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The West's Coalition Of The Impotent

  • Jan Techau

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both worked to stop the conflict.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both worked to stop the conflict.

In what seems to be a spooky reminder of the intra-European fallout over the Iraq war in 2003, observers and commentators are asking fearfully whether this week's Georgia-Russia conflict will reanimate the divide between Old Europe and New Europe.

Despite the fact that the EU, on August 13, unanimously decided to deploy a yet-to-be-defined "peacekeeping force" to the region, it again appears to be divided into a bloc of old Western nations more willing to accommodate Russia and a Central and Eastern European bloc of new members that are aggressively voicing their concern over Russia's "neo-imperial strategy."

So the answer to the question might seem very well to be "yes." But what's much more important is that no matter how divided Old and New Europe might appear, they are united in powerlessness. And what's more, the United States is part of this coalition of the impotent as well.

Immediately after the fighting commenced, it became clear the West was unable to do much to stop the conflict or even influence the Russian military and political course of action. The Georgian president hastily signed a unilateral cease-fire when it became clear that he had committed a strategic blunder of enormous proportions. And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev did not sign this document because of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's skilful diplomacy, but because by then his country had achieved all its strategic goals. European peace plans and U.S. statements had nothing to do with this.

The real division in Europe and across the Atlantic lies in the way the two factions deal with their powerlessness. The Old Europe group of countries long ago silently accepted that leverage over Russia is limited and dependency is high. Consequently, it prefers moderate statements and mediating diplomacy, thereby appearing impotent, cynical, and even appeasing.

The New Europe bloc, riding high on the old neoconservative assumption of political and military omnipotence, chose to use the elevated register of values and morals, as if that alone meant anything. It thereby poisoned the diplomatic atmosphere without gaining any political advantage.

The problem is that both sides are right, but that being right won't make them less impotent. It will only result in perpetual infighting and -- possibly -- a profound and perhaps permanent weakening of the West.

Newest World Order

This is of immense importance because when applied to the global situation, Western powerlessness goes by another, much scarier name: multipolarity. The Georgian-Russian war was the first war of multipolarity, becoming the first visible sign of the new times. The war has shown the limits of U.S. power, the inappropriateness of policies founded solely on the basis of Western values, and the utter futility of soft strategies solely based on multiple forms of "dialogue."

It has shown that the division between Old and New Europe pales in comparison with the divisions that have opened up while the West was still basking in its post-Cold War glory. Robert Kagan, in his latest book, is right to blame the West for having failed to see the new threats to liberal democracy. But his further analysis is deeply flawed because it rests on the assumption that U.S. power is still limitless, and its capacity to promote Western values anywhere in the world will remain unchecked. The Georgian-Russian war is also a reminder that Kagan's neoconservatism is a spent force. If the West wants to retain its influence and further its values, a return to realism is necessary.

The first step for the West to reestablish a realistic approach to the region is to acknowledge that in the short run, it is condemned to be a passive bystander. Military actions against Russia are not an option (unless it is your goal to unleash World War III). Diplomatic measures, such as suspending Russian membership of the Group of Eight or canceling combined military exercises will not achieve anything except a further freezing of the situation.

Given that Russia will be needed on all kinds of hugely important issues -- ranging from Iran to energy to nuclear proliferation -- this would be foolish, to say the least. The West needs to acknowledge its powerlessness as a prerequisite for deep-rooted reforms of its Russia policies. In the long run, Western strengths vis-a-vis Russia, specifically in the energy sector, will give the West significant leverage over Russia -- if it is ready to use these strengths in a realistic way.

Secondly, the West must be ready to equally distribute the blame for the ugly situation in the Caucasus. Both Georgia's unnecessary provocation and Russia's willful escalation were politically hazardous. So was the slightly naive Western support for Georgian nationalism.

Thirdly, the West finally needs to frame a serious common strategy for constructive cooperation with Russia. It should be based primarily on (a) interests and (b) what can possibly be achieved. In short, in foreign policy, what we need is a return of the "art of the possible," no matter how frustrating, tedious, and morally unsatisfying this might be on occasion.

And, by the way, this reevaluation of policies must necessarily include a sober look at the real value of NATO's famed Article 5 and NATO expansion. If this cornerstone of the Pax Americana is to mean anything, its guarantee should dispersed with the greatest caution.

Jan Techau is the director of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Analysis at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin and has previously served at the German Defense Ministry. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.