Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:24 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:24 | SYDNEY

Georgia and the return of Realism


Hugh White

15 August 2008 10:09

Geopolitics is back?  Did it ever go? I agree with most of Andrew Shearer’s points about the Georgia crisis, but I’d like to raise my hand at his implication that Russia’s recent actions mean geopolitics is back. I think we need to ask how this looks from Russia’s perspective.

Viewed from Moscow, geopolitics between East and West has never stopped. NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe to the very borders of Russia, the Colour revolutions, offers of NATO membership to Georgia and the Ukraine, and American cultivation of Georgia as a client state: these are all seen as geopolitical moves by the US to constrain Russia’s power and limit Russia’s capacity to protect its interests in its own immediate neighbourhood. 

And they think Washington does all this because America sees itself in a zero-sum geopolitical power competition with Moscow. Of course, that's not how America sees it: from Washington all these things are motivated by altruism; they are just trying to help these countries to join the liberal and democratic international order which has been so beneficial to everyone else.

Andrew might ask why we need to worry about how Russia sees it. Aren’t they just wrong? Well, I think they are mostly wrong, though I can’t help the sneaking suspicion that there is a grain of truth in their view. But much more important is the broader point about the nature of international politics and the responsibility of statesmen. Whether or not you agree with the other side’s point of view, it is very important to make sure you understand it. 

Nothing more seriously erodes our capacity to manage international affairs than an ideological disposition to believe that we do not have to take seriously the views of those we do not agree with. If we do not try to understand how they think – and accept that they might really and sincerely see things differently from us — we will forever be surprised by what they do. For nearly twenty years now America has been dismissing Russia’s concerns about what they see as US geopolitical moves against critical Russian interests. Whether we agree with them or not, we can hardly claim to be surprised by what they have done now.

Andrew is right to come to the defence of poor old George W Bush from those who blame it all on him. I think the US administration is handling the current crisis very badly, but the roots of that crisis go back much further than 2001. America’s refusal to take Russian concerns seriously is a totally bipartisan thing in America. NATO expansion has been pushed by both sides of the aisle. No American leader has thought to ask the question, 'how would we feel if the Russians built a ring of strategic clients around America’s borders?' (And outraged Australians might ask themselves how we would feel if a potentially hostile major power turned PNG into a client state and strategic base.) 

Now, before anyone accuses me of supporting Moscow, let me be quite clear: I do not. But I do think that Moscow’s actions are the predictable and avoidable result of policies deliberately pursued by the West, as well as of the characteristically brutal and xenophobic policies of the Kremlin. Those who think it is all Russia’s fault must believe that the West can manage its relations with other powers by doing what it wants and demanding that everyone else cop it sweet. In a world in which American power really was unipolar, that would be a credible policy. But in the real world American power, though vast, is limited. We have no alternative but to pay careful attention to the views of others, and adjust our policies to their perceptions and preferences where necessary to keep the peace. 

This is called Realism, which is a little unfashionable these days. It rests on a simple principle. Within broad limits of international order, keeping the peace between major power is the most important thing in international affairs, and to do that we need to adjust our ideas about remaking the world to the reality that, where others have different ideas and the power to oppose us, we need to take them seriously and trim our plans for the sake of order. Geopolitics has never gone away, but it might be time for Realism to make a comeback.

Photo by Flickr user Giles Douglas, used under a Creative Commons license.