Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Legitimacy and Hubris

I've been plugging the legitimacy issue for so long that it's now just tiring (see here and here). But the Russia-Georgia affair just underscored it again. Basically, while a handful of remaining benighted US citizens and a batch of insiders in Washington DC continue to believe in American global dominance, the reality is that the Bush administration's wars and its war crimes have destroyed the glue that holds together US global power: that is, legitimacy, both political and moral.

The case of Georgia is what legitimacy looks like when it has deflated.
Russia's blitz into the former Soviet republic of Georgia has exposed starkly the limits of US military power and geopolitical influence in the era following the invasion of Iraq.

Georgia is one of the closest US allies in Eastern Europe. President Mikheil Saakashvili has visited the White House three times in the last four years. Yet this warm relationship did not stop the Kremlin from unleashing a ferocious military response after Georgian troops entered the separatist province of South Ossetia.

US efforts to expand Western influence and spread democracy along Russia's borders may now be threatened. US relations with Russia itself, at the least, are in flux.

"This gets at the stability of the framework the US thought was going to govern the post-cold-war world," says Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It sure does. But that framework - as enacted by the Bush administration - always had a certain unreality to it. Perhaps this goes back to the Reaganite idea that the US "defeated" the USSR in the Cold War, rather than the Soviet Union collapsing under its own incompetence and illegitimacy. This overly simplistic belief encouraged the further belief that the US is a modern Rome (remember all the empire books?), with only technologically inferior barbarians at the gates to fend off. This is the belief that military and economic power are the sole criteria of extending one's wishes to the entire globe. That belief has failed, but it's still hugely influential not only within neocon circles but also within what is often portrayed as the only other feasible alternative, a neo-realist view of foreign affairs. What this all amounts to, ultimately, is hubris. But I can't see that hubris ending anytime soon - it has become the lens through which Americans view the world. At least Georgians have learned the hard way to take off those rose-colored glasses.

When it comes to Georgia, especially faced with the evil genius of Putin, the US is limited to three feeble options, all of which are colored by the hubris:

1) the "get out of my clubhouse" option:
Expulsion of Russia from the G-8 group of industrialized nations was among the few apparent strong actions the US and Europe could take.
2) the "cut it out" option:
"The United States, its allies, and other countries need to send a strong signal to Moscow that creating 19th-century-style spheres of influence and redrawing the borders of the former Soviet Union is a danger to world peace," said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, in an analysis of the impact of the crisis.
...and 3) the"blame someone else" option:
"Nothing meaningful can be done as a matter of American policy if there is no consensus among European states that this represents something deeply shocking," says Mr. Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Cheryl Rofer said...

It seems to me that everyone is conceptualizing something wrong in the Russia-Georgia dustup.

You've listed the US's misconceptualizations. Not to mention that George Will is consistently locating Georgia in Europe, pretty outrageous unless you're spoiling for more war.

And Saakashvili's misconceptions then spring from the US's, with Georgian nationalism added on. (19th century skipped to post-Soviet?)

But Russia too has this idea that a heavy hand on the borderlands will keep the center safe.

I'm trying to think out a coherent post on the subject, keep getting interrupted, and today is no exception.

MT said...

On the bright side, these events diminish the seeming hubris and enhance the apparent legitimacy of your blogging on this subject.