Sunday, August 17, 2008

Responding to the Russian Challenge

It's by now clear that for all the chest-thumping over Russian aggression in Georgia, the immediate risk of great power escalation is remote: Russia is a nuclear-state, the U.S. has major military operations currently underway in Afghansitan and Iraq, and Moscow may engage in self-restraint to consolidate its power short of larger international condemnation.

That being the case, I'm intrigued by
the diplomatic advice offered by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security advisor under former President Jimmy Carter:

The West needs to respond to Russia's aggression in a clear and determined manner. That doesn't mean with force. Nor should it fall into a new cold war with Russia. But the West, particularly the U.S., should continue to mobilize the international community to condemn Russia's behavior....

It is premature to specify what precise measures the West should adopt. But Russia must be made to understand that it is in danger of becoming ostracized internationally. This should be a matter of considerable concern to Russia's new business √©lite, who are increasingly vulnerable to global financial pressure. Russia's powerful oligarchs have hundreds of billions of dollars in Western bank accounts. They would stand to lose a great deal in the event of a Cold War–style standoff that could conceivably result, at some stage, in the West's freezing of such holdings.

At some point, the West should consider the Olympic option. If the issue of Georgia's territorial integrity is not adequately resolved (by, for example, the deployment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia of a truly independent international security force replacing Russian troops), the U.S. should contemplate withdrawing from the 2014 Winter Games, to be held in the Russian city of Sochi, next to the violated Georgia's frontier. There is a precedent for this. I was part of the Carter Administration when we brandished the Olympic torch as a symbolic weapon in 1980, pulling out of the Summer Games in Moscow after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had planned a propaganda show reminiscent of Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin. America's boycott delivered a body blow to President Leonid Brezhnev and his communist system and prevented Moscow from enjoying a world-class triumph.
Reading this, it's frankly no surprise that Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul during President Carter's watch in 1979.

2014 is still some time away, but if the U.S. wanted to bring about a new Cold War, what better way than to revive the Olympic tradition of boycotting Russia's games? Maybe a President Obama will don a cardigan and ask Americans to turn down the thermostat to 68 degrees as well. Meanwhile, Americans could watch Russian tanks roll from Tsbilisi to Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, not to mention Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Moscow could place a strategic stranglehold on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which sends crude oil supplies to Southeastern Europe, and it could begin to incorporate the former Muslim republics at the southern Russia periphery back into Moscow's sovereign control.

All of this, while remote, is a reminder
that U.S. diplomacy and soft-power may be limited in meeting the rising challenges of great power politics. Ideas and institutions may take us part of the way in managing the rise of revanchist autocracies, but at some point preserving the autonomy of nations of the democratic West may require not just the exertion of neoliberal "confidence-building measures" (or boycotts), but hard military capabilities as well.

These considerations give added urgency to the debate in the U.S. over the redeployment of American troops from Iraq. Perhaps a debate over "permanent bases" in the Middle East and South Asia might not be such a bad thing after all?

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