Why Is the Sand Where We Always Draw the Lines?

I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain

That’s Hamlet, talking of young Fortinbras of Norway’s expedition against the Poles, “to gain a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name.” Russia and Georgia are now shooting at each other over control of a little mountainous patch with no notable resources and only 70,000 people, whose primary industry is smuggling. There are reasons of state – it would be nice for Europe to be able to get Azerbaijani oil without paying a Russian toll – and reasons of conscience – Georgia made a wildly disproportionate contribution to the Iraq War effort, at our request, and has been a loyal pro-American vote wherever such votes are tallied, and so we should feel more than a little shame about abandoning them in their hour of need – for Americans to be interested in this conflict. But the precipitate cause of the conflict – and of most of the conflicts on either side of the Russian border – is ethnic division.

Remember this map?

It was the key graphic of Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story of The Atlantic from earlier this year about how the map of the Middle East might change if the borders of states were re-drawn around ethnic and religious lines. And, indeed, the borders of the Middle East’s major states are pretty arbitrary, many of them the product of colonial ambition or whimsy, others made obsolete by demographic change.

But the same is true of lots of other borders. The internal borders of the Soviet Union’s various republics were not drawn with the possibility of independence in mind, and they make as little sense as the borders of the Middle East. And the post-Soviet settlement of Russia’s borders is more than a little analogous to the post-World-War-I settlement of Hungary’s borders. There’s no obvious principle according to which we play at revisionist power in one region and treat borders as sacrosanct in another. Certainly there’s none that would be persuasive to a Russian or a Sunni Arab.

I’m not under the delusion that the current Russian regime is “impelled” by ethnic solidarity to make mischief in its near abroad. Rather, the existence of large Russian enclaves in places like Transdnistria, or Crimea, or Visaginas, provides the regime with a justification for mischief that it has reasons of state to instigate. But if we don’t like the character of the current Russian regime – and we shouldn’t – then it escapes me why we should increase the political potency of such appeals by repeatedly drawing lines in the mountains and forests.

At this instant, we do have a Russia problem. Somehow, we have got to get the Russians to withdraw from Georgia proper. As I said yesterday, any settlement that we can get agreement on will almost certainly be more favorable to Russia than the status-quo ante; what we should be holding out for is some kind of structure (probably involving blue helmets) that makes it harder for Russia to repeat the decision to escalate a conflict with Georgia as dramatically as they just did. I doubt we can get anything more for Georgia than that – and even that will take work. That’s a bitter pill, but one way or another it’s going to be swallowed.

But we shouldn’t Russia’s outrageous escalation of this war become the sole basis for the construction of policy. Right now, we need to achieve an end to the war, and a Russian withdrawal from Georgia proper. After that, we need to think about how to reengage with Russia and its interests in a productive manner. We don’t need a Russophilic or a Russophobic foreign policy, the two poles between which America has swung since 1991. We could use an honest broker capable of looking for “win-win” solutions to the kinds of festering conflicts that ring the Russian Republic. “Honest broker” is a dirty word diplomatically, because it’s usually understood to mean code for splitting the difference between truth and lies, hope and despair, freedom and tyranny. But that shouldn’t be what it means at all, not least because “good versus evil” describes very few actual conflicts. (“Strong versus weak” is far more often the norm, but that’s not at all the same thing.)

Unfortunately, the biggest global power – us – has very little chance of being trusted with that kind of role given the record not only of this Administration but of the previous one. What I wonder is whether being the biggest global power necessarily means we will not be trusted in this role – in which case we have another reason to abandon the current framework within which we view European integration (NATO’s purpose is to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” – similarly, our goal has been for Europe to be large, diffuse and dependent on America), and ask whether a stronger, smaller, but more-integrated Franco-German state embedded in a larger but more diffuse trading bloc might not be more useful to us and to the West generally.