On the way to a ballgame this weekend, listening to an NPR report on the recent Georgian conflict, my friend the Trotskyist commented that the world seemed to be returning to the pre-WWI Great Power system, with empires gobbling up territory at the expense of smaller, weaker states that needed to find a Great Power protector or become one themselves if they expected to survive. Or at least Russia was returning to that model.
I didn’t have a coherent response in the car, but one of today’s New York Times stories on the conflict makes it sound like the Georgians believed they were operating in a Great Power system. How else to explain why the Georgians thought this would be an opportune moment to deal with their own breakaway regions, which were under Russian protection, the kind involving real troops. The Georgians seem to have thought that Shrub’s cheerleading for their fledgling democracy meant they were under our protection in that old-fashioned sense of our being bound to protect them in case of invasion by another Great Power:
All along the road was grief. Old men pushed wheelbarrows loaded with bags or led cows by tethers. They drove tractors and rickety Ladas packed with suitcases and televisions.
As a column of soldiers passed through Gori, a black-robed priest came out of his church and made the sign of the cross again and again.
One soldier, his face a mask of exhaustion, cradled a Kalashnikov.
“We killed as many of them as we could,” he said. “But where are our friends?”
It was the question of the day. As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?
Since the conflict began, Western leaders have worked frantically to broker a cease-fire. But for Georgians — so boisterously pro-American that Tbilisi, the capital, has a George W. Bush Street — diplomacy fell far short of what they expected.
Of course, as Shrub’s friend Vlad Putin knows, the U.S. has spent the last five years in Iraq demonstrating just how limited our power is on that side of the world, and precluding any further major interventions anywhere, let alone battling Russia on its near-home turf. If this were the pre-WWI system, we might have declared war on Russia immediately and attacked one of her allies somewhere else or sent troops across the Bering Strait (just as in Risk) or used the Navy to cut off the Black Sea or sink Russian ships in the Pacific. Iran would be in big, big trouble. And World War However Many would have been ready to rumble. You have to feel for the Georgians; they are finding out the hardest way possible how little U.S. neo-imperialists can really be trusted.