In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Georgia: the super cop vanishes

Posted by seumasach on August 18, 2008

“According to the International Herald Tribune, an unnamed United Nations official is said to have joked that the U.S. was happy to let Georgia lose South Ossetia as long as Russia voted in favour of censuring Iran. Had the U.S. won decisive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would not find itself caught in this complex web of linkage between Iran and the imbroglio in the Caucasus. Mr. Putin is taking full advantage of Washington’s dependence on Russia to solve two international problem cases — Iran and North Korea — and extracting his pound of flesh against Georgia.”

The writer overestimates America’s hand: the quid pro quo consists not in Russia allowing the US to isolate Iran but in allowing the US to extricate itself from Iraq without total loss of credibility. Russia is steadily strengthening its links with Iran and could not conceivably allow it to be bombed.

Sreeram Chaulia

The Hindu

As Russia carries its overwhelming response to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia into Georgian territory, the United States is appealing for restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. This is the same U.S. which, a few months ago, was overeager to bless Kosovo as an independent state at the cost of Serbia’s territorial integrity. Just as Washington paid little heed to Moscow’s protests at that time over the illegality of Kosovo’s stateh ood, Moscow is now rebutting in the same vein that there is no question of South Ossetia and Abkhazia being returned to Georgian suzerainty.

Behind the Russian-Georgian recriminations over who owns which patch of land in the Caucasus and which side committed war crimes lie larger trends that mirror the changing world order.

Firstly, Russia has proved that it has the military aces up its sleeve to assert superiority over its sphere of influence or ‘near abroad.’ In recent years, Moscow has employed its vast gas reserves as a strategic weapon in tussles with NATO allies like Ukraine. However, the war with Georgia is Russia’s first military expedition outside its borders since the fall of the Soviet Union. What is more, it went unchallenged. Russian forces routed Georgian forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia and then penetrated Georgia proper with little resistance. Georgians were left cursing ‘friends’ in Washington who failed to come to the rescue when the old colonial Russian military machine was scything through their terrain.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has sounded a warning to Russian leaders that 2008 is not 1968, when unopposed Soviet tanks rolled over Czechoslovakia to crush rebellion and force regime change. It is a signal that Washington would not sit quiet and accept a fait accompli if Russia occupies Georgia or dethrones the West’s protégé, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. But in concrete terms, the architect of the military campaign, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, knows well that the U.S. cannot do much beyond verbal protestation about the merger of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Russia.

The world has come a long way since the first Gulf War, when the George H.W. Bush administration cobbled a military coalition to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty after it was destroyed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. At the onset of unipolarity in 1991, Washington sounded out a new hegemonic bugle that it will not tolerate transgressions of territorial sovereignty of one state by another, as had been the routine during the Cold War. With a preponderance of power, the U.S. embarked on a “new world order” in which its writ would reign supreme as the world’s policeman. In the immediate post-Cold War years, the rules of sovereignty were supposed to be enforced by the U.S., especially when its allies were the defendants, to ensure peaceful international relations so that trade and capital could flow unhindered across borders.

Today, as Russia toys with supine Georgia and a listless NATO, the global super cop avatar of the U.S. has vanished into thin air. The disappearance has two aspects — moral and material. It transpires that, of late, the policeman had himself been wrecking the laws so blithely that he lost the moral authority to cast aspersions on others. The U.S.’ violation of sovereignties of several countries in the name of the ‘war on terrorism’ has downgraded the value of the principle of territorial integrity and left it prey to the law of the jungle. In May this year, the U.S. sanctioned violation of Ecuador’s territory by its Latin American client, Colombia. The selectivity with which Washington has defended sovereignty weakens the whole concept and leaves it open to plunder.

By cheapening the territorial integrity vis-À-vis doctrines of pre-emption and hot pursuit of terrorists, Washington has provided the argumentative basis for Russia to absorb South Ossetia and Abkhazia and linger on in parts of Georgia. Moscow’s claim that it has the right to target areas of Georgia from which military threats emanate sounds reasonable in a climate of international unaccountability engendered by the ‘war on terror’. If Russia does withdraw from Georgian-populated territories, it will be out of prudence to avoid facing a nationalist uprising, not due to respect for sovereignty.

Materially, the decline of American policing of different flashpoints of the world is a factor of imperial overstretch and fighting on too many fronts. The U.S. military is so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan that Mr. Putin was assured of no swift NATO reaction to his deeds in Georgia. Moreover, since Washington cannot begin bombing Iran when its forces are caught in other quagmires, the U.S. needs Russian support to diplomatically isolate Iran for its nuclear intransigence.

According to the International Herald Tribune, an unnamed United Nations official is said to have joked that the U.S. was happy to let Georgia lose South Ossetia as long as Russia voted in favour of censuring Iran. Had the U.S. won decisive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would not find itself caught in this complex web of linkage between Iran and the imbroglio in the Caucasus. Mr. Putin is taking full advantage of Washington’s dependence on Russia to solve two international problem cases — Iran and North Korea — and extracting his pound of flesh against Georgia.

Saakashvili’s reckless ploy to integrate South Ossetia in a quick military operation was predicated on expectations of backup from NATO, which never came. Thus, the lesson of the war for other NATO aspirant countries in Eastern Europe is that there is hardly any concrete security benefit of joining the U.S.-led military alliance. With Washington having to beg fellow NATO members to increase their contributions to Afghanistan, the alliance does not exude much confidence to be an attractive option. By acting toughly against Georgian indiscretion, Mr. Putin achieved a masterstroke of demonstrating the futility of joining NATO to Russia-fearing neighbours. Further, he has redefined the extent to which these countries can afford to become pro-western in their foreign policies.

With over 2000 civilian casualties incurred already in the sparsely populated dispute zone of South Ossetia, the war in the Caucasus is undoubtedly a human tragedy. Regionally, it has uncovered the continued pulls and strains of ethnic nationalism in post-Soviet political space. Globally, it has revealed a paralysed U.S. versus a rejuvenated Russia — a combination that confirms the observable transition to a post-American world.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York.)

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