Why the West can’t kick its Cold War habit
After Georgia: In an era of juvenile diplomacy and patternless foreign policy, Cold War talk can easily become Hot War horrors.
All of a sudden, we are confronted with the prospect of a new Cold – or Not-So-Cold – War. What started off as an opportunistic and misconceived local land-grab by a juvenile Georgian government has, in the space of a week, turned into a dangerous and potentially catastrophic international crisis.
The most worrying aspect of the crisis is its volatility and unpredictability. Its trajectory is unpredictable because global diplomacy lacks any genuine diplomats today. In place of diplomacy, we have immature political leaders, who are driven more by public relations and opinion-polling concerns rather than by clearly defined aims or interests.
This kind of behaviour has become routine in the arena of domestic politics, where its negative consequences tend to be contained by the media and by party competition. However, such irresponsible grandstanding in the sphere of international relations can have far more destructive consequences. As the current crisis shows, it can unleash a dynamic of reaction and counter-reaction, where at a certain point ‘fighting words’ serve as a prelude to real fighting, and to military competition and conflict.
According to the story being peddled by a new generation of Cold Warriors in London and Washington, the world is confronted by a ‘resurgent’ Russia bent on becoming a new superpower. They claim that the Caucasian crisis is the outcome of the expansionist ambitions of Moscow, and that unless the Russians are stopped in Georgia then the Ukraine will be next – and before too long Europe will face the military might of its old adversary.
This fantasy of the ‘Rise of Russia’ overlooks the fact that Russia is a relatively feeble and divided nation. Yes, it possesses oil and other important commodities, but it is a conservative and even defensive, status-quo power. There is little doubt that Russia is dominated by an authoritarian and self-serving regime, which is capable of ruthless and violent behaviour. But its recent actions in response to the invasion of South Ossetia by Georgia are no different to those that would have been undertaken by any regional power confronted by a similar challenge.
The crisis in the Caucasian region has important local origins. But the most recent episode in the conflict is the outcome of broader international influences, the most important of which is the project of extending NATO into Caucasia and the Ukraine. Is it any surprise that Russia, or any other power that found itself in a similar situation, should be concerned about the consequences of being surrounded by nations signed up to a hostile military alliance?
Matters have been made worse by Washington’s decision to site missile launchers in Poland. The policy of NATO expansion eastwards and the siting of new missile systems in Europe provide the context for the current crisis. These developments provided the signals encouraging the Georgian government to launch a war in South Ossetia.
What is puzzling about the current situation is not Russia’s response to the Georgian invasion but the reaction of the West, particularly the US. Future historians will surely ask the questions: Why did the Bush administration embark on a course of an aggressive foreign policy towards Russia? Why encourage former regions of the old Soviet Union to join NATO, knowing that it can only provoke and humiliate the Russians? And most importantly, at a time of global uncertainty why open up a possibly dangerous conflict on a new front?
The West is fully occupied with the ‘war on terror’, with conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and with the wider tension in the Middle East. In such circumstances, geo-political interests would surely dictate that Western governments should seek accommodation with Russia and China instead of attempting to relive Cold War fantasies and revive Cold War tensions. The attempt to force Russia on the defensive in the Caucasian region can only benefit that other regional power, Iran – a development that is likely to cause even more headaches for Washington and London.
It is difficult to discover clear patterns in the working of twenty-first-century global affairs. Simplistic commentators have claimed that oil was the real reason behind the invasion of Iraq – no doubt today they will argue that the Georgian crisis has been caused by a conflict over resources or by the geo-political ambitions of Russia or the US. Unfortunately, there is a more dangerous force at work. The US in particular (but also other powers) is uncertain of its place in the world. Wars are being fought in faraway places against enemies with no name. In a world where governments find it difficult to put forward a coherent security strategy or to formulate their geo-political interests, a re-run of the Cold War seems like an attractive proposition. Compared to the messy world we live in, the Cold War appears to some to have been a stable and at least comprehensible interlude.
Tragically, governments thrashing about and constructing new enemies can unleash forces that cannot be restrained through conventional diplomatic means. They provoke local actors to embark on military adventures which in turn let loose the dog of wars in the most unexpected of places. Only this time, we lack the clearly worked out rules that helped ensure that the old Cold War did not become Hot.