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 major lesson that U.S. policymakers, both Republicans and Democrats, should take away from the Georgia crisis is this: Russia is back, and it wants to be treated as a major power in its own neighborhood. Pushing NATO membership for Georgia crosses the line, in Moscow's view.

President Bush and his administration sustained a serious diplomatic defeat when Russian forces invaded Georgia after Georgian troops attacked the capital of South Ossetia, a breakaway province which has now declared its independence. Two questions to be asked are: Was the outcome of this episode predictable? And, what can be learned from the war?

Most Americans didn't know where Georgia is located when the news broke in early August. They know now that it borders Russia and that its government tried for five years to get Washington to press for its membership in NATO.

The Bush administration agreed and asked its European allies to support the proposal It also sent economic aid and military equipment and trainers to help strengthen Georgia's armed forces. Senator John McCain was a strong supporter of that policy.

However, many NATO members, notably Germany and France, were not enthusiastic. At a NATO Council meeting last spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel objected to putting Georgia on a fast rack to membership, and the proposal was put off.

Last month, at an emergency NATO meeting in Brussels, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would not press the membership issue. But Vice President Dick Cheney, visiting Georgia in early September, voiced his strong support for the proposal.

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

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

This case recalls Moscow's decision to invade Hungary in 1956 and crush a popular rebellion that was 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 we learn from this dramatic outbreak of war in Georgia?

First, it is highly risky for any great power to conclude a defense alliance with a country that is located on the border of another great power. Nikita Khrushchev learned that lesson in 1962 when he placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, an audacious action that nearly precipitated war with the Kennedy White House. The Russian leader backed off.

Similarly, when Moscow sought to build an air base in Grenada in 1984, Ronald Reagan sent Marines to occupy that Caribbean island.

Two weeks ago the White House announced a new aid package for Georgia to help rebuild its economy, but this time military hardware and trainers were not included.

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, but quite another matter to use force to protect people who declare their independence from recognized states.

For example, both George Bush and Bill Clinton were clear in warning Taiwan's leaders that pressing for independence from China was not supported by Washington. Today, a newly elected Taiwan government has narkedly improved relations with Beijing.

In another case, Moscow strongly opposed U.S. and European support for Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia. The result is that many countries do not recognize that independence, and Moscow will veto Kosovo's efforts to gain U.N. membership. The episode continues to rankle Russia's relations with the United States and NATO.

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 democracy, as Europe and the United States had hoped. As a result, the next U.S. president will need to be prudent in his dealings with Moscow, especially on pushing NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Both border Russia, and that could be a bridge too far.

File last modified on Monday, 21-SEP-2008 3:48 PM EST

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