I appreciate Tom Friedman’s effort to eschew simplistic Russia-bashing and try to put the Georgia crisis in some sort of larger context. I don’t, however, think that Friedman’s monomaniacal focus on the initial decision to expand NATO really makes a ton of sense. The first wave of Central European states — Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic — came on board back in 1997 and tons of additional stuff went down in the intervening years. What’s more, the NATO expansion process actually accomplished something useful in terms of helping to consolidate democratic norms (especially in the field of civil-military relations) in a swathe of countries that’s now pretty big and prosperous and somewhat important.
Contrast that with alienating Russia over, say, the Bush administration’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and subsequent determination to plow ahead with a national missile defense system. That angered Russia and accomplished nothing. Similarly with the Bush administration slow-and-steady moves toward the militarization of space. Then we recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence even though Russia specifically said that would lead to consequences for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then we helped Georgia upgrade its military at a time when Georgia’s political leadership wanted to re-assert control over those territories by force while simultaneously pushing for Georgian (and Ukrainian) membership in NATO.
That’s a whole lot of stuff and suggests to me that we could have given more consideration to Russian interests without conceding nearly as much as Friedman seems to think we should have. Suppose Russia agreed to recognize Kosovo independence and to allow a genuine independent peacekeeping force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and in exchange we agreed to drop the missile shield, leave Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO, and sharply reduce military assistance to Georgia with the understanding that that assistance would be stepped up if Russia tried to coerce Georgia — who would that have left worse off? That deal would address Russia’s strategic concerns much better than a tenuous occupation of Gori does. It would have saved the United States money and allowed us to focus our bilateral relationship with Russia on Iran and terrorism issues. It would have saved Georgia from devastating Russian attack. It would have put Kosovo independence on a firm footing, and as best one can tell (which, admittedly, isn’t that far) it would have reflected the desires of the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. Georgian nationalist sentiment wouldn’t have liked it, of course, but look where nationalism has gotten the Georgians.
But the contours of that specific proposal aside, the point is simply that you can’t draw a straight line from the initial NATO enlargement decision to war in the summer of 2008. There were any number of points at which wiser leadership could have prevented the situation from deteriorating to the current point, and any number of bargains that could have been struck that would have better-served everyone’s interests.