Friedman and Ignatius on Georgia

Valuable columns by Tom Friedman and David Ignatius. Friedman concentrates on the error of Nato expansion, and the consequent humiliation of Russia, which has now come back to bite us.

[S]ince we had finally brought down Soviet communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia the most important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the cold war — to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?…

No, said the Clinton foreign policy team, we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats, because Moscow is weak and, by the way, they’ll get used to it. Message to Russians: We expect you to behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like you’re still the Soviet Union. The cold war is over for you, but not for us.

I don’t think we fought the cold war to give young Russians freedom, actually, but put that aside.

The risks of humiliating Russia after the Wall came down were perhaps given too little weight. The dilemma was certainly understood by advocates of Nato enlargement, and there were attempts at outreach through various forms of partnership between Russia and and the alliance, though perhaps this seemed like adding insult to injury. But bear two other points in mind. One, Nato was not enlarged all the way, out of concern for Russia’s reaction: Ukraine and Georgia have been sort of promised membership, but with no timetable. Two, the question was, what were we to say to Poland, Hungary, and then-Czechoslovakia, desperate for release from Russo-Soviet imperium and for the protection of the West? Remember also that the success of their post-socialist transition to market economics was very much in doubt. This was a finely balanced argument.

The real mistake, to my mind, was in taking too long to admit the Eastern Europeans to the European Union–and that in turn owed everything to the fact (a grave mistake in its own right) that the EU had deepened its political integration too fast and too far. A shallower economic union, rather than a United States of Europe in progress, would have been able to embrace Poland and the others more eagerly. As it was, the only fast-acting institutional support for the East European reformers was Nato, a military alliance explicitly created to confront the Soviet Union, and implicitly still aimed at Russia. Friedman accuses the Clinton and Bush foreign-policy teams of “rank short-sightedness” in all this. He makes a good point, but the error was not as clear-cut as he says.

Ignatius focuses on John McCain’s penchant for the “zinger”:

McCain likes zingers. We’ve all seen that mischievous look — just before he shot a quip or sarcastic one-liner at GOP rivals such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. It’s one of his appealing qualities, but in this case it worries me. Zingers don’t make good foreign policy. They embolden friends and provoke adversaries — and in the Georgia crisis, that has proved to be a deadly combination…

So what encouraged Saakashvili to make his reckless gamble? Partly it was the ambivalent policy of the Bush administration, which told the Georgian leader one month that “We always fight for our friends” (as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in July in Tbilisi about Georgia’s bid to join NATO) and the next month cautioned restraint. And partly it was cheerleading from the pro-Georgia lobby, in which McCain has been one of the loudest voices…

There’s a moral problem with all the pro-Georgia cheerleading, which has gotten lost in the op-ed blasts against Putin’s neo-imperialism. A recurring phenomenon of the early Cold War was that America encouraged oppressed peoples to rise up and fight for freedom — and then, when things got rough, abandoned them to their fate. The CIA did that egregiously in the early 1950s, broadcasting to the Soviet republics and the nations of Eastern Europe that America would back their liberation from Soviet tyranny. After the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, responsible U.S. leaders learned to be more cautious, and more honest about the limits of American power.

Now, after the Georgia war, McCain should learn that lesson: American leaders shouldn’t make threats the country can’t deliver or promises it isn’t prepared to keep. The rhetoric of confrontation may make us feel good, but other people end up getting killed.

I think Ignatius is absolutely right about this. The empty threat is a very bad way to conduct foreign policy. Now, recognizing this gets you only so far. It does not tell you whether Nato enlargement–in effect, a threat backed up with tanks–was a good idea. Does Georgia ever join? What about Ukraine? Should Poland have been brought in? Should Nato have been shut down altogether after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Those hard questions don’t go away. But in the meantime, as Ignatius says, the diplomatic zinger is best avoided.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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