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The Death of 1989

The vast, frightening fallout of Russia's invasion of Georgia.

Seven nail-biting thoughts as the Russian tanks roll by:

1) The damage has already been done. It is vast, and it is irreversible, at least for a long time to come. We have been living in the age of 1989--an age of democratic revolution. The damage is to those revolutions and their legacy.

The democratic revolutions came in three waves, each new wave weaker than the last. The earliest of revolutions, the velvet revolutions of 1989 itself, were a mighty tide, but the second wave needed a push. This turned out to be U.S. military action in the Balkans, which led to the Serbian overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, followed by, after a while, the color revolutions: Georgia's "Rose" in 2003, Ukraine's "Orange" in 2004, and a variety of smaller, failed upsurges, and even fiascos, in what used to be the Soviet zone.

The third wave, in the Middle East in 2005, proved to be feebler yet--set off once again by U.S. military action, though also by inspirations from the Rose and Orange revolutions. The so-called "Arab Spring," viewed on a regional scale, was easily contained. Its biggest event was the Iraqi election of 2005, which succeeded in returning the sectarian and extremist parties to power. A disastrous result. And yet the Iraqi election, in its contradictory fashion, also expressed something of a democratic aspiration on the part of millions of very brave voters. An ambiguity. And the Arab Spring produced the Cedar Revolution of March 2005 in Lebanon, inspired directly by the joint example of the Orange revolution and the Iraqi election.

The Cedar Revolution has undergone any number of setbacks since 2005, but one of the worst took place earlier this month. Hezbollah's militia won an official recognition within Lebanon, accepted as legitimate even by the semi-defeated champions of the Cedar Revolution. August 2008 therefore marks a simultaneous setback to both the Rose and Cedar Revolutions, central events of the second wave and the third.

And the tide rolls out.

2) The vast and irreversible effects of the invasion of Georgia will be felt everywhere in the ex-Soviet bloc, and not just there. Each of the ex-bloc countries has what could be called its own pro-Russia party, which is hostile to the democratic revolutions. The pro-Russia parties stand on several solid and distinct foundations: ethnic Russian minorities in the countries bordering on Russia; a variety of business interests linked to Russia, based either on Russian gas and raw materials, or on networks descended from the Soviet-era military and police agencies; nationalist groupings in the old Slavophilic style; and some (not all) of the heirs to the old Communist political tradition.

From atop those several foundations, the pro-Russia parties derive strength from a variety of physical threats: a threat of cyber-attack (already waged against Estonia on behalf of the Russian ethnic minority there, and, shortly before the invasion, against Georgia); a threat of a cut-off in gas supplies, which Russia has already wielded against Ukraine; and, more vaguely, a threat of murky political tension. Today, the pro-Russia parties in each of Russia's immediate neighbors and in some of the more distant neighbors can add to those the ultimate threat. The one involving tanks. The pro-Russia parties in every country have therefore emerged from last week's events massively reinforced, and they will remain so for years to come even if every one of those Russian tanks were to exit Georgia tomorrow.

The strengthening of the pro-Russia parties will be met, at first, by an increased hostility from the democratic parties--the genuinely democratic parties, and some of the not-so-genuine ones. Political tensions are therefore bound to rise all across the region, not just between the ex-bloc countries and Russia, but within each of the ex-bloc countries. A rise in domestic tensions will have the unavoidable effect, however, of yet again increasing, in the short term, the credibility of threats from the pro-Russia parties. The pressure on the democratic parties to relinquish their hostility to the pro-Russia parties will therefore grow in the months to come. And a degree of power will shift to the pro-Russia parties on a regional and not just a local level.

Poland will be an exception to this development, if only because Poland appears to have made a fundamental national choice to go down fighting, rather than submit yet again to Russia. But Polish defiance has merely meant that Poland, instead of undergoing the political tensions that are about to embroil the other countries, has leapfrogged to a still higher stage of tension, which is military. The Poles have already found themselves being threatened overtly with military assault and even nuclear attack by top figures of the Russian military--a shocking development.

The greater the danger of violent attack on Poland, the more acute will be the political tension within each of the other countries, and the less predictable will be each country's frightened and panicked response.


3) The nature of the Iranian regime requires Europe as a whole to press Iran to forebear from developing nuclear arms; and a primary way of doing so is to press Russia to refrain from offering a commercially profitable helping hand, and to press Russia to refrain from sending additional weaponry to Iran. The sudden and vast increase in the power of the pro-Russia parties across a large swath of Europe will make it harder for Europe to do anything of the sort. So the Iranians, too, or at least the Ahmadinejad faction, emerge from the invasion a little stronger. Already the Iranians have benefitted in Iraq, given the withdrawal of 2,000 gung-ho Georgian troops. The setback to the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon is likewise an Iranian triumph.

Iran’s successes will surely weigh on the debate within Israeli political and military circles, and not in favor of patience and conciliation. The events of August 2008 make Israel look more vulnerable, instead of less. The Israeli argument for relying on European solidarity against Iran, and the Israeli argument for looking to the United States to prevent rash acts by the inveterately hostile, will look weaker. The argument among the Israeli political and military circles in favor of launching a desperate pre-emptive attack on Iran, or in favor of renewing the war in Lebanon, will end up looking stronger.

The potential of new and catastrophic wars in the Middle East has therefore grown.


4) The invasion of Georgia shines an alarming light on the nature of political thinking within the Russian leadership. The Russian leadership is conventionally seen as conforming to a nineteenth-century notion of national interests, together with a mid-twentieth-century style of ethnic solidarity. In the controversy over the separatist regions of Georgia, Russia does face a matter of national interest, if national interest is conceived in the geographical and ethnic styles of the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. Still, Russia has other interests, too--regional peace and quiet, a continued healthy business atmosphere, the assurance that catastrophic events will not take place. These additional interests ought to outweigh the geographical and ethnic ones, or so you might suppose. To shake up half the world on behalf of two breakaway enclaves smaller even than Schleswig-Holstein does not appear to make sense, in a conventional calculation. And yet, the Russian leadership has decided otherwise. Why?

Today, any time some large group of people behaves in a way that defies a logical calculation of potential gains and losses, the people in question are said to be reacting to "humiliation," or what used to be called "ressentiment." Humiliation, though, taken as a political experience, exists only where it has been ideologically constructed, and not otherwise. Germany, having been defeated in World War I, was afterwards said to be undergoing "humiliation"; and yet, after World War II, having been defeated ten times more cruelly, Germany was no longer said to be "humiliated." That was because the German political doctrines promoting a feeling of "humiliation" disappeared after World War II. It was the doctrines, not the experience of misfortune, that had created "humiliation."

Russia, having been defeated in the Cold War, is said to be undergoing "humiliation." But I think mostly the Russian leaders feel something worse, which is fear. The Russian leaders picture their country in a terrifyingly vulnerable position, not unlike how Israel sees itself. Fear, not "humiliation," led Russia to invade Georgia--a fear of utter destruction facing their own country. Russian diplomats have expressed this fear openly during the last few months. I have heard them to do it--speaking aloud, with hot conviction, about an "existential danger" to Russia, posed by Georgia.

And yet, their fear is entirely doctrinal--which is to say, imaginary. Russia's situation is not, in fact, like Israel's. No foreign power since the end of the Cold War has entertained a plan of attacking Russia or destroying Russia's power and wealth. The Russian fear rests merely on a somewhat paranoid interpretation of world events. Fears based on paranoid interpretations cannot be assuaged. A tacit agreement by the rest of the world to allow Russia to conquer the breakaway regions of Georgia and to install a puppet regime in Tbilisi, and to do likewise in Ukraine, and so forth, will not make the Russian leaders feel any less threatened.

Why do the Russians indulge such an interpretation? It is an archaism. The mystery wrapped in an enigma is a bit of an antique. In any case, the current dominance of this kind of thinking may suggest that Russia is a shakier place than it appears to be. A stable Russia would not have felt existentially threatened by its neighbors in tiny Georgia, nor by NATO.


5) American foreign policy since 1989 has rested in significant degree on one large proposition: the notion that America's interest and the progress of liberal democracy around the world are, in the long run, the same. This proposition has always had its critics within the United States. The critics will now multiply. And yet, if America, in listening to those criticisms, lurches in a traditionally conservative direction--if America comes to rely on a policy of conservative realpolitik, meaning, a courting of dictators--a more stable Eastern Europe will still not emerge, nor a more stable Middle East. A conservative lurch by America will only weaken the democrats in other parts of the world--therefore, it will weaken the prospects of America's only dependable friends. A weakening of America's commitment to democratic solidarity will also enfeeble Europe's, and the echo effect will set in. And yet, unless someone offers a vigorous argument in favor of democratic solidarity, a realpolitik conservatism is certain to grow.

An American retreat from the principles of democratic solidarity will represent one more retreat in the face of the Russian invasion--the biggest retreat of all, ultimately.


6) The invasion of Georgia offers yet another astounding display of incompetence on the part of the Bush administration, on top of the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the mortgage crisis. The Georgian disaster possesses, however, the potential of outdoing the sum total of those other disasters.

To heap blame and contempt on the Bush administration is therefore a just, reasonable, and hygienic thing to do--but only for five minutes. On the sixth minute, which has already arrived, it will be necessary to come up with a response.


7) A simple, adequate, tit-for-tat response to Russia's invasion does not exist. An adequate response can only be complex, long-term, and global. We will have to recognize that, for the moment, questions of democratic principle, national security, and the energy crisis have decisively merged. We will need a newly combined policy, then--a reaffirmation of the principles of democratic solidarity, together with an urgent, national-priority effort to develop alternative-energy industries in order to weaken the Putin dictatorship and a series of other petro-enemies of democracy. Now, yes, after the invasion of Georgia, we will end up confirming one aspect of the Russian paranoia. Our goal should be to undo, on environmentalist grounds, the central element of Russia's rather primitive prosperity. An alternative energy program will require a turning away from free-market dogma--one more way in which a new policy cannot be traditionally conservative. The lurch will have to be leftward.

Barack Obama has lately been speaking of a "green economy." A new, combined foreign and energy policy will have to extend the same general concept. The new foreign policy will have to be, in one variant or another, a policy of "green democracy"--green, because fossil fuels have become the engine of reaction, all over the world; and democracy, because wars are sometimes about something, and the war in Georgia, for all the table-banging over the oppression of pro-Russia ethnic populations, is ultimately about the legacy of 1989.

Paul Berman, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is the author of Power and the Idealists, which has just come out in Hebrew and Polish.

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By Paul Berman