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American decline and Caucasus peace

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Political map of South Caucasus
Political map of South Caucasus

With the release of two fascinating papers, it’s been a big week for those keeping tabs on Georgia and central Eurasian security. The first is the much-ballyhooed “A More Proactive U.S. Approach to the Georgia Conflicts” by Samuel Charap and Cory Welt, published by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning US think tank. The other is a geostrategically-themed paper called “The Vulnerability of Peripheries,” which is published in the March-April issue of The American Interest and coauthored by A. Wess Mitchell, President of the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Jakub Grygiel, the George H.W. Bush Associate Professor of International Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Both papers, though not directly dealing with the same phenomena, nonetheless are undergirded by assumptions that are very much at odds with one another. No matter where you stand, however, both are absolutely worth a read for those interested in South Caucasus politics.

Charap and Welt’s report is the culmination of much work and cooperation on assessing Georgia’s fragile conflict situation and putting together a practical, workable roadmap to put the region on the road to conflict resolution. [1] It’s a brave document with hard-nosed assessments of the situation on the ground, the reality of the political climate, and sensitivities to announced and unannounced interests of all the parties involved. The format of the document outlines the background of the conflict; goes into broad reasons as to why the time is ripe for more aggressive conflict resolution policies; and then deals directly with specific ways that the US can assert its influence in the region and internationally to create a more constructive environment for conflict resolution.

“Currently, however, the language used by U.S. officials often suggests irreconcilable differences between the parties that would rule out any progress, leading to a Cyprus-style, long-term stalemate,” notes Charap and Welt, who make it clear that they believe American efforts in the region are ultimately counterproductive. “This needs to change.”

There is much to like about the document, not the least of which is the author’s willingness to name a number of concrete proposals for the US to act upon to break what they see as a calcifying and mostly fruitless status quo. For example, the report calls for the harmonization of the spirit of the Georgian state strategy for engagement and concrete methods of cross-border facilitation and trade while closing the legal loopholes that keep some areas needlessly ambiguous. There is also a call to dramatically draw down Russian offensive weaponry in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The point of the report is to help transform the environment from its locked, antagonistic situation into a series of trust-building exercises. Indeed, its greatest success is in pointing the way to low-threshold, attainable objectives that could theoretically push the ball forward towards an eventual reconciliation of some form.

A major weakness, however, is the notion that reconciliation or resolution between Georgia and Russia is even possible without one side wholesale jettisoning their position. They point out that current US policy is predicated on the improbable assumption that “Russia will someday realize that its intervention in August 2008, recognition decision, and militarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were mistaken.” And that “Russia repents and withdraws in this scenario, cursing its prior policy errors and thanking the triumphant Georgians for having been right all along and having the courage of their convictions.”

But if this isn’t their version of reconciliation, then what is it? Aside from arriving at some short-term understanding — more or less agreeing to disagree — and helping ratchet down the bellicose rhetoric, the authors remain unclear as to what form an eventual settlement might take. While bringing down regional tensions is certainly a goal in itself, the political capital necessary to embark on even the relatively modest program they’ve outlined in the document is not easily spent, especially without a big picture goal for which to aspire.

But perhaps the most difficult item to swallow is the report’s premise that a policy window has opened, allowing for certain conflict resolution measures to take root. This idea is founded most fundamentally on the idea that Georgia and Russia, as well as the conflict regions themselves, are ready to yield to some of the proposals that they cite. While Georgia, though often speaking with two mouths, seems to be leaning towards a progressively engagement-oriented policy, it is hard to find comparable evidence coming from Moscow, much less their friends in Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. While the report acknowledges gesture after gesture from Tbilisi to rebuild ties with Russia, the authors are glaringly short on reciprocal acts from Russia — with the relatively un-notable exception of Russian troop withdrawals from Perevi. Is this really the basis for declaring that the time is ripe for reconciliatory measures?

Though Charap and Welt are quick to rubbish the notion that Russia has only the barest tolerance for the existence of a fully sovereign Georgia, there is little evidence presented to counter this widely-held belief. The reason for this, unfortunately, is that Russia has been quite open about its intentions to maintain political, cultural, and social dominance over its so-called ‘near abroad.’ [2] If this is to be believed, reconciliation between Georgia and Russia may in fact be impossible short of the kind of major, ‘miraculous’ event that they ridicule. In fact, Evolutsia.Net actually discussed this very issue of divergent interests in greater detail only a few months ago — the last time Charap and Welt made recommendations for constructive movement. [3]

This is the context from which we consider Mitchell and Grygiel’s essay in The American Interest. [4] In their paper, the authors discuss the growing international perception of American decline and its effect on international politics. More specifically, they note that there are three major fault lines of American global hegemony — the Middle East, Eastern Europe/Central Eurasia, and the Pacific Rim — that can be considered the ‘peripheries’ of US power. It is in these regions where American vulnerability is greatest and, thusly, the places where American power is being most consistently tested.

“Amid the now globally accepted thesis of American decline, America’s global rivals are doing what aspirant powers have done at moments of transition for millennia: hypothesis-testing.”

“They are probing the top state on the outer limits of its power commitments, where its strategic appendages are most vulnerable and its strength is most thinly spread,” say the authors, who believe that these exercises are meant to measure American power and to determine if and how they can make changes to the international system in their favor.

According to the paper, there are a number of ways that revisionist powers can go about the process of probing American vulnerabilities. On the lower end, they might engage in more aggressive rhetorical exercises or unilaterally alter trade regimes. The high end of the spectrum, however, can include direct conflict.

“Perhaps the most striking example is Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia,” argue Mitchell and Grygiel. “The appearance of Russian troops forcefully redrawing the boundaries of the post-Cold War regional security order without an effective U.S. response established a clear precedent for low-cost challenges to U.S. interests.”

Here is where Mitchell and Grygiel’s paper intersects with Charap and Welt’s; if Russia is testing the outer limits of American hegemony — highly aggressively, in the case of the August 2008 war — can it ever fulfill a constructive role in resolving the conflict situation in Georgia or, for that matter, in other places like Nagoro-Karabakh and Transdniestr?

Though its entirely possible, and even likely, that the West and Georgia may score the occasional tactical victory in such things as facilitating liberal border crossing arrangements or taking another step towards adherence to its 2008 Ceasefire obligations, Charap and Welt’s assumption that Russia shares the West’s desire for a comprehensive peace may be mostly unfounded. Worse, it means that any progress that might be made on the margins can be quickly and suddenly reversed if it is later deemed to be inconvenient vis-à-vis their larger strategic goals of reestablishing primacy in the region.

This doesn’t mean that Georgia, the US, and other international partners shouldn’t pursue a more conciliatory posture towards the conflict regions and Russia — the opportunity to improve the lives of trans-border residents and build credibility with the South Ossetian and Abkhazian populations should be seized. But Georgia cannot afford to rely on Russia’s goodwill for a solution to present itself, either. Other policies, including the development of a low-scale but credible defensive military deterrent, should continue. One glaring gap in the report is a call for Georgia to remain completely undefended — via native abilities or otherwise — while calling for symbolism-only, token withdrawals from a Russia that maintains a standing force of approximately 100,000 federal troops and offensive weapon systems across from Georgia’s borders. One would think that Georgia’s position for negotiation would be better done through a position of relative strength than total vulnerability.

Charap and Welt do deserve to be commended for a forward-looking approach to the region that focuses on the human welfare of populations in Georgia, the Georgian conflict regions, and Russia. But it may be too early to declare that Russia is as willing and wholesome a partner as their report intends to portray. Mitchell and Grygiel’s own essay, on the other hand, presents a plausible and compelling narrative of how and why Russia’s regional stance could be a more fundamental problem than many watchers would care to admit.

Footnotes

[1] See: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/02/georgia_report.html
[2] http://cria-online.org/10_2.html
[3] http://www.evolutsia.net/divergent-interests/
[4] See: http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=923

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Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

One thought on “American decline and Caucasus peace

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    February 21, 2011 at 4:48 pm
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    There is another aspect to the Russia/Georgia conflict that will keep Russia away from any negotiations. Medvedev has said he will not negotiate with Georgia as long as Saakashvili is president. For the Russian leadership, the conflict was also personal, and they will not talk to Saakashvili. That has been reiterated in Russian news sources several times since 2008. Russia is not averse to talking with Georgians, but so far it has only been with the Georgian opposition.

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