Just when we thought we were out, they pull us back in. The Russian invasion of Georgia marks an end to American illusions about the obsolescence of the old world of great powers and their ruthless competition. The attacks of September 11 did not have the effect of a return to grand strategy: Our new enemies were without states and without armies, and in their ideas and their methods were unconventional enough to leave undisturbed our millennial sensation of a post-cold war, and maybe even postWestphalian, world. Al Qaeda was a millennially appropriate foe. Its organization and its ideology were themselves globalized; they seemed to confirm the excitement about globalization by revealing its dark side. But Vladimir Putin and his strategic paranoia and his sphere-of-influence thinking and his autocratic militarism: All this was supposed to be archaic by now. According to the canonical narrative of the grand historical novelty of our era, geo-economics was supposed to have usurped geo-strategy. We thought we were out. But here we are.
In the aftermath of the cold war, we heard a lot about "unipolarity." This was not quite as delusional as "the end of history," but there was no reason to believe that it would accurately describe the planet for long. The United States certainly won the cold war, but the world does not stand still. Whether or not the United States is "the only superpower" now, there are other superpowers on, or just this side of, the horizon. That is what Putin wants us to understand, and he is right. In its region and beyond, Russia is choosing to inherit many of the policies of the Soviet Union, which had chosen to inherit many of the policies of Russia.
The crisis in Georgia strikes yet another blow against the myth of a wholly new world. It reminds us of the persistence of ethnic allegiances even into the age of connectivity. The new connectivity will not retire the old connectedness. Georgia's stupid provocation in South Ossetia was a way of allowing local tribalisms to play into Russia's prior strategic designs. And when Putin sent his tanks across his borders he had the Balkans in mind--specifically the independence of Kosovo, which Russia continues to regard as a historical humiliation. The Georgian experiment in recent years consisted precisely in the attempt to pit democracy against tribalism; but it was an imperfect attempt, not always conducted in good faith. And now in South Ossetia there are reports of the ethnic cleansing of Georgians. The hand of the past is more deadly than dead.
As a consequence of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of our wanton energy policy, it is not at all clear what we can do to evict Russia from Georgia, or to persuade Russia to revise its historical and strategic thinking. But what we must take pains to do now is to be clear in our own understanding of the situation. In the coming bi- or tri-polar world, our pole is the free pole, the democratic pole--to be more concrete, the Polish pole, and that of all the other states along Russia's borders that aspire to an open society and an alliance with other open societies. It was stirring to see the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia rush to Tbilisi to stand with the president of Georgia.
American statecraft has been returned to hellish complexity. We will have to propagate our values and protect our interests in a world with many moving and dangerous parts, and our leaders better have the brains and nerves for it. The next American president will be a foreign policy president whether he likes it or not.
By The Editors