Wars often start for seemingly absurd reasons connected to tendentious issues of honor, perceived military commitments and, most of all, erroneous expectations that escalation can be limited and managed. No one anticipates a war now between Russia and NATO. That is what is worrying. Only when a nuclear exchange is imaginable does controlling one become truly feasible. Even if the chances of a larger war are small, the stakes are stupendous and ought to give leaders and opinion leaders a pause.
Please pause. The hot rhetoric could start an unnecessary fire.
Remember that World War I, the granddaddy of 20th century folly, was triggered by the act of an anarchist in the Balkans. When forces already are poised for confrontation, as they were then, it doesn't take much to launch hostile actions, and often the fuse is lit by a minor figure.
In retrospect, it is clear that Russian-Western tension before the Ossetia debacle was much greater than almost anyone realized. This dispute is not just about ethnic rivalries and boundary lines in the Caucasus, but rather the whole post-Soviet relationship and "New World Order." It is bigger even than Russia's fear of "encirclement" or the fears of its near neighbors that Russia wants to swallow them up. Both sets of fears are genuinely held, but it is likely--as good diplomacy could show--that neither set is justified.
But, it is in the context of the current fears that certain rashness in the dotted-line locale of tiny South Ossetia, an operetta country with a population less than that of South Philly, becomes magnified. One thinks of the apparently reckless shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgians (without the knowledge or agreement of Georgia's ally, the United States). Or did the Georgians merely respond to provocations set up by the Russians in South Ossetia to provide an invasion excuse? At this point, the origins of the war are still clear only to the antagonists and their propaganda outlets, just as each side sees only its own victims and not the others'. In a way, the precise origins are ceasing to matter. Give credit to Orthodox Patriarch Alexei of Moscow and All Russia, who is mindful that all the raging combatants in the initially affected region claim to be Orthodox Christians, and is pleading for mercy and peace.
But now it is tit for tat, Russia against Georgia, Russia's nervous neighbors to the West and NATO. Russia's southern neighbors in Central Asia and China (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), are not supporting their Northern friend, which should tell the Kremlin something.
But if it does, the Kremlin isn't listening. According to Prime Minister Putin and various United Russia party officials, the situation in Ossetia and Georgia is part of a plot by Republicans in the White House to elect Senator John McCain. Some novice political analyst in the Russians' Washington embassy must have come up with that explanation. Never mind, apart from everything else, that Sen. Obama has taken Georgia's side (though not as stridently as McCain) and that Sen. Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, just returned from a cheer-leading trip to Tbilisi. Who does the Kremlin think is buying this line?
President Medvedev says boldly that he is not afraid of reviving the Cold War. Really? Well, maybe that would be good, because at least in the final stages of the Cold War the West and the Soviets had better communication than the Russians and the West enjoy now. That is how bad things have become in this ominous month of August.
Ominous and ridiculous. Yesterday the Russians banned the import of American chickens, an adolescent Kremlin protest against the U.S. statement of a day or so earlier that we would cease cooperation on nuclear issues--also adolescent. Who is supposed to be impressed by these gestures and who is supposed to benefit? For perspective, recall that it was less than 20 years ago that Americans were sending free chickens to starving Russians. ("Bush's legs," the Yeltsin-era Russians nicknamed them.) Now American poultry suddenly is found to be "unsanitary." Such gratuitous regulatory decisions connected by strange coincidence to some political objective have become too familiar.
In any event, American chickens truly are coming home to roost. That is because we let a unique opportunity with Russia languish in the 1990s. Other than sending hundreds of self-appointed advisers to Russia, along with the chickens, both the Bush 41 Administration and the Clinton Administration failed to respond adequately to what was then a fervent desire in Russia to become our bosom friend. We "won" the Cold War and then--unlike in Germany and Japan after World War II--we lost the peace. There was no Marshall Plan for Russia.
The full story still waits to be told. But while Russian gangster-billionaires were fleecing former Soviet economic entities, corrupt bureaucrats were bilking gullible Western investors and old age pensioners were reduced to foraging for food in garbage cans, the United States and Europe squandered our "peace dividend" on high living and domestic distractions. The Russian humiliation was real and while we didn't cause it, we didn't much mind it. Whatever drove Boris Yeltsin to drink, let it be said he did follow through on key reforms that enabled his successor, who had fierce self-discipline as well as resolve, to complete at least many economic reforms and preside over an unprecedented boom.
Russia, under Vladimir Putin, having modernized in painful economic spasms, almost ruthlessly seized the upsurge of oil and gas markets to re-launch the centralized Russian State. Putin made his point. Russia is back. The real Russia--the subject of this blog site and a project at Discovery Institute now for three years--has become one of the most dynamic economies and cultures on Earth. We have much in common to share with them, much to work on together. Russia in the age of terrorism is not a natural foe, but a natural ally. From a commercial standpoint also, there is no advantage to Russia or the West in unfriendly competition and everything to be gained by cooperation.
But, having managed its transformation alone, and correctly gauging that Westerners are seldom willing to cut Russia the slack we almost always offer the Chinese, for example (and many other countries whose democracies don't match our self-referential standards), Russia has become bitter and cocky at the same time. And it may have reverted to the infamous Russian paranoia about foreigners. America's strange idea of pushing NATO to the Russian doorstep has fed that paranoia. If the Russians really did want to re-conquer countries like Georgia, and foolishly endure thereafter an interior colony of endlessly bitter antagonists, it would not help Russia politically or any other way. (Regardless of Russia's recalcitrant behavior in Georgia this month, it did not try to conquer the country, though there was no military obstacle to stop it from doing so.) But, in any event, the United States--let alone, the rest of NATO--is not about to fight a war with Russia over Georgia or even Ukraine. Why should we pretend otherwise?
If, for their part, Russians seriously imagine that the United States wants to encircle Russia, grind it down and stunt its future, they are sorely, tragically wrong. The truth, instead--and it is not altogether attractive, either--is that we in these United States are so spread out in our interests and commitments, and so busy trying to digest our own ungainly diversity--that we really don't think much about any other country. We didn't even care about terrorism until we couldn't avoid it any longer after 9/11. Once we win in Iraq, we probably will lose interest there, too. Sad, maybe even reprehensible, but the Great Republic is not spiteful or mean, just frequently negligent. Unless threatened, our attention span is short.
But Russia doesn't see us that way. The Kremlin advertises an America of plotters and connivers out to keep Russia down. It is so pleased with its nascent wealth--and sporting a class of newly rich who are breathtakingly vain and uninterested in helping anyone but themselves--and so determined not to be pushed around, that it is pushing back in ways that look a lot like aggression to the rest of the world. Russia today need not lecture America about perceived arrogance.
Can Mssrs. Putin and Medvedev really think that there is an economic future for Russia in scaring its neighbors, threatening its customers and frightening international investors? In a world economy with free markets, that is not usually a wise economic strategy--to put it mildly. One result is that normally passive Europe already is looking at new energy sources and Americans now overwhelmingly favor extensive new oil exploration off our shores and perhaps even in previously off-limits of Alaska.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, like the policemen in Pirates of Penzance, the Russians keep announcing that they are ready to go, but they don't go. And the Americans respond by sending warships stacked with consumer goods and diplomats preparing to twist Russia's arm until they agree to get along with us. Our governmentÂ-completely ignoring the lessons of the Cold War--sometimes seems to think that it is in OUR interest to reduce contacts with Russia.
Who is kidding whom? It almost sounds like a high school spat.
"I'll show you! We're not going to let you join our WTO club!" "Oh, yeah? I don't even want to be part of your stupid club!"
The difference is that high school conflicts don't normally get people killed. None of this is necessary, desirable or inevitable.
Let us put all of these issues on the table: self-government and safe borders for nations bordering Russia, NATO's role in Eastern Europe (and cooperation rather than confrontation), the interceptor missile shield and the genuine problem of Iran and nuclear proliferation, terrorism, energy and pipelines, economic partnerships and whatever else the Russians, East Europeans and NATO want to bring up. Get it off the broadcast news and into conference before more serious trouble erupts.
Bruce Chapman, president of Discovery Institute, is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna.