A Collision of Narratives

The conservative response to the Russo-Georgian conflict, I think, has exposed an important tension in the post-9/11 Right's approach to foreign policy - namely, the tendency for its two organizing foreign-policy narratives, neo-Reaganite democracy promotion on the one hand and the War on Terror on the other, to cut against one another in not-insignificant ways. The war in Georgia arguably represents a test case for an agenda of democratic enlargement, broadly construed - a vision of twenty-first century foreign policy that George W. Bush and John McCain have both gestured at, to varying degrees, and that gets its most thorough airing in Robert Kagan's new book. If we actually had a League of Democracies, a concert of liberal states "designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies," as Kagan has put it, then the Georgian conflict would be a defining moment for the body, and a chance to see how well it could exert pressure against "autocratic" powers like Russia and China. And even in the absence of a League, many conservatives are urging the U.S. to behave, in the present crisis, as if it stood at the head of one, with Georgia as a member state and South Ossetia cast as the equivalent of the Sudetenland.

The trouble is that conservatives are also committed to a grand strategy aimed at combating Islamic extremism, disrupting potential nexuses of terrorism and WMD, and preventing the nuclearization of volatile, Islamist powers like Iran. One can overstate the extent to which we need Russia's assistance in these endeavors, and the extent to which they're willing to lend us aid, but one can understate things as well, as I think Bill Kristol does today. Even if you believe that there is no diplomatic solution of any sort to the Iranian problem, and thus that Russia's cooperation on that front isn't worth compromising our commitment to democratic  (and NATO) enlargement in the Russian Near Abroad, there are quite a few other fronts in the War on Terror where Russia matters a great deal - not only because we may need cooperation of the sort we received from Moscow after 9/11, but because we emphatically don't need Russia setting out to deliberately sabotage our efforts, the way we so effectively sabotaged their efforts in Afghanistan twenty-five years ago.

This is not to dismiss the importance of democracy promotion, or the reality of major-power rivalry: I agree with the broadest strokes of Kagan's argument about the return of traditional power politics, and the salience of regime types and political values to international competition. There are certainly places where our ideals and our interests align, places where a vision of democratic enlargement makes real and practical sense, and places where the pro-dictatorship mischief-making of powers like Russia and China ought to be met by pro-democracy pushback. Sub-Saharan Africa springs to mind, as does Latin America. But there are also places where American policymakers have to choose: They can try to forge major-power cooperation against the threat of terrorism joined to WMD, or they can try to unite a democratic bloc to oppose the interests of the Chinese and the Russians. And to my mind, the Russian Near Abroad, whether in the Caucuses or Central Asia, is a place where conservatives would be better served making the War on Terror our lodestar; the alternative has the potential to leave America's national interest hostage to the territorial ambitions of the government in Tbilisi, which is not a position in which a superpower ought to lightly place itself.