The world has changed, but many Americans retain their dreams of hegemony

Here are excerpts from 3 articles about the changes to the world order following the Georgia-Russia conflict, and America’s difficulty in adapting to them.

  1. Stratfor asks if the US still has strong levers with which to move Iran?
  2. Expert Americans, like Prof. Kenneth Anderson, retain delusions of American hegemony
  3. Consequences of America’s encouragement of other nations

1.  Stratfor asks if the US still has strong levers with which to move Iran?

Asking the right questions is a key to successful analysis, esp after major events.  We see this done well in Stratfor’s “Intelligence Guidance” of 22 August 2008 — Excerpt:

The Iranian issue is still absolutely on the table. A few weeks ago the plan was to increase sanctions on the Iranians if they did not provide satisfactory answers on uranium enrichment. The United States said that they hadn’t, and the next step would be sanctions in which Russia would participate. The latest word is that those sanctions are dead since the Russians will not play. Everyone is ignoring this, but it is critical.

What is the next step in U.S. relations with Iran? Is Washington going to ramp up the crisis or use this distraction to ditch its policy, cut its losses in the Middle East and come home? Are the Iranians going to reconsider the accommodations they have made in Iraq and try to go for a better deal? Will the Russians encourage the Iranians to do so?

2.  Expert Americans, like Prof. Kenneth Anderson, retain delusions of American hegemony. 

The world can change in an instant, but even expert’s opinions require time to adjust.  We see an example in this essay by Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University and research fellow of the Hoover Institution.  “Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia“, posted at Opinio Juris, 22 August 2008.  Like the Kagan essay to which he refers, Anderson dreams that the US and its new Eastern European allies together can confront Russia in its sphere of influence — something the US never dared do even at the height of the cold war, when the USSR was an existential threat to us.  It is no such thing today, and the high-flown rhetoric of war hawks write checks we unlikely to honor.  See the third item for more on this.


I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my experiences in Georgia in the early 1990s, monitoring the various conflicts – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the then-Georgian civil war in Tbilisi – and noting that the secessionist conflicts were marked on each side by ethnic cleansing as extreme as anything I saw in the Yugloslav wars, a country which I also monitored for Human Rights Watch, during the mid-1980s on through the early years of those wars.

… First, I share unreservedly the belief that Russia is deliberately undertaking a dangerous, threatening, imperial expansion in the “near abroad” and that it must be opposed and rolled back.

… Second, NATO is going to undergo a reshaping in two directions out of this crisis, in the ways offered by Robert Kagan in his new Weekly Standard essay. On the one hand, the idea of NATO evolving into some kind of post Cold War ‘legionnaires of the good guys’, into which Russia would eventually become attached in some friendly way, is dead. It was dead for many reasons before this – to start with, the conversion of a club of mutual protection into a club of general cosmopolitan altruism never took account of the unwillingness of Europe, let alone America, to pay for it, or staff it. On the other hand, the idea of NATO as a genuine mutual protection club is back, at least as far as the Eastern Europeans are concerned; since the Western Europeans are much more interested in gas than protection, however, the forward path of NATO as a re-invigorated mutual protection association is cloudy. How long can a free rider club last if its guarantor starts to incur serious costs? I don’t know, but I doubt the answer is forever.

Third, it is a grave error to conflate rolling back Russian expansionism with the idea that Georgia should have actual political, security, and military control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. … Disentangling rolling back Russian imperialism from endorsing Georgian control in fact over uncontrollable territories is only one of two core problems for US policy.

Fourth, therefore, US policy must also disentangle “democracy” from what Georgian democracy currently is – which is best characterized not as democracy, but instead as “participatory ethnic nationalism.” The US can be proud of what it has done to help Georgia reach the point of free elections, and to take the first steps toward liberal democracy.

… As practical policy, this counsels for the kind of legal ambiguity that I wrote about in an earlier post. No one should be talking about independence for South Ossetia or Abkhazia; the formalities of territorial integrity matter, here as in many other places in the world. Russia must be firmly opposed on this political point. On the other hand, no one should talk of Georgia in actual fact governing these places, either. Yet, on a third hand, it is unacceptable in these circumstances for the Russians to exercise de facto political control over them either particularly by filling them with all the military instruments suitable for an invasion and occupation of Georgia proper.

The best solution – and I say this reluctantly, because it contains grave difficulties all its own – is the placement of ceasefire monitors and peacekeepers who are genuinely from outside and who would have obligations to all ethnic communities. That works only so-so, because the Russians are able so completely to dominate, but it is certainly a better moral and political policy than proposing, with a straight face, that the Georgians take actual political control. Even to propose that cedes both the practical reality and the moral high ground. Better simply to assert that what’s required is a deliberate legal ambiguity – and then concentrate on getting Russian rollback of its actual military forces. It has the virtue, at least, of uniting what the practical goal would have to be in any case with what the moral policy should be. 

… The failure, first, to disentangle opposing Russian imperialism from unwise and frankly not morally defensible Georgian demands for actual political control and, second, to disentangle the laudable project of Georgian democracy from the overlapping and less laudable project of participatory ethnic nationalism in Georgia risks tying US policy to a standard of Georgian behavior in war, conflict, control of non-ethnic Georgian territories – asserting a frankly romanticized standard of Georgian goodness and purity – that, as a matter of history, even recent history, they have not managed to meet.

US responses should be tied to Russian ill-doing, which are legion, not unlikely assertions of Georgian virtue. There is, in my view, no reason why the US response should be any less vigorous on that account, and it is likely to be a firmer basis for action in the longer run, because it remains a valid policy even if Georgian behavior were somehow to undertake a reversion to the historic mean.

Addendum:  Kenneth Anderson’s Law of War and Just War Theory Blog is well worth reading by those interested in the foundations of geopolitical dynamics.

3.  Consequences of America’s encouragement of other nations

The Risk of the Zinger“, David Ignatius, op-ed in the Washington Post, 20 August 2008 — The closing paragraphs:

In his own feisty comments in recent months, McCain encouraged Georgians to believe America would back them up in a crisis. That expectation was naive, and it was wrong to encourage it. It was especially wrong to give a volatile leader such as Saakashvili what he evidently imagined was an American blank check.

In the post-Cold War world, small countries often get into fights they can’t finish — hoping that big powers will come to their rescue. That happened in the 1990s with Bosnia and Kosovo, which hoped their desperate vulnerability would force Western intervention, as it eventually did. On the other side, the Serbs played the same game, hoping (wrongly, as it turned out) that Russia would intervene. The better part of wisdom sometimes is to tell small, embattled nations and ethnic groups: Swallow your pride and compromise; the cavalry isn’t coming to save you.

There’s a moral problem with all the pro-Georgia cheerleading, which has gotten lost in the op-ed blasts against Putin’s neo-imperialism. A recurring phenomenon of the early Cold War was that America encouraged oppressed peoples to rise up and fight for freedom — and then, when things got rough, abandoned them to their fate. The CIA did that egregiously in the early 1950s, broadcasting to the Soviet republics and the nations of Eastern Europe that America would back their liberation from Soviet tyranny. After the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, responsible U.S. leaders learned to be more cautious, and more honest about the limits of American power.

Now, after the Georgia war, McCain should learn that lesson: American leaders shouldn’t make threats the country can’t deliver or promises it isn’t prepared to keep. The rhetoric of confrontation may make us feel good, but other people end up getting killed.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about the Georgia-Russia fighting

  1. The Russia-Georgia war threatens one of the world’s oil arteries, 10 August 2008
  2. Perhaps *the* question about the Georgia – Russia conflict, 10 August 2008
  3. Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting, 13 August 2008
  4. What did we learn from the Russia – Georgia conflict?, 13 August 2008
  5. Comments on the Georgia-Russia fighting: Buchanan is profound, McCain is nuts, 15 August 2008
  6. Best insight yet about America and the Georgia-Russia fighting, 15 August 2008
  7. Georgia = Grenada, an antidote to Cold War II, 16 August 2008

Posts about America’s grand strategy

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy   (31 January 2006)
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy   (1 March 2006)
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War”   (24 July 2007)
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?   (28 October 2007)
  5. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I  (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II  (14 June 2008)
  7. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past  (30 June 2008)  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  8. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris  (1 July 2008) – chapter 2
  9. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles  (2 July 2008) — chapter 3
  10. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work  (7 July 2008) — chapter 4
  11. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”  (8 July 2008) — chapter 6
  12. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering  (9 July 2008) — chapter 7
  13. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus  (11 August 2008)

15 thoughts on “The world has changed, but many Americans retain their dreams of hegemony”

  1. Devotion to American hegemony, whether toward Iran, Georgia or elsewhere, shows no sign of abating, and there has been no lessening of the blatant lies being told on both sides of the political aisle to promote it.

  2. First, I share unreservedly the belief that Russia is deliberately undertaking a dangerous, threatening, imperial expansion in the “near abroad” and that it must be opposed and rolled back.

    By the same logic, must we not also confront China over Tibet?

  3. Fabius; you cite American sources, and that’s not enough. Don’t make the common mistake. Germans call it “betriebsblind” (no translation known) = insiders don’t recognize important problems that outsiders can detect easily.

    I’ve had discussions with friends (Germany, UK, Canada) about some differences between the U.S. Americans and the rest of the Western World (even to Canadians – that’s why I will always put the “U.S.” in front of “Americans”).

    A short summary (consider this as thesis):

    – U.S.Americans are politically and cultural quite insular, with very little exchange of ideas (at least very little acceptance of foreign ideas)

    – U.S.Americans believe too much in their exceptionalism, overestimate their nation/themselves and underestimate other nations and people

    – A part of the problem is the lack of contact with other nations in a minority/weak position.

    – The U.S. Republican style of discussion (to attempt to destroy the opponent with personal attacks instead of beating his arguments with own arguments) is terrible and doesn’t help in any real challenge to find the best methods

    – Most U.S.Americans are rather blind to these points, and those who open their eyes become too often extreme in the other direction

    – U.S.Americans believe too often that they are able to influence things or need to/are able to teach others. In fact, their proficiency is often being considered as questionable/inferior by foreigners even in areas in which U.S.Americans are completely confident in their vast superiority (like military professionalism).

    – U.S.Americans (and indeed most nations, but not always with such severe consequences) believe too much in myths, for example still a lot of the own and outdated Cold War propaganda.

    – U.S.Americans display an extreme amount of hypocrisy (even more than Europeans, and that’s quite a feat!)*

    (And of course a couple of much more wide-spread problems exist, but those are common in the whole Western World. Most notable is the preference for pleasant information and ignorance to information that disturbs the own established view of the world.)

    Now take this with a grain of salt as the experiences of the persons involved covered just a couple persons with some years or few decades experience each and can impossibly cover the whole picture. I might also be a bit over the top, as that’s usual for a slasher.

    I won’t put this diagnosis on my blog. I’ve got too many annoying trolls in my comment section and already stress my 50% U.S. visitors enough with the other stuff.

    *: In this context I’d like to vent my frustration about one example:
    In the 1990’s, Europe asked (in part to keep the relationship fresh) for U.S.involvement in the Balkans.
    For the next year, U.S.Americans complained about how Europeans can’t do their own job and how U.S. troops need to help them.

    The USA hasn’t enough troops to achieve its goals in Afghanistan since its needless adventure disaster in Iraq = since 2003. Well, I hear never how Europeans slash Americans for being unable to do their own job. Instead, U.S.Americans now complain about Europeans because the USA doesn’t get as many auxiliary troops as it wants! That’s seriously annoying to me.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for this perspective!

  4. Sven’s comment reminded me of a joke I heard on a recent visit to an Eastern European country.

    What do you call someone who speaks three languages? –trilingual.
    Two languages? –bilingual.
    One language? –American.

  5. The dreams are kept alive IMO by a willful collusion between the ruling elites and the news media which does its best to keep up informed of trivialities worthy of gossip mongers but not news.

    But real news is scarce with a press owned by big business. One dares not wake up the American people out of their slumber to find out the President, Congress and its paymasters have sold the family silverware and now in the process of hocking the nation to foreign creditors who don’t have our best interests in mind.

    The few that do notice are often shouted down as anti-American by the right and ignored by the left.

    Nor can the public be allowed to find out we are a odd mixture of a de-industrialized state with a strong militarized bent. We’ve become dependent on China for everything from band-aids, pharmacuticals to high tech devices. About the only thing we do produce anymore is expensive and obsolete weapons that serve only to enrich DoD contractors.

    Our isolated leaders may think we are a superpower but in reality we’re a more like the Ottoman empire before WWI. Economically and politically we’re sick if not terminal and militarily we’re exhausted.

  6. Our ex-Prime Minister, Paul Keating did a great article recently about the total failure of the West to engage Russia. Instead we treated it like dirt and still kept on with old Cold War schemes of encirclement. The only difference: we felt emboldened enough to push right to their borders, breaking written agreements with them. And raised ideas like breaking it up further. And backed nut job countries on their borders. {FM note: see the text of Keating’s 24 August speech here}

    And this is a nation with, still, 10,000+ nuclear weapons. And a stranglehold on European oil and gas resources.

    May I comment on the intelligence, or more accurately the lack of it. This is not some two bit little country “we can smash against a wall every 10 years or so”, as the famous neo-con quote goes.

    This is the real deal. War with them = death for 3+ billion people, including just about everyone in the US, Canada and Europe. And those that don’t die will probably envy the others.

    Now a little known fact, just to sober everyone up. Russia doesn’t have all the ‘precision’ weapons that we have all bet the farm on. But they have made it clear that they will respond with tactical nuclear weapons. Not accurate, but who cares if everything in a 10km radius goes up.

    You push and push and push and eventually .. you get a strike back. Now is that time. I really dont want to have to depend on another Stanislov Petrov to save us all again .. which is what happened the last time we pushed the Russians back against the wall in 83. Let alone when Yeltsin gave the order to fire in 1992, and fortunately was ignored by his Generals. Putin has probably ensured that when he orders it … it will be done.

    Amazing, we all all alive because a Russian officer disobayed orders.

    On a lighter note, ref Paul Keating: look at this:

  7. If Iran can’t be moved it will be getting McCain’s air mail message very soon.

    McCain’s advisor seems to be the one who was given a “blank check”. Neocons are likely to placate Russia now that they know it is willing to carry out it’s threats. Russia could supply Iran with sophisticated anti tank and aircraft weapons that might find their way to Hezbollah.

    BBC WS analysis was that Russia had repeatedly indicated that formal independence for Kosovo would be followed by similar action for S. Ossetia; this was the reason US diplomats had tried to delay it, but the Russian warnings were not taken seriously. A Geogian woman who lost members of her family was asked about Shaakishvili “what was he thinking?” she asked over and over.

    Law professor Anderson might as well ask the world to stop turning as for ethnic communities to stop looking out for their own interests. He deligitimizes a democracy if it’s people think “ethnic nationalism ” addresses their concerns, his non ethnic nationalsm would be good for all countries except the ones that practice. “International Law is not a suicide pact” as Rene Louis Beres says.

  8. Correct me if I am wrong, but are not the same people who are now so outraged with Russia the same people who, back in 2003, were so outraged with the French?

    So are we now going to rename vodka “liberty juice”?

  9. Russia’s invasion of Georgia was well planned and well executed, including the PR campaign that, when Georgia began responding to the Aug 6 attack, the Russians claimed the Aug 7 response was actually the trigger.

    I’m sure that Kosovo’s independence was a trigger for Russia’s decision to invade, with the Olympics as a convenient distraction as to the timing.

    But nationalist murdering Georgians are also not innocent. The US has little useful experience in judging between two guilty sides.
    Fabius Maximus replies: These “who started it” debates have no end, as wars seldom start with a bad guy invading a good guy. As with divorces, there is usually much history to these.

    For example, Michael Totten describes Georgia’s view of the war. And Joshua Foust rebuts it, showing that there are two sides of this story (I ignore Fousts’s attacks on Totten, that’s just chaff in the debate).

    People looking for simple stories will be disappointed, as usual for events in that part of the world.

  10. Instead of chattering about what the US should do, what it’s foreign policy might be, why don’t we look at what has made it what it is? Who determines US foreign policy? Who decides when we go to war, creates the conditions that require us to go to war? Who stands in the way of changing our foreign policy? Why is it that our elected representatives can only think within the hackneyed military-imperial paradigm?

    Many sectors of our economy — the oil majors, arms suppliers, service and infrastructure providers like Halliburton, Bechtel — benefit from war. The elephantine sector of our government that represents more than half of our national budget, the DoD, would collapse without the continual preparation for war.

    You can think all you like about what our foreign policies should be, but until you rein in these parasites, or crime families, as I like to call them, and put a high wall between them and government, nothing will change.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly agree. Foreign policy does not come into being through immaculate conception. Eisenhower was not kidding when he warned us about the military industrial complex.

  11. Unfortunately, foreign policy comes into being on a bed of lies. Bush lied on Iraq. McCain’s lies on Georgia are of course to be expected because they were bought, and now we have Joe Biden, the newly annointed Dem foreign policy guru, doing some lying of his own about Georgia, probably for free! What a dummy.

    Biden: “Russia’s failure to keep its word and withdraw troops from Georgia . . .”– The six-point signed cease-fire agreement allows a continued Russian troop presence in Georgia for “additional security measures.”

    Biden: “The claims of Georgian atrocities that provided the pretext for Russia’s invasion . . .” — The Georgian invasion of autonomous South Ossetia, with the killing of Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers, was the reason for Russia’s response.

  12. Big contracts for ultra sophisticated weapon systems were already making huge profits for the MIC.You really think they would pay off officials to start a war for a few more profits. In the real world they would be worried about being caught.

    To infuence policy requires electoral muscle, meaning cash for your campaign — or your opponent’s. Where is the evidence that Senators benefit from or are scared to oppose the Military Industrial Complex or Big Oil, in fact they are the whipping boy.

    Where is the evidence that MIC infuenced Cheney for example . Cheney used to work for Hallibuton — that’s it.

    Guys like Cheney don’t keep working for you when you stop paying them, when he worked for an oil company he opposed oil sanctions and when he was back in government he supported them. Cheney was on the board of JINSA too, and heavily involved with PNAC along with W.Kristol and Rumsfeld now there is a “complex” whose fingerprints are all over Iraq.

  13. From my readings about the Georgia-Russia war I gathered the following conclusions:
    1) The Georgians had been planning their endeavour for many months. This led to serious incidents during Spring, when the Russian air force shot down a number of Georgian reconnaisance drones — not hesitating to go after targets in the “core Georgian” airspace. In July, the Russian army organized military exercises in the North Caucasus. So the Russians knew what was brewing and the Georgians knew that the Russians knew.
    2) Much has been said about the “resurgent” power of Russia. In fact, the outcome of the war can be interpreted as a sign of acute military weakness: the Georgians reportedly shot down several Su24, Su25 aircrafts and one Tu22 — which points out at serious failures in Russian reconnaissance capabilities; these were piloted by flight instructors and test pilots — which means that the Russian air force cannot muster enough qualified combat pilots; the Russians threw their elite troops (76th air assault division, 96th airborne division, 45th intelligence regiment, etc) into battle — whereas 40 years ago any provincial border defense divisions would have been largely enough to smash the small, disparately equipped and badly trained Georgian army.
    3) Finally, the USA did not realize the extent of the Russian troop deployment prior to the war. Two reasons stand out. First, US officials admitted that basically every monitoring capability (satellites, radar aircrafts, drones) is now employed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (and presumably around Iran, as well as Syria and Somalia), so there was little spare capacity to deal with other fronts. Second, Russia withdrew from the CFE treaty at the beginning of the year to protest the decision regarding anti-missile bases in Poland and the Czech republic. One provision of the treaty was that all parties announced major troop movements to each other. No treaty, hence no information about bringing the 96th and 45th from Moscow, and the 76th from St.Petersburg all the way to the Caucasus.

    I believe point (2) implies that the threshold for a military challenge to be considered a strategic, existential threat to Russia is considerably lowered — and the risk of Russians switching to a full-fledged atomic war correspondingly heightened. Point (3) is not reassuring as to the capacity of the USA to detect possible military threats accurately at an early stage in other parts of the world around the “arc of instability”.

    I do not know what is more insane: the recklessness of the Georgian leadership, the arrogance of the Bush administration, or the lack of foresight of European governments?

  14. “I do not know what is more insane : the recklessness of the Georgian leadership, the arrogance of the Bush administration, or the lack of foresight of European governments?

    I believe all three are equally daft, EC. Thanks for the detailed analysis.

    To Oldskeptic :

    great to have you back on FM’s site.

  15. Stratfor has a new piece “Russia: Understanding the Russian Military.” It says in part “But the bottom line is that improvements and reforms in the Russian military under Putin have been immense. A U.S. serviceman rightfully scoffs at the rust on a Russain tank, and that is a testament to the American military ethos. But that is the beginning, not the end of the assessment of their military capability. What the Georgain invasion demonstrated clearly is the rusty tanks still move, in both forward and revers, and their main guns still function. Yet there is attrition from maintenance issues–but such attrition has always been part of Russian planning anc calculations. Ultimately, Russian net military capability exceeds the perception, and that is no accident….And to hold the Kremlin to Western standars only further clouds the perception of Russia’s true capability.”

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