Georgia: Europe wins a gold medal for defeatism

By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 15/08/08):

To some, China’s muscular domination of the Olympic medal table is a powerful allegory of the shifting balance of global power. A far better and more literal testimony to the collapse of the West may be seen in the distinctly weak-kneed response to Russian aggression in Georgia by what is still amusingly called the transatlantic alliance.

Once again, the Europeans, and their friends in the pusillanimous wing of the US Left, have demonstrated that, when it come to those postmodern Olympian sports of synchronized self-loathing, team hand-wringing and lightweight posturing, they know how to sweep gold, silver and bronze.

There’s a routine now whenever some unspeakable act of aggression is visited upon us or our allies by murderous fanatics or authoritarian regimes. While the enemy takes a victory lap, we compete in a shameful medley relay of apologetics, defeatism and surrender.

The initial reaction is almost always self-blame and an expression of sympathetic explanation for the aggressor’s actions. In the Russian case this week, the conventional wisdom is that Moscow was provoked by the hot-headed President Saakashvili of Georgia. It was really all his fault, we are told.

What’s more, the argument goes, the US and Europe had already laid the moral framework for Russia’s invasion by our own acts of aggression in the past decade. Vladimir Putin was simply following the example of illegal intervention by the US and its allies in Kosovo and Iraq.

It ought not to be necessary to point out the differences between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Mr Saakashvili’s Georgia, but for those blinded by moral relativism, here goes – Georgia did not invade its neighbours or use chemical weapons on their people. Georgia did not torture and murder hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Georgia did not defy international demands for a decade and ignore 18 UN Security Council resolutions to come clean about its weapons programmes.

And unlike Iraq under Saddam, Georgia is led by a democratically elected president who has pushed this once dank backwater of the Soviet Union, birthplace of Stalin and Beria, towards liberal democracy and international engagement.

The Kosovo analogy has a more resonant ring of plausibility to it and has been heavily exploited by the Russians in defence of their actions. But it too is specious. It is true that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, like Kosovo within Serbia, are ethnic-minority-majority regions within a state that they dislike. But that’s where the parallel ends.

Unlike Serbia, Georgia has not been conducting a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the people of these provinces. In the 1990s Serbia had firmly established its aggressive intentions towards its minorities with ugly genocidal wars against Croatia and Bosnia. And in any case the two Georgian enclaves have been patrolled by Russian “peacekeepers” for the past 15 years.

We need to be morally clear about what is going on in Georgia. Perhaps Mr Saakashvili was a little reckless in seeking to stamp out the separatist guerrillas. But to suggest that he somehow got what he deserved is tantamount to saying that a woman who dresses in a miniskirt and high heels and gets drunk in a bar one night is asking to be raped.

If shifting moral blame won’t relieve us of our responsibilities then surely defeatism will. Whoever is right or wrong, the critics say, we can’t do anything about it. In the past week, the familiar parade of clichés has been rolled out to explain why it is all hopeless. The Russian bear, pumped up by all that oil wealth, is reasserting power in its own backyard. The US and Europe, their energy sapped by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can only stand by and watch.

There’s something odd about listening to European governments speak about the futility of diplomacy. They are the ones who usually insist that military force alone can achieve little and who say that diplomacy must be given a chance. But now they seem to say that, since we can’t stop Russia militarily, there is nothing else we can do.

But we can make life very uncomfortable for Mr Putin. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its recent (relative) prosperity depends on its continuing integration into the global economy. It sets great store by the recognition that it gains from a seat at the high table with the great powers in the G8. It wants to elevate that status farther by joining the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Punitive measures will hurt us too, of course: Russia could cause trouble over Iran and holds an alarmingly large quantity of US official debt. It could play havoc with the West’s energy supplies.

The Europeans don’t much like the idea of any of this. So this week they demonstrated the same sort of resolve that they showed in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when they stood by as genocide unfolded on their own continent.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, in his capacity as head pro tempore of the EU, came back from a trip to Moscow and Tbilisi, waving a piece of paper and acclaiming peace in our time.

But the one-sided ceasefire that he negotiated was more or less dictated to him by Mr Putin. It not only left the Russian military in place in the disputed enclaves. It allowed them free rein to continue operations inside the rest of Georgia.

That disastrous piece of European diplomacy finally seems to have stirred the US into tougher action. Goaded by John McCain, who has been brilliantly resolute in his measure of Russian intentions over the past few years, the Bush Administration at last dropped its credulous embrace of Mr Putin and upped the ante with direct military assistance to Georgia and threats of tougher diplomatic action.

But we should never forget what Mr Sarkozy and his EU officials got up to this week. There can be no clearer indication of the perils that threaten the West if the EU gets its way and wins more clout in the world.

This, remember, is the same EU that wants to take over foreign and security policy from member states, an institution that is always eager to pump itself up at the expense of democratic institutions in those member states, but which crumbles into puny submission when faced with authoritarian bullying overseas.

It was a great Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic movement on the famous principle that “the important thing is not winning but taking part”.

The EU today seems to have adapted that slogan to fit its own desired global role – the important thing is taking part and not winning.