The conflict between Russian and Georgia is certainly important -- but the majority of the rhetoric in the United States has been overheated.
By: Matthew Yglesias
The war between Russia and Georgia, which appears -- mercifully -- to have ended, is, of course, a searing experience for the small republic that provoked and then badly lost the war. The consequences for the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the splinter regions of Georgia whose independence under Russian "protection" (originally declared back in 1991 when Georgia seceded from the USSR) now seems secure, may well prove lasting. And one can at least imagine that the conflict was a huge psychological boost for Russia, which is eager to move beyond the decline of Soviet power. But for the rest of the world, despite a lot of overheated rhetoric to the contrary over the past week, the consequences will be minimal.
Of course not everyone sees it that way. On Monday night's show, CNN Headline News' resident hysteric, Glenn Beck, termed the war a "pivotal moment for the United States of America" claiming prescience for having "been warning people for a while now that Russia is trying to corner the market" on hydrocarbons. Max Boot warned that "the Russian attacks on Georgia, if left unchecked, could easily trigger more conflict in the future … today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?" John McCain sought to build the sense of crisis, arguing that "world history is often made in remote, obscure countries."
The reality, however, is that world history in the relevant sense isn't made often at all. That's what makes it noteworthy. And it's especially unlikely to be made in remote, obscure countries unless -- as in Sarajevo in 1914 -- major countries use events in obscure ones as a pretext to escalate longstanding conflicts. The idea that the Caucuses clash is an epochal event depends, crucially, on the argument, made notably by Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and John Barry, that the Ossetia crisis is equivalent to the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and that any failure to punish Russia would repeat the mistakes of the Munich agreement when Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement failed to head off further German aggression but did weaken the West’s ability to resist such aggression.
The reality, however, is that Russia has no actual ability to move from Tblisi to Kiev. Georgia is tiny, poor, and geographically located so as to make it difficult for the West to provide it with any practical support. Ukraine has 10 times Georgia's population, 20 times its economic output, and extensive land borders with countries firmly in the Western orbit. The practical impossibility of conquering Ukraine, not American threats, is what will keep the Russians out of Kiev. Meanwhile, it turns out that, contrary to the fears of the hysterics, Russia isn't even going to Tblisi today, much less Ukraine tomorrow or Estonia the day after that. Vladimir Putin, unlike the leader of the United States, is apparently shrewd enough to recognize that military occupations of foreign territories have high costs and scarce benefits.
But while Russia's punishment of Georgia may not have major consequences for America or for world security, a hysterical American response just might. Most obviously, if we were to take things like John McCain's Aug. 12 proclamation that "we are all Georgians" seriously, we would be in the midst of a shooting war with Russia and literally risking the end of human civilization in a nuclear exchange.
By all accounts, McCain just wants to engage in some irresponsible posturing rather than to follow through on the implications of his words, but even excessive posturing and loose talk of a new Cold War with Russia would have real costs. Specifically, both McCain and Barack Obama have recognized that an agreement with Russia related to nuclear-weapons reductions is key to revitalizing the global nonproliferation regime. Russia can't conquer Ukraine or Estonia, but it can play a key role in helping or hindering American efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. And unlike the status of South Ossetia, nuclear proliferation is actually important to the United States. Having frittered away the past seven years on a foreign policy driven by hubris, the United States can ill-afford to misplace its priorities. With the active phase of the war over, we need to move beyond it as quickly as possible to more important issues, not indulge baroque fantasies of renewed great-power conflict.