The weekend war in Georgia at the beginning of August is leading, as it should, to a discussion about the future of the relationships between Russia, its neighbors, and the Western powers. More than any recent event in international affairs that I can recall, the war has also provoked an intense debate about the past. Russia's insistence that it has national interests to protect, and that it is willing to resort to the brutal use of force to protect them, has reopened old arguments about the way the West behaved in the years following the end of the Cold War.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, recall, NATO membership was extended to the East European satellite states of the Soviet Union and to the three former Soviet republics on the Baltic. In 1999, NATO, ignoring Russian objections, went to war with Russia's ally Serbia over Kosovo. Just this year, most Western powers recognized Kosovo's independence, and while the issue remains unresolved at the very least considered eventual NATO membership for another two former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. So the question becomes: Has the West needlessly provoked Russia for more than a decade? Is it somehow to blame for the misery of the Georgian war and the danger that comes in its wake?
In politics, we praise bold and decisive leaders. But caution and prudence have their place in the affairs of men, too. Words and actions have consequences, some of them unintended, which is why I have always thought that politicians and diplomats should be forced to memorize a few haunting lines that the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote when he was an old man, looking back over a lifetime of art and political activism. "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?"
That lesson was taken to heart by the extraordinarily skillful foreign-policy team around President George H.W. Bush, which was convinced that it was dangerous to rub Moscow's nose in its own failure. As Western policy shifted in the Clinton years toward doing more to protect those who had suffered Soviet domination, there was no shortage of those who argued that Washington was playing with fire. I remember those debates very well. They were vigorous and impassioned. For all those who warned that it was unwise to poke the Russian bear in the eye, there were those (myself included) who believed that as the principal victims of the Cold War, those who had lived under Soviet oppression deserved any protection they sought. If what they wanted was NATO membership, then that was what they should get.
Kosovo, arguably, was the hardest case of all. At the outset, I opposed the war, not just because the decision to get involved was taken in the teeth of Russian opposition, but also because NATO was openly taking sides in a civil war (Kosovo was legally part of Serbia). As the scale of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo became clear, I changed my mind, coming to believe that there were rare cases when humanitarian intervention that sly little euphemism for war was justified. But nobody can say they weren't warned about what would happen next. In their new book America Between the Wars,, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, two former Clinton Administration officials, recount a conversation about Kosovo between Strobe Talbott, Clinton's Deputy Secretary of State, and Yegor Gaidar, a pro-Western, reformist, former Russian Prime Minister. "Oh, Strobe," said Gaidar, "if only you knew what a disaster this war is for those of us in Russia who want for our country what you want."
Picking over the past, of course, is only useful if it leads to useful prescriptions for conduct in the future. In the case of Georgia, it bears repeating that statesmen should not make promises they cannot keep or have no real intention of keeping. Yes, the U.S. told Georgia not to provoke Russia, which was itching for a fight. But ever since the Rose Revolution in 2003, Washington's body language had been different, sending the message that Georgia was a close ally. Fine, but allies come to each other's defense. If that was never Washington's intention should Georgia be threatened, its President, Mikheil Saakashvili, should have been told so, over and over again, in words that left no misunderstanding.
Beyond that, the key lesson of the past is a depressing one. There were no good, costless choices over NATO expansion, much less over Kosovo. A decision to withhold NATO membership from Eastern Europe, and to leave the Kosovars to their fate, would have exposed as hypocrites those who had spent the Cold War taking the high moral ground against the Soviet Union. But sometimes, we have just been reminded, good intentions are not enough to ward off tragedy. That's one reason why it's always worth keeping a volume of Yeats' poetry close at hand.