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Karl E. Meyer served as editor of World Policy Journal from 2000 to 2008.

He is the author of 12 books, the most

recent, with Shareen Blair Brysac, Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East (Norton, 2008).

After Georgia: Back to the Future

Karl E. Meyer

It is too soon to say for sure who or what ig- culprits are thuggish South Ossetian mili-
nited the August clash between Russia and tias, acting in collusion with Russia, whose
Georgia, but already conspiracy scenarios members precipitated the conflict by firing
abound, some as dark and convoluted as the on Georgian villagers and peacekeepers on
infamous gorges of the Caucasus. To Prime August 6 in violation of a 1994 armistice
Minister Vladimir Putin, the true culprits agreement. Already poised Russian troops
were most probably the Americans who en- then burst across the border before
couraged Georgia’s unprovoked attack on Saakashvili ordered Georgian troops into
breakaway South Ossetia. As evidence, South Ossetia (pop. 80,000) on August 7.
Putin cites the close ties between Senator Therefore (in this version) Moscow, not
John McCain and Georgian President Tbilisi, triggered hostilities two days before
Mikheil Saakashvili, implying that the GOP the conveniently distracting opening cere-
hopeful may have recklessly fanned the crisis monies for the Beijing Olympics.
to further his own election. So what should one make of it? Possibly
The Kremlin duly produced a military both versions are partly true—that Georgia’s
spokesman who claimed Russian troops in macho president mistook expressions of
Georgia discovered a U.S. passport belong- American solidarity for a serious commit-
ing to one Michael Lee White, an army vet- ment to intervene, and leaped at the bait by
eran from Texas, thereby proving American overreacting—just as the Kremlin hoped he
complicity “together with Georgian com- would, when Russia’s so-called peacekeepers
mandos is a fact.” Well, not so fast. It devel- stood by as loutish local militias misbehaved
ops that White is an itinerant English-lan- within and beyond the borders of South Os-
guage teacher, most recently in China. He setia. More interesting by far was the
insists he has never been to Georgia, and world’s stunned astonishment over a broadly
that his military service in 1992–97 consist- predictable, thoroughly old-fashioned reaf-
ed of driving oil trucks and fueling helicop- firmation of big stick intervention, meant to
ters at air bases in Kentucky, Germany, and demonstrate the renewed vigor of a long-hu-
Bosnia, where he momentarily worked with miliated, now-prospering great power domi-
peacekeepers. nated by an ice-blooded, fiercely ambitious
For their part, Georgia’s defenders re- leader, i.e., someone very like Vladimir
verse this sequence, affirming that the true Putin.

© 2008 World Policy Institute 119

Over the past quarter century, the pages thoughts about intervention and inaugurat-
of World Policy Journal have chronicled a ed a long overdue “Good Neighbor” policy,
host of colossal missteps and a modicum of which in turn was succeeded by a fresh
successes by world leaders and charlatans, eruption of interventions under Johnson,
heroes and rogues of all stripes. In my eight Nixon, and Reagan.
years at the helm, we watched as the Ameri- While Americans justly condemn
can military burst into Iraq in a misguided Moscow’s unilateral recognition of break-
adventure, yet at the same time maintained away provinces like South Ossetia and
peace and a degree of order in the Balkans. Abkhazia as sovereign entities, Washington
We chronicled the horrors of 9/11 and the has used the same tool to further its per-
war on terror, not to mention the corrosive ceived vital interests. On November 3,
effects of an impending global environmen- 1903, a small revolt was mounted in
tal catastrophe. We watched as some major Panama City just as, coincidentally, naval
powers stumbled and others climbed up- forces of the United States appeared off-
ward, but through it all only the willfully shore. Within days, Washington formally
innocent could have been shocked at the recognized Panama’s independence from
myopia and reflexive hypocrisy so often dis- Colombia, to which it had long belonged.
played by the world’s rulers—leavened, Within a fortnight, a treaty materialized
mercifully, by occasional bursts of decency authorizing the construction of a Panama
and candor. Georgia’s agony is a case in Canal, signed by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a
point. lobbyist for a French canal company, who
overnight was accredited as Panama’s envoy.
Great Power Behavior 101 Today, this Panama caper is rarely men-
From ancient times to the present, great tioned in American schoolbooks but still
powers have jealously sought to enforce widely recalled in Latin America.
their regional supremacy and expel rivals
from their neighborhood. America’s Monroe Russia’s Way in the Caucasus
Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823, conformed to Let it be clear that this soiled linen in no
this practice by unilaterally decreeing that way mitigates, condones, or excuses Russia’s
the Western Hemisphere was no longer sub- brutal excesses in Georgia. It is heartbreak-
ject to further European colonization or in- ing to witness via cable news the aging
terference. We tend to forget how robustly Georgian couples driven from their shat-
the doctrine was enforced and expanded, tered homes by swaggering Russians glee-
and how popular it proved domestically. In fully reasserting Moscow’s regional hegemo-
1895, during a dispute over the frontiers ny. From their first conquests in the early
between Venezuela and British Guiana, nineteenth century, the Russians have pur-
President Grover Cleveland demanded that sued a cynically divisive strategy for domi-
Great Britain submit the issue to arbitra- nating the Caucasus, a craggy isthmus be-
tion—which it did, amid triumphant cries tween the Black and Caspian Seas, with no
that America was “practically sovereign” in fewer than 43 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet.
the entire hemisphere. In these valleys emerged the two earliest
In 1920, Franklin Roosevelt boasted Christian kingdoms, Georgia and Armenia,
that he wrote Haiti’s “pretty good” constitu- squeezed between Islam’s two quarreling
tion while serving as Woodrow Wilson’s as- flocks, Sunni and Shia, amid what Arabs
sistant secretary of the Navy. Creditably, on long ago called a “mountain of languages.”
becoming president, FDR had second Early Western travelers reported that as


many as 70 different languages could be Many of us may have forgotten, but
heard in Tbilisi’s markets, employing five during the 1980s, Leonid Brezhnev’s ges-
distinct alphabets: Cyrillic, Armenian, tures of solidarity with Nicaragua’s leftist
Georgian, Arabic, and Latin. regime were less overt, but nevertheless
It was but a matter of time before tradi- caused President Reagan to circumvent a
tional Russian concerns and strategies resur- congressional ban and fuel a Contra rebel-
faced after the Soviet Union dissolved. In its lion, violate world law by mining
early post-Soviet

years, the Russian
economy was in tur- The triumphal vision of a globe
moil, President Boris
Yeltsin was erratic
dominated by a single superpower
and tipsy, and many has faded, and our next president will
Americans truly saw
themselves as masters have to recruit, energize, and inspire
of a unipolar world.
At the same time, un-
der President Bill
allies, rather than command.
Clinton, the North Atlantic Treaty Organi-
zation (NATO) expanded organically as East-

Nicaragua’s harbor, and authorize an illegal
arms-for-hostage swap with Iran in order to
ern European and Baltic republics joined the channel covert aid to the Contras. Imagine
alliance. Moscow protested impotently in Washington’s response had Brezhnev him-
1998 when a U.S.-led NATO coalition self taken part in a rally in Managua to an-
bombed and invaded Serbia, a traditional nounce that Nicaragua would be welcomed
Russian ally, opening the way for Kosovo’s as a new member of the Warsaw Pact, and
independence. America’s pro-democracy and then offered the equivalent of a billion dol-
free-market hawks claimed vindication lars to stiffen Sandinista resolve.
when the Russian bear did nothing. Given Washington’s embrace of
What Moscow viewed as affronts were Saakashvili, at some point, there was bound
compounded when George W. Bush, having to be a robust Russian counterstroke, both
gazed into Putin’s eyes, said he liked what as a message to other post-Soviet republics
he saw. As we observed in the pages of (notably Ukraine) and as a warning to
World Policy Journal, Bush proceeded to 1) whichever candidate prevails in America’s
scuttle an anti-ballistic missile treaty his fa- November election. Bolstered by rocketing
ther had favored; 2) wave aside, without re- oil prices, Western Europe’s dependence on
ally addressing, Russia’s objections to the Russian natural gas, America’s distractions
U.S.-led preemptive invasion of Iraq; 3) en- in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Putin
courage and then recognize Kosovo’s inde- resourcefully turned tables this year by step-
pendence despite Russia’s categorical oppo- ping down as president, hand-picking his
sition; 4) embolden Georgia’s defiance of protégé as his successor, then virtually nam-
Moscow by training its armed forces and fa- ing himself prime minister, his powers en-
voring its fast-track accession to NATO; and hanced by orchestrated applause in an au-
5) visit Tbilisi to take part in a rhapsodic thoritarian society. And now, after Georgia,
rally, thereby demonstrating his personal the world has seemingly moved back to
support for a pro-Western, American- the future under a constellation of rival
schooled Georgian president. powers—Russia, America, the European

After Georgia: Back to the Future 121

Union, China, and India—somewhat resem- troleum, energy, pipelines, weather, climate
bling the old five-power Concert of Europe change, environment, Islam, Middle East,
that emerged after Napoleon’s defeat at Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, media, infor-
Waterloo. The triumphal vision of a globe mation technology, computer, torture, insur-
dominated by a single superpower has fad- gency, and terrorism—the key words one
ed, and our next president will have to hears nightly today in every primetime
recruit, energize, and inspire allies, rather newscast. Kahn was assisted by the U.S. in-
than command. telligence community, and with its help he
compiled a list of countries most likely to
The Inscrutable Future equal America’s then-current per capita
With hindsight, none of this should have gross national product (GNP). The first four
been a surprise. Nonetheless, the world’s po- were Sweden, Canada, West Germany, and
litical elite has been caught off guard, as East Germany, which itself was expected to
usually happens when events take a radical match U.S. per capita output within 17
left or right turn. Few mainstream experts years. Instead, the German Democratic
in America or Europe foresaw pivotal events Republic vanished entirely in 22 years.
of our own era—the prolonged and disas- So why did Herman Kahn & Co. get so
trous Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, much wrong? Why did he and his col-
the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the leagues assume the continued availability of
Nazi-Soviet Pact, Hiroshima, the post- cheap oil (or its ready substitution from oth-
World War II baby boom, the triumph of er energy sources), the permanence of Soviet
Iran’s ayatollahs, the collapse of the Soviet power, the ongoing pervasiveness of secular-
Union, 9/11, and the challenge of radical ism in an irreversible global quest for mate-
Islam. rial progress, American-style? I would ven-
It is chastening, for example, to look ture two reasons: neglect of Orwell’s Law
afresh at Herman Kahn and Anthony J. and the human stain.
Wiener’s futurist manifesto, The Year 2000: Of George Orwell’s many essays, my
A Framework for Speculation on the Next own candidate for compulsory rereading is
Thirty-Three Years (1967). There was no “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,”
more seemingly tough-minded realist than written shortly after the end of World War
Kahn, reputedly a model for Stanley II. In it, he reviews Burnham’s influential
Kubrick’s character, Dr. Strangelove. Both The Managerial Revolution, which established
figuratively and literally, he loomed as an the Chicago-born academic’s global reputa-
outsize prophet. He was America’s most cel- tion. Its argument is that capitalism was
ebrated nuclear strategist, the intellectual disappearing, but would not be replaced by
progenitor of MAD (mutual assured destruc- socialism. Instead, a new kind of society
tion) and author of Thinking the Unthinkable would arise that was neither capitalist nor
and On Nuclear War. In his effort to map the democratic but a centralized state ruled by a
shape of things to come, Kahn was assisted new breed of business executive, technicians,
by the brilliant, dedicated staff of the Hud- bureaucrats, and soldiers, which Burnham
son Institute, which along with RAND was collectively calls “managers.”
then America’s most influential strategic Orwell finds some merit in this analy-
think-tank. sis, which anticipated and influenced his
Yet, if you search the subject index of own dark vision in 1984. “But curiously
The Year 2000 you will find no entries for enough,” he adds, “when one examines the
the following problems and places: oil, pe- predictions which Burnham has based on his


general theory, one finds that in so far as Danger: Do We Have the Will to Reverse the
they are verifiable, they have been falsified.” Decline of American Power?, Norman Pod-
In successive years, Orwell points out, Burn- horetz likewise warned that American liber-
ham’s predictions change. In 1940, he took als were infected by a “culture of appease-
a German victory for granted, dismissing ment” that ensured the country’s eventual
the British as decadent and concluding that subordination “to superior Soviet power.” (It
Europe’s integration under the Nazis was ir- is worth mentioning that the late Senator
reversible. He further predicted that Ger- Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once an early ally
many would not attack Russia until after of neoconservatives, concluded in the 1980s
the defeat of Britain, and that subsequently that Russian power was grossly overrated,
the Soviet Union was bound to be defeated. noting that the Soviet Union was the only
But by 1944, Burn-
ham was writing
that Russia would
gang up with Japan
against the United
States, and indeed
that the Soviet
“ What the new tenant in the White
House needs most is a capacity for
empathy: to see ourselves and institu-
as a sure loser four
years earlier—was
tions as others see us and them.
now destined to control all Eurasia, a verita-
ble recreation of the old Mongol empire.

leading industrial state where the average
life expectancy of its citizens steadily
Orwell observes: “It will be seen that at declined.)
each point Burnham is predicting a continu- When tables turned and the Soviet
ation of the thing that is happening. Now the Union disintegrated, the same commenta-
tendency to do this is not simply a bad tors, much in the Burnham tradition, now
habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, glimpsed “an end of history” sealed by the
which one can correct by taking thought. It permanent victory of democracy and market
is a major mental disease, and its roots lie economics in a unipolar world yearning to
partly in cowardice and partly in the wor- emulate the American model. So it is per-
ship of power, which is not fully separable haps no surprise that after the Russian as-
from cowardice.... Power worship blurs po- sault on Georgia, which rattled and con-
litical judgment because it leads, almost un- fused Western leaders who need to work
avoidably, to the belief that present trends with counterparts in the Kremlin, even as
will continue. Whoever is winning at the they fear and distrust them, some foresee a
moment will always seem invincible.” new Cold War pitting the Free World
Thus, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the against a resurgent Russia.
Soviet Union seemed to stride unchecked My own conclusion, modestly ventured,
across the globe, arming client states in the is that what a new tenant in the White
Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and the House needs most to cultivate is a capacity
Americas, Burnham envisioned the suicide for empathy, which entails making an active
of the West, with his despair echoed by a effort to see ourselves and our institutions as
phalanx of American neoconservatives who others see us and them. With reason, many
predicted the global victory of communism. thoughtful foreigners rankle at moralizing
Typically, in a 1980 manifesto, The Present lectures by Americans, and our reluctance

After Georgia: Back to the Future 123

ever to acknowledge our own sins and blun- vak Communist Party leader Alexander
ders. I was struck by a passage in former Dubcek’s efforts to give socialism a human
President George Herbert Walker Bush’s face, despite Moscow’s glowering disap-
just-published China Diary—a day-by-day proval. The Prague leaders were summoned
record of his service as head of the United to the Kremlin, Soviet forces conspicuously
States Liaison Office in Beijing in 1974–75. staged Warsaw Pact maneuvers, and experts
In his role as interim envoy, he penned these in the West pondered Leonid Brezhnev’s
lines in May 1975, “The American people next moves. The consensus among diplo-
do not have any concept of how others mats and my press colleagues was that a ne-
around the world view America. We think gotiated settlement would resolve differ-
we are good, honorable, decent, freedom- ences, as had happened in Poland after the
loving. Others are firmly convinced reform-minded party Wladyslaw Gomulka
that…we are embarked on policies that are became party leader in 1956.
anathema to them. We have a mammoth By chance, Joseph Alsop, the most
public relations job to do on all this.” hawkish of mainstream columnists, was in
Although Bush’s son, George, spent a London, and we had lunch. So what did he
brief few weeks visiting his parents in Bei- think? “Of course the Russians are going to
jing, his presence is barely noted in these invade.” Really? On what evidence? “Just
diaries. Not a line appears concerning look at the stony faces of the Russian gener-
George W.’s thoughts and experiences dur- als meeting with their Czech counterparts:
ing his days in China, one of the few foreign they want to eat them alive.” That same
countries he visited before assuming office day, I took part in a BBC World Service
as America’s chief executive in 2001. His si- roundtable with other London-based corre-
lence sadly prefigured a certain lack of cu- spondents. What did we all think? Im-
riosity that marked his tenure and be- pressed by Alsop’s vehemence, I was the sole
queathed so confusing and inconsistent a participant flatly to predict a Soviet inva-
legacy to whichever candidate has to deal sion, which occurred the following week,
next year with Putin and Saakashvili alike. briefly according me an undeserved reputa-
tion as a prophet. (Having managed to ob-
The Human Stain tain a visa from the Czechoslovak embassy
A final personal reflection. Impersonal forces in London, I was able to fly a few days later
assuredly define the limits and opportunities to Prague, where I reported for five weeks
confronting leaders bent on changing the for the Washington Post, after my predecessor
course of history. But it is foolish to ignore there, Alfred Friendly, had been expelled.)
the role that human ambition, pride, and Whatever Alsop’s other shortcomings,
aggressiveness so often play in determining he was a shrewd judge of faces. One can
which path events may follow. This was imagine what he might have said about the
driven home to me in August 1968, when I glacial eyes, rigid smile, and impeccable
was an American correspondent in London.
The talk of the moment was the Czechoslo-
grooming of Vladimir Putin. •