Georgia (and Ukraine)

Joe Klein accuses Robert Kagan of warmongering.

When a column starts off like this:

The details of who did what to precipitate Russia's war against Georgia are not very important. Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia? Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama.

The events of the past week will be remembered that way, too.

..the author has got to be a neoconservative pushing for the next war. In this case, it's Robert Kagan, girding for a new twilight struggle with the Sovi...uh, sorry: that was a couple of twilight struggles ago...Russia.

I don't follow. Kagan's main point is simply that Russia remains a dangerous and assertive rival to the West.

Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia's attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even -- though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities -- the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial. The next president had better be ready.

If I wanted to criticise that view I think I'd say it was too much a statement of the obvious, rather than attacking it as insanely militant. As Klein himself acknowledges,

To be sure, Russia's assault on Georgia is an outrage.

And yet, he continues

But it is important, yet again, to call out the endless neoconservative search for new enemies.

I cannot see that underlining the significance of an outrageous (in Klein's own view) Russian assault on a US ally (Georgian soldiers serve in Iraq) constitutes a desperate search for new enemies. What a strange reaction to these events.

My colleagues Quentin Peel and Robert Kaplan both have excellent commentaries, Quentin underlying the miscalculations on the Georgian side, Bob echoing Kagan's view that Russia is back as a grand adversary. Why is it so difficult to hold both of these ideas in one's head at the same time?

One further thought. Asked about Georgia on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne said that a repaired alliance with Europe might make it easier for the next administration to contain Russia. I wish it were true but this is a classic instance of diverging interests among allies. Europe has no appetite to check Russia over Georgia. On an intelligent assessment of ends and means, what choice does it have? Europe has far more to lose than the US in resisting/antagonising Russia. Obama or McCain would make no difference.

The real question is this: can the US and Europe agree on whether and where to draw a line for Putin, and be willing to make it stick? Ukraine is the test, a much stronger ally than Georgia in its own right, and more defensible. Should it be admitted into Nato and the European Union? Like Georgia, it has been encouraged to seek membership of both--and indeed in April it was promised membership of Nato--but many Europeans, notably Germany, are cool on the idea, for fear of provoking Russia.

Now, most likely, they will be even cooler. One guesses that Putin's assault on Georgia was partly intended to diminish Ukraine's prospects of entering into a binding military and political alliance with the West. I would like to see that calculation fail, though I bet it succeeds: if Putin keeps this up, Europe will renege on its commitments to Ukraine. What would Joe Klein say? Would a promise to defend Ukraine then be warmongering--just more of the neocons' endless search for enemies?

Update: Be sure also to read Chrystia Freeland's column in today's FT. (Chrystia is the managing editor of the FT in the US, and a former Moscow bureau chief.)

Like all overly rigid objects, authoritarian regimes conceal a tremendous fragility in their apparent strength - and their leaders know it. It is this realisation that has driven Mr Putin's systematic destruction of all forms of civil society - an eminently pragmatic measure, although it has mystified some outside observers, who wonder why so popular a leader needs to be so heavy-handed. China's chiefs have figured this out, too, hence their anxiety about everything from the Muslim Uighurs to the internet to the former Soviet Union's "colour revolutions".

Of course, another way to ensure popular support for your authoritarian regime is by playing up nationalist sentiment. We are more tolerant of our home-grown bullies if we think we need them to fight our enemies abroad - as even democratic America has demonstrated in recent years. Mr Putin has understood this all along, launching a brutal attack on Chechnya even before his coronation as president in 2000.

Russia's expert taunting of the hotheads in Georgia, followed by immediate and massive retaliation the moment Tbilisi took the bait, is the latest evidence that, for the Kremlin, neo-imperialism is an essential bulwark of neo-authoritarianism. Bringing down the walls really did make the world safer. Now that so many leaders are building them back up again, figuring out how to contain the 21st century's monied authoritarians is our most pressing foreign policy dilemma.