Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Sad Case Of Political Realism

At Fire Dog Lake, Ian Welsh offers an analysis of the situation in the Caucusus that relies very heavily on real politique. He offers three bullet points, the first two of which show the limits of this particular school of political thought.
One: Georgia is completely inside Russia's sphere of influence.

Two: NATO expansion into Georgia would be incredibly stupid.

Three: The international fetish for territorial integrity based on essentially arbitrary borders is a problem.

To the first, I would counter that "spheres of influence" would allow the US to invade Venezuela to overturn the socialist government of Hugo Chavez. Or even instigate a coup against him, as the US did in 2002. Indeed, such a view of power politics would permit the US free reign from Canada to Chile, including the Caribbean, as this has been our traditional "sphere of influence". It would legitimate the coup in Chile in 1973, our attempted coup in Venezuela, and our myriad invasions in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Dominica, Cuba, and Mexico.

As to two, Georgia appealed for NATO membership for this very reason. I do not think they would have used the pretext of such membership as a cover for war to reclaim Ossetia. Rather, I think the Georgians have been pushed past the point of endurance, resorting to force in the final extremity, knowing full well they would face Russian troops. As a member of NATO, they might have had the benefit of other members to support diplomatic efforts against the Ossetians. Had it come to war, the Russians might just have thought twice against intervening (my Franz Ferdinand reference in a previous post holding true).

As to the third, while his major point - that borders in our contemporary world are, in many cases, arbitrary - is correct, this does not mean, ipso facto they can be changed willy-nilly, or should be considered impermanent. This point also takes away with one hand what it offers with the first. That is to say, it states that self-determination should guide diplomatic efforts to deal with nationalist yearnings for autonomy; to do so, we should be willing to carve up nation-states to create new borders that are, by definition (at least the definition offered here) malleable. It is the yearning for recognized borders, for that most important symbol of independence, that lies at the heart of self-determination. There is a fundamental, practically unworkable, contradiction at the heart of the dismissal of borders.

I do not believe there is much anyone can do except look on in sympathy at the civilian populations in the paths of the various military forces, appeal to Russia to resist the temptation to absorb Georgia in to a Greater Russian, and work through diplomatic channels to alleviate the situation as soon as possible. I do not think, however, that we should concede Georgia as part of a Russian "sphere of influence"; nor should we necessarily deny Georgia a place in NATO. Finally, we should uphold the principle of nation-state border integrity in the face of Wilsonian "national self-determination" because it creates the situation we are currently in.

Virtual Tin Cup

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