“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
President Bush’s second Inaugural Speech proclaimed a bold Truman doctrine for the post 9/11 age. But when autocratic Russia invaded a sovereign democracy, the US was powerless to respond. Why the gulf between words and deeds? Why the failure to stand up to aggression?
The South Ossetia crisis tells us much about the direction of US and UK foreign policy in recent years. It’s clearer than ever that the intellectual bravery of the first term has been replaced with realpolitik, limiting the West’s ability to make a stand.
Only five years on, the faded zeal and ambition of early Bush foreign policy is but a striking memory. If neo-conservatism was a hegemonic project, it was also a deeply idealistic one. The attempt to rebuild the Islamic world around democratic and market economy lines, to replace authoritarian political cultures with democratic ones, was a fundamentally radical goal. It was no surprise that those labelled with the misnomer ‘neo-conservative’ grew out of leftism, from Paul Wolfowitz to Christopher Hitchens. Such utopianism has, however, fallen out of fashion in the last few years.
This is due largely to the chastening experience in Iraq. Having spent $845 billion, and lost over 4,000 soldiers’ lives, the US does not have the resources or the precedent to defend Georgia today as it did Kuwait in 1990 or Kosovo in 1999. The last few years have forced the Bush administration into a complete strategic turnaround.
On North Korea, the ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric is out. Six Party Talks, including South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, have led to North Korea agreeing to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and steps to normalise relations with the US are progressing: North Korea is no longer designated a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’. On Iran, a US official, William Burns, met with Iranian negotiators in Geneva in July this year, to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme. The first such meeting since the US suspended diplomatic relations in 1979, it marked a genuine shift in policy. I don’t dispute that these developments are positive, but the point is that this new approach is the result of overreach elsewhere.
So where should the Georgian conflict fit in to this new US strategy? The new embrace of Kissingerian realism limits America’s ability to make moral stands. A policy essentially based on calculations rather than clear moral judgements is limited in its reaction to the Russian invasion. In the era of ‘you’re either with us or against us’ a robust response would have been likely. But with America on the back foot, any serious challenge to Putin’s armies was never expected.
Bush’s new found pragmatism is, more than anything, an admission of defeat. Societies can not be reconstructed around foreign norms through mere force of arms. Edmund Burke was right: political cultures develop organically over time, rather than at the behest of an invading army. In getting these fundamental principles so wrong, the US has squandered whatever moral authority it might have held. And Prime Minister Putin knows this. Will he seriously be accused of invading a sovereign nation without UN approval? Or of using a human rights pretext to launch a war for other reasons? Or of abusing detainees? The inability to meaningfully respond to Russian aggression is yet another price America has paid for her Mesopotamian misadventure.