I’m still on vacation but, like everyone else, have been quite amazed at the ongoing Georgia crisis, particularly the failure so far of the administration and the campaigns of the two presidential candidates to absorb its potential significance and the need for Washington (and the West more generally) to fundamentally reassess its global position and how over-stretched it has become. (Remember that Georgia was one of Rumsfeld’s first foreign destinations after 9/11 and was followed by a significant deployment in early 2002 of U.S. Special Forces — over Russian protests — there in what was clearly part of a much larger strategy to use the “war on terror” to build the military infrastructure for the “New American Century” in and around Eurasia.)
Two articles — both quite provocative — have appeared in the mainstream press since the crisis broke that have underlined the potential historic significance of the ongoing crisis. While they are not completely convincing, they nonetheless are well worth reading and meditating over. The first is Paul Krugman’s “The Great Illusion” which appeared in the NY Times August 15. It suggests that the latest events may herald the curtain’s fall on the second great age of globalization, the first having taken place from the end of the 19th century to August, 1914. Of course, the comparison of the two ages — with respect to terrorism (then anarchism), vast social dislocations caused by industrialization and imperialism, as well as the high degree of economic integration — is hardly new, but Krugman’s thumbnail analysis is, as I noted, thought-provoking.
“By itself, …the war in Georgia isn’t that big a deal economically,” Krugman writes. “But it does mark the end of the Pax Americana — the era in which the United States more or less maintained a monopoly on the use of military force. And that raises some real questions about the future of globalization.” The article brings in a number of pertinent examples of rising nationalism in the economic, as well as the strategic and political spheres, that today’s policymakers, politicians and publics might well consider before reflexively taking Georgia’s side. Serb nationalists had a pretty good case against the Austro-Hungarian Empire back in 1914, too.
The second article, by former Singaporean diplomat and veteran provocateur Kishore Mahbubani, appeared in today’s Financial Times under the headline “The West is Strategically Wrong on Georgia.” Mahbubani, who notes the hypocrisy of U.S. outrage (and how it appears to publics in Latin America and the Islamic world, in particular) over Russian actions, is particularly succinct about the strategic choices faced by the U.S. and the West at this juncture and argues for a fundamental strategic reassessment based on an understanding that the West can no longer “dictate terms” to the rest of the world as it has assumed it could do since the end of the Cold War. In fact, he argues, both the U.S. and the West have become terribly isolated from what the Bush administration loves to call “the international community.” His analysis of what strategic choices are now available to the West –it can afford only so many enemies and so should be much more discriminating in its choices — is particularly acute. Interestingly, Mahbubani, author of ‘The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East’ (2008), ends on a more optimistic note than Krugman (although I, presumably like Krugman, believe that nationalism in Asia is as likely to undermine the burgeoning “Pacific Century” as U.S. over-extension and arrogance have wreaked havoc with Bill Kristol’s and Bob Kagan’s cherished but chimerical “New American Century”.)
While the notion that the Georgia crisis takes us back to the end of the Cold War and the “return of history” has become a cliche among most of the commentariat (while some neo-cons predictably compare it to the Sudetenland, Munich and 1938), both columns see the present moment as signaling much deeper historical and even epochal challenges to U.S. and western hegemony in what is now, ever more clearly, a multipolar world that rejects Pax Americana. And, if U.S. leaders, actual and imminent, continue to insist on a hard line toward Russia, that rejection will very likely extend to Europe, as well. Indeed, western (or “old”) Europe, in particular, has some major strategic decisions of its own to make, having seen where its habitual deference to Washington has gotten it.