Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Realpolitik in inaction

Had I been quicker, I would have read Tom's post pointing out the perils awaiting bloggers who comment on the difficult, complex and hitherto obscure situation in Georgia, particularly in light of the fact they know hee-haw about it. But I wasn't and I didn't, so in for a penny...

The problem for the West, as per the last post, is that Russia seems to be in a position to act with impunity, and is working hard at maintaining that advantage. So how to respond?

One answer, of course, that we don't. From a realpolitik view, as summed up by Simon Jenkins, Russia and the West are just as bad as each other: we invade sovereign countries, encourage separatist movements, seek control of energy resources, use power and influence to expand our power and influence. Moreover, it's our efforts at controlling Russia that brought us to this pass: we encourage and support democratic, pro-Western movements in Russia's backyard, we offer military support to countries Russia would prefer weak and intimidated, we expand NATO to hem Russia in. In consequence, Russia feels isolated and besieged, and responds aggressively.

Much better not to interfere. Give Russia space, let it play power politics with its neighbours and aim for cordial, arms-length relations. If it means that a few fledgling democracies fail, a handful of tanks roll through the occasional village or city, it's still better than a new Cold War. Frankly, it's a beguiling proposition. It is difficult to see how we would oppose Russia in a battle of wills, the cost of failure is pretty high, so why beat our heads against a brick wall? Maybe we can't save the whole damn world.

Another view comes from Michael Williams, also in the Guardian: our failure was that we didn't push hard enough. By this view, it was the decision not to fast-track NATO membership that led to all this: Georgia was left exposed, and Russia took advantage. But this was not a joint decision: expansion was supported by the US, but also by former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic states. They view NATO as vital in defending the interests of Russia's one-time allies or Soviet republics - the only guarantee of sovereignty. Opposition came from Germany and France, who knew very well that South Ossetia was a flashpoint, and didn't want to be dragged into war by a belligerent Saakashvilli. Given that Saakashvilli's belligerent approach did give Russia the excuse it was waiting for, it's a diffcult counterfactual to argue. Maybe French troops would now be obliged to fight Russians; maybe NATO leadership would have reined Saakashvilli in while telling the Russians to think twice.

In any case, it seems clear that a strategy of supporting pro-Western states will only work if the support is serious - or, in other words, costly. Building up our allies so that they take risks counting on our support only to leave them begging for help on CNN doesn't get anyone anywhere. Naturally, that makes us reluctant to make any commitments. But it's worth remembering that one key point: many of Russia's neighbours are turning towards democracy, asking to be our allies, and telling us they want our help in becoming fully autonomous rather than satellites of their more powerful neighbour. It may be difficult to achieve - it may be impossible in all cases - but it's a much better starting point for a foreign policy than realpolitik's "I'm alright, Jack".

PS There's an assumption running through this post, and through almost everything I've read on this. It's the assumption that to be pro-West is to be anti-Russian; that the West and Russia are necessarily opposed. Granted, it's an assumption that's clearly operative in Moscow, but it could stand re-examination from this side too.

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