Amid Tragedy, Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic Aspirations Should be Acknowledged

In late May, yet another car bomb exploded at an isolated base in Afghanistan’s famously restive Helmand province, killing seven coalition soldiers and wounding another nine. But these were not typical coalition troops — they weren’t even from a NATO member state. They were Georgians, whose contingent is the sixth largest in Afghanistan, making the small country of 4.5 million the highest per capita contributor to the NATO war effort (PDF). The Helmand bombing took Georgia’s death toll up to 30.

For most of the West, the bombing was but another tock in the seemingly metronomic output of bad news coming out of Afghanistan. Though the incident was the largest loss of life for the coalition since August, it was not an unexpected development at the height of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan’s arguably most infamous region. The New York Times, in a startling act of insensitivity and questionable editorial decision-making, opted to include unflattering — and largely unsubstantiated — allegations of Georgian forces’ rough treatment of locals. “According to some local Afghan elders, the Georgian troops are not particularly well liked in the area,” reported the Times

The piece went on to ponder whether the Georgian language’s “Russian-sounding” timbre (though Georgian is completely unrelated to Russian, or any other non-Kartvelian language) or one elder’s claims of petty thieving were the source of locals’ supposed discontent before qualifying that such complaints were over a year old. Even if the allegations are true, it remains a mystery as to how these issues found themselves in an article reporting on Georgia’s largest single loss of life while participating in ISAF.

The decided flippancy telegraphed by the Times article, and the general yawn that accompanies most casualty news from Afghanistan these days, sharply contrasted to the reaction in Georgia, where the country remains in shock and mourning. However, the real issue isn’t that Western audiences have become desensitized to violence — it can only be expected, particularly in the U.S., where losses in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to edge into the news ticker as regularly as box scores. Instead, Georgia’s losses signify something else entirely because Tbilisi’s participation in Afghanistan is so unusual.

Georgia’s outsized deployment of 1,561 troops to Afghanistan is nothing less than extraordinary for several reasons. Besides being the largest per capita contributor, the Georgian active military totals only some 37,000 in total, making its ratio of deployed to total forces a staggering 1:23. Among the top five ISAF contributors, the ratio climbs after the U.S., the UK, and Georgia. For the U.S., this ratio is 1:21. The UK, 1:25. Germany is 1:42 and Poland is 1:68. Italy is 1:134. And even this obscures the extent of the Georgian commitment. Unlike most coalition members, Georgia is one of the few to deploy such a large force without the inhibiting national caveats that keep many contingents away from the more dangerous regions and missions. But perhaps more importantly, unlike its fellow top-tier contributors, Georgia is a country facing very real security risks at home. In Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian legal territory is technically under occupation from Russian forces in support of de facto ethno-separatist authorities.

More to the point, Georgia’s impressive (the Times’ isolated allegations aside, U.S. troops highly rate the ability and professionalism of Georgian troops) — and decidedly non-token — contributions to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan aren’t part of any obligations to NATO. Georgian troops have marched off to war in a distant land with which it has no direct national interests. And it has done so without the benefit of a Western or NATO security umbrella. Rather, Tbilisi hopes that its participation in such missions will sell the West on its longstanding desire to join the Atlantic Alliance. Few in the West appear to grasp the significance of Georgia’s deployment and the toll it is exacting all in the hope of eventually being offered a genuine pathway into the Euro-Atlantic security club.

Between its outstanding role in Afghanistan and significant signs of progress in its own neighborhood, Georgia’s increasingly productive role in Euro-Atlantic security ought to be acknowledged with a Membership Action Plan (MAP). While a MAP doesn’t commit NATO to Tbilisi’s inclusion any more than the Alliance has already publicly announced, it would be a major symbolic boost to Tbilisi and would lay down concrete benchmarks in democracy development and security reform. Alliance members wary of Russian opposition should be encouraged by Georgia’s more conciliatory, though unbowed, tone towards Russia. Tbilisi would likely also be willing to entertain NATO membership for those regions of Georgia under Tbilisi’s control as an interim solution, at least temporarily bypassing the sticky issue of the separatist territories.

Delivering a MAP to Georgia would not only be a nod to Georgia’s efforts to be a friend and partner of the West, but would also help reinforce the country’s political development. Although already rated equal to or better than current NATO members like Albania and Turkey or MAP holders Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina by democracy watchdog Freedom House, Georgian democracy is still a work-in-progress. A MAP would help facilitate this process.

There are legitimate concerns over the how best to structure and manage Georgia’s integration with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures. However, these are issues that would be best considered and resolved within the MAP process. As for Russia, which vehemently opposes Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, there are small but interesting signs that Moscow is conceding to the eventuality (Ru) of Georgian membership. But more practically, in a post-Reset world, Washington and European capitals have become increasingly aware that there are some issues with Moscow cannot be ironed out through dialogue. 

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Looper: The Asian Financial Crisis Redux?

Financial crises and their associated economic disruptions (or vice versa) can alter the international political order among countries by changing their relative power relationships.  What precipitates these crises and disruptions have many origins; but in many cases their underlying causes slowly build up pressures that suddenly erupt in a ruinous episode.  Decades of declining economic productivity, big budget deficits, and an overvalued currency eventually led Russia to default on its sovereign debt in 1998.  Following on the heels of the demise of the Soviet Union, the default led Russia into a particularly nasty recession as well as a particularly dark eclipse of its power across Asia and Europe for over half a decade.

Another crisis that began a year earlier, the Asian financial crisis, also changed what many had at the time expected to be the political trajectory of Southeast Asia.  The proximal cause of the crisis was the devaluation of Thailand’s currency, when its central bank ran short of U.S. dollars needed to defend its pegged exchange rate.  That triggered several similar crises across Asia and ultimately derailed Southeast Asia’s “tiger economies.”  Also derailed was the internal stability that Southeast Asian governments had attained after decades of conflict during the Cold War.  After the crisis, Indonesia’s long-ruling President Suharto was removed from office, and Malaysia’s equally long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed was weakened (leaving office in 2003).  Thailand, whose prosperity in the early 1990s allowed it to become the first East Asian country to acquire an aircraft carrier in 1997, saw its wider ambitions thwarted.  Indeed, most countries in the region turned inward, as they shelved military modernization plans and their citizens clamored for political change.  On reflection, had the region made those military investments and developed the political self-confidence that often comes with internal stability, it would have been in a better position to balance China’s rise today.

Instead, Southeast Asia grasped at China’s refusal to devalue its currency during the crisis as a sign of friendship and inspired hope that they need not balance China’s rise and could assimilate their giant neighbor into the region’s multilateral norms.  Fifteen years on, that hope has proven misplaced.  China emerged from the Asian financial crisis relatively unscathed and ultimately became more assertive.  While it had to write off a mountain of bad loans on the balance sheets of its state-owned banks, Beijing really had no other choice, since those banks play a key policy role in its management of the Chinese economy.  Fortunately for China, continued foreign direct investment and major domestic infrastructure spending allowed it to grow out of its economic problems.

Southeast Asia was not so fortunate.  As the economies of countries like Thailand expanded during the first half of the 1990s, they also attracted a great deal of speculative investment and credit.  Eventually Thailand’s economy cooled, as less productive investments were made, U.S. interest rates rose, and Japan sharply devalued its currency.  As a result, the stability of Thailand’s leveraged economy and the ability of its central bank to defend its exchange rate peg became dubious—prompting money to flow out of the country and credit to suddenly contract.  A similar logic played out in other East Asian economies, causing a domino effect that engulfed Indonesia, Hong Kong, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea.  Within a few months, local currencies plummeted, hundreds of businesses were shuttered, and millions found themselves unemployed.

Today, economic clouds are once again gathering over East Asia.  And Mark Twain’s quote seems particularly apt: “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  The region’s economic growth is slowing.  Yet Southeast Asian countries continue to pile high consumer and sovereign debt.  They are even considering issuing U.S.-dollar denominated obligations, which are more difficult to pay off if their local currencies devalue.  But, of course, that may not occur this time, since the countries of Southeast Asia learned to amass large U.S. dollar reserves to forestall any run on their currencies.  As China and Taiwan showed during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, large U.S. dollar reserves can help avert the worst effects of such an event.

But such financial defenses are now starting to be tested, as Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s economic policies have caused the yen to sharply fall against currencies across Southeast Asia (whether intentional or not).  As a result, Southeast Asian exporters are feeling the strain and have already called upon their respective central banks to match the Japanese effort.  But without an overt exchange rate peg to defend, Southeast Asian central banks have more leeway than they did in 1997.  And fortunately for them, U.S. interest rates are unlikely to jump in the coming year.  Still, the groundwork for a second Asian financial crisis is in place.  This time, China may not be spared, as many of its exporters are already barely profitable, the structural distortions in its economy are as big as ever, and it seems to lack a clear way to grow out of the next crisis (apart from even more domestic infrastructure spending).  But should Southeast Asia again turn inward, the United States should be prepared to do more to maintain the region’s balance of power.  A wider Asian financial crisis that ensnares Japan or South Korea may require an even larger American effort.  But this does not mean that American military power will be what is needed.  Rather, the region’s countries are keen on other sorts of American engagement, particularly economic ones.  And it is precisely those ties that will be most wanted if a crisis does occur.

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North Korea Moves to War Footing

It seems like we’ve all seen this movie before.  North Korea feels affronted and blusters; South Korea and the United States respond with negotiations and a concession or two; China and Russia seek a peaceful resolution (plus the survival of their buffer neighbor); and Japan just wants the problem to go away, which it does—until the next time North Korea feels affronted.

But this time North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has ratcheted up tensions beyond the country’s usual bluster.  On March 11 North Korea invalidated its sixty-year armistice with South Korea.  And after the participation of two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers during a joint exercise between American and South Korean forces, on March 29 Pyongyang declared a “state of war” between it and South Korea, threatening to strike not only its southern neighbor, but also the United States (nominally Alaska, Guam, and Hawaii, since North Korean missiles can only reach that far).  With a modern military of its own, South Korea has vowed to respond if attacked.  And, of course, there are about 25,000 American troops stationed in the country, too.

So what strategy should the United States pursue in this latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula?  Surely, in crafting its approach, Washington should keep in mind its most important long-term interest in the region which, in my opinion, is the strengthening of the American alliance with South Korea and Japan.  That alliance is crucial to counterbalance a rising China and resurgent Russia in Northeast Asia.  But to arrive at a practical strategy for this crisis, it is informative to start by considering some strategic extremes and what effect they may have on that alliance:

The United States could advance an escalatory strategy to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot continue to bluster at every perceived slight.  And if war comes, so be it.  The United States has adequate anti-ballistic missile defenses aboard Navy warships to defend Hawaii and Army air defense batteries could be dispatched to protect Alaska and Guam.  Of course, Seoul may not feel as secure if North Korea launches a large-scale conventional attack or nuclear weapons against it; but more likely Pyongyang will take more limited military action.  Such an outcome would likely lead South Korea and Japan to further bolster their defenses, though perhaps not with nuclear weapons (unless North Korea uses them first).  And a militarily stronger South Korea and Japan could better maintain the balance of power in Northeast Asia, removing some of the burden from the United States.

At the other end of the spectrum, the United States could adopt an appeasement policy—giving North Korea what it wants in exchange for a de-escalation of tensions—and return to waiting for Kim Jong-un’s regime to collapse.  While appeasement may not please the American ear, it is an option that would remove the specter of armed conflict and would be practical if one believes that time is on one’s side.  Of course, there may be a big knock-on effect: America’s guarantee of extended deterrence would ring a bit hollower in South Korea and Japan (not to mention in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia).  Still, South Korea and Japan would likely further bolster their defenses, this time probably with nuclear weapons.  In this case, the balance of power outcome in Northeast Asia might still resemble the former, but the level of trust among South Korea, Japan, and the United States would likely suffer.

Ultimately, the approach the United States will take is likely to fall in between the two extremes.  The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” is one.  It seeks to break the cycle of North Korean bluster by simply waiting for North Korea to back down and seek negotiations without any concessions from South Korea or the United States.  Kim Jong-un is now putting that strategy to the test.  In the meantime, the United States deployed F-22 fighters to South Korea on Sunday.

However this crisis ends, South Korea and Japan are likely to strengthen their armed forces.  In the long run, that should benefit the United States, if it can keep the alliance strong.  So, in dealing with this crisis, Washington would be wise not to take an approach without first learning and integrating the views of South Korea and Japan—because not only will they bear most of the consequences (both intended and unintended) of any strategy to deal with North Korea, but also the United States would benefit from avoiding any approach that may create divisions between it, South Korea, and Japan, and in doing so inadvertently weaken the alliance that is so vital for the broader regional balance of power.

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Stalin Statues and Us

For those already wary of Georgia’s new government, events over the past couple of months read like a litany of errors. From an optically-troubling (if justifiable) spate of arrests to the now-governing Georgian Dream coalition’s bizarre legislative priorities, the early days of billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili have at least failed to leverage its surprise election victory into a positive, coherent message that its Western partners understand. Now, with reports that a statue of Georgia’s most famous son Josef Stalin is to be restored in his hometown of Gori, the new government isn’t looking any better.

But the West’s almost certain concern will be misplaced. As it’s being reported, the Stalin statue is not going to be returned to its old perch in the town’s central square, but is being renovated and repaired to Stalin’s birthplace home on the grounds of the nearby Stalin Museum. Un-mentioned is that this happens to be entirely consistent with the original plans for the statue when it was surreptitiously torn down in 2010. Whisked off in the middle of the night to avoid the ire of the locals — during which a couple of local journalists were beaten and hauled off — the statue’s eventual return in some form is no great surprise. And in reality, the person of Josef Stalin (nee Ioseb Jugashvili) still retains a privileged and even idolized position in some parts of Georgia. The issue was so sensitive, in fact, that the previous government even implied that it had tried to bribe Russian occupation troops to tear down Stalin statues across the country (I can confirm that this happened in at least one regional town). 

But perhaps most importantly, concerns about Georgians’ love affair with Stalin may be overblown. Not that Stalin himself wasn’t a brutal killer, unworthy of remembrance as anything other than such. But the truth is that Stalin’s reputation still remains relatively sanitized, as far as genocide-perpetrating dictators go. Even here in the West, the enormity of Stalin’s crimes are rarely considered in the same league as original Holocaustician Adolf Hitler. From Walter Duranty to Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin to Oliver Stone’s interpretation of history, Stalin apologia in the West remains all too alive and well. And in Russia, Stalin propaganda adorns the Moscow metro as changing back Volgograd’s name to Stalingrad is being seriously considered.  This widespread, even customary tolerance for Stalin’s evils — and especially that of the Soviet Union in general — is hardly the pulpit from which to be castigating Georgians for engaging in misinformed deference to their country’s most recognized name. For Georgians, many of whom grew up with little or no knowledge of Stalin’s criminal reigns of terror, Stalin is simply a part of the Georgian identity.

Ultimately, the misplaced affections of those in Georgian villages may be uncomfortable, but they pale in significance to the far more insidious restoration of Stalin’s reputation being perpetrated in our own countries. Far more worrying should be the lionizing or ‘nuanced’ depictions of Stalin in the media or academy and the casualness by which Stalin is often considered compared to fellow travelers like Hitler. This, and not statues in central Georgia, is what will revitalize Stalin’s legacy. Certainly, the Georgian government should take great pains to educate its people of Stalin’s dark sins, but the West’s obligation to do the same is no less real and no less necessary.

It doesn’t seem like the Stalin statue’s renovation is anything more than the carrying out of long-held plans. While that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth reporting or keeping an eye on, our greater concern should be the much more noxious effects of whitewashing history and the lessons it wrought. And that’s something happening right here in the West.

Michael Cecire is an associate scholar at FPRI, where he contributes to the Project on Democratic Transitions.

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