Wednesday, August 20, 2008

NATO, Georgia and Russia

Tibor R. Machan

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times writes that he is against expanding NATO. While he condemns the Russian government for its muscle flexing vis-à-vis the Republic of Georgia, he considers Georgia’s desire to join NATO unwise. As he recounts his and some of his allies reasoning at the time when the USSR collapsed, “It seemed to us that since we had finally brought down Soviet communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia the most important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the cold war — to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?”

No doubt, the desire expressed by Mr. Friedman, the famous author of The World is Flat, a very reasonable defense of globalization, is understandable and were it not for Russia’s bad history and habit of expansionism, reasonable. But, alas, as with so many millions of people across the globe, the governmental habit keeps reasserting itself and with Russia this habit includes bullying its neighbors.

Having been in Georgia twice over the last two years and having lived under the Soviet regime in Hungary in the early and mid-fifties, I was interested in Friedman’s column about Russia v. Georgia today. I, too, believe, as Friedman does, that it would be valuable to tame Russia and that perhaps expanding NATO is an obstacle toward that end.

I do not believe, however, that Friedman gives sufficient weight to how justly frightened most people near the Russians are of the Russian government and many Russians people. I believe it’s too optimistic to expect Russia to change its proclivity of wanting to be in charge of its neighbors, especially as regards their international alliances. The Russian habit of expansion via conquest and intimidation has not abated, I am afraid.

This, I believe, explains why so many of those surrounding nations look at something like NATO for protection. Are the Russians justified in regarding this a threat? Not if they think about history. But perhaps that is just the problem, they do not.
The pacifist impulse is not a strong one within the current Russian leadership which is mostly made up of but barely reformed ex-Soviets. Unless Russian leaders become less bent on physically ruling the region and firmly, credibly commit to co-existence with their vulnerable neighbors, the NATO option simply cannot be discounted. Some kind of security measure will have to be available to these countries and arguably any will irk the Russians. And Mr. Friedman, who is an educated individual concerning geo-political matters, ought to know this and provide his commentary on the recent Russian v. Georgian conflict in that light. In short, what advice does he have for leaders of countries like the Republic of Georgia given the evident aggressiveness of Russia? As it is, his exhortations in support of less concern with Russia’s tendency to bully a country its neighbors sound more like wishful thinking than sound advice.

It isn’t that Russia cannot change--the Russian people are not all adherents to the previous policy of expansionism and even those who have been can rethink matters. Many, for example, want to trade with the rest of the world rather than pick fights. But unlike after World War II, when much of the aggressive leadership of the Third Reich had been incapacitated, after the fall of the Soviet Union the people who were loyal to some more or less virulent version of Stalinism remained free to influence Russia’s domestic and foreign affairs and are still vying for power. These people continue to hope to recover the sort of political and military prominence in the region that the Soviets believe was their historic birthright.

So it is going to be necessary, at least for a while, to not only be reasonable with the Russians but also back up reasonableness with sufficient muscle. Whether NATO is the answer or something else, I am not sure. All I am sure about is that the leadership of the Republic of Georgia has good reason to want to gain protection against Russia’s current government.

No comments: