September 11, 2008

September 11, 2008 | Commentary on Political Thought

Experience to judge: Lessons from war in Georgia

Does experience in foreign policy matter? Here this question is all the rage due to the American crop of presidential and vice presidential candidates. To which one is tempted to answer "Duh!" Of course experience matters, but it is not the only thing that matters. Backbone and judgment are equally critical components of international leadership.

The cover of this week's Economist suggests why all the experience in the world may do little good. The cover line is "Europe Stands Up to Russia" and the rather brilliant illustration shows a jelly with the faces of the European leaders carved, Mount Rushmore style, into the quivering mass. The picture describes better than words the deplorable weakness of Europe when it comes to tough foreign-policy decisions - despite the fact that Europeans pride themselves endlessly on their sophistication and, yes, experience.

Last week, the leaders of Europe gathered to discuss their response to the Russian invasion of Georgia in August. It is a matter in which Europe has allegedly taken the lead, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy having negotiated a so-called cease-fire between Russia and Georgia on Aug. 12. Europe has a long history with Russia, which is both a European and Asian power, which is why Europeans feel that they have a better understanding of Russian actions than those brash and inexperienced Americans. Europeans are, of course, also heavily dependent on Russian exports of oil and natural gas, which they are concerned to protect as fall and winter approach.

The problem with Mr. Sarkozy's cease-fire, unfortunately, was that it did not actually cause the Russians to withdraw from their occupation of Georgia, an independent country, and a friend of the United States, which also has the bad luck of being a neighbor of Russia. Some Russian tanks have since been pulled back, but not to their pre-August positions.

At the emergency summit in Brussels, the leaders of Europe decided on a set of, well, typically European responses. While they indeed strongly condemned the occupation of Georgia, and demanded that the Aug. 12 cease-fire be respected, they also concluded that they really have no alternative to a strong relationship with Russia, which they would like to be based on trust and dialogue, and respect for the rule of law according to the principles of the United Nations Charter as well as those of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. How anyone can talk of trust and dialogue at this stage of the game defies belief.

Now, it has to be admitted that the Europeans did not just talk. They pledged reconstruction aid for Georgia, and they even decided on a little penalty for Russia if it does not withdrawn to the positions held prior to Aug. 7, when the invasion of Georgia took place. The meetings regarding the negotiation of a Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Russia are to be postponed until such a time as Russia sees reason again. And an EU special representative on Georgia will be appointed. The effect of these measures, which will no doubt cause fear and trembling in the Kremlin, will again be evaluated at the meeting of the European Council in Nice in November.

The most reasonable conclusion reached at the summit actually was that recent events illustrate the need for Europe to intensify its efforts to secure its energy supplies, particularly as regards diversification of energy sources and supply routes. This is an argument Americans have been making for years, going back to Cold War days.

The feeble European response could well be an invitation to further trouble down the road. As the Economist writes, "Such a collective Euro-shrug only stores up trouble, since there are other places where Russia enjoys fomenting bother." New NATO members, Estonia and Latvia for instance, also have large Russian ethnic minorities. In the ominous words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, "Russia is back on the stage as a responsible state capable of protecting its citizens." Ukraine is often the object of outlandish verbal threats from Russia should it apply for NATO membership.

Recently Poland, a member of both NATO and the EU, was threatened by Moscow with nuclear attack should it proceed with the deployment of American missile defense interceptors. The Polish government understandably saw this Russian threat as a reason to speed up negotiation with the Americans. As for the European Union, there was only silence in response to the threatened Russian nuclear attack against one of its members. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Political Thought

First appeared in the Washington Times