Philip Bobbitt says that the crisis reflects Russia’s determination to remain an old-fashioned nation state, dominating its region. Intellectual imagination will be needed to thwart that ambition: a recognition that the post-Cold War world needs new global institutions

Georgia, which was admitted to the UN in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, was beset from the outset by the fatal conundrum at the heart of the national self-determination of the nation state: when is a nation — an ethnic, linguistic, historic-cultural idea — entitled to its own state? In Georgia, two nations — Abkhazis and Ossettians — were isolated within the majority population of ethnic Georgians. Both minority groups were huddled along the Georgian border with Russia. Each rebelled, with some success: Georgia’s president, Eduard Shevardnadze, attempted to assert Georgian sovereignty over these hostile regions and was decisively rebuffed; more than 300,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled — the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was not yet in use — and fled south. A ceasefire was instituted and, riskily, Russian troops were garrisoned in the two breakaway regions as a ‘peacekeeping’ force. In the ensuing years, Russian policy encouraged secession while Georgia aimed at restoring Georgian sovereignty.

Shevardnadze was removed in the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003 after fraudulent elections prompted mass demonstrations, and in January 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili won a decisive election victory and was inaugurated as president of Georgia. The Rose revolution helped inspire colour revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In each case an autocrat was dislodged from power by largely non-violent demonstrations; in the case of the Ukrainian and Kyrgyz leaders, each fled to Moscow. Saakashvili aligned himself with the West; he sought membership in Nato, sent troops to join the Coalition forces in Iraq, and fought elections that are generally conceded to have been fair and democratic. He recognised considerable autonomy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the region of North Ossetia having remained in Russia). But he was unwilling to permit these regions to secede — in this his claims for Georgian sovereignty were supported by the UN and the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) — and, on 8 August he attacked Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in what appears to have been a reckless effort to reintegrate that region into Georgia by force in response to strategic provocation by Russia. Fifteen Russian troops died, 70 were wounded and 1,600 civilians died.

At the time of writing, Georgian troops have been routed from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second front opened by the Russians, and Russian troops have penetrated deep into Georgian territory. Yet although Russia initially rebuffed all calls for a ceasefire, it now seems possible that it will content itself with its gains and not actually drive to Tbilisi.

The search for historical analogies has thrown up the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, the Falklands war and the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland. Yet it is the suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 that offers an instructive parallel. This might at first seem a distant analogy drawn from the Cold War, a period that, whatever may be Prime Minister Putin’s objectives, is unlikely to return. But in Hungary as in Georgia, an anti-Russian state was encouraged by the West to challenge its menacing neighbour. Beyond condemnation from the North Atlantic Council, however, the Nato states were unwilling to offer much more than hortatory support; a Security Council resolution was predictably vetoed by the USSR. Perhaps most importantly, the hopeful doctrine of ‘rollback’, encouraging the national peoples of occupied Central and Eastern Europe to throw out Soviet forces, was quietly shelved. Inspiring as it may have been, it was unsustainable in light of the overwhelming regional dominance of the Red Army. In Georgia last week, the West was again surprised by leaders it had encouraged. And once again an idea — the democracy project that promised support to nascent democratic revolutions everywhere — will be subordinated in the face of overwhelming hostile force.

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How could this happen? How could a defeated and demoralised ex-superpower face down the world’s greatest states over a principle — the integrity of a state party to the UN Charter and a member of the United Nations — those states had declared to be the supreme foundation of the international order? Doubtless there are many reasons, but two assert themselves as most likely to be overlooked. First, this debacle has occurred because the success of the West has not been used as a basis for new ideas and new approaches in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Second, we are witnessing a change in the nature of the constitutional order that dominated the 20th century and in an apathy of the intellect we resolutely refuse to confront this threatening — but also promising — global event because it is so profound and unsettling a change.

After 1990, perhaps the West’s greatest problem was the integration of the post-Soviet states into a global legal and economic order from which they had long been isolated. Some promising steps were taken but an American-inspired programme of rapid privatisation in Russia undercut all this. It impoverished the Russian people while selling off national assets to corrupt privateers. We provided money from time to time — responding, for example, to the collapse of the ruble in 1994 — but the consistent sustained integration of Russia was crippled by the ruinous programme of economic shock therapy. Russia presented an unprecedented case of a modern industrial power whose people’s longevity began to decline, while infant mortality rose. A wealthy and energetic people were overtaken by demoralisation and torpor while a favoured few assembled vast riches out of the patrimony of the Russian nation. Nato was expanded, as it should have been, but Russia, who might have joined, was kept outside. Missile defences were deployed, as they must be, but Russia was not made a recipient of this technology even though it could scarcely have been any use against a US nuclear deterrent. It’s as if we were preparing for Russia to be an enemy once again.

This lack of sustained engagement in favour of quick fixes and supercilious advice occurred, not by chance, as the developed states began to move from the constitutional order of nation states, which had fought the Cold War, to market states. In Europe, the EU began to evolve away from a super-nation state toward a more flexible congeries of national enclaves: Scots, Lombards, Catalonians and others found a constitutional umbrella within which they could develop. In America, deregulation of everything from industrial practices to women’s reproduction, the replacement of conscription by an all-volunteer force, the substitution of job retraining for unemployment compensation — were all heralds of this change. In China, the embrace of free trade, private investment and market pricing were similar events. Elsewhere, sovereign wealth funds created further harbingers of this new order. A global system of human rights norms was given martial effect in the former state of Yugoslavia, another event that reflected this dramatic evolution of states.

But not in Russia. There political and economic leaders — and their Western advisers — confused the market with the market state, creating a vast criminal enterprise that more resembled the Mafia than the multinational corporation. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the nation state has come roaring back. It was Vladimir Putin who described the end of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century’. He will not be able to reverse the ultimate trend toward market states; this new co
nstitutional order is too formidable an innovation meekly to give way. Indeed the Russian tactic of granting vast numbers of Ossetians Russian citizenship — which gave it the legal pretext that it used to intervene — is at bottom a market state manoeuvre which encourages multiple juridical identities. But the hope that the transition away from nation states could be done without bloodshed in Europe has been dashed. The end of the first era of globalised constitutional transformation has come with unpredictable consequences because war, as Clausewitz told us, has its own momentum. I should be surprised if there were no further violence in Georgia.

For the greater long-term struggle, the battle to determine whether these new market states will be states whose legitimacy is based on the consent of the governed, the early answer is not encouraging. It is precisely the results of those bloodless revolutions, beginning with the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, that are the target of Russian intimidation. We must be clear about this: Georgia is not Serbia, and the Ossetians are not Kosovars. What made Serbia liable to foreign intervention was its treatment of its own citizens in campaigns of ethnic cleansing. As the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt observed on Saturday, Moscow’s rationale for intervention is far different and recalls not the Balkan operations of the 1990s, but ‘the darkest chapters of Europe’s history’. He might have added, ‘and of Asia’s history’ for good measure, recalling that continent’s brutal occupations and annexations. Indeed, one consequence of Russian action in Georgia is to confirm the an-xieties in Beijing about Moscow.

Even if we cannot reverse the Russian invasion with military force — which would be reckless in the extreme — we should keep our eyes firmly on Russia’s objective: the reason why, for only the second time in the history of the UN, a member state has been invaded and annexed has little to do with the national ambitions of its Ossetians. It is rather an effort to reclaim Moscow’s control over its neighbours in the region, cutting Western access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Nor will it be the last such effort. Ukraine — which also has the distinction of hosting a crucial energy pipeline (just as Georgia is the only alternative to Russia as a route for a pipeline carrying oil westward from Azerbaijan, Ukraine is a route by which Russian natural gas flows to Europe) — is surely the more important target of this demonstration that ties to the West, and the pursuit of democracy, are of little help where regional matters of force come into play.

What are the implications for Western policy? First, Nato expansion will be halted. Georgia, which like Ukraine, was to be given a novitiate status in the alliance, will find it is no longer on a realistic agenda for membership. Paradoxically, the notion of an Alliance of Democracies will take centre stage, partly because of Nato’s failure, partly because of the impotence of the UN. Some will argue that if we had had such an alliance, Georgia would not have been invaded, because this would have brought the US into the conflict. Others will say that this is precisely why such an Alliance is so dangerous: linking our strategic well-being to the idea of democracy, irrespective of the relative strengths and vulnerabilities of our potential allies, is a recipe for embroiling us in dangerous theatres remote from our own strengths. Some will conclude that such an Alliance would only further isolate Russia, possibly even encouraging its own alliance with anti-democratic China. Others will see a further threat to the UN, whose prestige will already have been weakened by the events in Georgia.

There is something in all these points, but they lead to a conclusion that is likely to be unwelcome to their authors. Precisely because no international grouping that excludes Russia and China can provide the fundamental architecture of the international order, an Alliance of Democracies must be organised in tandem with Russian admission to the WTO and China’s inclusion in the G8. Moreover, an Alliance of Democracies, so long as it is not tethered to the unanimity requirement that hamstrings the UN Security Council’s permanent members and will some day bedevil the North Atlantic Council, can serve as a global forum where coalitions of the willing can be assembled precisely when the UN is hobbled. That means, in turn, that the UN Security Council can be enlarged to include Brazil, India, Japan and Nigeria without the fear of a greater unwieldiness. That step may actually increase the legitimacy of the Council, whereas no hopes for its utility as a security minder can still be realistically entertained. Finally, an Alliance of Democracies can operate in concert with an enlarged G9, using the latter’s economic incentives to encourage ultimate inclusion in the former. The wars against terror, and the prospect of a Sino-Russian conflict, provide powerful motives for such a development.

Thus, just as our successes in the last century have led to this failure, so may this failure someday lead to a more successful international order. The US and Russia control more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Together, they are the world’s largest consumer and supplier of energy resources. Nothing can have a higher priority than organising an international system that avoids confrontation, and encourages collaboration, between these two states. But the assertion of the unbridled force of nation states in the face of a global movement toward market states is a strategy for collision. The wars on terror could provide an opportunity for collaboration with Russia; or they could be a name that will be applied to the effort by market states to restrain the violence and menace of a resurgent Russian nation state.

Philip Bobbitt is Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia, Senior Fellow at the Robert Strauss Centre for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law at Stanford.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated