Thursday, August 14, 2008

International Politics and Russia's Invasion of Georgia

Russia's invasion of Georgia, justified by Moscow as an incursion to defend South Ossetia separatists, has raised fundamental questions of great power politics and world order in late-Bush-era international relations.

The initial debate focused on
locating the conflict's casus belli, and on questions of Georgian irrationality in launching a blitz on the breakaway rebels. Some have focused on U.S. responsibility for the war, arguing that America's broader policy on Georgia's accession to NATO provoked Moscow's aggression in the former Soviet republic. There's also been some allegations of a neoconservative election ploy to help the GOP in November - this the latest in the left's meme of alleging a "neocon" plot foisting endless wars of neo-imperial aggression on the world.

Along these lines this morning is
Juan Cole's argument that the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003, combined with American foreign policy assertiveness, destroyed the global institutional order and raped the international rule of law:

An emboldened Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sarcastically likened Russia's actions to Bush's foreign policy...

Indeed, Putin's invoking Bush's Iraq adventure points directly to the way in which Bush has enabled other world powers to act impulsively. With his doctrine of preemptive warfare, Bush single-handedly tore down the architecture of post-World War II international law erected by the founders of the United Nations to ensure that rogue states did not go about launching wars of aggression the way Hitler had. While safeguarding minorities at risk is a praiseworthy goal, the U.N. Charter states that the Security Council must approve a war launched for this purpose or any other, excepting self-defense. No individual nation is authorized to wage aggressive war on a vigilante basis, as Bush did in Iraq or Russia is now doing in the Caucasus.

Cole is rehearsing the debate on the origins of the Iraq war, rehashing the claim that America's toppling of Saddam lacked international legitimacy. This is the "big lie" meme that's popular on the left (the dead giveaway is the Bush-Hitler analogy of naked "wars of aggression"). Recall, of course, that the U.S. acted in 2003 on a long series of U.N. Security Council resolutions dating from the 1991 Gulf War armistice. The U.S. and its allies launch Operation Iraqi Freedom within the parameters of international law, and the resistance at the U.N. Security Council in 2003 - especially among France and Russia - reflected interest-based opposition to American policy among the international system's middle powers.

But Cole's attention on international institutions deserves a closer look: What has happened within the so-called "architecture of international law" following the shock of renascent Russian revanchism?

Well, the U.N. Security Council is naturally stymied, as Moscow holds a veto as a permanent member. The Office of the U.N. Secretary General has condemed Russian aggression, but has passed the buck to France, saying it welcomes the earlier Paris-backed cease-fire agreement that Moscow had no intentions of observing. The EU, the most successful international institution to emerge on the European continent in the post-World War II era, is utterly divided, with the Franco-German founders only weakly criticizing Moscow for fear of an embargo on Russian oil supplies to Western Europe. Meanwhile, new EU members from the East - such as Poland and Estonia - are pushing for a more aggressive condemnation of Moscow that will signal a firm Western commitment to former East Bloc nations who don't doubt a reestablishment of the Russian yoke in Eastern Europe.

There's NATO to consider as well. Of all the post-1945 multilateral institutions, NATO embodies both the hopes and failures of the post-Cold War international order. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization began its history as a balance of power alliance. Its raison d'etre was to stop a Soviet Blitzkrieg invasion across the central plains of Europe, pushing its Warsaw Pact armored divisions through Poland to defeat American power in West Germany. With the expulsion of NATO forces bordering Eastern Europe, Moscow would consolidate its Western expansion, in the hope of expelling U.S. forces off the continent once and for all.

As time went by, NATO has been tranformed from a traditional security alliance to some confused-hybrid order falling between traditional collective security ("one for all, and all for one") and collective defense (a "collective security alliance" of increasing scope, with enlargement aspirations encompassing the nations of the former Soviet sphere of influence in the East). The recent proposals for Georgia's accession to NATO reflect the logical end-result of moving from a balance-of-power alliance checking Moscow's threat to the West to a continental-wide institutional arrangement predicated on some "new world order" of a Washington-Moscow condominium of interests. In other words, a post-Cold War "end of history" would see Moscow acquiesce to its former antagonists establishing a strategic beachhead on the Russian landing grounds in East Central Europe.

As the world has seen, however, Russia under Vladimir Putin has reprised the historic traditions of Great Russian Nationalism. Russia's incursion to restore hegemony in Georgia is the prerogative of a renascent great power pursuing its timeless interests in securing a sphere of control at its southern outposts. International institutions have so far been largely ineffective in stopping the Russion drive for mastery in Georgia.

Melik Kaylan, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, laid out the big picture for Russian's designs in Georgia and beyond:

Russia Geopolitics

As we worry about another Russian imperialist adventure in Georgia, we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture either: To wit, Moscow has always had a clear strategic use for the Caucasus, one that concerns the U.S. today more than ever.

Having overestimated the power of the Soviet Union in its last years, we have consistently underestimated the ambitions of Russia since. Already, a great deal has been said about the implications of Russia's invasion for Ukraine, the Baltic States and Europe generally. But few have noticed the direct strategic threat of Moscow's action to U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Kremlin is not about to reignite the Cold War for the love of a few thousand Ossetians or even for its animosity toward five million Georgians. This is calculated strategic maneuvering. And make no mistake, it's about countering U.S. power at its furthest stretch with Moscow's power very close to home.

The pivotal geography of the Caucasus offers the Kremlin just such an opportunity. Look at a map, and the East-meets-West, North-meets-South vector lines of the region illustrate all too clearly how the drama now unfolding in the Caucasus casts Moscow's shadow all across Central Asia and down into the Middle East. In effect, we in the West are being challenged by Russian actions in Georgia to show that we have the nerve and the stamina to secure the gains not just of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but of the entire collapse of Soviet power.

Between Russia and Iran, in the lower Caucasus, sits a small wedge of independent soil - namely, the soil of Azerbaijan and Georgia combined. Through those two countries runs the immensely important Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which delivers precious oil circuitously from Azerbaijan to Turkey and out to the world. This is important not just because of the actual oil being delivered free of interference from Russia and Iran and the Middle East, but also for symbolic reasons. It says to the world that if any former Moscow colonies wish to sell their wares to the West directly, they have a right to do so, and the West will support that right. According to Georgian authorities, Russian warplanes have tried to demolish the Georgian leg of that pipeline several times in the last days. Their message cannot be clearer.

Besides their own pipeline, Georgia and Azerbaijan offer a fragile strategic conduit between the West and the "stans" of Central Asia -- including Afghanistan -- an area that the Soviets once controlled in toto. We should remember that an isolated Central Asia means an isolated Afghanistan. Look at the countries surrounding Afghanistan -- all former Soviet colonies, then Iran, then Pakistan.

The natural resources of Central Asia, from Turkmenistan's natural gas to Kazakhstan's abundant oil, cannot reach the West free of Russia and Iran except through that narrow conduit in the Caucasus. Moscow's former colonies in Central Asia are Afghanistan's most desirable trading partners. They are watching the strife in Georgia closely. It will tell them whether or not they will enter the world's free markets without a Russian chokehold on their future - or, whether they, and their economies, are doomed for the foreseeable future to remain colonies in all but name. And it won't be long before Moscow dictates to them exactly how to isolate Kabul. Moscow is perfectly aware, even if we are not, that choking off the bottleneck in the Caucasus gives Iran and Russia much say over our efforts in Afghanistan.

In Iraq too, the Kremlin's projection of power down through Georgia will soon be felt. Take another look at the map. If Russia is allowed to extend its reach southwards, as in Soviet times, down the Caucasus to Iran's borders, Moscow can support Iran in any showdown with the West. Iran, thus emboldened, will likely attempt to reassert itself in Iraq, Syria and, via Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
Seen from a macro-perspective, it is not "pure hype" to see the current crisis in the Caucasus as the predecessor to a longer round of violent skirmishes over the ultimate control of the South Asian strategic rimland.

This why the battle for Georgia today is a battle for the West tomorrow: "
We are all Georgians" now, yet we are not without resources to stop Putin's hegemonic advance.

The manner and dispatch with these facts are apprehended among the various political actors, in the U.S. and abroad, tells us much about the nature and efficacy of the international architecture of law and order that so many are quick to tout.

Image Credit: Wall Street Journal