The role of a superpower in the post-Cold War world

rysunek sikharulidzeThe United States and its western allies have legitimate concerns as to why they should risk blood and treasure in support of Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine, especially if providing these distant countries with financial support, military assistance and political leverage in international affairs could lead to a confrontation with Russia. Meanwhile, the Russian bear remains unpredictable and aggressive. It is a “great power” that has historically been antagonistic towards the United States. US citizens in particular remember the Vietnam War which resulted in thousands of casualties and produced few, if any, benefits. The Americans have also experienced calamities in the western hemisphere, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost triggered a third world war. Nobody wants to risk repeating these, or any of the many other events that unfolded during the last century, today.

 

In 2008 America almost became entangled in the five day Russian-Georgian War. Its involvement could have led to serious consequences for the US. Indeed, the expanded global pursuit of American national interests has resulted in a world in which many populations now harbour ill will towards the United States. Even more pressingly, why should the United States commit to the enlargement of existing western economic and security pacts when the European Union, with its ideal of a continent that is whole, free and at peace, is already prepared to defend itself and has a good partnership with the US? Those who argue against expansion point that there are many other problems in Southeast Asia, South America and the Middle East with which the US is substantially concerned. Wouldn’t it be best to leave Russia and its developing neighbours alone and let the Europeans deal with them, allowing the United States to manage and prioritise its own affairs?

 

Values versus interests

 

The defence and sustainment of the contemporary international order, with its commitments to international law and its foundations in democratic peace theory, have been core foreign policy objectives for the United States since the end of the Second World War. These goals have their roots in an idealistic approach to international relations. However, this approach was also practical, as we will see by examining American foreign policy choices from medium- and long-term perspectives.

 

This article is from the previous issue of New Eastern Europe

 

A common counter-argument to my idea is the theory that nation-states often face a dilemma when choosing between values and interests. It is now widely accepted that only national interests are appropriate determinants for such decisions, a perspective which can be interpreted in many different ways and is perhaps best reflected in the words of Charles de Gaulle: “France has no friends, only interests.” However, do we really want to forget the significant world events that led to our contemporary international order? Should we forget why Russia did not conquer Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in 2008? Should we forget why China did not occupy Taiwan by force, why Kosovo became independent, why Slobodan Milošević was brought to trial at The Hague and why the policy of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is guaranteed by the great global powers? These and many more are examples of the superiority of a world order founded on common international law.

 

It is understandable why there are many concerns regarding the efficacy or malfunctioning of established international restraints. However, we must also understand that there is only one mechanism, the international order, which can prevent new global atrocities like those caused by the fascist aggressors of the 1930s and 1940s. We also have to understand that this international order is based not just on realpolitik or the quantifiable interests of our individual nation-states, but also on the core values of democracy and liberalism, to which we remain deeply committed.

 

One of the main concerns within the ongoing dialogue addressing the split between the West and Russia centres on the redistribution of the post-Cold War world. Russia claims that there were commitments made by the West: namely, that NATO would never come close to the Russian border. Therefore, the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, should have stayed in the Russian “sphere of influence”, or at least acted as a buffer zone between Russia and NATO. The United States played a key role in the integration of these three states into NATO and later the EU, thereby bringing NATO and the West to the Russian border. However, it is crucial not to forget the long struggle these three brave nations had against Soviet (and before that, tsarist) occupation in the first place. It is important to remember their freedom movements, the “Baltic Chain” and the trilingualsong, “The Baltics Are Waking Up”, which served as a liberation anthem for all the freedom fighters within the nations of the former Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s.

 

At the time, this decision was in the American strategic interest, because its support could expand its influence within Europe and thereby make the US a more important player on the continent. However, the US already had significant leverage in and over Europe. It had won the Cold War. Russia was beset by deep economic and political problems during the 1990s, including violent conflicts in Chechnya and its escapades in Transnistria, Abkhazia, so-called South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which involved the use of Russian forces and lethal military support. At that time, China was just emerging as a major power.

 

American Europe

 

By championing the inclusion of the Baltic states in western economic and security organisations, which involved the US operating in the post-Soviet space on behalf of former Soviet nations, America proved itself to be a champion of democracy, freedom and liberal values. There were few American interests at stake in that part of the world. Instead, the justification for American engagement in the post-Soviet space was its dedication to historical justice and universal values, the same justice and values for which our dissidents and cultural elite were detained and sent to the Siberian gulags, where most of them were executed by the Soviet regime.

 

By the middle of the 2000s, after the fifth wave of EU enlargement, some scholars began using the term, “American Europe” to describe the reality created by the newly accepted members of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU. Usage of such terms supports the claim that even if in some cases, foreign policy decisions were originally motivated by seemingly idealistic commitments, those same commitments later led to practical and productive rewards.

 

What about the situation today? Russian aggression in Ukraine has no justification. Moreover, the Russian-Ukrainian war has not just altered the European security architecture, but has also breached fundamental principles of international law, and thus totally reconfigured the post-Cold War international order. The takeover and later annexation of Crimea, as well as the aggressive military attacks on eastern Ukrainian territories by Russian forces, have created dangerous precedents. Revisionism, revanchism and a reinvigorated political appetite for subordinating other countries have all been inflamed by these actions. The West’s failure to pay attention to the ongoing tension in Ukraine, alongside its failure to react to them, could lead to an extremely undesirable outcome: a reconsideration of the current post-Soviet international order, which could also mean a new war.

 

Should such a situation occur, and if the US was still the primary great power operating on the world stage at the time, we would need to consider a key question: should we accept the American claim that it is not in their interests to intervene in such a conflict and alternatively let the US pivot towards Asia, pursue a trade-off of influence in the Middle East, assert that it lacks the resources to engage with the matter, or simply demur out of a cautious preference not to irritate Russia?

 

Empires of evil

 

Taking into consideration democratic peace theory, American action in this hypothetical crisis is not just a matter of going to war and securing peace on behalf of democratic states. The sustainment of reliable economic markets, partners and ties is also at stake. It is obvious that when partners share the same values and a common understanding of order, there are far fewer challenges and threats to mutual co-operation. Conversely, business with international hooligans leaves one vulnerable, as seen in the following examples.

 

Until 2006 Georgia’s main supplier of natural gas was Russia. That year, during an unusually cold winter, the gas pipeline exploded in the north Caucasus, leaving the Georgians without gas for almost one week. At that time, Russia was also Georgia’s main trading partner. Informed by its foreign policy perspective, Russia placed an embargo on Georgian goods. With this same leverage over trade and utilities, Russia asserted itself over Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, repeatedly banning Moldavian wines, Latvian and Estonian marine products, Polish and Lithuanian dairy products, etc. Regarding the crisis in Ukraine, the US and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russia. Despite this, Russia itself imposes sanctions on trade in food products from them. It is obvious that there are more risks involved in dealing with unaccountable, authoritarian regimes than there are in managing relationships between democratic states. Nowadays, considering the importance of resource sustainability, states should be twice as cautious when establishing strategic economic ties.

 

In the contemporary world, there are some nations striving for freedom and democracy, who endeavour to affirm and secure these values through admission into international organisations dedicated to democratic values and liberalism. The processes that enabled the waves of democratisation seen in earlier decades were generated within respective nations and nurtured, in some cases, by outside factors. In some post-Soviet countries, significant progress towards democratisation is being made through similar processes. This is hard-earned progress, achieved with, and worthy of, international support. However, “Empires of Evil” exist that seek to hinder such progress in whatever way they can. The Russian bear has laid its paw on these would-be democracies, claiming that they exist within its sphere of influence and denying them self-determination. The West should not accept this kind of behaviour in the 21st century. Instead, it must do everything it can to facilitate the next wave of democratisation in ways that require Russia to recognise the rights of nation-states to decide their own future.

 

It is important to remember that to be a “superpower” is to carry the heavy obligation of acting as a guarantor of a fragile international order. If we do not care about the world, others will, since the metaphorical throne is never vacant. Life under illiberal and undemocratic regimes is an unnecessary injustice. Of course, this does not mean that only the United States must act in defence of democracy and liberalism, as if it were a modern-day Athens or a martyr, sacrificing itself to save all the oppressed nations around the world. However, the United States should lead its fellow western democracies in arguing for and securing the superiority of an international order based on law, devoted to universal values, resistant to authoritarian and unaccountable displays of power and protective of its interests in providing the opportunity for democracy to flourish in willing states, particularly those who wish to become a part of the free world.

 

Nika Sikharulidze is a fellow at the Atlantic Council of Georgia.

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