The fighting between Georgia and Russia has resulted in a serious
political crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. It seems as if both
sides have gone back to the sharp Cold War rhetoric of the early
But apart from the combative tone, the current conflict has
nothing in common with the Cold War standoffs because the
ideological element is absent in both Russian and U.S. foreign
This may sound strange, since most people consider U.S.
President George W. Bush’s foreign policy to be extremely
ideological. After all, the global advancement of democracy has
been his principal credo for nearly eight years. In practice,
however, exporting democracy is less an ideology than it is
realpolitik at its core — an instrument for attaining geopolitical
dominance around the globe.
The United States had to immediately adjust to the burden of
global leadership after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it
declared itself the victor in the Cold War — a victory that it was
not entirely ready for.
In the course of a decade, from the Soviet collapse to the Sept.
11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. foreign policy ideology was
transformed into an overly ambitious plan to reshape global affairs
with Washington sitting in the driver’s seat. The United States was
transformed into a truly international superpower, sincerely
convinced of its own global responsibility as a guarantor of peace
After Sept. 11, 2001, the fact that U.S. territory could be
threatened from remote regions of the world forced a reassessment
of Washington’s security policy. As a result, the entire planet
became a sphere of vital U.S. interests.
Since the United States considers democracy to be the most
effective, progressive and nonaggressive form of governance, it
feels that it can guarantee its own security by advancing democracy
everywhere. As Bush has said repeatedly, «Democracies don’t fight
other democracies.» The main problem with this simplistic formula
is that building new democracies from scratch is a long and
difficult process. Creating a stable democracy is only possible in
countries that are already developed both politically and
The era when a holistic outlook on global leadership was formed
in the United States, a period when Washington could act without
taking the interests of others into account, is over. And the
attempt to implement this established policy led to a series of
failures and to a new level of global fragmentation. It also
demonstrated the limitations of the United States’ ability to
influence global affairs unilaterally.
At that moment, Russia, after recovering from the geopolitical
and economic crises of the 1990s, tried to win back what had been
lost during the first post-Soviet decade. Moscow’s quest to regain
its sphere of influence was understood in Washington.
Russia is irritated the most when the United States interferes
in those areas that Moscow believes Washington has no strategic
interests. And the United States exacerbates this irritation when
it opposes any issue that strengthens Russia’s position in any way.
Moreover, Washington is not prepared to impose limitations on
itself, squeezing everyone else wherever it can. The traditional
rule of realpolitik — taking into account the interests of others
to the extent that they do not contravene one’s own interests — is
Russia is a global power with regional ambitions and interests.
Moscow possesses well-defined levers in different parts of the
world — from Latin America to Africa, from the Middle East to the
Far East. With the help of these instruments, Russia will pursue
its strategic interests in Europe and Asia. Alliances in Syria and
Venezuela are needed in order to gain bargaining chips in the game
against rivals. This helps counterbalance U.S. expansion in
countries that used to be Soviet republics. Yet Moscow does not
rule out the exchange of minor ambitions for major ones.
And here we come to the conceptual reason for the worsening of
U.S.-Russian relations. The United States is a global power with
global ambitions and interests. From the U.S. point of view, it has
no interests that it would be willing to sacrifice. Regions that
Moscow sees as secondary to U.S. interests have become necessary
components of the complex U.S. structure known as American
With the Russia-Georgia military conflict, the United States
clearly fell into a dangerous trap. The Bush administration was not
in a position to back up the implied promises and guarantees that
it had given to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The United States has supported pro-U.S. regimes all along
Russia’s borders. It hoped that its expansion in Russia’s backyard
would go smoothly and not be very costly from a geopolitical point
of view. But the United States did not seriously consider the
consequences of defending these new allies — both politically and
militarily. And it turned out that at the critical moment, the
United States was not in a position to give substantive support to
its ally Georgia. It was even unable to prevent Georgia from making
The position of global leader is dangerous in that it won’t
allow for even the most minor defeats. Indeed, the result the
Georgia conflict may not simply be the decline of U.S. influence in
that country (which in and of itself is not a catastrophe), but
that other young, emerging democracies will be skeptical about the
dependability of U.S. promises of support.
To stop a domino effect in which nations en masse start losing
faith in U.S. leadership, it won’t be enough if Washington adopts
an even tougher stance toward Moscow. It’s possible that it will
try once again to give direct guarantees for the security of
countries like Georgia or Ukraine — especially since NATO’s
ability to act is now in doubt. Western Europe will probably halt
its expansion into the former Soviet republics. And relatively new
NATO members, such as Poland, are doubting NATO’s credibility. If
these countries earlier thought that NATO and the United States
were virtually one and the same, this is no longer the case.
Indeed, Poland has approached the United States directly, bypassing
NATO, for security guarantees to protect it against what it
perceives to be a threat from Russia.
This has increased U.S.-Russian tensions even more. Moscow
considers direct U.S. military guarantees to Kiev and Tbilisi as an
even greater provocation than NATO membership in and of itself.
But, as the Georgian and South Ossetian conflict clearly
demonstrated, it is doubtful that Washington has the ability to
back up these guarantees.
Because of its weakened position, the United States will be
forced to rethink its fundamental role as a global leader. The
United States and Russia both need to fully understand whether
their strategic goals are realistically achievable or not.