On August 8 this small nation on the Black Sea marked the fourth anniversary of its brief war with Russia. Georgia lost, allowing two breakaway provinces to continue their independent existence under Moscow's protection.
Despite his nation's defeat, argued Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow did not win. Russia had hoped to overthrow his government, block Georgia's growing energy role, and prevent Tbilisi's integration with the European Union and NATO. "They have failed," he said of the Russians.
President Saakashvili has morphed from heroic corruption-fighter into irresponsible autocrat, but his country still deserves its independence. Moscow's failure to subjugate its small neighbor — if that was Vladimir Putin's objective — was all to the good.
However, the war offers a dramatic reminder why NATO expansion is bad for America. At the Chicago NATO summit in May the assembled leaders declared: "At the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO and we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions." Rhetoric aside, there is little enthusiasm among NATO governments for inducting Tbilisi. They should formally drop this dubious commitment.
Never mind the Saakashvili government's domestic abuses. Those should matter most to the European Union, which is dedicated to building a community of nations. If bringing Tbilisi into NATO would enhance U.S. security, then it might be worth overlooking Georgia's democratic deficiencies. But Tbilisi in NATO would be a dangerous defense liability for America.
The "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization was formed in the aftermath of World War II to protect war-torn and disunited Western Europe from the Soviet Union as well as reintegrate defeated Germany into Western Europe. Americans believed it was in their interest to defend Europe in order to prevent the U.S.S.R. from dominating Eurasia.
With the end of the Cold War the justification for NATO disappeared. The Soviet Union split, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the global communist menace vanished. There no longer was any there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.
President Putin is no friend of liberty, but he evidences no design — and possesses no capability — to recreate a global empire. Under him Russia has reverted to a pre-World War I great power, focused on winning respect and protecting its borders. A Russian invasion of Eastern Europe, let alone the core western members of NATO, is but a paranoid fantasy.
Anyway, the Europeans are able to defend themselves. Today the European Union has ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia. Despite their ongoing economic crises, EU members together still spend far more than Moscow on the military. There is no prospect of Russia dominating Eurasia.
Unfortunately, expanding NATO over the last two decades has turned what once was a military alliance into an international social club. Other than Poland, the post-1989 NATO entrants have been military midgets, security black holes requiring the U.S. to pay to rearm and retrain militaries which remain too small to do anything useful in a real war. Yes, the new members contributed small contingents in America's other conflicts; President Saakashvili similarly sent Georgian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to win American support. But the U.S. has paid mightily for de minimis benefits.
Still, alliance advocates claim that NATO could at least protect countries at Europe's periphery. For instance, had Georgia been a member, they argue, Moscow would not have attacked. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas contended that including Tbilisi would "clearly show to Russia how unhelpful it is to even try flexing its muscles."
Yet history is full of examples of alliances which failed to deter powers from acting when they believed their vital interests to be at stake. In World War I most of the continent plunged into bloody conflict despite competing military leagues. In World War II Germany ignored British and French commitments to Poland.
Today Moscow might not believe that Americans and Europeans with little at stake would be so foolish as to confront a nuclear armed power over interests it viewed as vital. Moreover, the Russians are not likely to be any more inclined toward "appeasement" than would the U.S. in a comparable situation. Indeed, given the West's consistent policy of ignoring Russian interests, Moscow likely would insist even more strongly that concessions not be made and humiliations not be countenanced.
Attempting to establish friendly, democratic regimes along Russia's borders, and turn them into military outposts as members of the historic American-led, anti-Soviet alliance, is geopolitically aggressive. As America developed, Washington demonstrated little patience for European "meddling" in Central and even South America, which it considered to be America's backyard. Perhaps U.S. intentions were better, though the Latin Americans might not agree. Nevertheless, European security guarantees for America's neighbors would have made Washington less rather than more tractable.
Worse, NATO expansion brings the political and territorial disputes of new members with each other and Russia into the alliance. The organization then threatens to act as a transmission belt of rather than firebreak to war.
Countries reliant on their own resources are more likely to compromise. In contrast, having a superpower in their corner makes them more likely to be intransigent. Although most of the new NATO members, and especially the most recent additions like Albania and Croatia, are money pits for American aid, at least these nations are geopolitically irrelevant. Moscow has no reason to pay them any mind.
Georgia, bordering Russia and home to the independence-minded provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, matters much more to Moscow. While renewed conflict is unlikely, it is possible. If Tbilisi was a NATO member, the U.S. would be obligated to come to Georgia's defense. The result would be a possible nuclear confrontation with Russia over issues of negligible importance to America. Such a policy would be madness.
The Saakashvili government has proved that it cannot be trusted. Although Tbilisi asserts its innocence in the war with Russia, Georgia struck first, lighting "a match in a roomful of gas fumes," observed former secretary of state Colin Powell.
Former Saakashvili defense minister Irakli Okruashvili said that Tbilisi long planned its attack on South Ossetia, the seceded province backed by Moscow. The German publication Spiegel online reported that NATO officers "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."
Observers with the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) reported they saw no South Ossetian attacks on Georgian villages which President Saakashvili claimed had triggered retaliation by his nation. OSCE monitor Ryan Grist told the New York Times: "It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation." Indeed, Georgian forces exhibited no greater care for civilians than did the Russian military.
Despite its lack of NATO membership, Tbilisi still expected U.S. support when Russia responded. Before the war President Saakashvili declared: "I have to thank you, Mr. President, for your unwavered [sic] support for our freedom, for our democracy, for our territorial sovereignty and for protecting Georgia's borders and for Georgia's NATO aspirations."
As fighting raged the general cry of Georgians was: "where are the Americans?" Fleeing soldiers and refugees alike expressed their frustration at the lack of support. President Saakashvili was even more explicit.
He claimed to hold "American values" and pleaded: "Please wake up everybody." He told CNN: "It's not about Georgia anymore. It's about America, its values. We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack." After the U.S. agreed to send humanitarian aid the Georgian leader announced that "we will see U.S. military ships entering Georgian ports despite Russian blocking [sic] it." Later he insisted that America and Europe "must make Russia leave Georgian territory." He asked Washington "to rebuild the military" and pushed even more fervently for Georgia's entry into NATO.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage allowed that President Saakashvili "for some reason seems to think he has a hall pass from this administration." The latter can be forgiven for mistaking Washington's level of commitment. He came to power with American help in the so-called Rose Revolution. The U.S. treated the small state as if it was an important ally — supplying equipment, training troops, and providing money. President George W. Bush visited and pressed for Tbilisi's inclusion in NATO. Congress included the country in the "NATO Freedom Consolidation Act" which promoted Georgia and other candidate members.
President Saakashvili chose war even though the Bush administration insisted that it had warned Tbilisi not to provoke Russia. The Europeans said they made a similar point. The Georgian leader ignored his friends' admonitions and assumed they nevertheless would back him up.
If he was willing to risk everything merely in the hope that Washington would respond out of friendship, imagine how he would act if America and Europe were formally bound to back his government. With NATO's formal Article 5 defense guarantee in his pocket he could become even more provocative and take even greater risks. Bringing Georgia into the alliance with him as president would be a bit like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.
Georgia and Russia should resolve their differences peacefully — as should Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In any case, America should not get entangled in their dispute, essentially an argument between two parts of the former Soviet Union over the disposition of two much smaller parts of the former Soviet Union. Washington should endorse Georgia's independence, but not its claims over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And there is no justification for going to war in Georgia's defense.
Admittedly, Americans are constantly tempted to intervene to "fix" foreign problems. But the U.S. has no significant interests in the region. Why put Americans' lives, prosperity, future, and very existence on the line for the irresponsible government of another nation, no matter how worthy its people might be? Washington's first priority should be to protect the lives, freedoms, and territory of its own people. War should be a last resort, not just another policy choice.
Georgians deserve Americans' friendship, not America's protection. With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. can go back to being a normal country with a defense policy based on defense. That means fewer military commitments, a smaller force structure, and lower military outlays. That means leaving rather than expanding NATO. Washington should again make peace America's principal foreign policy objective.