NATO Gains Weight

June 25, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on June 25, 2009.

Vice President Joe Biden is heading to Georgia and Ukraine next month. His trip will continue a foreign policy which has taken on the trappings of junior‐​high school: an endless search for new allies. More “friends” are believed to be better, irrespective of U.S. security. Instead, Washington should be shedding allies.

NATO has become the worst example of America’s junior‐​high foreign policy. Washington and its more traditional allies have welcomed a succession of new members which are security black holes, bringing with them geopolitical conflicts rather than security assets. Little pretense could be made that expanding NATO to Albania, Romania and similar states enhanced American security.

Even worse are proposals to add Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance. Both border Russia, have unresolved or potential territorial disputes with their nuclear‐​armed neighbor, and are politically immature. Bringing them into NATO would directly challenge Moscow’s border security and turn American foreign policy over to smaller powers of dubious reliability.

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:

One thing was already clear to the officers at NATO headquarters in Brussels: They thought that the Georgians had started the conflict and that their actions were more calculated than pure self‐​defense or a response to Russian provocation. In fact, the NATO officers believed that the Georgian attack was a calculated offensive against South Ossetian positions to create the facts on the ground.”

OSCE observers on the ground drew much the same conclusion. Although commission members apparently criticize both nations’ conduct of the war, they reportedly have compiled evidence that President Saakashvili long considered a military solution. Indeed, the panel is said to have found no evidence that, as he claimed, Russian tanks entered on August 7, initiating hostilities. These judgments are consistent with the testimony of Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow, to the Georgian parliament that “Saakashvili wanted that war, he has been bracing for that during the last four years.”

The point is not that Russia was blameless, but that Georgia contributed greatly to its own plight. Added Kitsmarishvili: “Georgia broke out the war in South Ossetia, and Russia provoked it.” Unfortunately, it apparently didn’t take that much provoking. Despite subsequent claims of Russian aggression made by his government, Ambassador Kutelia, then‐​deputy defense minister, said Tbilisi hadn’t expected Moscow to respond with force: “We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality.”

Moreover, some commission members reportedly were suspicious about the American role. They wished they could ask what U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft knew and when he knew it. The panel also pointed to a remark by then‐​Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried that President Saakashvili “went out of control.” It seems unlikely that Washington promoted a Georgian attack. However, the Bush administration’s extravagant gestures of support and rhetorical backing for Tbilisi could have been misinterpreted by the impulsive, authoritarian and erratic Saakashvili.

Indeed, while some friends of Georgia portray Saakashvili as a great liberal, human‐​rights groups tell a different story. For instance, Human Rights Watch reported that his policies seemed “to fuel rather than reduce abuses.” He has used force to put down opposition demonstrations. Investigative journalist Nino Zuriashvili complained that “there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution,” which propelled Saakashvili to power. NATO membership likely would make him more repressive and irresponsible. In particular, a formal defense guarantee would encourage Saakashvili to adopt more confrontational policies towards Moscow. For the alliance then to abandon Tbilisi in a crisis would wreck NATO’s credibility. However, a proposal for armed intervention would divide the alliance, with the older core members likely unwilling to initiate war against Russia. And large‐​scale conflict with Moscow — avoided during the entire cold war — would be a catastrophe for all concerned.

The Georgian people deserve our sympathy. But they are not entitled to Americans’ blood and treasure. It would extremely foolish to put the full military faith and credit of the United States on the line in the Caucasus. The way to make the United States more secure is to reduce, not increase, its security commitments.

About the Author