As the old European powers of the late 19th century began their inexorable march toward mutual suicide on the battlefields of the 20th century, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, presciently predicted that any future conflagration might well start because of “some damned thing in the Balkans.” He also supposedly noted that the entire region wasn’t “worth the life of one Prussian grenadier.”
Analogies drawn from history are dangerous, as should have been demonstrated by recent poor (and polemical) analogies between Munich in 1938 and events in Kosovo in the 1990s and Iraq in 2003. That does not mean, however, that history has nothing to teach us. Above all, Georgia is not worth the life of one American grunt and events there in August 2008 must not spin Europe and the United States toward August 1914.
First, Georgia clearly resides in Russia’s historical sphere of influence. A former part of the Romanov Empire, Lenin in 1918 dispatched his Georgian henchman Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who already had assumed the revolutionary moniker “Man of Steel,” or “Stalin,” to preempt Georgian independence, which Stalin did in his own bloody, inimitable way. Lenin understood Georgia’s strategic importance as a lynchpin on the Black Sea and gateway to the Caucasus’s petroleum reserves.
Second, although those factors make Georgia somewhat important to Western Europe and the United States, it is not that important. More than anything else, this situation underscores the vital importance of developing American offshore and continental petroleum resources and doing so now.
Third, Munich analogies are not as appropriate here as lessons learned from the ill-conceived alliance developed between France, Britain, and Poland in the inter-war years. The folly of looking to Poland for security on Germany’s eastern border should have been apparent to French and British diplomats of the 1920s and 1930s. Poland had real territorial issues with both Germany and Russia left over from the First World War. Hitler made the Danzig corridor, a swath of East Prussia carved out of Germany and given to Poland at Versailles, a major Nazi agenda item. Stalin, for his part, did not forget the humiliation visited upon the nascent Soviet state by the Treaty of Riga of 1920 whereby Poland attained vast tracts of western Russian territory. In 1936, two years before Hitler decided to “liquidate the Polish question,” France and Britain had the military power to crush Germany when Hitler defied the terms of the Versailles Treaty by remilitarizing the Rhineland. Military power meant nothing, however, because British and French national will still suffered from the aftermath of Flanders Fields.
Accordingly, and fourth, neither NATO nor the United States possesses the collective will nor, for that matter, the military capability short of risking nuclear war, to prevent Moscow from having its way with Tbilisi. During the heady post-Cold War 1990s, Washington drastically cut its military forces based on the optimistic assumption that the crumbling of the Soviet Union portended a new age of globalized democracy and peace. Meanwhile, while eating the cold borsch of national humiliation, Russia steadily rebuilt its economic, diplomatic, and military power while slipping inexorably toward a fascist political paradigm. If one thinks the Soviet juggernaut was imposing, wait until the full manifestation of a capitalist-entrepreneurial-fascist Russia uninhibited by the Byzantine maze of the old Soviet bureaucracy and able to fully exploit its resources. In that sense, operations in Georgia today are for a resurgent post-Cold War Russia what the 1983 invasion of Grenada was for the post-Vietnam United States.
What NATO and the United States must do is to gird our collective loins. Ukraine, unlike Georgia, is not indefensible and also far, far more vital to the West. The Bush administration should take the lead in urging a fast track for membership followed by a NATO multinational military presence in Ukraine.
In the long term, whether ruled by tsars, commissars, or totalitarian-minded politicos like Vladimir Putin, Russia always will be Russia; a great nation pursuing its own national interests.
Beginning in December 1941, the American people rose to meet the challenges posed by Japanese imperialism and German fascism to assume the dual mantle of world power and leader of the Free World during the Cold War. It is up to us whether this nation will continue to be a world leader and humanity’s best hope for peace and freedom in the 21st century.
To do that, the United States must do two things. First, we must rebuild our military power drained by the erosive effects of the War on Terror while continuing to fight a global war against Islamic Jihadists. While the price for doing this will be high, not paying that price could be catastrophic. Second, this nation must develop domestic energy reserves so that it will be unaffected by those “damned things” that are bound to arise in areas of peripheral strategic import.