Saturday, August 16, 2008
This week, a constant theme has been that Russia is violating its peace agreement. Now, I know that Russian troops are not welcome in Georgia, and should get out. I don't need to be reminded that Putin has blood on his hands. But it is ridiculous to hear that a peace deal has been abrogated, and at the same time be told both that Saakashvili had refused to sign the deal (just as he and his supporters had blocked a UNSC peace deal), and that the deal included provisions allowing for unspecified Russian 'security operations' inside Georgia. Clearly, the situation was that the Georgians were playing for time, hoping that the US could swing some weight behind them and make the deal less humiliating. The Russians, meanwhile, were demonstrating their overwhelming ability to subjugate Georgia if they wanted to, so that Saakashvili never gets ideas again. However, the editorial priority at each stage of this saga appears to have been to frame it in terms of what has now become the Bush narrative: straightforward Russian predation against local democracies. Mock the neoconservatives' on their 'Munich' binge if you like, but perfectly mainstream reporting has done everything to create the propaganda background against which such drivel appears comprehensible, even sensible. In light of this, it is likely that something very important is being left out of the story on Russia's alleged nuclear threat. For example, and this is just a thought, it could be that General Nogovitsyn actually intimated that Poland's missile sites would be a target in the event of an attack on the Russian Federation.
However that turns out, the struggle appears to be tilting in Russia's direction in the short term. As I suggested, Bush's speech appears to have contained a few things that made the military leadership nervous, and it really doesn't look like the navy is going to be sent in there. Turkey, whose permission would have to be sought, has a neoliberal Islamist leadership that wants America to 'share power'. In Georgia, meanwhile, Saakashvili's opponents are now mobilising against him (the Irish Times assures us that he reamins "broadly popular" despite the fact that his approval ratings had dropped to 23% within a year of the 'Rose Revolution'). The main opposition forces in Georgia are actually moderately conservative, and broadly pro-US: their beef with Saakashvili is that he is an undemocratic blundering idiot who brought this shit on Georgia and uses conflict with Russia to justify terror against his opponents. So, if they have their shit together, and if the Georgian state is in a sufficient panic, Saakashvili may be gone soon.
In the long run, the future of NATO will have a lot to do with whether this localised conflict becomes outright hostility between two nuclear states. Recall that NATO is no longer purely a defence pact (it never really was, but that was its formal remit). It did not disappear after the Warsaw Pact collapsed, because the Warsaw Pact had never been its sole target: in fact, the Warsaw Pact was founded in response to NATO, six years after its inception, rather than the other way round. But it could no longer simply pretend that it was a defensive organisation whose duration was determined by an external threat. It had to reconfigure its political and strategic justifications, and its organisational structure. The new mantras were "From Containment to Enlargement" (Anthony Lake), and "Out of area, or out of business" (Senator Richard Lugar). All this, of course, was complementary to Lord Ismay's old formulation of NATO's raison d'etre: to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down". So, NATO's new strategic concept was to advance far into Eastern Europe, and commit itself to actions outside its traditional zone, mainly in the "axial" super-continent of Eurasia. A Europe "whole and free" would be America's ally as it expanded its hegemony across the Eurasian land-mass. Friendly critics such as Edward Luttwak maintained that this strategy would dilute the political cohesion of the organisation and provoke Russia. The transatlantic axis, though apparently assured by America's evidently superior dynamism and drive, and the EU's temporary acquiescence, would be put in peril.
These criticisms turn out to have been prophetic. One also has to consider the related attempt to get Russians to let America "do their thinking for them", which has roots in late 19th Century US imperialism. That project was, at times, violently undemocratic, as when the West backed Yeltsin's coup in order to further the most extreme variant of neoliberal ideology. By 1996, the result was so transparently catastrophic that it had produced a nationalist reflux among substantial sectors of the elite as well as among the bulk of the population. Stephen F Cohen writes (in Failed Crusade, 2001) that it resulted in "more anti-Americanism than I had personally observed in forty years of studying and visiting Soviet and post-Soviet Russia". There was just no way that this could fail to result in a popular constituency for assertive nationalism. The Bush administration's Cold War-style belligerence and pursuit of an even more expansive missile shield than the former Vice President had proposed, was tied with the abrogation of the ABM treaty, and the determination to continue the expansion of NATO to the East. But these were more extreme variants of the previous administration's policies. In respect of the transatlantic axis, which is looking quite strained as Berlusconi sides with the Russians and Merkel takes an equidistant posture, many would have been surprised by the alacrity with which the Bush administration sought to thwart the policy goals of West European governments regarding the WTO, and browbeat them over Iraq. However, these tendencies were again prefigured in the Clinton administration. And the cooperation of the EU was partially based on the project in which the EU sought to develop its own independent military capacity (the so-called 'Rapid Reaction Force' under the rubric of the Common European Security and Defence Policy). The lack of military capacity and financial constraints always made such a project dependent on NATO in its germinal phase. But if such a project were ever to get off the ground, which seems highly unlikely, it is not necessarily the case that it would remain compatible with NATO. Even if, in the foreseeable future, the EU is not going to be able to project military force globally in anything like the capacity that the US can, it doesn't absolutely have to remain under US tutelage if a sufficient portion of its members feel that its policies are costing them. And it is abundantly apparent that many major EU states resent US policy toward Russia because it causes them to lose out in the struggle over energy access.
What this terminus has revealed, ironically, is that NATO's expansion is becoming the basis not of sustained American hegemony, but of multipolar rivalry, and a sharp fissure in the transatlantic coalition.