NATO Heads South

The grand alliance is a paper tiger.

It's been a few weeks since Russia invaded its tiny neighbor, the independent Republic of Georgia, while the rest of the world was paying attention to the Olympics.

This came as a complete surprise.  In a flashback to Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, we got to see the not very reassuring spectacle of the world's leaders scuttling about with absolutely no clue of what was going on or what to do.

Barack Obama memorably told both Georgia and the invader 100 times its size to back off from whaling on each other; some observers even started out saying Georgia had it coming.  John McCain was about the only nationally known politician who got it right first time, absolutely condemning Russia for invading an independent country that was no threat to its own security - but, then, as a lifetime Cold Warrior, McCain probably didn't have to ponder long and hard as to whether we wanted to be on Russia's side or the side of Anybody Else.

The comedy goes on.  France's President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Moscow to negotiate a peace agreement, which was duly signed and just as duly ignored.  Russia agreed to pull back all its combat troops - and immediately broke open boxes of white armbands for all its soldiers in the area.  Shazzam!  Combat troops gone - all that's left is "peacekeepers."

Well, it doesn't make much different whether Georgia's key railway bridges and fuel trains are blown up by Russian combat troops or Russian peacekeepers; the country is in chaos either way.  Whole cities lie in ruins; the main port of Poti is occupied by Russians who take Georgian prisoners while "liberating" American military equipment; and Russia has made it abundantly clear that Georgia, as a practical matter, is only as independent as Russia chooses to allow it to be.

It's a sad day for the United States when a loyal ally who contributed combat troops to Iraq is summarily occupied by an enemy country and we do nothing more than send humanitarian aid.  We hope they got plenty of band-aids and duct tape.

A quick look at the map reveals why our response was so ineffectual.  Georgia may be only a plane flight away - but it's a long, long plane flight, over an awful lot of countries, many of which are not really our friends.

How, exactly, would we propose to get troops into Georgia, should we wish to do so?  Fly them there, at great expense, and expect the Russians not to shoot them down?  Send them in by sea, assuming the Turks grant us permission?  They control the Dardanelles Strait, the only way into the Black Sea.

Even if the Turks agreed, there's still the small problem of the Russian Navy's Black Seas Fleet, which while a shadow of its Soviet self, is still a pretty impressive pile of hardware.  Could we do it?  Of course we could, but it would make Iraq look like the invasion of Granada, which was a quick in-and-out that everybody forgot about a week later.

Georgia Whom?

Yet Georgia is of great strategic importance.  At a time when Western economies are suffering from inflated oil prices while the world's sheiks and petty dictators bleed us dry, any source for more oil that is halfway friendly is an opportunity worth pursuing.

A look at the map tells the tale: Georgia is the only possible pipeline route to the petroleum-rich "Weirdistans" of Central Asia that doesn't involve Russia or Iran.  To get that oil to us, Georgia has to remain free and independent.

Have we reached such a state of desperation that America must be prepared for war with Russia over some tiny country that, until a month ago, nobody but Dick Cheney had ever heard of?  Well, not exactly.  America doesn't like paying these oil prices, but we actually do have plenty of oil of our own if we can get our government to stay out of the way.

Europe has no such option.  The North Sea oilfields are running out; no more have been discovered.  For the last decade, the Europeans expected to be able to get energy supplies from a friendly Russia and built billions of dollars worth of pipelines accordingly; this turns out to have been more risky than it appeared, as Russia proved itself both able and willing to turn off the gas for its own political ends.

Why, then, is Europe not more involved in its own national security affairs?  Eastern Europe has figured it out: the presidents of five Eastern European countries personally went to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, while the shooting was at its height, to demonstrate their solidarity with Georgia and opposition to Russian aggression.

David Cameron, leader of England's Tory opposition party, showed up later; but Prime Minister Gordon Brown stayed on the beach on vacation.  Europe's heavy hitters spent more time on the phone with Moscow than Tbilisi; and not a one of them has even made warning military moves.

They can't.  For all that Europe's armies show a roster of thousands, the only country that has any serious ability to support forces outside their own territory is England - which is also the European country farthest from Georgia, and best supplied with its own energy resources.  All of Europe is tied together in the world's greatest alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); but what, exactly, does this mean?

NATO - Home of a Thousand Officials

NATO was created in the early days of the Cold War, when Russian tanks were expected any day to cross into Western Europe.  The purpose of NATO was to ensure a united defense of Europe.  Thousands of American troops were stationed on German bases (at our expense) and American leadership provided coordination, command-and-control, and transport.

The thought was that no country could stand against Russia alone, but if everyone stood together, they'd have a chance.  That's why the NATO treaty includes Article 5 - if the territory of one NATO member is attacked, all the others will treat it as an attack on their own territory and respond with force.

Article 5 has been invoked exactly once.  On 9-11, the territory of the United States was attacked by terrorists supported by the Taliban-run nation of Afghanistan.  The NATO countries responded accordingly, with a unified attack on the Taliban.

This part worked fairly well, and the Taliban were run out of Kabul in a matter of weeks; the reconstruction and establishment of a friendly Afghan government has gone rather less well.  The list of countries involved demonstrates the effort to be truly international, or so it appears: 22 countries have paid the ultimate price in the deaths of their soldiers in Afghanistan.

As nice as it is to have friends, it's even nicer to have helpful friends.  At the very top of its article on "Coalition casualties in Afghanistan," Wikipedia tells a sad tale: America has lost more soldiers than everyone else combined.

507 Americans have died fighting in Afghanistan, 116 Brits, and 92 Canadians.  In fourth place comes Germany, with 27; it goes downhill from there, and everyone from number 10 on is in the single digits.  Yes, NATO has supplied a multinational force to Afghanistan; yes, the other countries are showing their support, and that's important.  Every little bit helps - but the emphasis is on little.

You can almost see why the Ron Paulites, conservative though they be, are upset about American military involvement overseas.  We are not participating in a defensive alliance.  We are not supporting other countries in their own efforts.

No, we, and we alone, are out there doing all the fighting, all the paying, and practically all the dying, with a helpful but jumpy little British terrier by our side.  As far as actual combat power and combat deaths are concerned, everyone else might as well stay home.

Why, pray tell, is the United States the only free country which does any defending?  If other free countries have national interests - and surely they do - why don't they at least participate in pursuing them?  The Russians and the Chinese have no qualms about using military force where they think it right, and most importantly, are fully prepared to pay the cost.

Historically, we, too, have been willing to pay to keep our freedoms, but we're getting less and less willing.  Continental Europe might as well have no army for all the good it does, we seem to be walking the same path a couple of decades behind them.

When Yugoslavia exploded in the 90s, the EU dithered, moaned, wrung their hands, and sent "peacekeepers" to give a false sense of security and pusillanimously watch thousands be murdered.  Only when America got involved were heads knocked together.

Name one conflict anywhere in the world in the last half century which came to a good resolution thanks to European military forces without American involvement or British leadership?  You can't!  There aren't any!

It's bad enough that European countries can't successfully do military operations outside their own territory, but it looks like they can't even do much useful in their own country, on defense!  When Russia invaded Georgia, despite the fact that the Georgian military has been trained and equipped by Americans for some years, their soldiers accomplished nothing.  They might as well not even have been there.

Of course, nobody expects them to actually defeat a foe 100 times their size, but they at least should have been able to let the Russians know they'd been in a fight; Chechnya, not an independent country at all and certainly not American-supported, accomplished at least that much when Russia invaded them.  If the Georgians don't think their own land is worth defending, or if they aren't able to do so, that's a bad sign.

Entangling Alliances

So, when we look at the NATO "alliance", we need to clearly understand what it is: In military terms, NATO is not an alliance at all.  NATO is, quite simply, a list of countries that the United States is willing to go to war to defend, because they can't and won't (England excepted).  In other words, American protectorates.

Is this the business we want to be in?  It certainly isn't what at least half of American voters want us to be doing.

Is it a business we should be in?  Well, John McCain told the Saddleback congregation that evil must be confronted and defeated.  He's right, of course; but there's an awful lot of evil in the world and we can't confront all of it everywhere.

Is it truly worth the death of American soldiers for us to take control of Darfur or Somalia?  What would we do with them if we did?  It doesn't take a cynic to imagine how quickly the posters would be changed: inside of a year, thousands around the world would demand "U.S. Out of Sudan!"

Defending other countries is exceedingly costly, both in lives and in money.  If the U.S. is to be the world's policeman, shouldn't the rest of the world be paying taxes to us to support the expense?  After all, you pay taxes to pay your local cop's salary, don't you?

There's a lot to like about Georgia.  There's a lot to like about Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and all manner of other countries that are desperately trying to become stable, wealthy democracies.

There's a lot to not like about Russia and China - nothing against their people, it's their governments that are odious - but we need to be very careful not to make promises we can't keep regardless of how pleasant the thought might be.  Good intentions may be good enough for American politics regardless of actual results, but good intentions without force behind them are worth precisely nothing out there in the big, bad world.

Russia's invasion of Georgia has served us a timely warning.  If the United States can't defend a country - and it surely can't defend Georgia - and Europe won't, we'll only look foolish and impotent if we say we will.  Russia has figured this out, in spades; it's time we did too.

Antibiotic medicines have saved thousands if not millions of lives over the years since they were invented, but so many people use antibiotics for everything that they are starting not to work anymore.  It's far wiser to let your own body's immune system have first crack at the problem; only if it fails, and you actually do get an infection you can't handle, is an antibiotic medicine appropriate.  Use antibiotics every time, and you'll find that your own immune system goes to sleep and isn't there if you ever need it.

Has American willingness to defend all comers caused the same thing on a larger scale?  Armies are expensive; if there is someone else who is willing to defend you, there's a strong temptation to let them do so and spend your own money on something else.

Maybe it's time for the U.S. to start setting minimum requirements for nations that would like to have a big ally on their side.  If a country isn't willing to pull its weight; to maintain, train, and properly equip an army appropriate to its size, with the ability to actually fight and do damage both at home and abroad, and the political willingness to participate when we ask them to - well, if they want to go it alone, let's let them.

NATO still has its thousands of officials, its grand headquarters, its huge budget, its minions scurrying hither and thither, but the Russians have revealed NATO for what it is - an expensive, impotent corpse.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Looks like Russia is upping the ante even more: They announced that they will consider anyone providing military assistance to Georgia to be " an act of war."

We aren't threatening them - they are threatening us.
August 29, 2008 8:07 AM
Looks like National Review thinks NATO is a goner too.
August 29, 2008 9:52 AM
All of this is well and good but you make no mention of the fact that Georgia shot down two Russian airplanes before the invasion.

Georgia - to hear Russia tell it - has been jabbing a finger in their eye for a decade now. Assuming we ignore all that, what of the shot-down airplanes? Does that make no difference?

Your analogy of Iraq invading Kuwait is false. Kuwait had never been a thorn in Iraq's side in any physical sense nor had they ever assaulted the Iraqi military.

It is logical to demand that any physical retaliation from Russia be confined to the scope of Georgia's attack, but to insist ONLY upon diplomatic channels is silly. The US would not (nor SHOULD not) have done the same.

As for NATO, there is no question that it has rendered itself irrelevant well before this incident, but the United States IS correct in NOT solely taking Georgia's side.
August 29, 2008 10:24 AM
Georgia deserves it. Every bit of it. They were a bunch of idiots and now they are paying the price. Let 'em hang.
August 29, 2008 11:21 AM
Is this meant to be an analysis? Or a piece of fiction? "England" (it's actually called the United Kingdom...) is the only Eurioean country that "has any serious ability to support forces outside their own territory"? It just goes to show that the writer may be fond of "lapdog allies", but doesn't have a clue about military capabilities.

What actually is wrong with NATO is that it expanded too much and too quickly; it moved from being a military alliance to being a social club for somewhat pro-American countries (or, in some cases, merely anti-Russian ones). That isn't enough to plan, let alone execute, any military action.

The Russia-Georgia conflict goes back to the rather arbitrary set of national borders which were the result of the Soviet Union splitting up. It's not just a large power flexing its muscles - it's far more complex than that. NATO (or anybody else) should get involved just because the Georgian government is (at present) pro-Western? Not really enough, nor addressing the underlying issues...

The analogy Iraq-Kuwait is questionable. Is there an anaology USA-Iraq?
August 29, 2008 12:05 PM
"it moved from being a military alliance to being a social club for somewhat pro-American countries"

Agreed. America should not start helping any nation that supports us simply because it supports us. That is a very bad precedent, particularly if we are overlooking their faults. We started doing that with Iraq in the 80s when they were more our friends than the Iranians.
August 29, 2008 1:41 PM
twibi, what indeed of the shot-down airplanes? Yes, Georgia shot down Russian warplanes... over Georgian territory, where they had no right to be, and which Georgia's air force had every right to do under international law.

What, exactly, has Georgia done unlawfully to Russia? By international treaty, South Ossetia is a part of Georgia. Georgian forces have every right to be there; Russian ones, none at all. They don't even have the fig-leaf of a single UN Security Council resolution condemning anything Georgia has done there.

Iraq had racked up a ton of condemnatory UN resolutions; it was pretty apparent to everyone from the Clintons on down that Hussein cared nothing for international law. OTOH, I'm not aware of anything Georgia has done contrary to international law, except for Russian accusations of Georgian genocide which have been proven false (200 deaths in combat is hardly genocide).

Now, Georgia may have used exceptionally bad judgment, but that's a different matter.
August 29, 2008 1:55 PM
That they were over Georgia territory has not been confirmed. Both sides have a different story.

Second, should that be enough? If Canadian airplanes fly into US territory, do we immediately shoot them down?

Just because Georgia is sitting on a oil distribution goldmine doesn't mean the US should run foul of other nations to protect it when it does stupid things.
August 29, 2008 2:00 PM
It wasn't the first time, Russian planes had been making incursions for months.

Also, as far as I can tell, the Georgians only shot down unmanned Russian drones at first. After the Russian invasion, the Georgians shot down some manned Russian fighters, but with Russian tanks already in their country you can hardly blame them for that.
August 29, 2008 2:59 PM
As usual, Petrach presents a well-written and objective examination of the problems faced by the US in dealing with Vlad the Invader. However, I would like to make a small point. In relation to both Afghanistan and Iraq, Australian forces have fought alongside those of America and its European allies. It is true that numerically our forces are smaller than those of bigger powers but we usually send our highly trained and effective troops in the form of the SAS. Australia's contribution is directly proportional to its population and we also have regional commitments.

For what it's worth, I do not think that either America or Russia emerge from the Georgia crisis with any great credit. In the days of the Soviet Union, the West stood back and watched as rebellion of any description was crushed and you can take it from me that it was more than just East Germany in 1949; Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Faced with uprisings in their own cities, usually over food shortages, the Russian leadership flew in Armed Forces and had leading rebels shot out of hand. The city was then declared a "hero city" and received short-term relief in the way of food.

However, the root cause of the problem with Georgia owes much to Stalin's solution to the nationalities question. Large populations were deported and replaced by Russians and it is very interesting to note that those showing solidarity with Georgia share the same difficulties.
August 29, 2008 11:32 PM
"507 Americans have died fighting in Afghanistan, 116 Brits, and 92 Canadians."

Sigh. In round numbers: US - 300 million people, Canada - 30 million. Weighted for population, Canada's bearing twice the burden the US does here. We'll grant that US losses in Iraq even things out.

This is precisely why there is such a virulent strain of anti-americanism in canada. No one likes to be ignored, especially when the actual relationship is the deepest one the US has got.
September 4, 2008 8:02 PM
This article was pointed at European nations. Canada is a member of NATO, certainly, but is not European. So you needn't feel criticized, it was not aimed at you.
September 4, 2008 9:04 PM
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