s aggressive intentions in winning back the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with force. His own officials indicated that they discounted the likelihood of Russian intervention and expected U.S. support.
Georgia’s role in triggering the crisis has been affirmed by an investigative commission established by the European Union after the war. Reports Spiegel online: “a majority of members tend to arrive at the assessment that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili started the war by attacking South Ossetia on August 7, 2008. The facts assembled … refute Saakashvili’s claim that his country became the innocent victim of ‘Russian aggression’ on that day.” Retired British Colonel Christopher Langton said: “Georgia’s dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that.” The office of Heidi Tagliavini, who heads the inquiry, countered that her work “is continuing” and that she had “the sole and exclusive responsibility” for final report. However, the apparent opinions of her panel’s experts are not new. Spiegel online had earlier reported: