Georgia - US relations

Georgia in Washington’s Russia Debate

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   Janusz Bugajski
   Senior Associate in the Europe Program at the Center for 
   Strategic and International Studies in 
   Washington D.C.
   
President Barack Obama’s private remarks to Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at a summit in South Korea in March, unleashed a foreign policy storm between the White House and Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency. It also sparked a debate on whether Russia remains America’s primary adversary.
   At the end of his meeting with Medvedev, Obama asserted that he would have more flexibility after the November U.S. elections in dealing with controversial issues such as Missile Defense (MD), a system that the Central European states support but which Russia opposes. The remarks set off alarm bells among Republicans that Obama was placating the Kremlin by making major concessions on MD. Some Republican leaders even charged the White House with secretive deal making over U.S. national security.
   Democrats in turn attacked Romney as a Cold Warrior for claiming that Russia remained America’s “number one geopolitical enemy.” Obama himself had previously asserted that Putin still had a foot in the Cold War past. However, all such Cold War comparisons miss the most important question: in present-day geopolitical configurations is Russia a partner or a competitor for the U.S? The answer is that both Obama and Romney are correct.
   Obama’s Russia “reset” was based on the assumption that Moscow can be drawn into cooperative relations by focusing on specific joint initiatives. And this proved useful in signing a new arms control agreement, gaining NATO access to Afghanistan across the former Soviet Union, and placing limited UN sanctions on Iran. However, in the bigger picture Romney is right that a resurgent Russia ultimately challenges U.S. interests in numerous domains. His views are shared by many senior Republicans, including Senator John McCain.
   According to Romney, Russia’s nuclear arsenal, its energy politics, it geographic position astride Europe and Asia, the veto it wields on the U.N. Security Council, and its domestic authoritarianism present serious challenges for Washington. Whatever the degree of cooperation in arms control or counter-terrorism, the fundamental relationship between the U.S. and Russia remains competitive and potentially conflictive. 
   While the Democrats are right that one can work with Moscow in certain circumscribed areas, Romney is also correct that at present no single power is as well positioned as Russia to disrupt America’s national interests, including the effectiveness of the NATO alliance. And among Russia’s regional challenges are the future of former Soviet republics that are seeking to avoid incorporation in a new Moscow-dominated bloc.
   Although Romney has not been too specific on Europe’s east during the election campaign, he strongly favors NATO enlargement to include all the new democracies, condemns Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory, and supports the emplacement of the MD system in Central Europe. Romney has depicted Obama’s foreign policy as weak and indecisive. Although much of this is electioneering bluster, Democrat representatives defend the President by exaggerating Romney’s comments on Russia as “reckless and dangerous.” They also underscore Obama’s foreign policy successes in decimating al Qaeda’s leadership, ending the Iraq war, and preparing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. 
   The Romney camp contends that Obama has neglected one of the most important elements of U.S. foreign policy by failing to fortify the development of European democracies and taking more concrete steps toward NATO enlargement. In this context, Georgia appears to be the most qualified candidate. Unlike Macedonia, it has no disputes with any NATO member. Unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina it is not divided on the question of NATO entry. And unlike Montenegro it already makes a substantial contribution to Alliance operations. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated after the Chicago summit that the next NATO gathering of heads-of-state will be an enlargement summit. And presumably at that time Georgia will be a primary candidate.
   However, for Georgia to be formally invited into NATO, three factors need to coalesce over the next two years. First, Georgia’s democratic consolidation must be demonstrated through freely competitive parliamentary and presidential elections. Second, Washington needs to take the lead in convincing all NATO members that Georgian entry is beneficial and not counter-productive for the Alliance. And third, NATO must not be bullied by Putin’s Kremlin into believing that Georgian membership will precipitate instability and conflict. The question remains: which American President would be more likely to stare into Putin’s eyes without blinking? 
 
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 105,  published 18 June 2012.

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