One idea that you will never hear expressed by either Barack Obama or John McCain in this presidential race is the notion that a chief task of US foreign policy in the next administration will be to gracefully manage an adversely shifting global power balance and significantly diminished US influence. This is not a hypothetical issue, but one that stares us in the face today.
The failure to recognise this shift in power has been all too evident in the events leading up to the Russian intervention in Georgia. Since the Yeltsin years, the US has had a series of policy differences with the Russians, including Nato expansion, the Balkans, missile defence, policy towards Iran and human rights in Russia itself. Diplomacy, such as it was, consisted of persuading Russia to accept all of the items on our list and telling them their fears and concerns were groundless. The US never regarded the relationship as a bargaining situation in which it would give up things it wanted in return for things the Russians wanted. Like the proverbial Englishman speaking to a foreigner, we thought we could make them understand us by repeating ourselves in a louder voice.
This posture by the Bush administration reflected the balance of power that existed in the 1990s, when Russia was weak and had few cards to play. But that has changed. The contrast between Moscow’s intervention in Chechnya in 1994 and Georgia in 2008 is dramatic: much as the US did not like Russian behaviour in crushing Chechen separatism, the Russian military operation was so incompetent that it seemed to set few ominous precedents. Today, all thoughts are on where Russian power will be used next.
If we could roll the clock back to before February when Kosovo declared independence with US support, the elements of a bargain were there. Of the desiderata on the American list, the most expendable were anti-ballistic missile defence and support for Kosovo independence. The former was a pointless irritant to the Russians who never believed the US story that it was a response to a threat from Iran. Kosovo independence does not improve the security of Kosovars, but sets an unhappy precedent of legitimising separatism, which explains why Nato members such as Spain did not back it.
A more difficult choice was Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine. These democratic countries deserve strong US support. But Angela Merkel, German chancellor, is right in believing that the core of the Nato alliance is its Article V guarantee that an attack on one member should be regarded as an attack on all. This means that the US should be prepared to station forces on a permanent basis to defend any alliance member under threat, as it did on the inter-German border during the cold war. Nato membership is not a talisman that magically confers protection. It requires operational planning and expensive defence commitments.
The Bush administration was not and could not have been serious about Nato membership for Georgia and Ukraine to the extent that it meant providing not just arms and advisers, but real security guarantees of US forces. To the extent that that was so, leading the Georgians on to believe that we would get them into the club soon was a big mistake.
An understanding that may have been possible a year ago is not workable now. The Bush administration has turned Kosovo independence and ABM defence in Poland into faits accomplis, making them unusable as bargaining chips. And rushing to accommodate Moscow while Russian troops are still occupying parts of Georgia proper is unthinkable. In saying this, I do not want to be seen as apologising for Moscow’s behaviour. Russia is not justified in holding on to Georgian territory or trying to overturn a democratically elected regime. Mr Putin’s talk about Georgian “genocide” and US conspiracies is unsettlingly reminiscent of the “big lie” of Soviet times. The fact that Russian feelings of resentment are understandable does not make them morally right.
As Kishore Mahbubani of the National University of Singapore pointed out on this page (August 21), one of the chief ways that US power has been diminished in this decade is in its moral credibility. After the Russian intervention, US officials asserted that “21st century powers don’t violate the sovereignty of other countries to overturn regimes”. Adding the qualifier “in Europe” reduced the snickering only marginally. Democracy promotion – a good thing – has been deeply tainted by its association with the Iraq war and US security interests.
The past two US administrations could assume American hegemony in both economics and security. The next administration cannot, and a critical task will be for it to better balance what we want with what we can realistically achieve.
This does not mean giving up on idealistic goals such as promoting democracy. But the next president will have to “detoxify” (in the phrase of Tom Carothers from the Carnegie Endowment) the very concept of democracy promotion. We will have to think of ways of supporting Georgia and Ukraine other than by new alliance commitments. And we need to plan in concrete terms how to defend existing Nato members – particularly Poland and the Baltic states – from an angry and resurgent Russia.
The writer is professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and, most recently, author of ‘After the Neocons’ (Profile, 2006)