You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Speak Loudly And Carry A Small Stick

How does America's reaction to the Georgia-Russia conflict fall into the broader legacy of Bush's foreign policy? We asked NYU professor Joshua A. Tucker for his thoughts:

With Russia's invasion of Georgia (possibly) winding down, the time is ripe to explore what these events reveal about the new post-Iraq reality of the Bush administration's foreign policy. This conflict certainly could have been predicted. Ever since Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili rode one of the colored revolutions--widely viewed in Russia as Western anti-Russian plots--to power in late 2003, he has been viewed as a constant thorn in Russia's side for his relentless pro-Western foreign policy. Add to this disputes over borders and trade, Georgia's role as pretty much the only country now holding up Russia's membership in the WTO, and the fact that Saakashvili's recent election campaign featured promises of restoring Georgian territorial integrity, and it seems almost impossible that the U.S. could not have had contingency plans in place in case of an outbreak of hostilities between the two countries.

What would have such a contingency plan  needed to address? As anyone familiar with the relative strength of the Georgian and Russian armed forces would know, if real fighting broke out between Russia and Georgia, the hostilities would end when Russia decided it would end. So on the one hand, Russia would need to be convinced to stop the fighting. On the other hand, a message would need to be sent to the Russians that they were not free to use military force at will to bring about regime change. A difficult task indeed.

So what exactly was the response of the Bush administration? For better or for worse, images of Russian tanks entering Georgia spent this weekend being juxtaposed with pictures of President Bush playing beach volleyball, hardly a symbol that the invasion was taken seriously in Washington. While diplomatic events were undoubtedly unfolding off-camera, the public face of the U.S. response was largely limited to an interview with President Bush by Bob Costas of NBC Sports, and an ominous but vague threat from Vice President Cheney that the continuation of Russian aggression would have "serious consequences" for its relations with the United States; such consequences will apparently be made clear in the future.

With diplomatic efforts led by the French facilitating the ceasefire, we can begin to ask what Americans--and others--have learned from Bush's approach to the conflict. First, we once again see the difficulty the U.S. now faces in influencing events around the world. Despite President Bush's stern words to Putin in Beijing, the fighting is only (apparently) drawing to a close since European mediators got involved and, presumably, the Russians consider their military goals met. Clearly, a new approach to foreign policy is necessary to expand America's global influence.

But what lessons are the Russians likely to draw from Bush's handling of the crisis? From the outside, it appears that the Russians were able to achieve many of their goals with apparent ease--the only one in question being the removal of Saakashvili, at least for the time being. Will there actually be any "long-term consequences" to the Russian decision to invade Georgia in the manner they did? If so, will such actions make America seem that much more antagonistic in Russia's eyes, thus making future Russian-American relations that much more difficult? If not, will Russia leave this crisis emboldened, and, if so, could a different U.S. response have averted these results? Finally, what messages are being sent to U.S. allies in the post-communist world? What must the Estonians and Lithuanians, let alone the Ukrainians, be thinking about the value of a U.S. alliance--or a NATO commitment--today? And why, if the conflict was foreseeable and the results this pernicious, were we not better prepared to respond to it? These questions belie serious weaknesses in the Bush administrations' view of foreign policy--and areas in which the next president must seek to make changes. This crisis does illustrate one advantage of a "speak loudly and carry a small stick" foreign policy: It certainly doesn't require much advanced planning.

Joshua A. Tucker is Associate Professor of Politics in the Wilf Family Department of Politics and a Fellow of the Truman National Security Project.