Georgian Crisis Is a Trap for U.S. Leadership

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The fighting between Georgia and Russia has resulted in a serious political crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. It seems as if both sides have gone back to the sharp Cold War rhetoric of the early 1980s.

But apart from the combative tone, the current conflict has nothing in common with the Cold War standoffs because the ideological element is absent in both Russian and U.S. foreign policies today.

This may sound strange, since most people consider U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy to be extremely ideological. After all, the global advancement of democracy has been his principal credo for nearly eight years. In practice, however, exporting democracy is less an ideology than it is realpolitik at its core -- an instrument for attaining geopolitical dominance around the globe.

The United States had to immediately adjust to the burden of global leadership after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it declared itself the victor in the Cold War -- a victory that it was not entirely ready for.

In the course of a decade, from the Soviet collapse to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. foreign policy ideology was transformed into an overly ambitious plan to reshape global affairs with Washington sitting in the driver's seat. The United States was transformed into a truly international superpower, sincerely convinced of its own global responsibility as a guarantor of peace and democracy.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the fact that U.S. territory could be threatened from remote regions of the world forced a reassessment of Washington's security policy. As a result, the entire planet became a sphere of vital U.S. interests.

Since the United States considers democracy to be the most effective, progressive and nonaggressive form of governance, it feels that it can guarantee its own security by advancing democracy everywhere. As Bush has said repeatedly, "Democracies don't fight other democracies." The main problem with this simplistic formula is that building new democracies from scratch is a long and difficult process. Creating a stable democracy is only possible in countries that are already developed both politically and economically.

The era when a holistic outlook on global leadership was formed in the United States, a period when Washington could act without taking the interests of others into account, is over. And the attempt to implement this established policy led to a series of failures and to a new level of global fragmentation. It also demonstrated the limitations of the United States' ability to influence global affairs unilaterally.

At that moment, Russia, after recovering from the geopolitical and economic crises of the 1990s, tried to win back what had been lost during the first post-Soviet decade. Moscow's quest to regain its sphere of influence was understood in Washington.

Russia is irritated the most when the United States interferes in those areas that Moscow believes Washington has no strategic interests. And the United States exacerbates this irritation when it opposes any issue that strengthens Russia's position in any way. Moreover, Washington is not prepared to impose limitations on itself, squeezing everyone else wherever it can. The traditional rule of realpolitik -- taking into account the interests of others to the extent that they do not contravene one's own interests -- is being violated.

Russia is a global power with regional ambitions and interests. Moscow possesses well-defined levers in different parts of the world -- from Latin America to Africa, from the Middle East to the Far East. With the help of these instruments, Russia will pursue its strategic interests in Europe and Asia. Alliances in Syria and Venezuela are needed in order to gain bargaining chips in the game against rivals. This helps counterbalance U.S. expansion in countries that used to be Soviet republics. Yet Moscow does not rule out the exchange of minor ambitions for major ones.

And here we come to the conceptual reason for the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations. The United States is a global power with global ambitions and interests. From the U.S. point of view, it has no interests that it would be willing to sacrifice. Regions that Moscow sees as secondary to U.S. interests have become necessary components of the complex U.S. structure known as American leadership.

With the Russia-Georgia military conflict, the United States clearly fell into a dangerous trap. The Bush administration was not in a position to back up the implied promises and guarantees that it had given to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The United States has supported pro-U.S. regimes all along Russia's borders. It hoped that its expansion in Russia's backyard would go smoothly and not be very costly from a geopolitical point of view. But the United States did not seriously consider the consequences of defending these new allies -- both politically and militarily. And it turned out that at the critical moment, the United States was not in a position to give substantive support to its ally Georgia. It was even unable to prevent Georgia from making fatal mistakes.

The position of global leader is dangerous in that it won't allow for even the most minor defeats. Indeed, the result the Georgia conflict may not simply be the decline of U.S. influence in that country (which in and of itself is not a catastrophe), but that other young, emerging democracies will be skeptical about the dependability of U.S. promises of support.

To stop a domino effect in which nations en masse start losing faith in U.S. leadership, it won't be enough if Washington adopts an even tougher stance toward Moscow. It's possible that it will try once again to give direct guarantees for the security of countries like Georgia or Ukraine -- especially since NATO's ability to act is now in doubt. Western Europe will probably halt its expansion into the former Soviet republics. And relatively new NATO members, such as Poland, are doubting NATO's credibility. If these countries earlier thought that NATO and the United States were virtually one and the same, this is no longer the case. Indeed, Poland has approached the United States directly, bypassing NATO, for security guarantees to protect it against what it perceives to be a threat from Russia.

This has increased U.S.-Russian tensions even more. Moscow considers direct U.S. military guarantees to Kiev and Tbilisi as an even greater provocation than NATO membership in and of itself. But, as the Georgian and South Ossetian conflict clearly demonstrated, it is doubtful that Washington has the ability to back up these guarantees.

Because of its weakened position, the United States will be forced to rethink its fundamental role as a global leader. The United States and Russia both need to fully understand whether their strategic goals are realistically achievable or not.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.