NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says "the road to NATO is still wide open" for Georgia. "No other country will have a veto over that process," he asserted. What, pray tell, is the purpose of NATO if a nation with no security relevance to America and at odds with another nuclear power is considered to be an appropriate new member?
No one performed well in Russia's recent war with Georgia. Moscow squandered any international goodwill and stoked fears of a new cold war by employing disproportionate force against Georgia. Tbilisi demonstrated that democratically elected leaders can be simultaneously authoritarian, aggressive and irresponsible, ready to drag friendly states like America into an unnecessary war.
The European Union proved itself to be a paper tiger, full of bluster but short on action. Washington set new standards for hypocrisy, whining about the sacredness of nations' territorial integrity and wailing about countries that invade other states.
Most of these impacts can be ameliorated over time. However, one policy would turn Western conflict with Russia into a permanent geopolitical feature: NATO expansion into the Caucasus.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created for a serious purpose, to unify and safeguard Western Europe against potential Soviet aggression. After Moscow's consolidation of control over Eastern Europe, North Korea's invasion of the Republic of Korea, and revolutionary communism's triumph in China, an invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet Union seemed possible. Moscow would then end up in control of most of Eurasia, creating a harrowing geopolitical environment for America.
In retrospect, such extensive conquests seem beyond the Soviet Union's capabilities. Nevertheless, the cost of NATO was a reasonable insurance premium for America to pay in the early days, before Europe had recovered sufficiently to defend itself.
However, the necessity for NATO-at least a U.S.-dominated alliance-ebbed as the European countries recovered from World War II. Their reluctance to do more for their own defense reflected the opportunity to free-ride on America rather than any inherent limit on their own capabilities. With the end of the cold war, NATO lost its raison d'etre. Western Europe was secure and no hostile power could plausibly win control of Eurasia.
The Europeans still had cause to worry about the denouement in Eastern Europe, which warranted maintenance of a continental defense organization. But there was no need for American involvement. Indeed, a U.S. military withdrawal from Europe would have made an eastward expansion of NATO-or whatever a European successor organization would have been called-far less threatening to Russia.
Unfortunately, the Clinton and second Bush administrations followed the worst possible strategy. Washington continued to dominate the alliance and expanded it to the gates of St. Petersburg (if not quite to those of Moscow). NATO first absorbed former Warsaw Pact countries followed by former pieces of the Soviet Union, and then targeted former parts of imperial Russia. Along the way NATO launched an unprovoked war in violation of international law against a friend of Moscow, dismantling the sovereign state of Serbia based on America's arbitrary say-so. Washington promoted regime change, and then armed and funded the resulting anti-Russian governments in two states, Georgia and Ukraine, along Russia's border.
From Russia's perspective, and especially from the standpoint of a slightly paranoid nationalist government committed to safeguarding Russian security and restoring Russian influence, Washington and Brussels have engaged in aggressive, expansionist and even threatening behavior. Moscow's blows against Georgia still were unjustified, despite Tbilisi's provocative behavior-which, tragically, redounded to hurt the Georgian people the most. But the conflict in the Caucasus surely should come as no surprise.
Standing down from the confrontation in Georgia won't be easy. Russia is unlikely to retreat on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Indeed, it has no reason to do so, having achieved its geopolitical ends. Moreover, applying America's and Europe's Kosovo precedent obviously provides the Kremlin with enormous satisfaction.
At the same time, so long as Mikheil Saakashvili is in power in Tbilisi, the Georgian government is likely to aggressively, even recklessly, assert its claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili also is committed to ensnaring America and Europe in his struggle with Russia. Should Senator John McCain win the presidency, the danger of U.S. involvement a new war with Russia would increase dramatically.
Still, the parameters of conflict are currently limited by Tbilisi's geopolitical isolation. Georgia on its own poses no security threat to Russia; thus, Moscow is unlikely to initiate another round of war absent serious provocation. Alone, Georgia cannot risk another attack on Russia's de facto protectorates. The status quo may be an unhappy one, especially for Tbilisi, but Georgia's comfort isn't, or shouldn't be, of concern to the United States.
Europe might take a different position. Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer asserts that the purpose of NATO enlargement is "to help create a stable, undivided Europe" and that "Georgia has a rightful place in this Europe." Only the Europeans can decide whether that is the case, and how high a price they are prepared to pay to ensure Georgia's place in Europe. But why should that matter to America?
The United States did not create NATO to make countries well outside of Europe feel like they were part of Europe. America created NATO to prevent the Soviet Union from conquering Western Europe. The latter isn't going to happen, irrespective of Georgia's fate.
Unfortunately, considerations of basic American security appear to have disappeared from the formulation of U.S. military policy in Europe. America's ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, says that Russia's actions should not be allowed to give "Russia a veto over Georgia's future." But bringing Georgia into NATO necessarily means importing Georgia's recent war and potential future conflicts with Russia into the alliance. The United States would make Georgia's disputes with Moscow America's own.
It is hard to imagine a more dangerous situation. NATO membership, or even the prospect of alliance membership, would embolden Georgian President Saakashvili. After all, if he was willing to risk war with Russia when Western support was merely implicit, imagine how he would act if the security guarantee was explicit.
Yet there is no reason to believe that NATO's possible invocation of Article 5 would deter Moscow. After all, the alliance proved to be a paper tiger in August. And for good reason: Allied interests at stake in Georgia remain frivolous compared to those of Russia. The Kremlin is unlikely to believe that the West would change course and court war to defend Georgia. Especially after Moscow demonstrated how seriously it takes its security interests in the Caucasus by striking Georgia so hard. There is no better sign of being willing to go to war in the future to vindicate one's security interests than having gone to war in the past to vindicate those same interests.
However, the Article 5 guarantee would make it hard for the United States and the other members of NATO to stand aside in another Georgia-Russia conflict. What member of the alliance would feel secure if Washington and leading European powers cut loose another member despite an explicit NATO guarantee? Advocates of U.S. activism routinely and unpersuasively warn of lost credibility if America doesn't intervene here, there and everywhere, but in this case credibility would be lost. NATO thus would be tempted to unleash a foolish and unnecessary war with likely catastrophic consequences.
Washington, if not Brussels, should close Georgia's road to NATO. It is not and never was America's purpose to defend every other nation irrespective of U.S. security interests. It certainly is not America's purpose today to defend other nations when doing so would recklessly sacrifice America's security. Washington should not risk war with a nuclear power to protect an irresponsible smaller country whose cause falls far short of being right and just.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, and the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon).