Brzezinski on U.S. “Decline” and Small States
Zbigniew Brzezinski has compiled a list of “8 geopolitically endangered species,” which he says are the small states that stand to suffer if America “declines.” He starts his list with Georgia:
American decline would leave this tiny Caucasian state vulnerable to Russian political intimidation and military aggression.
It shouldn’t be news that Georgia has been and will be potentially vulnerable to both of these, and U.S. “decline” has nothing to do with it. The August 2008 war occurred just months after the Bucharest summit in which the Bush administration was still actively seeking continued NATO expansion to the east. That undermines the idea that it is worse for the states that border Russia when the U.S. is less activist in former Soviet space. One could easily argue, as I and others have for years, that it was the expectation of U.S. backing that encouraged Saakashvili to escalate the conflict in South Ossetia with disastrous results for Georgia. This foolish expectation was created by the mostly rhetorical support that the Bush administration gave to a state that it had no real intention of defending militarily, and the administration caused additional confusion about Washington’s position on Georgia’s separatist republics with the military aid and training that it did provide.
As Joshua Kucera reports, part of Obama’s signing statement on the defense authorization bill declared the provisions relating to arming Georgia to be non-binding, so it seems that this administration is not going to risk making the same mistake. The reality is that the U.S. is not going to defend Georgia in a future conflict, but it also seems possible that the U.S. will no longer try to use Georgia as an anti-Russian client state, which suggests that Georgia will be more secure if it is not perceived in Moscow as a means for projecting U.S. influence. When U.S.-Russian relations are distrustful and antagonistic, small pro-American neighbors are more likely to suffer, which is another argument for keeping U.S.-Russian relations from deteriorating.
Other scenarios that Brzezinski connects with U.S. “decline” that seem very unlikely include the Russian absorption of Belarus (why would Moscow want the hassle?), and exposing Ukraine to “Russian designs.” What these “designs” might be are never spelled out. Brzezinski might have mentioned that the main obstacle that is keeping the EU from pursuing closer economic integration with Ukraine at this point is the EU’s reluctance to deal with Yanukovych on account of the jailing of Tymoshenko. That position might be right, but it is not helpful if the larger concern is to keep Ukraine from moving more into Moscow’s orbit. It also shows that Europe’s willingness or unwillingness to foster closer economic and political cooperation with Ukraine is not dependent on U.S. “decline” or lack thereof. The point is that there is nothing that a more active and engaged U.S. could do that would make the EU more accepting of Yanukovych’s treatment of Tymoshenko, nor does there seem to be anything that Washington would be able to do to detach Belarus from Moscow. It seems as if Brzezinski’s assessment of these three cases depends on treating the arrangements of the very unusual 2003-2008 period as if it were the normal state of affairs instead of the weird Bush-era aberration that it was.
P.S. Part of Layne’s review of Gaddis’ George F. Kennan is appropriate to cite here:
Kennan also understood that even a nation as powerful as the United States did not have the resources to intervene everywhere. Hence, it was important for policy makers to distinguish between those places where the United States needed to act and those where it could stand aside. He rejected the notion that pulling back from unwise or unsustainable commitments abroad would undermine American “credibility.” As Kennan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1966, “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”