THE PLANK AUGUST 12, 2008
I have to say that I agree with a good deal of Leon Wieseltier’s rejoinder to me, and I’ll keep it in mind the next time I am asked to write a blog post about something about which I have not fully made up my mind. I didn’t say that Russia’s invasion of Georgia was a justifiable reaction to American foreign policy, but I also didn’t say with sufficient force and clarity that--whatever the circumstances, or the psychology, that impelled Russia to invade Georgia--it is an act without justification that the U.S. and other countries are right to condemn. It’s the old story of large countries attempting to subjugate small ones--what the League of Nations and the United Nations were founded to prevent. It’s Germany and Belgium, the U.S. and Cuba, and Iraq and Kuwait. What exactly to do about it in this case is another question, and one that neither I nor Leon have answers to.
And I didn’t mean to imply that if the U.S. had conducted its foreign policy toward Russia differently, Russia would not have had designs on Georgia--or nourished resentment about the 30 million Russians that live outside its post-Cold War borders. During the Clinton years, American foreign policy-makers seemed to harbor the illusion that Russia could become something like South Korea--a successful democracy without any great power pretensions. But the period of the ‘90s will be seen as an anomaly in Russian history--as a product of Russia’s disorder and weakness in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Still, there is a history of diplomacy that has to be considered in the future and that Americans often ignore. The takeover of Czechoslovakia after World War II (as opposed to the takeover of, say, Lithuania earlier) was not an inevitable outgrowth of Soviet foreign policy; the Iranian hostage crisis was not an inevitable outgrowth of Shiite militancy. Even Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was rooted in Iraq’s relations with Iran and with Saudi Arabia. So there is a process of action and reaction that takes place in world affairs that diplomacy has to take account of.
In the case of Russia, the U.S. has to understand that the current mood of anti-western nationalism arose in part as a reaction to a decade or more of Russia being treated as a poor relation by the U.S. and more broadly the West. Yes, give Russia aid, but don’t heed its concerns about the expansion of NATO up to its borders. George Kennan called the expansion of NATO in the ‘90s “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” I don’t know if I would go that far, but I think it was done without sufficient concern for the repercussions.
Compare U.S. foreign policy toward China over the last thirty years. Perhaps the U.S. should have more strenuously protested China’s human rights practices or its own actions on its borders, but by giving China its due, and treading carefully in the region, the U.S. probably contributed to the relative absence of war and conflict in a region that from 1945 through the 1970s was wracked by wars.
It may be that Russia’s invasion of Georgia will set off a chain of events between the U.S. and Russia--where oil, gas and pipelines are present, it is right to fear the worst--that will lead to a renewal of Cold War-like tensions. Certainly, that will be the case if Russia seeks to recolonize Georgia. But if Russia can be induced to withdraw from Georgia, then the U.S. will have a chance to reformulate its foreign policy toward Russia. And in doing that, it would be wise to consider Russia’s history and the recent history of the U.S. with Russia.
--John B. Judis