Look Who's Talking

You have to admire their chutzpah, castigating Russia for attacking another country and emulating in the Caucasus NATO's behaviour in the Balkans. Who does Vladimir Putin think he is — George W Bush? Reading western mainstream media commentators has been a revelation. They live on a different planet. Much of the western media do not seem to have realised yet that their opinions are now staple fare for people all around the world in real time, who also have access to other media. They are therefore well read and well informed. They are also better educated than ever before and have sufficient critical skills to be able to spot rank double standards and hypocrisy.

The net result is that while the American media, for example, might want to dump responsibility on the Bush administration for the rise of anti-Americanism around the world, they too have contributed to the decline of soft power as more and more people lose faith in the objectivity of leading US media outlets and are tired of their one-sided moralising and hectoring.

On the Georgian crisis, while the western media have portrayed the West as united against Russian aggression, the rest of the world faults a bullying West that incredibly glosses over the reality of Georgia attacking South Ossetia indiscriminately. There are three levels on which the world parts company with the West on this.

First, liberal and conservative commentators and politicians alike seem to believe they have a divine dispensation to be the moral arbiter of their own conduct and that of everyone else. Who should be the judge of NATO conduct in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Caucasus? Why, NATO, of course.

And who should stand in judgment over China's actions vis-a-vis Darfur and Myanmar or Russia's in the Balkans and the Caucasus? Why, the West, self-evidently.

Except, secondly, that the narrative of the virtuous West standing up valiantly to the rest in defence of universal values is getting rather tiresome. Russian references to NATO actions to defend the right of Kosovo to secede from a Serbia that had oppressed it, to go to war with Serbia to stop them killing and ethnically cleansing Kosovars, and to recognise and guarantee Kosovo's independence, do resonate with the rest of the world as providing a fairly compelling parallel to what has happened in the Caucasus. NATO set the precedent for flouting the rule of international law and violating long-settled collective norms of the international community against unilateral military interventions.

No two situations are exactly alike. Still, much as most westerners dismiss any analogy between Russia's actions to prise South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from Georgia and NATO actions to detach Kosovo from Serbia, most others do accept the basic parallel. Russia has pointed to Georgian complicity in killing many South Ossetians, including many Russian citizens, the responsibility of Russia to protect its nationals, and UN endorsement of the responsibility to protect them. Moscow is wrong to invoke the norm in this case, as were the Americans and British in Iraq five years ago. Both actions prove the risks of unilateral interpretations and actions and the wisdom of channelling action through the United Nations. Otherwise the only certain end result is vigilante justice, which is no justice at all.

The final problem is behaving as if geopolitics and realism belong on history's shelf and have no relevance or applicability any more. As Henry Kissinger is reported to have said after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands that roused the slumbering British lion into action to retake the islands by force, a great power does not retreat forever. The end of the Cold War saw a very rare phenomenon in human history. Russia agreed to the terms of its defeat and to the new world order that came out of it. Instead of demonstrating grace in victory and some sensitivity to Russia's legitimate fears, interests and national dignity, the West has repeatedly rubbed Russian noses in the dirt of their historic Cold War defeat.

Instead of being dismantled with victory in the Cold War, NATO, an alliance in search of a role and mission, has progressively expanded its borders and reached steadily closer to Russia. Great powers have core vital interests that they will defend. Repeated warnings from Russia of red lines that must not be crossed were serially dismissed as the angry growls of a Russian bear in deep and permanent hibernation. They have been encircled by western bases, missiles and allies, alternately taunted, ignored and dismissed. Champion chess players that they are, the Russians bided their time patiently before checkmating the West brutally but brilliantly in South Ossetia and firing a warning shot across the bows of other former parts of the now forgotten Soviet empire.

Those who wish to back rebel movements and internationalise a crisis by intervening militarily had better be prepared for payback time in other places and conflicts. The wreckage of Georgia's towns and countryside proclaims the ruins of the Bush administration's foreign policy that has so recklessly squandered the hard won fruits of the Cold War in terms of both moral authority and geopolitical gains.

[Source: Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo (Canada), The Times of India, Editorial, 27Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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