Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The Bush administration sustained a serious diplomatic defeat in its efforts to bring Georgia into the North Atlantic Alliance. One question is, was the outcome predictable? Another is, what can we learn from the short war in Georgia?

Most Americans had little idea where Georgia is when news broke about a war there in early August. We soon learned that it lies on the border of Russia and that its government sought for five years to get Washington to agree to its membership in NATO.

President Bush and Secretary of State Rice supported its request, and sent military trainers and equipment to build up its armed forces. Another supporter of Georgia was Senator John McCain.

However, Europe's NATO members, notably Germany and France, were not enthusiastic. At a NATO Council meeting in the spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel objected to putting Georgia on a fast rack to membership. The issue was put off.

Last week, at an emergency NATO meeting in Brussels, Condoleezza Rice told the group that the United States would not press the membership issue.

The timing of Georgia's August 7 invasion of breakaway South Ossetia is significant. President Mikheil Saakashvili apparently thought that, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President George Bush both in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he could invade South Ossetia in a lightning assault, pacify it quickly, and depend on Washington to dissuade Moscow from intervening. The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi warned Saakashvili against the action. He badly miscalculated.

The reality is that the United States was neither capable nor willing to send Marines and air power to defend Georgia against a Russian tank force which quickly shattered the invading Georgian force and established a "security zone" that includes parts of Georgia.

The case recalls Moscow's decision to invade Hungary in 1956 and crush a popular rebellion that had been tacitly encouraged by the Eisenhower administration. Moscow correctly calculated that Washington would not use force to defend Hungary, then a member of the Warsaw Pact.

What should Americans learn from this episode in Georgia?

First, it is highly risky for a great power to conclude a defense alliance with a country that is located on the border of another great power.

Nikita Khrushchev learned this lesson in 1962 when he placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and nearly precipitated war with the Kennedy White House before backing off.

Similarly, America's entry into World War I on the side of Britain was triggered in part by revelation in 1917 of a secret "Zimmerman telegram" that was sent from Germany's foreign minister to his ambassador in Mexico City. It offered to support granting Mexico a piece of American territory if it joined Germany in the war.

A second lesson is this: Washington should refrain from encouraging minority populations to break away from their governments in the expectation that U.S. forces will be used to protect them. It is one thing for the United States to promote human rights and democracy abroad; it is quite another matter to use force to protect groups who declare independence.

Both George Bush and Bill Clinton were clear on cautioning Taiwan's leaders that pressing for independence from China would not be supported by Washington. A newly elected Taiwan government has greatly improved relations with Beijing.

In another case, Moscow strongly opposed U.S. and European support for Kosovo's independence from Serbia early this year. As a result, the breakaway province will not be admitted to the United Nations, and many countries do not recognize its independence. The case continues to rankle U.S.-Russia relations.

A third lesson is that Russia is no longer a weak power, as it was in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991. Sadly, it is also not a democratic state, as Europe and the United States had hoped. The next U.S. president will therefore need to be prudent in dealing with Moscow and should avoid actions on Russia's borders that could become another "bridge too far."

File last modified on Monday, 1-SEP-2008 2:48 PM EST

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