Tom Piatak makes an important observation about the historical context forgotten by those who see in today’s Russia the same kind of threat that existed in the former Soviet Union:
The border dispute between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia has inspired much breathless commentary, including Andrew McCarthy at NRO proclaiming this the “Soviets’ rebirth.”
Before hyperventilating, McCarthy would be well advised to read some back issues of National Review. As that magazine long argued, what made the Soviet Union such a dangerous threat was the Communist ideology the Soviet Union embodied, an ideology that gave the Soviets many Western admirers and allies and also propelled the Soviets toward confrontation with the West. Soviet Communism is dead, and what is going on in South Ossetia is an old-fashioned border squabble of the type that the United States has wisely stayed out of for most of our history.
This is exactly right. No one ever expected Russia before or after the Soviet Era to be indifferent to the safety of its own people, the actions of nearby enemies, and the behavior of neighboring nations in general. The problem for the United States and the West during the Cold War was not so much that the Soviet Union concerned itself with the Caucuses or the Baltics, but rather that it also concerned itself with Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola, Libya, Syria, and everywhere else on the globe. Its unifying Communist ideology was an uncompromising and aggressive set of principles that did not acknowledge any geographical or other limits. A nationalist and powerful Russia, by contrast, can always be expected to have a certain influence over its neighbors. This is not a problem for the United States, and those neighbors ultimately must reach a modus vivendi with Russia that the U.S. can do little to fashion.
The natural power of Russia over its near-abroad–particularly the Caucuses–is why the expansion of NATO to Russia’s front door and NATO’s embrace new of missions such as the Kosovo Campaign are so foolish. These detours turn a defensive alliance, once necessary to contain an aggressive and ideological regime, into an offensive conspiracy that would foment the very aggresion that it ostensibly exists to deter.
Any useful concept of post-Cold-War relations must be founded on some realistic consideration of spheres of influence. The Caucuses are a legitimate concern for Russia, not least because they include parts of Russia and, in the case of Georgia, a nation that borders Russia. Just as Europe should respect American influence over the Western Hemisphere, it is natural and predictable that nations like Russia will be substantially more touchy in affairs taking place in their own backyard.
Even if some strategic relationship with nations like Armenia and Georgia makes sense to the U.S., it is particularly unwise that cooperation extends the NATO defensive military alliance. Far from “avoiding another Munich,” such commitments would instead hurt the intended beneficiaries, and likely hurt the U.S. as well. Such commitments could hurt both parties directly by dragging us into wars based on the actions of our uncontrolable treaty partners or indirectly by creating commitment that the U.S. would ultimately abjure and thereby devalue our national honor. It is especially a bad idea to get into bed with a provocative and irresponsible–if fawningly pro-American–leader like Saakashvili. After 1989, and especially now after witnessing the indifferent assistance of our NATO allies in Afghanistan, the U.S. should scale back our NATO commitments to informal relationships with the handful of NATO nations that can actually do something useful for us like Italy, Great Britain, and Turkey.
Our continued cultivation of NATO is an extension of a self-defeating U.S. strategy undertaken during the 1990s: the impossible goal of maintaining “unipolarity.” In foreign affairs, this quest to remain the “sole superpower” makes everything everywhere our business, sets us up for manipulation by cynical power brokers like Hasim Thaci and Saakashvili, and is in the end a recipe for high cost and little reward, as our power will become resented and opposed by inevitable regional powers like Indian, Russia, and China. Just as anti-war conservatives should acknowledge that the strong defense posture of the Cold War was addressed to a singularly dangerous threat, pro-war conservatives today should remember the same in reverse. Very few threats match those of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. It is time to restore some sense of proportion in foreign policy, based on the sturdy foundations of preserving our own safety and our own national independence in a world where the reality of power politics is the most important factor.
Of course, such a world would not always be a perfectly just one. I don’t mean to imply the evils suffered in this war, particularly by the civilians of Georgia, are not real and unfortunate. But politics, above all, requires some translation of abstract justice into the human realm, refracted as it is by memory, power, history, and geography. A foreign policy that aimed to rid the world of all evil, all competition, all war, and all strife in the name of “commitment to doing the right thing” would destroy the country that pursued it, no matter how sincerely. If the Soviet Union’s doomed history teaches us anything, it should be this.