Sunday, August 10, 2008

It’s the Cold War all over again

Anyone who has followed (even if only remotely) developments in Eastern Europe in the past few years would have seen it coming. In fact, no sooner had the Iron Curtain crumbled than US policymakers were planting the seeds of a future in Europe that could not but lead to the violence that exploded between Russian and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia on Friday, which as of Sunday evening had reportedly claimed as many as 2,000 lives — mostly civilians — and forced as many as 30,000 people to leave their homes.

Not that any of this was inevitable, mind you. In fact, there is reason to believe that on their own, ethnic and political tensions within Georgia could likely have been managed, and large-scale violence avoided. What happened, however, is that Georgia became caught in a Cold-War-like battle of influence between the “West” — the US plus NATO — and Russia, which for good reasons has in recent years felt increasingly isolated, following the creeping expansion of NATO into areas, such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, that historically had been in Russia’s sphere of influence. To which we might add Washington’s plans to implement a nuclear-defense system in Russia’s backyard. US claims that the system only targets “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea has failed to attenuate Moscow’s protestations and prompted it to seek to counterbalance US expansionism by striking alliances with Beijing and Tehran, blocking resolutions at the UN and, as recently as last week, proposing an ominous return to the Cold War by seeking the reinvigorate its ties with Havana, which could include military assistance. Moscow did not even attempt to mask the fact that its most recent overture to its old ally in the Caribbean was in response to NATO/US activity in its neighborhood.

Within this context, it is not surprising that Moscow would interpret the “Velvet Revolution” of 2003 in Georgia as having been backed, if not altogether orchestrated, by the US and its allies (a view shared by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing). Given Georgia’s strategic location as a major pipeline for Caspian oil to the Mediterranean and the US’ designs on energy sources, it is easy to understand Moscow’s paranoia and why it would construe Georgia’s decade-old move to distance itself from Moscow as an outright land grab by the US. This was highlighted by the US’ and the West’s immediate support for Georgia in the current conflict, while the blame was lain fully on Moscow, which has supported separatists in South Ossetia since a civil war in the early 1990s created the de-facto enclave. A more nuanced reaction by the West could have help mitigate Moscow’s apprehensions.

To demonstrate how a seemingly localized conflict had its roots in (and in turn influences) the international system, Israel, a staunch ally of the US and clearly in the Western camp, was announcing yesterday that it could cease all weapons sales to Georgia lest its continuance prompt Moscow to increase its support for Syria and Iran. Ukraine, meanwhile, which has plans to join NATO, announced on Sunday night that it could prevent Russian warships involved in the Georgia operation from returning to port in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.

The current crisis in Georgia is only a symptom of things to come, as the pressure cooker of the post-Cold War system had reached a point where it needed to let out some steam. Sadly for the victims in Georgia, it did not have to come to this. The fall of the Berlin Wall had presented us with a golden opportunity to start anew and erase the long-standing divisions that for half a century had held the world hostage to nuclear war, in which even the most local of conflicts — Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, to name a few — were subsumed into the ideological/economic clash between the East and the West. While there is no doubt that Russia has retained some of its past imperialist reflexes and, as it fell back on its feet, sought to regain some of what it had “lost” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was mostly the US’ thirst for hegemony that prompted countries like Russia, China and Iran to seek to counterbalance it and led to the renewed East/West divide that now appears to be upon us yet again today. As every political scientist in the realist camp would tell you, a unipolar world does not remain so for very long, as other states or groups of state will seek to tie it down a la Gulliver. The US had its uniploar moment, but that could be ending soon.

What does this mean for the future? Chances are that conflicts everywhere will once again be regionalized or internationalized, and thus rendered more difficult to resolve as they are inextricably involved in the power plays between the US/NATO and the Russo-Sino axis, with swing states in between.

It took humanity 18 years. Welcome to the past, to Cold War 2.0.

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