Georgia became independent during the break-up of the USSR in 1991. Ever since, Russia, regretting this, has been making mischief. Russia — even while violently opposing the concept of secessionism with respect to Chechnya — instigated and supported the secession of two provinces of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia says it has a lot of its citizens in South Ossetia. It does only because it has connived at South Ossetia’s secession, put its troops in South Ossetia as so-called “peacekeepers” and given Russian passports to the inhabitants. All of this is utterly disgraceful on Russia’s part.
Recently Georgia’s democratically elected President Saakashvili — whom Putin loathes because Saakashvili is in fact legitimately elected — tried to reassert Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia which, again, is within its borders. Russia has used this as a pretext to not only invade South Ossetia, but to go much farther, bombing and destroying way beyond South Ossetia, its clear aim being to just give Georgia and Saakashvili a bloody nose, to destabilize the country, to get rid of Saakashvili, and teach the lesson that it’s a bully who’d better be accommodated in whatever it wants.
This is totally unacceptable. And the response of the West has been pathetically limp. Barack Obama talks about diplomacy, and going to the UN Security Council. Perhaps he has forgotten that Russia has a veto in the Security Council. In cases like this, the UN is simply not available to provide any remedy. John McCain had previously proposed creating a league of democratic nations, outside the UN system, to provide a kind of legitimacy for the good guys to take needed action without having to get the permission of the bad guys. It’s a pity this proposal had not been adopted earlier; it might have been quite good to have such an organization in this Georgia crisis.
In any case, it is urgent that we get our act together and make clear to Russia that there is a price to be paid for this kind of bloody behavior. We must make Russia pay a price even if that entails accepting costs to ourselves in doing so. It’s worth the cost.
On Tuesday August 19, at noon, at the Albany Public Library on Washington Avenue, I will be presenting a review of Robert Kagan’s book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Kagan’s book is obviously intended as a riposte to Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End Of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama had argued in essence not that historical events are over, but that the broad process of history, in terms of Man’s search for a societal model, had reached a conclusion: that liberal democracy and free market economics is the final model, that satisfies Man’s primordial hunger for what he called “thymos,” a word derived from Plato, roughly translated as “spiritedness,” and entailing the quest for recognition as beings of dignity and worth. Kagan, however, maintains that geopolitical competition among nations has not gone away, that the world is still divided between democracies and autocracies, and that the latter are behaving in accordance with the ancient model of power politics.
The other day Kagan commented on the radio that the Georgia situation confirms his thesis: history is back. However, Kagan’s book is not as pessimistic as you might think. In fact, his ultimate conclusion is merely that there was too much optimism at the end of the Cold War, and today there is actually too much pessimism. While democracy does not prevail by grace of some ineluctable force, it can prevail by our efforts on its behalf. We must not complacently shirk those efforts.
While it is true that we confront the same bad old Russia, operating in a Nineteenth Century manner, the terrain in which it operates has completely changed, with most of the rest of the world having moved on to the Twenty-first century. And even with the Western response as pusillanimous as it’s been, nevertheless Russia has been obliged to halt its Georgia invasion. In today’s world, Russia cannot simply annex Georgia — as it had in fact done in the past. It is indeed a different world now.