August was a strange month, and there were times when one felt that it could have been a Sarajevo moment (1914 style), or even a Cuban crisis. There is an almost Newtonian law of diplomacy about the resulting release of belligerent energy when two roughly equal masses of foresightlessness collide.
Neither side emerges with much credit from the Ossetia debacle, whether the issue was controlling unruly surrogates, or delivering an effective solution afterwards. In this case, however, the George W. Bush White House unusually played the role of Khrushchev, and backed down in the face of a clearly irrational opponent. But even that commendable forbearance has unintended consequences across the globe, in particular, with China and Taiwan.
In the short term, Moscow tweaked the Eagle’s feather, and got away with it because, for once, this White House appreciated its own limitations. Moscow certainly weakened U.S. military prestige even as it enhanced its battered reputation for sanity, but it was a hollow triumph, reminiscent of the Russian tank column that raced to Pristina Airport in Kosovo and cocked a snook at General Rupert Smith and NATO—but then, sheepishly, had to get fuel and food from NATO since all Russia’s former allies refused over-flight permission for reinforcement.
Clearly, that memory still rankles in Moscow, and can only hope that the little brief authority that Russia’s raid into Georgia gave its generals will overcome their chronic Kosovo syndrome. However, it was dearly bought therapy, which has compounded Russian isolation. It delivered support in Prague, Warsaw, and Kiev for NATO, missiles, and bases that a month ago looked like unjustifiable provocation but which the Russian action has now made seem eminently sensible. Indeed, apart from the effect on its neighbors, one cannot but help wonder at the long-term effect on the Russian Federation itself—Chechnya and Tartarstan being but some of many potentially fissiparous components. How long before Israel recognizes the independence of the Birobidzhan “Jewish Autonomous Region” in Russia’s far eastern provinces?
Obtusely, after its recognition of the Georgian enclaves, Russia went to the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council in Dushanbe expecting full support. After all, one avatar of this shape-shifting organization is as a counterbalance to U.S. influence and interference in the area. However, while the Russians came away claiming support, they did not get it, nor, if they were fully tuned to the world, should they have expected it. Discomfort about aspects of American unilateralism does not automatically translate into support for a cruder Russian version of the same thing.
The parties concerned supported the six points negotiated with President Nicolas Sarkozy—but so did Georgia. There was no support expressed for recognition of the breakaway enclaves and indeed, in a separate statement, China expressed its concern about the move, though it stopped short of condemnation.
That is hardly surprising. Not only has Russia eaten its own words about Kosovo on the subject of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention, it has called into question the whole basis of the post-Soviet settlement, implicitly based on the preservation of former Soviet Republic boundaries. Those boundaries were indeed questionable on all sorts of grounds—ethnic, economic, and even historical—but as with the Organization of African Unity’s explicit declaration of the sanctity of former African colonial boundaries, questioning them poses far greater risks than accepting them.
The Central Asian republics, which have been dancing on a tightrope between Russia, the United States, and China (and each with varying proportions of Russian population suddenly looking like Trojan Horses) were highly unlikely to endorse a principle that gave Moscow an implicit right to interfere whenever it wanted. Not only did they not endorse the recognition, it is likely that the combination of Russian aggressiveness and American ineffectuality will drive them closer to China.
With even Belarus, which normally behaves as independently as the former Byelorussian Soviet delegation at the United Nations, treading water on the matter, Abkhazia and Georgia have a long way to go before they attain the degree of international recognition of Taiwan’s two dozen embassies, let along Kosovo’s four times that.
Russia’s foreign ministry is at least attuned to reality enough to eschew blatant arm-twisting, but more because it recognizes its inability to exert leverage world-wide for an unpopular move than because of any sense of diplomatic delicacy.
However, Taiwan symbolizes the damage the affair has done to American credibility. Clearly, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia loom large in Chinese sensitivities. The Ossetian affair blew up as the Koumintang government in Taipei put forward its new, conciliatory application to work in the UN specialized agencies—while leaving aside the question of actual UN membership. Beijing firmly but politely rebuffed the modified bid, weakening newly elected President Ma Ying-jeou’s position at home, where first his 100 days were marked by a massive demonstration of DPP supporters condemning the failure of his “appeasement” of the mainland.
For some time, the United States has been sounding increasingly ambivalent about its legal commitment to defend Taiwan, not least as economic ties between the U.S. and mainland China have grown. Recently, the Bush White House has been even reluctant to provide defensive weaponry for Taiwan’s new government.
Washington’s failure to defend its close friend in the Caucasus may cause dangerous speculation on both sides of the Straits of Taiwan. Just as Margaret Thatcher sent the wrong signals to Argentina before the Falklands invasion, Beijing may be led to draw conclusions about Taiwan that could be disastrously wrong.
Putin and Medvedev’s blunder has made the world less stable and safe, without enhancing Russian prestige or power in any significant way.
It is bad enough for Washington to fail to deliver on an implied commitment to Georgia, but any signs of reneging on an explicit commitment to Taiwan will have repercussions throughout East Asia, from South Korea to Japan. The United States does still play the role of Globocop—and, for most countries, there is a residual feeling that a bent cop is better than none. Many countries who had assumed that there was an implied American guarantee of support will now be considering other options, notably, replacing the U.S. nuclear umbrella with one of their own.
Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian to The Independent, from the New York Observer and the Village Voice to the Financial Times. He is the UN correspondent for Tribune, and senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. He has pundited on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBC and innumerable radio stations, and writes online for Salon, AlterNet, MaximsNews, and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free.”