The United States and its Western allies have legitimate concerns as to why they should risk blood and treasure in support of Georgia, Moldova, or Ukraine; especially if providing these distant countries financial support, military assistance, and political leverage in international affairs might lead to a confrontation with Russia. The Russian bear remains unpredictable, an aggressive great power historically antagonistic to the U.S.
American citizens especially remember the Vietnam War, which resulted in thousands of casualties and produced few, if any, benefits. Americans also have experienced Caribbean and other Western Hemisphere calamities like the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost triggered a third world war, among many other events during the last century that nobody now wants to risk repeating.
In 2008, Americans were almost entangled in the five day Russo-Georgian war, an involvement which could have brought much difficulty for the U.S. at that time. Indeed, the expanded global pursuit of American national interests can be said to have resulted in a world in which many populations now harbor ill will towards the U.S. Even more pressingly for Americans, why should the U.S. care about and commit to the enlargement of existing western economic and security pacts when the European Union—with its ideal of a free and whole Europe—is already there on the continent, in place to defend itself and be in good partnership with the U.S.? As the argument against expansion goes, there are many other problems in Southeast Asia, South America, and the Middle East with which America should substantially concern itself. Leave Russia and its developing neighbors alone, let the Europeans deal with both, and allow the U.S. to manage and prioritize its own affairs.
Allow me to please now respond to those concerns…
The defense and sustainment of the contemporary international order—with its commitments to international law and its foundations in democratic peace theory—have been core foreign policy objectives for the U.S. These goals have their roots in an idealist approach to international relations. Its idealist dimensions, however, were themselves simultaneously practical.
Contrary to the Georgian position is the theory that claims nation-states often face a dilemma when choosing between values and interests. It is now widely accepted that only national interests are appropriate determinants for such decisions, a perspective variously interpreted and perhaps best reflected in the words of Charles de Gaulle, “France has no friends, only interests.” Do we really seek to forget the great world events, however, and those persons involved that led us to the contemporary international order? Are we to forget why Russia did not take Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in 2008? Are we to forget why China did not occupy Taiwan by force, why Kosovo became independent, why Milosevic was brought to trial at the Hague, and why the nonproliferation of weapons of mass distruction policy is ensured by the great global powers? These and more are cases that could be characterized as examples of the superiority of a world order grounded on a commonly upheld international law.
It is understandable that there exist many concerns regarding the efficacy or malfunctioning of established international restraints. We must also understand, however, that there is the only one mechanism—the international order—which can hinder the creation of new global atrocities like those arising from the fascist aggressions of the 1930s and 1940s. We furthermore have to understand that this international order is based not only on realpolitik or the quantifiable interests of our individual nation-states, but also on the core values of democracy and liberalism to which we remain deeply committed.
One of the main concerns within the ongoing dialogue addressing West-Russia disputes centers on the redistribution of the post-Soviet world. Russia claims that there were commitments from the West that NATO would never come close to the Russian border, so that, for example, the three Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—would stay in the Russian sphere of influence, or at least serve as a buffer zone between Russia and NATO itself. The U.S. played a key role in the integration of these three states into NATO, and later the EU, therefore bringing NATO and its related western organization to the Russian border. It is crucial, however, for us not to forget the long struggle of these three brave nations against Soviet (and before that, czarist Russian) occupation in the first place. We must recall their freedom movement, the Baltic Chain, and the trilingual song, “The Baltics Are Waking Up,” that served as encouragement and a liberation anthem for all freedom fighters at the end of the 1980s within the nations of the former Soviet Union.
At the time, what were the interests of the U.S. that informed its active support of these states? One could argue that this decision of support was in the American strategic interest, in order to expand its influence within Europe and thereby become a more important player in the continent. This could be true. However, at that time the United States already had significant leverage in and over Europe. The United States was the winner of the Cold War. Russia was beset by deep economic and political problems during the 1990s, including violent conflicts like its war in Chechnya and its escapades in Transistria, Abkhazia, so-called South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, which involved the use of Russian regular forces and lethal military support. At that time, China was just emerging as a power player, while Islamist terrorism was not as powerful a threat as it would later become.
By championing the inclusion of the Baltic States into western economic and security organizations, which necessarily involved the U.S. actively operating in the post-Soviet space on behalf of our fellow former Soviet nations, the U.S. advanced itself as a supporter of democracy, freedom, and liberal values. From a Georgian perspective, at stake in that part of the world were few American interests. Rather, justification for American engagement in the post-Soviet space was much more a matter of its dedication to historical justice and universal values…that justice and those values for which Georgian dissidents and cultural elites were detained and sent to the Siberian gulags, with most of them then executed by the Soviet regime. By the middle of the 2000s, after the fifth wave of EU enlargement, some scholars began using the new term, “American Europe,” to describe the reality created by newly accepted members of Center and Eastern Europe to the EU. Such talk supports our claim that, even if in some cases foreign policy decisions were originally motivated by seemingly idealist commitments, these same commitments later revealed themselves to generate intensely practical and productive rewards.
What of today?
Russian aggression in Ukraine has no justification. Moreover, the Russian-Ukrainian war has altered not only European security architecture, but it has also seriously breached fundamental principles of international law and thus totally reconfigured the post-Soviet international order. The takeover and later annexation of Crimea, as well as the aggressive military attacks on eastern Ukrainian territories by the Russian forces, have created dangerous precedents for the world. Revisionism, revanchism, and a reinvigorated political appetite for the subsuming of other countries by the strong have all been inflamed by those above-mentioned actions. Failure by the West to pay the highest attention to the ongoing tensions in Ukraine, along with a failure to react to the same, can lead the world to its most undesirable outcome: the reconsideration of the current post-Soviet international order in such a way that results in total war.
Should this situation occur, and if in the midst of such a crisis were the U.S. yet still the primary great power operating on the world stage, should we accept an American claim that it is not in its interests to intervene in such a conflict, only for the U.S. to pivot to Asia, pursue a tradeoff of influence in the Middle East, assert that it lacks the resources with which to engage the matter entirely, or simply demur out of a cautious preference to not irritate the Russian bear? My answer: No! Not under any circumstances!
Taking into consideration my abovementioned reference to democratic peace theory, American action in such a crisis is not only a matter of going to war and securing peace among and on behalf of the club of democratic states. At issue is also the sustainment of reliable economic markets, partners, and ties. It is obvious that when partners share the same values and a common understanding of order, there are far few challenges and threats to mutual cooperation. Conversely, business with international hooligans leaves one vulnerable, as seen in the following examples.
Until 2006, Georgia’s main supplier of natural gas was Russia. In 2006, during unusually cold winter, the gas pipeline exploded in the north Caucasus, leaving Georgians without gas for almost one week. At that time, Russia was also the main trading partner of Georgia. Informed by its foreign policy perspective, Russia put an embargo on Georgian goods. With this same leverage over trade and utilities, Russia asserted itself over Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, banning time after time Moldavian wines, Latvian and Estonian sea products, Polish and Lithuanian dairy products, etc. Regarding the crisis in Ukrainian, the U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russia… yet Russia itself imposes sanctions on trade in food products from them. It becomes obvious that there are more risks involved in dealing with unaccountable, authoritarian regimes than there are in the relationships among members of democratic states. Nowadays, with resource sustainability being so critically significant, we should be twice as cautious when establishing strategic economic ties.
In the contemporary world, we now see that there are some nations striving for freedom and democracy, ones which endeavor to affirm and secure such through admission into international organizations dedicated to democratic values and liberalism. Those processes that enabled the waves of democratization known in earlier decades were both generated inside respective nations, as well as, in some case, nurtured by outside factors. We are now faced with the reality that in some post-Soviet countries we can once again see significant progress towards democratization through similar processes, hard-earned progress achieved with, and worthy of, international support. There exist, however, “Empires of Evil,” that hinder such progress by all brutal means available. The Russian bear has laid its paw on these would-be democracies, claiming that they exist within its sphere of influence and denying them self-determination. I argue that the world, and especially the West, should not accept this kind of behavior in the 21st Century. The world, and especially the West, must do everything it can to facilitate the next wave of democratization, in ways that require Russia to recognize rights of the nation-states to decide their own future.
We should not forget that to be a, “superpower,” is to carry a weighty obligation as the guarantor of a fragile international order. If we will not care about the world, others will, for the metaphorical throne is never vacant. Life under illiberal and undemocratic regimes is the poorer of our available options. Of course, this does not mean only the U.S. must act in defense of democracy and liberalism, as if it were a modern-day Athens or a martyr sacrificing itself to save all the oppressed nations around the world. However, the U.S. should lead its fellow Western democracies in arguing for and securing the superiority of an international order based on law, devoted to universal values, resistant to authoritarian and unaccountable displays of power, and protective of its interests in providing the opportunity for democracy to all interested populations, especially to those in areas where such has fertile ground and the willingness to become part of the free world.