United in Powerlessness

August 18, 2008 Topic: Security Region: RussiaSouth CaucasusEurasia Tags: CommunismSouth Ossetia

United in Powerlessness

The war between Georgia and Russia has shown just how powerless Europe is to resolve crises, militarily or diplomatically. Will Brussels ever take responsibility for its own neighborhood?

As the crisis in the Caucasus unfolds, Europe is a bit player. Although the Eastern European states-"New Europe," in Donald Rumsfeld's inimitable words-have been nervously watching Moscow, the traditional European powers, which possess the most serious militaries, have demonstrated little interest in confronting Russia. French (and European Union) President Nicolas Sarkozy has played the role of mediator, but that offers Eastern Europe little reassurance. America is again more seriously engaged in a global crisis in which Europe should be taking the lead.

The war between Georgia and Russia obviously is an ugly tragedy. Russia had plausible justification for responding to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia, though Moscow applied disproportionate force to achieve other ends. Nevertheless, the Caucasus never has been viewed as strategic by America. If anything is at stake in that region, it affects Europe, not America.  Washington once concentrated on preventing hostile domination of the Eurasian land mass. Protecting a former Soviet province seeking to suppress secessionist sentiments in an even smaller territory of the former Soviet Union doesn't come close as a replacement objective.

There is little else at issue for America. Despite careless talk of a new cold war, Russia is not turning back into the USSR. European strategic affairs are returning to pre-World War I great-power competition rather than the global hegemonic competition that characterized the cold war. Washington need not worry about a hostile power dominating Eurasia. In fact, even an assertive Russia has few issues in serious conflict with America. The most important one, Iran, is peripheral to Europe.

In contrast, the status and comfort of Eastern Europe-a region dominated by the Soviet Union during the cold war-matters little to U.S. security.  The Caucasus is even less important, and certainly is not worth an American defense guarantee, whether within or without NATO.

The Europeans have a different perspective. Moscow's advance in Georgia does not foreshadow an assault on Berlin, Paris or London, as Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili suggested. And Russia's influence over the energy pipelines traversing Georgia is overstated; the price for interrupting pipeline traffic through Georgia would be far greater than any advantage won. More significant, however, is the principle of Russian nonintervention in its neighbors' affairs. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland issued a statement in the name of "the leaders of once-captive nations of Eastern Europe" expressing "a deep concern over the Russian Federation's actions towards Georgia." Western Europe also benefits from the buffer of an independent and relatively democratic Eastern Europe.


Today countries like Poland prefer to rely on Washington for security. But interest rather than sentiment should drive U.S. policy, especially when it comes to issuing military guarantees, deploying troops, and ultimately risking wars. There's no justification for Washington taking these actions for countries which aren't important for U.S. security.

Thus, reassuring "New Europe" should be the job of "Old Europe," not of America. Part of Europe's task is diplomatic. Europe also could impose economic sanctions and freeze relations. Finally, Europe could enhance its military capability.

The Europeans once were real military powers-often to the detriment of their peoples, who suffered the most from seemingly endless wars. Since then the Europeans, while not exactly disarmed, have left the bulk of defense worries to the United States. This policy probably made sense in the 1950s and 1960s. The Europeans were still recovering economically and suspicion of Germany remained high.  

But over time Europe came to view the American security guarantee as an entitlement.  Despite the continent's economic recovery, NATO's European members remained reluctant to do more for their own defense. Nothing has changed. Indeed, peace has relaxed what little pressure existed to create more effective militaries. In general the Europeans prefer to deploy troops where they won't be shot at. There's nothing wrong in principal with that attitude, but it means Europe is essentially of no account geopolitically. Indeed, Europe is unable to deal with anything other than a minor security contingency on its own continent. Which is one reason the EU has done essentially nothing about Russia's response to Georgia's aggressiveness.

Of course, the EU also has divided over what to do about Russia. The Economist quoted one European official as saying that "The spectrum of views in the EU is very wide," ranging "from cold warriors to appeasers." Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas focused on Russia, arguing that there had to be consequences for Moscow's "unacceptable and unproportional" use of force. However, other Europeans emphasized Tbilisi's provocative attack on South Ossetia. For instance, an unnamed French official characterized Georgian behavior as "mad" and a bad "gamble," while President Sarkozy called Russia's concerns "perfectly normal." Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that "it doesn't behoove us to pit ourselves against Russia" and that "this war has pushed Georgia further away" from Europe. Cyprus emphasized the importance of the EU playing a role as a neutral arbiter, a position reflected in the proposal for Europe to send peace monitors to Georgia. But Europe needs to decide whether it will be permanently flaccid militarily. President Sarkozy has proposed modernizing the French military and creating a deployable European force of sixty thousand troops.