While people in Eastern Europe can’t vote in this election, Polish Americans, Latvian Americans, Ukrainian Americans and other Americans with roots in countries that feel threatened by an aggressive Russia do. Many of these voters are part of the very demographic groups upon whom Mr. Trump will rely on for his path to victory against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump needs a record proportion of white votes to win this election; and he particularly needs them in states of the upper Midwest, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have long had large numbers of voters with roots in Eastern Europe.
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.
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.
It is not clear that the U.S. is able to influence the degree of election fairness in entrenched semi-democratic or semi-authoritarian regimes, but it is clear that the current approaches are no longer sufficient. The tools which are necessary to push countries to better elections are no longer simply help with election lists and other straightforwardly technical tactics, but include things like concrete political pressure linked to consequences, a willingness to publicly urge foreign leaders to conduct fair elections, and intervene more frequently when government abuses occur in the pre-election period. The politics of doing these things in countries that are allies is very complicated. It is unlikely, for example, that the U.S. government in Washington or Tbilisi is going to link assistance to Georgia, a country that has more than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, to fair elections, or that leaders of American allies will be publicly chastised for things like arresting opposition activists or threatening opposition supporters, but unless the U.S. is willing to do these things, its ability to push countries to better elections will be severely limited.
Defining and assessing the mission in Libya has never been easy because the underlying notion that the role of NATO was to prevent a genocide from occurring cannot easily be determined to have been successful or not. Although genocide has not happened in Libya, there is no way of knowing with any certainty whether one would have happened had there not been an intervention. It is the military equivalent of proving a negative.
The spy case and the bombing case, individually and together, raise a number of important, if largely unstated, questions for the Georgian relationship with the U.S. The first question is what if these accusations are wrong? In this scenario, the photographers have been essentially framed and the bomb near the U.S. embassy was the result of one man’s actions with no connection to the Russian embassy. This is a hypothetical scenario, as it certainly cannot be assumed that these accusations are wrong or unfounded. Nonetheless, if these accusations are false, than Georgia has again demonstrated a willingness to overstate Russian involvement in Georgian domestic affairs and to risk undermining relations between Russia and the US.
The U.S. has been in a difficult position regarding Syria as American relative inaction in Syria is a stark contrast to U.S. policy in Libya where the U.S. has played a major role in ongoing military intervention against that country’s authoritarian leader. While the situations in the two countries are not identical, there are ample similarities. The failure of the U.S. to become involved in Syria highlights both the deep inconsistency of American foreign policy as well as the limits on American, and indeed NATO’s, ability to be everywhere at once. The specific problem which the U.S. faces regarding Syria and Libya is that of leaving itself open to criticism for intervening in one country while not intervening in another similar case.
While Gaddafi’s departure would be a welcomed by policy makers and others in the U.S. and Europe, the question of what the U.S. role in Libya after Gaddafi, and what type of commitment the U.S. is prepared to make there is critical. It is sufficiently important that this should have been one of the major issues informing the decision of whether or not to intervene in Libya in the first place. Recent history has shown us that U.S. and NATO military powers are usually strong enough to oust nasty authoritarian leaders, but that helping those countries develop new and better political institutions, bringing stability and peace is often considerably more difficult. This has clearly been the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and could soon be the challenge facing Libya as well.
During the Cold War, the U.S. viewed, and referred to itself, as the “leader of the free world.” This formulation was far more empowering than simply being one of two superpowers vying for world domination. The U.S. sought to present its leadership role as being in the name of freedom, rather than just the U.S. Since the Cold War, this frame has been a problem for the U.S. because rather than being empowering, it forced the U.S. to take on more responsibilities around the world.
The criticism of the intervention in NATO on the grounds that if the west intervenes to stop mass killings in Libya, they should do it everywhere else as well, is troubling because the corollary is that if the west cannot stop mass killing somewhere, it shouldn’t try to do it anywhere. Nonetheless, the intervention in Libya sets a precedent and creates expectations in the region that can create problems for the U.S. and its European allies.
For many years the notion that partisan politics ended at America’s shores contained a smattering of accuracy with a healthy overlay of propaganda. There have been too many exceptions over history for that phrase to contain more than a kernel of truth. Partisan disputes about entrance into World War II, Cold War strategy and the Vietnam War were just some of the times that the American political leadership was divided on key foreign policy questions during the time when this framework was allegedly at its strongest. Since the Vietnam War era, disputes over foreign policy from Central America to the Middle East have been a constant presence in our political life.
The current Georgian paradoxes are not altogether unusual. There are other countries that have been modernized by soft authoritarian regimes, or that have financed economic progress on borrowed money and faced the consequences when those debts have come due. Perhaps recognizing the unexceptionalism of Georgia can be useful for policy makers. This might allow policy makers to see Georgia as a country more concerned with modernization than democracy, and to recognize the potential seriousness of a looming debt crisis, which is scheduled to coincide with a sharp decline in American assistance, and how this could have a potentially destabilizing impact. This might be a better foundation for a sound Georgian policy than increasingly vague rhetoric, particularly from Washington, about democracy and territorial integrity.
It is difficult to open a newspaper or peruse the internet without reading about America’s declining power around the globe. These stories which never really go away but seem to have increased in the last few years almost invariably focus on America’s reduced economic power as well as the rise of other powerful countries or blocks, most prominently China, but also India, Russia, Brazil and even Europe.
The lessons which the U.S. learns from Afghanistan will frame foreign policy for the decades to come, but it is not at all clear what all those lessons will be. Some of these lessons, that the U.S. cannot easily bring any country it chooses into the modern democratic world, that we should not lay our trust in leaders as erratic, undependable and corrupt as Hamid Karzai, that winning the peace is far more difficult than winning the war and that the conflicts of the 21st century are quite different than those which characterized most of the 20th century, are obvious.
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 NATO involvement in Libya continues characterized by an anticipated ambiguity about next steps, overall goals and methods of reaching those goals as well as the real possibility that this timely intervention may, in fact, have saved thousands of lives. The decision to intervene in Libya, while first resisted by the Obama administration has been generally accepted by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington who have disagreed about the timing and methods, but less about the decision itself. While there has been some dissent and criticism of the Obama administration for this decision, most of that has come from the ideological extremes or from ordinary citizens.
Importantly, the program showed a Georgian military defeat, thus highlighting the sense of fear and indeed victimhood that has come to define the Georgian government, and threatens to define the Georgian nation as well. While there is no question that fear of Russia is legitimate in Georgia, if that fear becomes the defining characteristic of that country, and cripples Georgia’s ability to grow, develop or govern itself rationally, than Russia has won without firing an additional shot.
During the next ten years, the U.S. will confront a broad range of policy challenges. Some will likely be largely unchanged over the course of the decade. Others, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the fight against terrorism will probably remain important issues but will change and evolve during the decade. There are some issues, however, which seem somewhat remote today, but which may dominate headlines by the year 2020. We cannot, of course, know for certain what these issues are, but the five issues below all may become very important by 2020.
This is one of the reasons why Obama’s views on Afghanistan are so puzzling. Adding troops in Afghanistan to pursue a mission that looks more difficult every day is the perfect recipe for overextending the U.S. and accelerating our declining power and influence, at a time when we cannot afford it. It is a policy that simply does not recognize how the world, and the ability of the U.S. to change the world, has changed. The threat of terrorism is real, but a policy of keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism and expanding the war and rebuilding in Afghanistan are not at all the same thing.