Back in March, the U.S. government adopted a cold, but realistic position in response to Tibetan unrest: President Bush voiced sympathy for the Tibetans, but stopped short of taking any real action that might offend the Chinese. The Tibetan issue didn’t stop President Bush from attending the opening ceremonies or prevent Michael Phelps from winning eight gold medals. Deep inside, America recognized that its lucrative trade and potential alliance with a billion Chinese mattered more than its concern for a handful of Tibetans living in a Himalayan icebox.
What brings this story to mind is America’s response to another crisis—Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
In a pragmatic world, the U.S. government’s position on Georgia would be similar to its Tibet stance—you express sympathy for the weaker side, but refrain from taking real steps that would offend the stronger one.
Instead, top U.S. officials didn’t hesitate to offend Russia, the stronger side. President Bush condemned Russia’s military actions; Vice-President Cheney called for Georgian membership in NATO; and Senator John McCain called for an immediate withdrawal of Russian forces and said “Today, we are all Georgians.” In addition, the U.S. is awarding Georgia $1 billion in aid—ostensibly for civilian reconstruction, but representing close to 100 percent of Georgia’s annual defense budget.
Before proceeding, Americans should think very carefully about whether our Georgia policy serves U.S. interests. For by supporting Georgia, a nation of 5 million, we risk alienating Russia, a nation of 145 million.
America needs Russian friendship in a number of areas, including combating Islamic terrorism, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, supplying us with foreign talent, and providing us with natural resources. Russia is projected to benefit from most global trends, including global warming. Should temperatures rise, huge areas of Siberia will be transformed into arable land. If the polar caps melt, Russia will gain access to vast reserves of oil and gas that lie beneath Russia’s half of the Arctic Ocean. Only good ties with Russia will enable America to buy these natural resources on the cheap.
Closer to home, our three million Russian-Americans have made enormous contributions to American society—winning Olympic medals and Nobel Prizes and serving in Hollywood. Looking at the past, Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867 and has been America’s ally in both world wars. As former U.N. diplomat Kishore Mahbubani writes in the Financial Times on August 21, America must “stop intruding into Russia’s geopolitical space” and “win over Russia” in order to deal with Islamic terrorism and the rise of China. America’s friendship with Russia is a vital strategic asset.
In contrast, America doesn’t stand to gain as much from its friendship with Georgia. The Georgian army has fewer than 40,000 regulars—too small to defend itself, let alone any future NATO ally. How would a military alliance with Georgia advance American interests?
Americans should not encourage Georgians to adopt an anti-Russian posture, let alone join NATO. It is poor diplomacy to commit America to a military pact that—with troops stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan—it cannot honor. As the events of August prove, the United States is already unwilling to send troops to defend Georgia in the event of a Russian attack. Making bad promises will only get people killed needlessly and damage America’s reputation.
Georgia was part of the Russian and Soviet empires for centuries. It is also Stalin’s birthplace. By virtue of its small size and unfortunate geography, Georgia cannot escape the influence of its large northern neighbor. Like the Tibetans, Georgians must recognize that a small tribe cannot contend against a great nation. Unlike the Tibetans, Georgians still have a chance to seek friendly ties with their neighbor—a step that might yet preserve their independence.