At first glance, this seems like a minor event. The resignation of a non-president of a non-state in a small and poor region of the Caucasus is not the kind of thing that generally grabs headlines. The broader context, however, suggests that we should pay a bit more attention to these events, particularly as the West is increasingly concerned about Russian aggression.
These are serious challenges blocking Ukraine's hopeful path to stability - never mind democracy. They are not insurmountable, but it remains as likely as not that Ukraine's next chapter will resemble the lost years of 2004-2010 - minus a few eastern territories. If the country is to remain united, powerful passions in Kiev, however righteous, must be tempered in favour of pragmatism.
Yet, the West rarely recognizes that Russia, like countries in the West, has its own interests. To Westerners, Russia’s actions are part of a storied narrative: It consistently acts in outrageous ways to thwart not Western interests, but also moral and political good in Ukraine. There’s a big problem with that view: By recasting a struggle between two political forces and interests as one simply between right and wrong, the West makes it more difficult to understand and combat Russian influence. If the U.S. and Europe want to change Russia’s behavior, they must toss those antiquated, Cold War notions, and accept that modern tensions are substantially based on economic and political interests, not just on latent Russian anger, or its alleged inferiority complex. That means accepting, for example, that scolding Russian leaders for breaking Western rules and expectations won’t provoke changes in Moscow. More dramatically, it may require the U.S. to recognize the limits of its ability to influence outcomes in Ukraine or other countries where Russia also has interests at stake.
Accordingly, Saakashvili's rhetoric tells a very clear anti-Russian story, but if the Georgian government were to be judged by outcomes, rather than rhetoric, with regards to Russia, a very different story would emerge. Regardless of its intentions, the Georgian government has delivered a set of outcomes that are in Russia's clear interest in the region. After being in power for more than eight years, Saakashvili and his government have seen roughly 20 percent of Georgian territory ceded to Russia for the foreseeable future, allowed Georgia's NATO and EU aspirations to become little more than a pipe dream, have presided over very difficult economic times in Georgia, a country now besot by joblessness, inflation, and a debt problem which will become more serious in the next few years.
If the Georgian government had scripted recent events in Abkhazia, and between Abkhazia and Vanuatu, it could not have gotten a better outcome than what has actually occurred. Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific Island state briefly recognized, or almost briefly recognized, Abkhazia in the beginning of June. Almost immediately after the announcement of the recognition there were rumors that the government of Vanuatu was back tracking as Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the UN claimed to know nothing of the recognition. Georgia, of course, has continued to maintain that Abkhazia is part of Georgia. This view is supported by the U.S., the European Union and most of the world.
U.S. policy in the former Soviet Union is defined more by continuity from Bush to Obama, than it is by change between the two administrations, but the latter seems more open to viewing the region with some nuance. This means that issues such as democracy and NATO membership while still important to the U.S. may be viewed differently by the new administration. Of course, that also means these issues may not be viewed differently, but these are the kinds of questions that should be discussed during this trip.
The controversy over French attempt to make it illegal for women to wear burqas in public places reflects the tension between in some sense religious freedoms and an open society, but it may be better understood as an issue that lies at the intersection of national identities, universal rights and power. On the surface the debate seems relatively simple, opponents of the new law believe that the right to wear whatever you like, particularly if it is for religious reasons is a basic civil right. Imagine, this argument goes, if a law was passed barring Jewish men from wearing yarmulkes or Buddhist monks from wearing their distinctive vestments in public.
The broad turmoil which this will cause for the western democracies will be serious, but it should be seen in a broader context. The next few years will be tough for the world’s major democracies, but they may be worse for the world’s non-democratic regimes. Keeping non-democratic regimes running smoothly also requires resources, economic growth and stability. However, when these are not in place, it is often more difficult for authoritarian regimes to manage the consequences and the corresponding voter anger.
These nature of the findings of these reports do, however, raise the question of what the real purpose of the reports were. The stated purpose of the reports was simply to determine the truth about the origins of one war and the conduct of another, but it is hard to take this entirely at face value. It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that a major purpose of the both reports was to provide a rationale for both institutions to pursue policies to which they had largely already committed. This is more true of the EU report because the UN doesn’t usually pursue policies in that sense.
In the very big picture, the shutdown is a reminder that the US is no longer the dominant global hegemon to whom the rules and limitations facing other countries do not apply. It turns out the US also can be hamstrung by institutions and structures and that ideological fanaticism can damage the country's economy and global standing. The irony, or perhaps tragedy is a better word, is that the same faction who is crippling our government today, will be screaming about American exceptionalism tomorrow.
Today, anti-Americanism in Europe has receded a great deal. Anti-Americanism, as President Obama’s advisor David Axelrod pointed out, “isn’t cool anymore.” This is very fortunate for the U.S. because if it was still cool, the tide of anti-Americanism in Europe today would very likely make that of 2003-2005 look like a Fourth of July picnic. During those years, anti-Americanism was spurred by U.S. foreign policy which, as bad as it might have been, had very little effect on the day-to-day lives of most Europeans. Today, the continent is in the throes of a major economic recession which many would like to blame on the U.S. The implosion of the overheated U.S. economy with its seemingly infinite market for a broad range of consumer goods has dragged down huge segments of global trade while the subprime mortgage problems have created a ripple effect which has devastated the world’s finances. This should be the language of the new anti-Americanism, but so far, it has yet to materialize.