Territorial integrity norms

by Henry Farrell on August 11, 2008

So I have a quite different take on the broader geo-politics of the Russia-Georgia conflict than either “Matt Yglesias”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2008/08/georgia_on_my_mind.php (in “new digs”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/ – update blogroll accordingly) or “Steve Clemons”:http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2008/08/georgiarussia_c/. Clemons:

much of what we are seeing unfold between Russia and Georgia involves a high quotient of American culpability. When Kosovo declared independence and the US and other European states recognized it — thus sidestepping Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council — many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia’s breakaway border provinces increased dramatically. By pushing Kosovo the way the US did and aggravating nationalist sensitivities, Russia could in reaction be rationally expected to further integrate and cultivate South Ossetia and Abkhazia under de facto Russian control and pull these provinces that border Russia away from the state of Georgia. At the time, there was word from senior level sources that Russia had asked the US to stretch an independence process for Kosovo over a longer stretch of time — and tie to it some process of independence for the two autonomous Georgia provinces. In exchange, Russia would not veto the creation of a new state of Kosovo at the Security Council. The U.S. rejected Russia’s secret entreaties and instead rushed recognition of Kosovo and said damn the consequences.


In a broader sense Steve Clemons raises the good point that the government of Russia made it pretty clear that if the United States recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia over Russian objections that Russia would retaliate by stepping up support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This doesn’t seem to have given any of Georgia’s outspoken friends in the United States any pause. Indeed, strong pro-Georgian views in the U.S. media and foreign policy community correlate heavily with strong pro-Kosovo views. This highlights the fact that the underlying issue here is simply a disposition to take a dim view of Moscow and to favor aggressive policies to roll back Russian influence rather than some kind of deep and sincerely felt desire to help Georgia.

Now I’m not too keen on the ‘brave little Georgia’ crowd myself, but neither of these seems to me to be right. Steve, who’s a realist, doesn’t seem to me to be providing a realist enough take on Russia’s motivations, while Matt seems to be soft-pedalling his liberal internationalism. There are many ways to interpret what’s been happening over the last few days, but one important part of the explanation is an argument over norms, and specifically the relationship between the norms of territorial integrity and self determination, that has been playing out since the end of the Cold War.

For some background to this, see “this piece”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/flynnfarrell.pdf that Greg Flynn and I wrote for _International Organization_ way back in 1999. It’s out of date, and hopelessly optimistic in the light of later developments, but I think it captures something important that was happening in Europe at the time. Mark Zacher’s “piece”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=164691 on the territorial integrity norm is more up to date, but it’s behind a paywall. Briefly – relations between states are constituted by norms as well as power. Two key norms in the current system are territorial integrity – states are supposed to keep more or less to their set boundaries except in cases of common agreement (e.g. the dissolution of Czechoslovakia), and self-determination – ‘nations,’ however you define them, are supposed to be able to chart their own path in the international system. These norms are by no means universally respected, but breaking them has usually carried a cost. However, they don’t necessarily sit together comfortably – most obviously, sometimes self-determination would seem to require border change.

During the Cold War, this was all moot, especially on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of Yugoslavia, the tensions between the two norms became ever clearer. The combination of moves towards self-determination and state boundaries that didn’t at well reflect the actual distribution of populations in Central and Eastern Europe could have led to chaos in the Baltic republics (where Russia tried to gin up a secessionist movement among Russian minorities around Narva and elsewhere), around Hungary (where several states had significant minority Hungarian populations, and it wasn’t initially clear that Hungary didn’t want territory back), Macedonia and elsewhere. So diplomats settled on the argument that boundaries should remain fixed – and that ethnic minorities should seek self-determination within those boundaries through _democratic_ institutions which would allow them guarantees that their rights would be protected.

This ended up working pretty well in the states that were likely to (and did) become EU members – the linkage between the conditions for EU membership (the Copenhagen criteria) and respect for minority rights and democracy helped stabilize some situations that otherwise might have become very nasty indeed. The EU’s expansion can be blamed for many things – but it almost certainly pre-empted a number of low level conflicts, and quite possibly a couple of wars. It didn’t work at all well in Central Asia, where initial hints of a move towards democracy were rapidly squashed by autocrats of one kind or another. And it has been unravelling in various states close to Russia, as a result of the strategies both of Russia itself, and the less-than-perfectly-democratic figures who are running these states. These states aren’t especially democratic or respectful of minority rights – but Russia has also quite deliberately stoked up conflicts within these states, and sought to freeze existing conflicts that serve as useful political tools.

This is where we are at the moment. Obviously, this is in part a fight about territory. But it also, more importantly, a fight about the rules that should shape international politics in the region surrounding Russia. And here, John McCain is at least partly right (although the mutterings about going to war over this seem to me to be completely off base). Russia sees the spread of democratization as a threat to its control of the ‘Near Abroad.’ It has been pushing quite deliberately for a redefinition of the norms of territorial integrity and intervention that would legitimate its continued presence in Georgia and elsewhere, and allow it to reconsolidate control over what it perceives as its rightful sphere of influence. What it would like to see is tacit or active recognition by other great powers of its right to intervene in countries such as Georgia, the Ukraine, Moldova etc. The Western powers have their own economic interests in the region, which they have been pushing assiduously, but also would quite genuinely would prefer to see democracies consolidate themselves in this band of countries, if for no other reason than because democracies over the longer term tend to be more stable, and chaos in these countries could easily spill over in nasty ways in Europe and elsewhere.

Russia has pushed in international fora to be allowed to ‘keep the peace’ in neighbouring countries. It has tried to sideline multilateral organizations, preferring instead to have Russian ‘peacekeepers’ – hence the ambiguity over whether Russian soldiers in South Ossetia are indeed keeping the peace, or are instead direct representatives of Russian interests. It has also tried to get rid of democracy promotion and election monitoring organizations such as the OSCE, fearing that democratically elected governments will be less susceptible to Russian pressure, and more likely to align with the West. Language about self-determination has been an useful means to justify interventions in local states which are aimed at weakening their capacity for independent action. Russia’s “new demand”:http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/08/10/un.georgia/index.html that Georgia change its government should be interpreted in precisely this light.

This is a battle about legitimacy as well as territory. The West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence was at best a mistake, and possibly (although not certainly) a very serious mistake indeed. It undermined the principle of territorial integrity in ways that make it much easier for Russia to use this war to really remake the map of the Near Abroad. It would have been better to have gone on with Kosovo as an international protectorate of ambiguous international standing.

But this also implies that Steve’s suggestion – that Western powers should have traded off Kosovan independence for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – would have been an even worse option. It would have been tantamount to an effective recognition of spheres of influence, and a recarving up of Europe into bits where the West dominated, and bits where Russia had its say. Nor do I agree with Steve’s suggestion that Russia was driven to this because nationalist sentiments had been aggravated by overly aggressive Western actions. Russia had been maneuvering for a _very long time_ before Kosovo to get the democratizers out of the Near Abroad, and to be recognized as the rightful settler of disputes/intervenor when it wants to intervene, in the various states around it. The recognition of Kosovo provides a useful rationale for Russian actions, but Russia has been playing an offensive rather than a defensive game for quite a while.

Now it may well be that Steve and those who take similar positions (I expect Anatol Lieven takes a similar line) _do_ believe that it is better to formally recognize spheres of influence – there is certainly a realist case to be made for this. But if so, they should say so, and recognize that this isn’t a situation where Russia has been wronged; rather it is one where the US, Europe and Russia need to come to a tacit accommodation that reflects the balance of power or whatever. This is disagreeable if stated plainly in the terms of US political discourse – but it surely is where their position is leading them.

Matt’s acquiescence to this line seems to me to be a real mistake for a liberal internationalist who believes that the gradual diffusion of democracy is a good thing for international politics. It is tantamount to saying that a large chunk of Europe, which isn’t wonderfully democratic but is surely more democratic than it used to be, should be subject to the effective authority of a state that doesn’t welcome the spread of democracy. This seems to me to set a terrible long term precedent. I don’t have specific policy recommendations for how the US and Europe should respond to the Georgia-Russia war – I am neither an area expert nor a guns’n’bombs specialist. But I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the key objective here isn’t to support Georgia – it’s to prevent this becoming a precedent for the recreation of Russian local hegemony across the wider region. As Carl Bildt says (quoted in the “FT”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/eaac265a-66fc-11dd-808f-0000779fd18c,dwp_uuid=66e078d0-66ca-11dd-808f-0000779fd18c.html):

“We – and Russia – will have to live with the consequences of Russia’s use of force for a long time to come,” he said at the weekend. “No state has a right to intervene militarily in the territory of another state simply because there are individuals there with a passport issued by that state. The obligation to protect people lies with the state in which those individuals are located. “Attempts to apply such a doctrine have plunged Europe into war in the past – and that is why it is so important that this doctrine is emphatically dismissed.”

Update: I “largely agree”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/10/AR2008081001870.html?hpid=opinionsbox1 with this piece by Ron Asmus and Richard Holbrooke – while I suspect that Georgia played a considerably larger role than they suggest in precipitating this, their description of the larger problem seems right on target to me.



matt 08.11.08 at 4:28 pm

I (whom am not Matt Y)largely agree with this. Matt Y once visited Russia for a few weeks in college (or maybe high school) and now is strangely pro-Putin all the time. It’s very odd- arguments he’s reject in any other context he accepts when applied to Russia. I sometimes think he thinks Russians are just too dumb to favor democracy. Anyway, what I’d add is that it’s not part of the Soviet mind-set, the mind-set that still clearly dominates the power elite in Russia (ex-KGB and the military) to think in terms of non-zero sum games and mutually beneficial cooperation. The idea is that either you dominate or you are dominated. So, if the near-abroad is free and prosperous, that doesn’t mean that they can buy gas at full price and sell good wine and mineral water to you while providing nice vacation spots, but that they are competetors seeking to get the upper hand as soon as they can. This means that the near-abroad must be kept under Russian control, preferably while poor, weak, and unable to make any decisions on their own. To see this is necessary to understand the behavior of Russia.


Charlie Whitaker 08.11.08 at 4:32 pm

Great post. One point: shouldn’t we distinguish between two senses of ‘sphere of influence’? In one sense, a ‘sphere of influence’ is the recognition of the fact that nearby countries happen to have the same values, cultural norms, constitutional arrangements, etc. In the other sense, a ‘sphere of influence’ is the expectation of a regional power that adjacent countries respect its preferences.


Steve LaBonne 08.11.08 at 4:42 pm

It’s easy to agree in the abstract with Asmus and Holbrooke’s prescriptions but the question is, how can they be implemented? Neither the US (which can hardly afford to contemplate any more military adventures) nor the EU (with Putin’s boot on its energy windpipe) seems to have much in the way of leverage here. (All the more reason why the recognition of Kosovo was a stupid and dangerous precedent.)


P O'Neill 08.11.08 at 4:44 pm

One challenge with these norms is how place-dependent they have to be. It’s nice when rules are simple and clear but Russia has really complicated borders — borders which cut across many ethnic and religious crossroads. From their perspective, the “Irish question” must have looked very simple since at least you could count on one hand the number of competing views. But one question surely is why the variation that you note: why did the Baltics resolve fairly well despite large Russian minorities? In this case we have Russia claiming a right to act on behalf of a different small minority with quite a few members already in Russian territory. No wonder the British preferred a soft frontier on the Indian side with Russia. Didn’t work out so well for the countries in between though.


Daragh McDowell 08.11.08 at 4:56 pm

Damn you Farrell, you scooped my lede! Just blogged on this exact topic (though from a somewhat different angle read more at the link.) Still, must admit your piece is much better written and more precise than mine. Will endeavor to do better next time.


Tim Worstall 08.11.08 at 5:04 pm

Agree with Matt (not Matt Y). I lived in Russia for 7 years (even visited Abkhazia just after the last war) and that dominate or be dominated attitude of the siloviki (and a much wider part of the Russian demos in general) rings entirely true to me. It’s certainly the way that much of the business world operated, the assumption of zero sum.

Add in (what I assume is( thre desire to control access of Caspian reserves to the Black Sea/Med and while appalling, it all makes sense from what I understand of the likely Russian view.


virgil xenophon 08.11.08 at 5:08 pm

Clemons is right about American culpability, and naive culpability at that. What we are seeing here (and I am far from the first to posit this)
is a replay of Hungary in 1956 and the Iraqui Shia uprisings during the time of Bush 41. I’ve previously said many times both here and elsewhere that modern-day America seems incapable of producing or supporting leaders capable of playing the role of “Perfidious Albion.”
Rather, the modern essence of America’s soul is one of reflexive Wilsonian naive idealism–and most of our political leadership “cadre”
reflects this mind-set. Once again, as we see today, Wilson’s ghost
meets reality.


Z 08.11.08 at 5:13 pm

that Western powers should have traded off Kosovan independence for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

It seems to me the will of the local populations should be the determining factor here. It is hard to ascertain, and I confess ignorance, but it seems to me that a majority of residents of Kosovo did want independence (prior to the NATO invasion) and that a majority of Ossetians does want closer tie to Russia than to Georgia (prior to the Russian invasion). So even though my reasonning completely disregards questions of spheres of influence and geopolitical competition in the Caucasus and the Balkans, I personally think independent Kosovo and Ossertia are not so bad outcome, as it seems to be pretty close to what people actually want.

Or in a shorter form, both NATO and Russia took (apparently) legitimate grievances and used them as pretexts to launch war of their own choosing, but that doesn’t make the original grievances less legitimate.


Dave 08.11.08 at 5:27 pm

Any mileage in considering this as a ‘post-colonial’ situation? That is, after all, the longer-term nature of the Russia/Georgia relationship.

Also, pardon me, but isn’t the outcome both likely and desired by the Abkhaz and South Ossetian ‘separatists’ going to amount to a permanent Russian protectorate? Cui bono there, dudes?

I note that Saakashvili seems to have acted like a hotheaded asswipe in prodding this situation recently, but does that override a more general concern that large, powerful countries should not push smaller ones around? [Note the ‘should’, and please feel free to apply it in any circumstance of your choosing. Just because I don’t like X doesn’t make me an apologist for Y, Z, or W…]


John 08.11.08 at 5:30 pm

It seems to me the will of the local populations should be the determining factor here.

That’s a dangerous position to take. The Kurds, for example, would very much like to secede from Iraq (with their oil). I am sure that a student of geopolitics would know many more applicable situations then I.


Jim Harrison 08.11.08 at 5:31 pm

There never was a prospect of hanging the people of Kosovo out to dry. Not recognizing their formal independence is not the same thing as giving the territory back to the Serbs. A smart diplomacy would have finessed Kosovo independence in order to preserve a similarly ambiguous situation in Ossetia and Georgia in general. Nobody would have been 100% happy about the resulting state of affairs but nobody would be desperate either.


virgil xenophon 08.11.08 at 5:36 pm

It also should be remembered that Joseph Stalin’s obligatory “academic”
opus (to prove his philosophical bona fides as a leader) was entitled “The Problem of the Nationalities.” And as a Georgian, Stalin would have known. There is no small savage irony that the great initiator of the policy of “Russification” (Stalin’s answer to the problem of the “nation-alities”) was a product of the very modern-day breakaway region of the old SU that is so embroiled in its own independence struggle with “Mother Russia.”


Steve LaBonne 08.11.08 at 5:40 pm

Speaking of history’s most notorious Georgian, if the old boy were around today he might also be asking “how many divisions has Bill Kristol?”


Phil 08.11.08 at 5:41 pm

The link to your article doesn’t seem to be working. Can you repost? It looks interesting. Thanks


geo 08.11.08 at 5:58 pm

virgil @ 12: the modern essence of America’s soul is one of reflexive Wilsonian naive idealism—and most of our political leadership “cadre” reflects this mind-set.

Except rhetorically, there has not been, since World War II at least, a grain of idealism about American foreign policy. We have supported or opposed regimes without any relation whatever to their odiousness but solely according to whether or not they were willing to accept economic integration on American terms, or, in some cases, from a fear that their independent development, if successful, might encourage other countries to resist American penetration and control.


geo 08.11.08 at 5:59 pm

Sorry, that’s @ 7, not 12.


roger 08.11.08 at 6:00 pm

I think this post is wrong at the most fundamental level, replaying the idea that there is a split between, on the one hand, “democracy” – a form of government – and on the other hand “Russia” – a nation. This obvious categorical mistake is a way of disguising the national interests at play here – putting all national interest on one side – Russia – and all humanitarian, freedom and puppy loving interests on the other side – the “democracies.” A pretty bogus way of dividing up the world, which, as we have witnessed over and over again in the last decade, leads to disaster after disaster. If Georgia were a democracy, why didn’t it follow the model of Czechoslovakia and peacefully allow that part of its territory which wanted to leave to do so? It isn’t as if there is a strong tradition of a Georgian state, here.

By shaping the forces at work in just this ideologically suspect way, not only do you shape a dysfunctional foreign policy – one in which universal interests are hopelessly conflated with national ones – but the “liberal interventionist” crowd discredits itself in countries outside the limited sphere of the US and Western Europe. It is impossible to believe, at the same time, in the democracy talk, the oil negotiations, and the rather insane obsession with putting in anti-missile emplacements. The mix is toxic. The result is that liberal interventionists get to compare things to Hungary 1956 – (although a better comparison for what is going down in Georgia might be Haiti, 1965), analogies that are still born and are used mostly to prop up the absurd military spending in the U.S.


novakant 08.11.08 at 6:09 pm

Hmm, firstly Georgia has violated the territorial integrity of de facto independent and demographically more or less Russian Southern Ossetia by invading it and launching attacks against its capital that apparently resulted in 1.500 civilian deaths.

Secondly, the US has been arming Georgia to the teeth in the last five years, providing the Georgian army with equipment, weapons, advisers and training grounds in Iraq.

I despise Putin as much as the next guy and am not going to take sides here, but it seems that these facts are rather important to the matter at hand and should be considered before issuing more general judgments.


Steve LaBonne 08.11.08 at 6:16 pm

I agree, novakant. There are no good guys here, AND I also don’t believe for a moment that Saakashvili, who is hotheaded but not insane, would have proceeded without first getting a wink-wink nudge-nudge from Cheney (quid pro quo for the Georgian troops in Iraq). Naturally, now that it’s all turned to crap Saakashvili will be hung out to dry, notwithstanding the bellicose noises coming from Cheney and his claque. Because there’s not a damned thing we can actually do.


christian h. 08.11.08 at 6:24 pm

What roger said. The regimes put in place by the so-called color revolutions in some former Soviet Republics are no more (or less, obviously) democratic or less corrupt than the pro-Russian ones that preceded them. Why? Because “democracy” was never the issue in the first place. This is a good old-fashioned imperial rivalry, with the additional twist that Washington’s local satrap misjudged the situation.


Maria 08.11.08 at 6:44 pm

18 – On how to read Cheney’s rhetoric, Saakashvili certainly ought to have learnt from the experience of the Hungarians in 1956.

Virgil – As you say, Stalin was more than willing to trade off Georgia’s nationalist ambitions. He cultivated his early expertise in the national question to distinguish himself from other Georgian communists, get Lenin’s attention and slither his way up the party hierarchy. “Russification” was never more than a polite way to extend the soviet state.


Adam 08.11.08 at 6:48 pm

@Christian H.

You’ve made quite the assertion. Prove it.

Show me that the regimes following the color revolutions are not improvements over the regimes that preceded them.

And no, I will not be impressed if you hold them up to some democratic ideal and find them wanting. The “pox-on-both-their-houses” routine doesn’t impress me when David Broder tries it — I will certainly not accept it from you.


Chris Bertram 08.11.08 at 6:51 pm

I’m not sure what I think about all this yet. But the comparisons with the case of Kosovo are way off base. Kosovo is a much larger entity with a more homogenous population. By comparison, S. Ossetia is hardly viable (perhaps _even less viable_) as an independent unit:

South Ossetia: pop 70k of which approx 17k ethnic Georgians
(Abkhazia: 150k approx of which about a third Georgians.)
Kosovo, about 2million people (90% plus ethnic Albanian).


AJL 08.11.08 at 6:55 pm

Maybe I’m just moving in a realist direction, but I don’t understand the objection to Matt Y’s post here. He seems to be entirely discussing the conflict in practical, explanatory terms of cause and effect rather than philosophical ideals. The principles of territorial integrity and liberal internationalism are already moot in Russia’s Near Abroad — The EU and US have already allowed Kosovo to secede from Serbia, and Russia has already seized on this precedent (and Sakaashvili’s conveniently boneheaded provocation) to seize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and annex them, a move that does seem to be in line with the self-determination of the majority in each region.

The internationalist bird has already flown the coop. We’re left with the interwar model of Great Powers manipulating nationalist movements for their own ends while emasculated international institutions flail their arms ineffectively. This is the bed the Neocons made, and we don’t have much choice but to lie in it for the time being.

That said, I think the first commenter is exactly right in regard to the Russian view of the matter. They seem fully committed to dominating their neighbors and expanding their sphere of influence. Since this is the reality of the situation, the US needs to either take concrete steps to contain Russia or quietly allow Russia to dominate its sphere of influence in exchange for concessions to US interests elsewhere. Our current course — a mix of happy talk about democracy and human rights, bad-faith dealings with international institutions, acting unilaterally in our own interest, and offering easily misinterpreted gestures of support to countries we have no interest in defending — is just plain idiotic.


Dave 08.11.08 at 7:04 pm

So, is there anyone out there who can dissent from the consensus that Russia can now do what it damn well pleases in the Near Abroad, and nothing can be done? I’m not sure I do, but I’d like to think someone might offer something constructive, short of digging out the old launch codes and nuking Moscow…


Scott E. 08.11.08 at 7:07 pm

Matt’s acquiescence to this line seems to me to be a real mistake for a liberal internationalist who believes that the gradual diffusion of democracy is a good thing for international politics.

Well, but why? At this point, what are the options to acquiescence? Are any liberals suggesting there shouldn’t be a vigourous use of soft power diplomacy to make clear the West’s unhappiness with Russia making its near abroad less democratic? Certainly, there’s that option. But then what? What other actions could a liberal internationalist endorse?


tom 08.11.08 at 7:16 pm

Reading just the parts of Matt Y’s and Steve C’s posts that Henry Farrell quotes, Farrell seems to be missing both points. I’m not sure that Clemmons is advocating a tit for tat solution to Kosovo as he is bringing up such Russian overtures to show how little we care about what Russia thinks. It’s all fine and well to tell the Russians to jam it, but if you do, well… Likewise, Yglesias isn’t advocating a trade off of recognition of one province for another. He’s saying that the neocons are much more concerned with giving Russia the finger and lauding democracy in abstract than they are in actually helping Georgians or promoting actual democracy. Therefore, the Kosovo thing and the push for Georgian NATO membership, neither of which seems to have helped anyone. Farrell takes Clemmons and Yglesias and extrapolates their critiques into something they aren’t really saying. (My take anyway. I obviously don’t speak for them.) It’s not exactly the “with us or for Putin” kind of argument that McCain makes, but the logic is similar. He suggests that criticizing specific policies and their outcomes means that one is absolving bad actors. (In this case, saying we screwed up means we have to ascribe Russia’s versions of events.) And in the end he sounds very much like the Heads in the Sands crowd that Matt Y describes, defending stupid policies so that he can distinguish himself from those naive doves like Clemmons and Yglesias.


mpowell 08.11.08 at 7:27 pm

I also don’t see any real disagreement with MY here. Isn’t this just a rephrasing of the same thing? By pushing forward on Kosovo independence, we helped to undermine the norm of territorial integrity. You could ask if that had any impact on Russia’s actions here, but I understand you to be in basic agreement with MY that Kosovo made this more likely.


Grand Moff Texan 08.11.08 at 7:46 pm

Am I being too cynical in rejecting the notion of “democratization” in the region as meaning “under Washington’s influence,” and in reading “self-determination” as “able (for now) to choose to belong to one sphere of influence or another?”

There are no principles, so far as I can see, at stake here. The US (et al.) pushed back on Russia’s sphere of influence when the former were strong and the latter was weak. Now, that balance of power is somewhat reversed, so Russians supposedly disproportionate response has reversed that tide.

Recognizing Kosovo was the US’ latest failure to recognize the limits of its own power. The US has been doing a lot of that, lately. It wasn’t some abstract statement of geopolitical dynamics.


Henry 08.11.08 at 8:08 pm

Don’t have time to answer everyone – apologies for that – but a few quick responses.

Roger – you’re missing the claim that I’m making. Not that the West is puppies and democracies – I am quite clear in arguing that to the extent that the West is pushing democracy in these countries it has pragmatic self-interested reasons for so doing. Nor that Georgia etc are great democracies – I believe that I made that emphatically clear at several points in the post, and am not at all sure where you are getting your claim from (unless you are exaggerating for effect). What I am saying is that democracy is a pretty good thing, that the effort to create it across large chunks of Eastern Europe succeeded reasonably well, and that the current Russian policy is indeed about a form of hegemony that would make it far harder to spread democracy further eastward. If you want to dispute any of that feel free to – but please address the claims I made in the post, not the claims you would have liked me to have made.

Novakant – South Ossetia isn’t by any credible measure ‘de facto independent.’ It would be unable to sustain itself as an independent entity. I’d suggest that it’s not even a client statelet of Russia; it’s a client statuscule. I am not especially keen on the current Georgian government, or on its actions – but if the problem at hand here isn’t ‘Brave Little Georgia,’ it certainly isn’t ‘Brave Little South Ossetia’ either. And I don’t believe it’s ‘demographically Russian’ either, unless you count passports handed out like confetti to anyone who wanted them. I think that Georgia’s invasion was pretty horrible on other grounds of international law, and if the quoted casualty rates are anything like the truth, the Georgian government should be hauled up before the ICC. But as you no doubt know, the Russian record on dealing inconvenient nationalities (viz. – the Chechen wars) is worse than the Georgian by orders of magnitude.

Tom – I think you are wrong here. Steve is a realist – and what he (and Lieven and others) are pushing here, is the idea that reaching an accommodation with Russia is paramount to US security interests. There is a case to be made for this (albeit a case that I personally don’t agree with) – but I have been following Steve and other Nixon Center people’s writing on this for the last few years and I am pretty sure that I am right in my interpretation of their underlying message. Take a look back over the last few years and see for yourself. I am not quite sure how you extrapolated the claim that Steve Clemons is a ‘naive dove’ out of my piece, but it’s surely a credit to your powers of imagination. As for trying to use this a la Heads in the Sand to discredit Clemons and Yglesias – I would have written it in a rather different way if so – expression of disagreement hardly equates to accusations of naivete, treachery and the like (and for what it’s worth, I suggest you check out the acknowledgments section of Heads in the Sand).

mpowell – the disagreement here is about the counterfactual; all of us seem to believe that recognizing Kosovo was a mistake. Steve (and, unless I misunderstand him, Matt) seem to believe that the better alternative was to strike a deal with Russia swapping Kosovan independence for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I think that this would have been a very bad idea, because it would repartition Europe, and that the better alternative would have been to preserve Kosovo’s ambiguous status.


franck 08.11.08 at 8:23 pm


South Ossetia is by no means “more or less” Russian. It is a complex mixture of Ossetians (a Persianate Caucasian mostly Orthodox Christian people who live on both sides of the Caucasus) and Georgians (a Caucasian mostly Orthodox Christian people), with intermarriage being common and no long history of ethnic grievance. Ossetians don’t make up an overwhelming majority of the inhabitants, and South Ossetia hasn’t historically been viable as an independent state – it lives off of Russian subsidies and smuggling.

Abkhazia is similar, but there the Abkhaz didn’t even make up a plurality of the population (27% or so the Georgian 44%) before they ethnically cleansed most of the Georgians in the early nineties with Russian and Chechen help. Abkhazia is slightly larger in population, but similarly lives on Russian subsidies and has no independent political existence. When the Abkhaz picked the presidential candidate Russia disliked, Russia simply forced them to choose the other one shortly thereafter.


franck 08.11.08 at 8:27 pm

Grand Moff Texan,

On Kosovo, I don’t see what you mean about the limits of US power. After all, it looks like Kosovo is going to be independent, and more countries recognize it every day. So for Kosovo at least, the whole thing seems to have worked out reasonably well from the US perspective.


christian h. 08.11.08 at 8:36 pm

Adam, I don’t have to prove squat to you, whoever you are. The people who think that CIA fronts like the NED are promoting “democratization” are the ones who should give some evidence.

Anyway, if you actually believe that Saakashvili is a liberal democrat, then there’s clearly no arguing with you. (Or maybe you thought, wrongly, that I was claiming the regimes in place now are as bad as Stalinism was. I wasn’t. I am merely claiming that Ukraine or Georgia, for example, are absolutely no more democratic than they were before the “orange” and “rose” (or whatever) revolution.)

You know who I think don’t deserve any pox on their house? The people of Georgia, Ossetia, Abkhasia. Neither Putin nor Saakashvili, and certainly not Bush, Cheney, Brown, Sarkozy or the ruling classes they represent give a shit about those people – they just use them as pawns in their power games. And yeah, I refuse to take a side in those games.


Grand Moff Texan 08.11.08 at 8:36 pm


I was referring to the Clemens piece. Yes, Kosovo may remain independent, but there were consequences beyond its borders.


franck 08.11.08 at 8:43 pm

christian h,

Your response suggests that you can’t prove it. No one here has claimed Saakashvili is a liberal democrat. You said that the color revolutions did not make Ukraine or Georgia any more democratic or less corrupt. You are clearly wrong on the corruption scale – both countries are less corrupt by most measures now, if only because the previous billionaires don’t have the complete control over the government they once had. I’d also like to hear why you think Ukraine is not any more democratic now, with multiple parties competing for power with clear differences of opinion on important policies and a freer and more boisterous press.


Hidari 08.11.08 at 8:49 pm

‘I am quite clear in arguing that to the extent that the West is pushing democracy in these countries it has pragmatic self-interested reasons for so doing. Nor that Georgia etc are great democracies – I believe that I made that emphatically clear at several points in the post, and am not at all sure where you are getting your claim from (unless you are exaggerating for effect). What I am saying is that democracy is a pretty good thing, that the effort to create it across large chunks of Eastern Europe succeeded reasonably well, and that the current Russian policy is indeed about a form of hegemony that would make it far harder to spread democracy further eastward’.

Yes but surely the question of ‘just what is and just what is not’ a democracy is a bit more complicated than that? To begin with, I don’t accept that ‘democracies’ are inherently more stable than totalitarian regimes…surely the opposite, generally speaking, is the case (at least in the short term)? Mussolini managed to defeat the Mob, Franco managed to defeat the Basques and the Catalans, Tito held Yugoslavia together…it was only when democracy raised its head that those particular kinds of problem arose.

Surely the point about America’s (entirely sincere, I think) desire to spread democracy amongst the Eastern European states is that the Americans calculated (entirely correctly) that given their experience of Russian imperialism, the Eastern Europeans (or at least, their political elites) would be reasonably happy to accept the much softer form of American imperialism, which takes the form of membership of NATO, the acceptance (when necessary) of American military bases, the use of Eastern European prisons as ‘black sites’ (i.e. torture chambers) , the positioning of missile ‘defence’ stations on Eastern European soil etc etc. etc. And, in the case of Georgia, the issue of oil raises its black, sticky head.

If America’s needs are met, then the US is perfectly happy to let the Eastern Europeans have their democracy (or ‘democracy’ depending on your point of view) but if they were NOT met, then I think you would find the American support for democracy waning pretty quickly. After all, wasn’t that what those tedious little American backed coup d’etats (sorry, I meant the glorious Rose, Red, Pink, Blue, Red and Puce ‘revolutions’) all about?

Finally it seems to be taken for granted that the Russians are being ‘hysterical’ or ‘paranoid’ about talk of being surrounded by the Americans (oh, sorry, I meant the ‘west’). Ah quick look at the map, and a look through your newspapers of the last five years, will quickly establish that it is a key aim of American foreign policy to ‘contain’ and ‘surround’ Russia (and China). There’s nothing paranoid about it. Have we forgotten that this is all merely part of the new Great Game?


christian h. 08.11.08 at 8:51 pm

franck, huh? You do realize that the “multiple parties competing for power” in Ukraine are precisely the same parties that competed before the orange revolution, with the same leaders, who alternated in power before? You have noticed that it’s still billionaires who made their money in the privatization process who control the country, if possibly different ones – or is Julia Timoshenko suddenly poor? Can you give any evidence at all for your claims – for example, by which “most measures” are Georgia or Ukraine less corrupt now? You have heard about the way Saakashvili deals with opposition demonstrations, I presume – how is that any better than what Shevardnaze did?

As I said before, if you want to claim that things have gotten more democratic and less corrupt, give some evidence. Put up or shut up.


EWI 08.11.08 at 8:55 pm

Russia had been maneuvering for a very long time before Kosovo to get the democratizers out of the Near Abroad, and to be recognized as the rightful settler of disputes/intervenor when it wants to intervene, in the various states around it.

Remind you of any other large nation with the letters A, S and A in its name?


EWI 08.11.08 at 8:57 pm

(Grr. That should, of course, been a U in there…)


RCMoya 08.11.08 at 9:13 pm

On the EU’s Copenhagen requirements and Russia’s malignant influence on its neighbours:

I think Henry is (frustratingly) spot-on on the first count, and not being entirely fair to the disproportionate influence Russia has had in destabilising democratic efforts in the former Soviet republics.

On the first point: The Copenhagen requirements may have caused some conflict the farther east of Brussels one heads. But that should have been expected. Democratisation is always a messy business, even in established polities; less established polities need to sort out that same instability, with often bitter results. Nevertheless, I would argue that has been for the better all around–that short-term instability is necessary.

Related to the first point, a second: In a geopolitical vacuum my first point would hold. However, Russia’s attempts to impose its will have destabilised its neighbours: by challenging their territorial sovereignty externally; stoking and supporting ethnic unrest internally; and by undercutting attempts to liberalise/westernise their societies. Russia’s efforts to ‘freeze’ certain conflicts have had the (desired) effect of ossifying the internal political development of said nations. Corruption has followed.

I’d argue more forcefully in defining Russia’s corrosive influence in the region. Internal corruption has and will always exist, and those developing states in the East have had an even harder time to attenuate that corruption after decades of socialisation and economic stagnation. But it is clear that Russia’s desire to undermine the clean up process–a process encouraged by the EU–has been rather successful, the farther East one heads. Were Russian society itself more liberalised, and indeed geopolitically socialised to those international norms we all seek to defend, anti-corruption/pro-democratic efforts may well have borne fruit by now in many post-Soviet republics.

But Russia’s interests aren’t blowing in that direction…to the detriment of the nations bordering it…


franck 08.11.08 at 9:16 pm

christian h,

You haven’t put up any information either. I maintain that the press is more free now in Ukraine than it was before the Orange Revolution, and there is more tolerance of public protest and dissent than there was previously. Having different rich people control things rather than the same ones in perpeutity does tend to reduce corruption, and that is happening in Ukraine.


novakant 08.11.08 at 9:21 pm

That was a bit muddled, true, I should have been clearer – what I meant by “de facto independent” was: de facto not a part of Georgia. I’m aware of the overwhelming Russian influence. Also, on the demographics issue: I’m aware that it’s a mix of all sorts, but if we define nationhood less by blood than by self-identification, the 2006 referendum showed that they definitely do not identify as Georgians and, whatever else they identify with, given its overwhelming influence, they are rather close to Russia. This all goes to point out that Georgia’s original attack was a far graver breach than is generally acknowledged in the media, which tends to portray it as the Georgian government dealing with an internal affair, while calling the Russian backlash an invasion. The original attack by Georgia was also de facto an invasion. Again, I’m not taking sides but I think it’s important to point this out.


someone 08.11.08 at 9:39 pm

@36 …the Eastern Europeans (or at least, their political elites) would be reasonably happy to accept the much softer form of American imperialism…

I don’t see any reason to think that post-cold-war brand Russian imperialism is any harder (let alone ‘much harder’) than post-cold-war American imperialism. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. Simply, different cliques in Eastern Europe choose different sonsors: some Russia, others the US, and that is all there is to it.


Hush now 08.11.08 at 9:55 pm

Getting back to Henry’s original point about the various norms that are in conflict here: I think that Russia’s behaviour illustrates how norms (a) do not exist independent of powerful backers and (b) not all norms are equally valued.

The norm of territorial integrity is so universally revered as it is a fundamental ordering norm of the international system. Without a recognition that State A has a border with State B at position X, then it is impossible to socially construct the international system in the first place. There is no such thing as borders. There is only an agreement that there is such a thing as borders. For most people, and for all states, we are unable to consider any other ordering principle. Therefore, upholding the norm matters a great deal.

This doesn’t mean that it isn’t violated frequently of course, but the point is that the norms which legitimate intervention are not shared nearly to the degree that that this prior norm is. In the West, we tend to agree that territorial integrity is conditional on a certain behavior on the part of states; both internationally and on a domestic level. Failure to adhere to these standards opens a space for ‘legitimate’ intervention. Consider discussions about Darfur, for example.

However, these norms of what Ian Clark calls ‘rightful conduct’ are contested by powerful states. Due to a blend of both moral and self-interested reasons we in the West have a certain conception of what constitutes a ‘rightful member’ in the international system, with the understanding that once such a status has been granted and is upheld than the state “should” not be attacked.

In some sense, Russia’s behavior can be seen as a signal that they will no longer be bound by Western definitions of what constitutes the legitimate reasons for fighting wars. This is more than just a traditional flexing of muscle in a ‘sphere-of-influence’. I think this can be also read as a Russian declaration that ordering concepts, such as spheres of influences, are now legitimate reasons for fighting to begin with. It is a bucking of an international order which has been dominated by Western norms (democracy, free markets, liberal human rights etc.) since the end of the Cold War. This means that there is a normative battle here as well as geostrategic one.

It doesn’t help that the U.S. has lost much of it’s ability to declare Russian behavior illegitimate, considering its own international and domestic behavior in the last few years. It makes it harder for it to shout ‘foul!’


lemuel pitkin 08.11.08 at 10:29 pm

Novakant hits the important point, I think: How do we know which borders count for the purposes of territorial integrity?

Georgia became indepdnent in 1991. It lost control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1995. So South Ossetia has a considerably longer history as a an independent state (or de facto part of Russia if you prefer) than as a part of independent Georgia. True, Georgia’s internationally recognized borders include South Ossetia — but that only begs the question of who gets to recognize.

In a case like this, how do we distinguish operationally between “the principle of terrirotorial integrity” and “the preferences of the US and its allies”?


Steve LaBonne 08.11.08 at 10:54 pm

It doesn’t help that the U.S. has lost much of it’s ability to declare Russian behavior illegitimate, considering its own international and domestic behavior in the last few years. It makes it harder for it to shout ‘foul!’

Well, yeah. This whole discussion is entirely theoretical where US policy is concerned (except as a warning to stop egging on people whom we really have no ability to actually support- but that’s really a moral issue, meaning it has no standing with Cheney and his crew.) The US has neither the credibility nor, with armed forces already stretched to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, the power to do much about this situation even if someone were to convince me that we should. And that’s due to precisely the people who are currently frothing at the mouth about Russia.


roger 08.11.08 at 11:03 pm

Henry, I think you read my criticism back into your original category mistake. NATO and the U.S. may all be democracies, but they aren’t democracy, nor do they represent democracy.

Let us takes, say, Russia itself. After all, where did Putin come from? He came from Yeltsin, an old corrupt alcoholic who was elected, the second time, by means of a massive effort by the U.S. to divert oligarch money to the man, and to help him use the inherently autocratic means of closing down venues of free speech – like opposition television stations. This was done in the face of the fact that Yeltsin had already shown his war criminal side in Chechnya. It was done because, as “democrats”, the U.S. and Nato were deathly afraid that the communists would win a free and fair election.

Again: democracies sometimes support democracy, and sometimes they don’t. Crucially, they didn’t in Russia. Crucially, they haven’t in Latin America. In Georgia, the U.S. interest was not democracy, it was finding an ally against Russia, given the cold war mindset of the Bush administration. In Clinton’s time, debauching the Russian political system was about protecting free enterprise.

The problems with liberal interventionism start, as I say, by projecting a delusional sense of interest and agency. This is interestingly exemplified your sentence: “What I am saying is that democracy is a pretty good thing, that the effort to create it across large chunks of Eastern Europe succeeded reasonably well…” Notice the vagueness of “effort” – by who? If it is an indigeneous effort, all to the good – but the hint, here, is that it is an effort exercized by the “democracies”. This, of course, isn’t true. With their shock therapy economics, the advisors from the democracies spread misery over a number of countries in the 90s. I’m not really sure what you mean by “they worked reasonably well” – most Russians seem to think Putin’s efforts have worked reasonably well. I’d like to see a democracy in Russia and in Georgia. I hope that, after the inevitable collapse of the economies of the Baltic states, which are leveraged to an insane degree in a real estate bubble that is bound to pop hard, they will remain democratic. However, it is important not to conflate democracy with the foreign policy of the “democracies”, nor to pretend that it unilaterally faces Russia. One could as well say, the democracies opposed the U.S. unilaterally abrogating the anti-missile treaty. Or that the democracries unilaterally rejected the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto treaty.

One thing has come out of this little war – in all probability, Georgia will lose two areas that produced nothing for it and that it sought to retain solely as a matter of nationalistic pride. W


Dr Zen 08.11.08 at 11:10 pm

franck, that rotating the plutocrats makes a place less corrupt is not the same as its making a place “democratic”. Democracy is a function of institutions, not of allowing people to vote in essentially meaningless elections.

As for Georgia, yah, its democracy is not fully formed, but neither were ours 16 years after we became states. The UK, my nation, would not have passed any democracy tests shortly after the Union. Democracy grows with encouragement; it can’t be installed or created overnight.

Lemuel, I think that that distinction is what is being focused on here. In the case of Kosovo, the West didn’t care about the principle of territorial integrity; in the case of South Ossetia, it does. Ho hum.

I find it actually amusing that Russia claims to be supporting the aspirations of the Ossetian people, given that a/ its track record in that line is obviously not great, as evidenced by the lack of an independent Chechnya and b/ it is not suggesting the creation of an independent Ossetia by uniting its and Georgia’s provinces.


lemuel pitkin 08.11.08 at 11:22 pm

In the case of Kosovo, the West didn’t care about the principle of territorial integrity; in the case of South Ossetia, it does.

My point wasn’t that the “West” is hypocritical — as you say, ho hum. My point is that it is far from obvious how the principle of territorial integrity applies in this case. Why does “territorial integrity” mean the borders of Georgia as of 1991 rather than the de facto borders 1995-20008? Surely you wouldn’t argue, if China invaded Taiwan, that the principle of territorial integrity required us to side with China?


Lazar, the Serb 08.11.08 at 11:48 pm

I must note something. The indepedence of Kosovo (90% of population is ethnic Albanians) is viewed in Serbia as a punishment for staunch nationalism Serbians could not let go even after Milosevic regime was dissolved, and a strong lesson to Russia about new rearangement of neo-NATO Europe, according to the plans of the west. Anyone sane coud see tht this Russia/Georgia situation was only a matter of time. US is now left alone at the bargaining table to have a nice loooooong contepmplation about what have happened and what to do next. The rules have changed and I am happy about it. It is not about making mistakes (Kosovo), it is now about taking the consequences.


Roy Belmont 08.12.08 at 12:22 am

According to Wikipedia, YnetNews is the English language version of the Israel news portal Ynet. It’s operated by Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most-read tabloid. According to Wikipedia.

“Israel began selling arms to Georgia about seven years ago following an initiative by Georgian citizens who immigrated to Israel and became businesspeople.
‘They contacted defense industry officials and arms dealers and told them that Georgia had relatively large budgets and could be interested in purchasing Israeli weapons,’ says a source involved in arms exports.
The military cooperation between the countries developed swiftly.
The fact that Georgia’s defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, is a former Israeli who is fluent in Hebrew contributed to this cooperation.”

According to Wikipedia, Israel National News is the written news website of Arutz Sheva, an Israeli media network identifying with Religious Zionism. According to Wikipedia.

“Analysis of the war in Georgia points to a fight over a major oil route as the main reason for hostilities, but also to an Israeli connection.
Channel 2’s expert on the Muslim world, Ehud Ya’ari, told viewers of the central evening newscast that Russia and neighboring countries were vying for control of a strategic oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
This relatively new pipeline passes through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey and is the only pipeline between Asia and Europe that does not pass through Russia or Iran. Israel is expecting to receive oil and gas through the pipeline.”


someone 08.12.08 at 12:25 am

@31 Abkhazia is similar, but there the Abkhaz didn’t even make up a plurality of the population (27% or so the Georgian 44%) before they ethnically cleansed most of the Georgians in the early nineties with Russian and Chechen help.

Incidentally, Fazil Iskander in his Sandro of Chegem describes quite convincingly ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia in the 1930s, systematic destruction of the local culture and colonization by (mostly) Georgians. Beria’s pet project, apparently.
What goes around comes around.


Roy Belmont 08.12.08 at 12:33 am

First url belongs to cite 1.
Lack of preview, again.


tom 08.12.08 at 2:10 am

Henry Farrell wrote: “and for what it’s worth, I suggest you check out the acknowledgments section of Heads in the Sand.”

Touche…. and ouch. So, with this considerable amount of egg on my face, let me apologize. Clearly, your post is a good faith disagreement and the implications in my comment suggesting otherwise were unfounded and just plain wrong. (Despite the tone of my last post, no sarcasm here.)

Also, you obviously have read more of Steve Clemmons’s work, so I will defer to you in terms of what policy course he would have suggested.

And now calling on those bits of good will and credibility that my last post established (this part is sarcasm) and try to offer an honest inquiry and less an accusatory rant.

Concerning Matthew Yglesias’s post, how do derive the fact that he is taking Clemmons’s view that we should have traded Kosovar recognition for recognition of the Georgian provinces in dispute?
I just don’t see that. Does he even mention such a position?

Further, you add that Yglesias’s position “is tantamount to saying that a large chunk of Europe… should be subject to the effective authority of a state that doesn’t welcome the spread of democracy.” Thus in your view, he’s soft peddling his liberal internationalism.

Once again, why should this be so? The “should” in your sentence doesn’t seem warranted. Rather, he isn’t making any claim about what should be the case. He’s suggesting that a concern for actual Georgian interests would have accounted for the actual situation, rather than what we might want to be the case. (Thus, his Cuba analogy in the original post.) Put more briefly, yes Matthew Y cites the post of a foreign policy realist to criticize US actions. But that use of evidence doesn’t mean he’s soft peddling anything. Instead he thinks that liberal internationalism needs to account for real world circumstances. (Just my two cents.)

I should have put my point in these terms the first time. Again, my apologies.


gr 08.12.08 at 5:47 am

@Chris Bertram

How do you define ‘viability’? There sure are lots of independent states that do not have a larger territory or population than South Ossetia. What about Liechtenstein (pop. 35000) , Andorra (70000), San Marino (30000), etc.? I didn’t check, but I’d bet there are quite a few islands in the pacific, too, that aren’t any larger. Are these viable states? If not, why not?

If ‘viability’ means something like: would be able to defend itself against its neighbours militarily, is economically self-sufficient, isn’t dependent on external resources, then many, many much larger states obviously fail the test. But if you’re not thinking in such traditional strategic terms, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘viability’. The empirical evidence seems to suggest that states of just about any size can function well enough to afford their citizens decent lives.


someone 08.12.08 at 7:12 am

54: yes, and incidentally San Marino is one of the most viable, most independent, most stable, and most well-governed states in the world.


Dave 08.12.08 at 7:39 am

OK, let’s cut to the chase. Taking a moderately objective view of the actions of both the USA and Russia in recent years, is not the evident conclusion that the states of the EU [and anyone else who can afford it] should begin rearmament to at least Cold War levels immediately? Are we seeing a world in which only force will answer? In which international negotiation is merely a mask for calculations of force, losing even its feeble aspiration to become a replacement for them?

Have the Oligarchs and the Neocons now succeeded in creating a world where we might as well abolish the UN as a pointless charade, and start rebuilding competing alliance-blocs with the prospect of real conflict?


bad Jim 08.12.08 at 8:17 am

The Russians are marching through Georgia in support of South Ossetia’s right to self-determination, the sort of thing they never espouse for Chechnya or Ingushetia, and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.

Juan Cole has strongly suggested that Afghanistan is alike something we cannot set straight no matter how many troops we throw at it.

Isn’t it sometimes the case that the wisest course is to throw up one’s hands and walk away, muttering imprecations if one must?


lurker 08.12.08 at 8:39 am

The major ethnic cleansing of Abkhazians was done by the Russian Imperial government in the years after 1864 and involved the expulsion of the majority of the Abkhaz. (Source: Justin McCarthy’s ‘Death and Exile, the Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims 1821-1923’.) So Russia as a friend of the Abkhaz is a bit unconvincing.


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 8:41 am

Dave, the UN was ALWAYS a pointless charade–excepting in the immediate days after WWII when it was OUR pointless charade when we had almost the entire South American vote in our back pocket and the Colonial holdings in Africa had yet to be broken up, allowing an expansion of third-world nations whose votes were as unreliable as they were irrational. Even the successful American intervention in Korea would have never happened except for the fact thet the SU just happened to be boycotting the UN Security Council that week (over what I don’t remember) else they would have vetoed any official UN support for our actions there. And in those days, it was Nationalist China, not the PRC, which sat on the Council. Remember also that our intervention in Kosovo (which everyone and his sister were hailing as a great and good deed, but are having second thoughts about now) was accomplished via by-passing the UN and making it an exclusively NATO authorized venture.

And no, the EU will not re-arm, as they want to free-ride in the same way the Canuks have always done in terms of North American air and ICBM defense. (this is not to pass judgment on whether such sentiments are necessairly prudent or wise….)


Dave 08.12.08 at 8:49 am

Frankly, Virg, I was thinking we [that’s us Europeans] might start having reasons to rearm AGAINST the USA, if the November election goes the crazy way…

p.s. if you think we’re free-riders, maybe you could tip off the UK govt not to bother buying a new generation of SLBM subs. We could use the money for something stupid, like healthcare, instead.


Mrs Tilton 08.12.08 at 9:50 am

Christian H. @37,

Can you give any evidence at all for your claims – for example, by which “most measures” are Georgia or Ukraine less corrupt now?

Can’t say much about Georgia. But Ukraine is less corrupt now than it was in the past. Ukraine has an oligarch problem like Russia’s, if on a smaller scale. In its earlier days of independence, the state gave the shop away in a series of sweetheart deals. But these days, the state can and will unwind such transactions. Consider Kryvorizhstal, privatised in 2004, during Kuchma’s presidency, for 4Bn hryvnia. The next year, after the Orange Revolution and under Yushchenko, the courts nullifed the deal and returned the purchase price to the buyers; Kryvorizhstal was then re-privatised in a far more transparent process for 24Bn.

But then I suppose it’s always possible that the first privatisation wasn’t corrupt, that the original price was fair, and that the purchasers were simply brilliant managers who achieved a sixfold increase in value during their brief tenure as owners.


Chris E 08.12.08 at 10:25 am

Consider Kryvorizhstal, privatised in 2004, during Kuchma’s presidency, for 4Bn hryvnia. The next year, after the Orange Revolution and under Yushchenko, the courts nullifed the deal and returned the purchase price to the buyers; Kryvorizhstal was then re-privatised in a far more transparent process for 24Bn.

This is only a good example to the extent that it represents a principle that was fairly and equitably applied throughout the state. As the pro ruling party oligarchs go on as before, the indications are that it isn’t, and that corruption retains the form of capture of the regulatory mechanisms of the state by one lot of thugs.


Dave 08.12.08 at 10:33 am

@62: without being prejudiced against your point, surely you must acknowledge that your post closes with three lines of unsupported assertion, in contrast to the specific evidence-based point you are seeking to rebut?


stuart 08.12.08 at 10:51 am

I see that Bush has suggested that forcible regime change in Georgia would be something that is “unacceptable in the 21st Century”.


Dave 08.12.08 at 10:59 am

Yeah, ‘cos they’re WHITE people…


Mrs Tilton 08.12.08 at 11:27 am

Chris E @62,

it’s not just Kryvorizhstal. The privatisations of around 250 assets have been unwound since the Orange Revoluation, and nearly 150 of those have since been successfully reprivatised. It looks to me as though the Ukrainians have gone some way towards making this a principle fairly and equitably applied throughout the state.

Outside of elite circles, Ukrainians are deeply ambivalent about the prospect of Nato membership (though perhaps the events of recent days will have changed that a bit). By contrast, a very broad swathe of Ukrainian society keenly hopes for eventual EU membership, and they’re aware of the areas where Ukraine needs to show progress if that is to happen.


Z 08.12.08 at 12:22 pm

t seems to me the will of the local populations should be the determining factor here.
John:That’s a dangerous position to take. The Kurds, for example, would very much like to secede from Iraq (with their oil)
Me again: I think one should strive for a consistent position, so yes, as far as I know, Kurds would like to secede from Iraq and perhaps Turkey, and so yes, I support their cause (at least in the abstract and even though I know geopolitical factors make it very highly unlikely to succeed). Don’t you? If so, why not?

Chris:Kosovo is a much larger entity with a more homogenous population.

Might be true, but as Novakant wrote, liberal democrats should presumably give much more weight to self-identification than to ethnic homogeneity. Based on the little I know about South Ossetia, people there are extremely poor and their main way out of dismal poverty is to emigrate to Russia. Thus, it seems plausible to me that Ossetians would rather be part of Russia than part of Georgia. Likewise, it seemed plausible to me that Kosovans would rather not be part of Serbia than be part of Serbia. That surely should count for something in these debates.

Of course, that doesn’t make bombing Belgrade/Tbilissi in order to show NATO is still all the rage/who is the boss in Caucasus any less abhorrent and that doesn’t make any superpower muscling around smaller countries any more trustworthy.


Dave 08.12.08 at 12:38 pm

Trouble with the “will of the population” is that it tends to mean, whether you like it or not, “the will of the local majority”. As the UK found out in Ulster, it can be an awful lot of trouble stopping that being a very unpleasant experience when there’s more than one ethno-cultural group involved. Oh, for a little more rootless cosmopolitanism in the world…


Chris E 08.12.08 at 12:49 pm

@63 – I fail to see the evidence based point. we have the fact that the state seized an asset (as it happens from someone connected to the opposition) and resold it, followed by the assertion that this somehow proves a reduction in corruption. Transfer of ownership – especially when the state benefits – is no indication that the rule of law is being followed.

If you want facts, how about the fact that Ukraine has barely budged from it’s position in the lower third of the annual CPI survey over the last few years. The oligarchs are largely still in place, many of them have seats in the Ukrainian parliament and they now use litigation as cover.


franck 08.12.08 at 1:25 pm

Using the recent referendum as an expression of the popular will in South Ossetia is problematic, since most if not all the Georgians in South Ossetia boycotted it, and unlike the Serbs in Kosovo, they actually make up a substantial minority in the area.


Mrs Tilton 08.12.08 at 1:47 pm

Chris E. @69,

I think you are missing the point.

In the past, Ukrainian state assets were privatised at prices far below anything like realistic value. There are a number of possible reasons why Civil Servant X might have approved the sale of an asset to Oligarch Y at a sweetheart price; I hope I’m not being too reckless in supposing that corruption might have been one of them.

Since the Orange Revolution, the state has been aggressive in clawing back assets sold below value in non-competitve, non-transparent processes. And when it can, it resells the assets in an open process that, not surprisingly, generates vastly more revenue than did the original sale. The new buyers might be oligarchs themselves, but if they want the asset, they have to pay something reasonably close to a market price, not five bucks plus a brown envelope to somebody at the ministry.

I am all too aware that there remains a good deal of corruption in Ukraine, and (Ukrainians being human beings) doubtless there will always be some. But there is manifestly less corruption in the process of privatising state assets after the Orange Revolution than there was before it. Christian H. asked upthread for “any evidence at all” that post-O.R. Ukraine is any less corrupt than it was pre-O.R. There, now he has some.


politicalfootball 08.12.08 at 2:36 pm

There’s an unsatisfying element to all of these conversations, in that they all tend to wave away the central issue: What policies ought the U.S. pursue in this situation? If I’m understanding Henry correctly, he’s attempting to construct a theoretical framework for dealing with these sorts of problems, but then he dismisses the central issue:

I don’t have specific policy recommendations for how the US and Europe should respond to the Georgia-Russia war – I am neither an area expert nor a guns’n’bombs specialist.

As best as I can reckon, there isn’t much of a role for the U.S. and the West here to do anything, except at the margins. I think any conversation that centers on the appropriate U.S. course has to begin with this acknowledgment, and work from there.


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 3:52 pm

Dave@60: Did I say that you British were Europeans? Most “Europeans”
would hardly give THAT proposition a resound “aye” vote. Having lived in England for a period I’m too familiar with the mis en scene to let you run that one past me uncontested.


Mrs Tilton 08.12.08 at 4:09 pm

Virgil @72,

I defer to your superior knowledge, of course, seeing as how you’ve lived in England for a period. Still, IIANVMM, the UK is a member state of the EU and so might, by a stretch admittedly, be called European.

By the way, what is a “mis en scene”?


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 4:31 pm

PS to Dave@60: Unless you are trying to tell me that the Chunnel has changed everything about the English since the dawn of recorded history.


Chris E 08.12.08 at 4:36 pm

@69 – I don’t think I am. Countries with deeply embedded and long lived cultures of corruption don’t tend to change overnight.

Generally, when it looks like they are doing it’s usually (but not always) down to gaming whatever metric is being used to measure corruption – the way in which Southern Italy adjusted to the arrival of EU funds is a good example of this. Multiple sources of verification are needed to ensure that this isn’t so.

In the case of Ukraine you have lots of re-privatisations – the targets of which seem somewhat skewed in political terms, lots of money disappearing into government coffers and not showing up anywhere else. Dodgy energy deals, and uncertainty as to how various members of the government and their relatives suddenly got rich. The CPI survey is a good marker that overall the rule of law does not garner significantly greater amounts of respect than it did previously.


Mikidutza 08.12.08 at 4:56 pm

I see there are two kinds of people who support or at least seek to find a justification for the Russian attack. First are probably Russians. When not writing in all caps and shouting about “the Georgian genocide” or about “Georgian Nazis” the usual arguments are :
– the Georgians attacked first. Yes, after they were continually provoked;
– the Georgian attack killed around 1500 people. That is a lot of people in such a short period. People are more difficult to kill then you think. Only South Ossetian sources confirmed this figure and they’re interested in over estimating the number;
– Russia is a proud country which has every right to protect its citizens. Indeed, but the South Ossetians are Russian citizens only because they were given passports so as to give Russia an excuse to intervene in Georgia,
– What about Kosovo? Well what about Chechnya?
– The world press is lying. Unlike the very free Russian press.
– Georgia is a corrupt so called democracy. When compared to Finland yes you can say Georgia is not a democracy but compared to the latter day roman empire that is Russia today where every president is “adopted” by the former president…
– Georgia is a puppet state controlled by the US. How can a state in the near abroad be controlled by the Americans. In the near abroad only Russian puppet state are ok.

This stance is in some ways justifiable. After all is there country involved. Most (a lot?) Russians still feel that Russia has a right somehow to bee a great power and see most of the former soviet or communist countries as ungrateful up starts. After decades of communist propaganda and centuries as the rulers of a great empire this is understandable. Countless tomes have been written about the special character of the Russian soul which of course the western consumerist press doesn’t understand. They feel that they were unjustly attacked and harassed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Every time a country in there former sphere of influence chooses closer ties to the west it is clear for them a manipulation by the US. This kind of outlook is encouraged by the press.

The second group of people defending Russian actions is scarier for me. They are mostly Europeans an Americans. For them only the US is responsible for all that it’s evil in the world. On every occasion they get they will somehow find a way to mention Iraq, Guantanamo, etc. Yes the involvement of the US in the world wasn’t always for the greater good and mistakes have been made (Iraq, Guantanamo and Kosovo). They will compare the domination of a country by the US with that by Russia. It’s inconceivable for them that a country would choose to be close to the greedy imperialistic US. The government of a country can be bought and convinced to buy weapons (like it happened in there view in Georgia). Besides, the US only intervenes when there is oil to be found. But if it doesn’t intervene is because it’s a hypocrite (for example if it takes military action in Sudan it’s for the oil if not it’s because it doesn’t care for the black people dying in Darfur). And what is the US doing in Russia’s backyard? Well if Russia is allowed to have a backyard then how can you defend Cuba? Isn’t the US allowed a backyard? This group sees any democracy in the area as being just a front for American interests. But, you know, maybe the Georgians really want democracy, albeit a corrupt one for now? The more extreme seem to think that there country (if they are from the UK or the US) is no longer a democracy, but they’re really don’t know what they are talking about. I said this group is scarier for me because I’m from Romania and after there way of thinking Romania should have stayed in the Russian zone. Well I must say that living under the “American “ occupation is a hell lot better than being in the Russian one and I’m glad that the EU and the US have encroached in the Russian sphere of influence. Without the constant pressure from the EU Romania would have become a larger Belarus. Even in a cynical perspective it’s better for a small country to be dominated by the farther away power then the one that is really close.
I don’t know what would be the “right” answer for this situation, because probably there isn’t one.
But I’m sure NATO should have had more cojones in this case because it’s sets a bad example.


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 5:13 pm

Dear Mrs Tilton: Your phrase “might, by a stretch admittedly” says it all……and confirms the viracity of my depiction of the English. And, as someone with almost 100% English and Scots-Irish blood in me, I do not mean my comments in a mean-spirited or disparaging way. It’s just that the English are….well….persnickety about their non-European-ness.


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 5:28 pm

Chris E: As someone who lives in New Orleans I can heartily second that “deeply embedded and long lived cultures of corruption” thing.


RCMoya 08.12.08 at 5:38 pm

virgin xenophon:

Equating anti-EU sentiment for the matter-of-fact truth of the matter is rather disingenuous. Britons are Europeans. That’s a matter of geography and history, and yes, cultural contacts.

One need only plunge into the muddied waters of polls to see the subtle nature of British ‘anti-Europeanism’. There is a strong sense of anti-EU feeling that has built up in the last few years, and that is as much an indication of anti-government feeling as it is anything else.

And yet, for that feeling, Britons have consistently polled in favour of moving away from an over-strong US-UK relationship, and polled favourably in the majority to align more closely (foreign policy-wise) with other European states. Do they want a European superstate? No, admittedly, and I say that as a pro-European/EU myself.

Don’t be fooled by the myth of a rapidly anti-Europe British population. That anti-Euro ‘mise-en-scène’ is, ironically, just that: smoke and mirrors, peddled by the press–mostly Murdoch-owned publications–to the detriment of the truth.

Mrs. Tilton – en français, ise-en-scène means (lit.) to put on screen. It refers, rather broadly, to that which has been placed as a composition before the stage or screen. It’s a theatre convention, and you can read about it elsewhere.


Dave 08.12.08 at 5:39 pm

Since all three major UK political parties are fully committed to membership of the EU, NATO and OSCE, and since the UK has committed troops to a role on the continent continuously since, hmm, let’s say 1943, I’m not sure what to make of your comments, based, perhaps, on a passing acquaintance with some guys in bars? Everybody bitches about the neighbours, but I’m sure whatever it is Yankees are saying these days about NASCAR-watching hillbilly rubes, they’re still all Americans.


RCMoya 08.12.08 at 5:52 pm

Precisely right, Dave.

You Brits are the complaining type. (Take this as tough love: I’m an American who lives here and loves it.) Nothing is ever right in Britain, nor with your neighbours: the Tube is always late, Heathrow Terminal Five is the shame of the world, the Olympics are a gigantic fiasco, the Germans are such bastards for beating us at football…blah blah blah.


Dave 08.12.08 at 6:57 pm

Indeed, and yet we still manage to have the world’s fifth largest economy, universal free healthcare, lower taxation than the Scandinavians, significant Olympic medal prospects, and a long and glorious history of triumph and sacrifice to fall back on [or failing that, some really cracking war films].


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 8:01 pm


If the British public are such hell-bent Europeanists, then why did George Brown renig on his promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon “Treaty?” I think we all know the answer to that one. As for the commitment of troops on the continent (the BOAR-British Army of the Rhine) as a part of NATO, well, it wasn’t/isn’t done for the love of all things European. As one British diplomat once said in explaining the purpose of NATO to a journalist: “It’s very simple, really. It’s to keep the Russians out, the Americans in–and the Germans down.”


virgil xenophon 08.12.08 at 8:04 pm

Sorry-meant “BAOR.”


Consumatopia 08.12.08 at 9:24 pm

But this also implies that Steve’s suggestion – that Western powers should have traded off Kosovan independence for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – would have been an even worse option. It would have been tantamount to an effective recognition of spheres of influence, and a recarving up of Europe into bits where the West dominated, and bits where Russia had its say.

Actually, wouldn’t such a recognition be an exception that proves the rule? If Russia needs such recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that suggests the existence of a norm in which such exceptions are necessary for Russia to act.

Now that they have acted with impunity in the absence of such exceptions, they’ve established a new norm–one that allows them to go on military adventures in Georgia and any other country the West happens to be too preoccupied to defend.


Mrs Tilton 08.12.08 at 9:32 pm

Chris E. @76,

In the case of Ukraine you have lots of re-privatisations … lots of money disappearing into government coffers and not showing up anywhere else.

With respect, Chris, you are missing the point. In the case of a privatisation, “government coffers” is precisely where the money is supposed to “disappear into”. That’s, eh, the entire purpose of privatisation. If any of the revenue is disappearing into anywhere else, that’s corruption.

In the specific case of Ukraine, there is a State Privatisation Board whose job it is to generate revenue for the state budget by selling state-owned assets. And generating revenue is the purpose of these privatisations — they serve no sinister purpose, the whole point is to close or at least lessen the gap between what the state can pull in as tax receipts and what it must borrow in the form of proceeds from bond sales. If a civil servant on that Board authorises an asset sale at sub-market (most likely because she had been bribed), that’s corruption, and theft from the state of property whose sale is supposed to benefit the people as a whole. The post-O.R. governments have, repeatedly, gone to court to unwind patently corrupt privatisations with the goal of redoing them and generating the maximum revenue for the state. I’d be pleased to be corrected, but I don’t think any pre-O-R. government did this.


Mrs Tilton 08.12.08 at 9:36 pm

RCMoya @80,

en français, ise[sic]-en-scène … refers, rather broadly, to that which has been placed as a composition before the stage or screen.

Thanks, RC, but I know what “mise-en-scène” means. Virgil, however, wrote “mis en scene”, which is apparently something different, but doubtless very clever.


engels 08.12.08 at 11:09 pm

The more extreme seem to think that there country (if they are from the UK or the US) is no longer a democracy, but they’re really don’t know what they are talking about. I said this group is scarier for me because I’m from Romania

Eh? So people who live in Britain or the US who consider that Britain or the US are not really democracies ‘don’t know what they are talking about’ but you, a Romanian, do. How is that supposed to work?


Consumatopia 08.12.08 at 11:59 pm

Nor do I agree with Steve’s suggestion that Russia was driven to this because nationalist sentiments had been aggravated by overly aggressive Western actions.

Perhaps a deal could have been struck, in which the West abandoned NATO expansion, missile defense, and other escalations, in exchange for Russian non-interference in the region? Maybe those overly aggressive Western actions didn’t actually cause Russia to lust for an expanded sphere of influence, but they certainly precluded any possibility of curbing this desire.


RCMoya 08.13.08 at 12:48 am

@ Dave 83: Exactly right! But that was my point on the whinge-culture the media portray…so many complaints over relatively little. Pity the tabloids get to spin so much rubbish, to such large audiences.

@ virgil… 84: The British public weren’t particularly a-typical in their mistrust of the Lisbon Treaty. Ireland wasn’t all that enthusiastic, and neither were France or the Netherlands (for who knows how many god-awful reasons.) Oh, and as for your comments on the BAOR: what’s your point? The fact that the British government staked their security on the stability of the continent actually speaks volumes for the importance of Britain-in-Europe. The point remains: Europe is a fact, and Britain has been a part of that fact throughout its entire history. That the Victorian imperialists so pushed ‘British exceptionalism’ is neither here nor there to the fact that the UK, even at its zenith, could not (and can not) ignore its place in Europe.

@ Mrs. Tilton 88: Hah! Sorry, I didn’t quite catch the sarcasm. Though I should’ve, when virgil bites more than he can chew with his history. And how did I forget that bloody ‘M’ in mise?!


virgil xenophon 08.13.08 at 4:45 am

Where to begin. Firstly, this childish “gotcha” over typos is rather silly.
None of these hastily typed missives posted here by one and all are PhD Dissertations, and snarky comments reflect rather poorly on the commenter–especially when used to deflect from the essence of the point under discussion. I WAS going to let slide the fact that the great defender/admirer of Mrs Tilton, RCMoya, not only mis-typed the same word as I, omitting the “m” while I had omitted the “e”, he also apparently believes I am still a “virgin” as we see from post#80 Where is your sarcasm for RCMoya, Mrs Tilton? Did he not misspell the same word as I? I also would have been only too glad to define the term for you myself, Mrs. Tilton, if I had thought you were actually sincere–hard to believe that anyone who wades in here doesn’t know the phrase–not exactly the most exotic sort of literary expression, is it?

Well, yes, RCMoya, the British army may be “in” Europe, but a lot of geographers would dispute whether of not the isle itself should be
considered a part “of” Europe, any more than Cuba should be considered a part of the North American continent–geographically or culturally. And of course sociologists and cultural anthropologists (and cultural geographers as well) have a field day every time the question of the location of the epicenter of the British psyche is located. In, or apart from Europe? In Europe, but not of it? I wonder how many monographs, books, journal articles, theses, dissertations, lectures, and just plain newspaper articles have been written on the subject? I would ask Dave, Mrs Tilton and RCMoya why they doth protest so overmuch by erecting straw-men to prove me wrong. I never once claimed that the UK “ignores” or fails (or has always failed) to “interact” with Europe, only that it is not “of” Europe. But of course RCMoya gives the game away by admitting that he’s a Europhile, so, Mr. Moya, why don’t you just close up shop and head to Brussels? With the mentality you’ve demonstrated here, you seem to have the makings of a top-notch Eurocrat. And by-the-by, England staked it’s security on America, not “Europe”–on an America that was the only nation extant which alone could assure stability on the post-war continent. THAT’S what NATO was all about. You don’t seriously think England was going to stake its very existence on a continent many of whose inhabitants tried twice in twenty some years to do her in do you? Or on the others that had collaborated or remained neutral. Ever hear of a guy named Quisling? Or are you more delusionally blinded by your love of all things “Eurocentric” than I give you credit for?


Chris E 08.13.08 at 6:48 am

With respect, Chris, you are missing the point. In the case of a privatisation, “government coffers” is precisely where the money is supposed to “disappear into”. That’s, eh, the entire purpose of privatisation.

Not at all. Perhaps I should have been more clear. Money comes into the government and then disappears, spending figures are circulated which are notoriously opaque and various members of the government suddenly become rich. I don’t think things have changed – corruption has just moved downstream a little.


Dave 08.13.08 at 7:55 am

Virgil, why the aggression? Great Britain, the British Isles, are part of Europe. The United Kingdom is a committed member of the European polity. These things are indisputable facts. That wars were fought between the powers of Europe in the past is equally indisputable, as is the fact that those powers, west of a certain line anyway, are committed to never doing that again. Unless you have imbibed the spirit of the Daily Mail, in which ‘Europe’ is shorthand for some project akin to communism, I really don’t see what you’re on about.


novakant 08.13.08 at 8:09 am

Thanks, RC, but I know what “mise-en-scène” means.

Nobody knows what mise-en-scène means!


Mikidutza 08.13.08 at 8:41 am

engels: Eh? So people who live in Britain or the US who consider that Britain or the US are not really democracies ‘don’t know what they are talking about’ but you, a Romanian, do. How is that supposed to work?
Yes, they know only half of the story, they know what it’s like to live in a democracy but they don’t know what it means to live in non- democratic country. I have lived in a non democratic country and in a more or less democratic country so I can tell the differences much better. Some liberties are indeed being curtailed in Britain and the US but for me it seems that the biggest treat is the expansion of the nanny state not some neo-con conspiracy. You can’t compare living in North Korea (or even less extreme cases like Azerbaijan or Russia) with living in the West. People in the US or other countries have every right to complain but claiming to not be living in a democracy it’s a different thing. If that was the case we wouldn’t be hearing nothing about them in the first place because I don’t know any self respecting authoritarian regime who likes criticism. The original point was that, yeah maybe Georgians are naïve and they are fooled by media into thinking that life is great in the West and they are wrong to choose the US as a model but it is there right to make mistakes.


virgil xenophon 08.13.08 at 10:10 am


To be sure, propinquity alone means that GB will perforce always be “in touch”‘/”enmeshed”–whatever term one wants–with the European polity. But the question is still out on full integration. I really have my doubts whether GB will EVER be there psychically, and while the bureaucratic/financial/economic tendrils emanating from Brussels seemingly grow thicker with each passing day, I have my doubts whether the “spill-forward” thrust of the “inevitable” economic integration that was the dream of that old French socialist Gene Monet will actually come to his idealized fruition for any number of reasons.

Firstly, the wide variance of culture, language, and history among the members of the EU means that the citizens of each nation hardly share the same historical/cultural themes, i.e., they don’t share the same “pictures in their head.” If the Flemish and Walloons , having fought over the barricades with pitchforks in the 50’s over which language to be taught in the schools (I can still remember the newsreels) still are on the verge of breaking up Belgium, I don’t hold out much hope for the ultimate cohesion of all states. Next, the wide disparity in the economic foundations of various members means that
the Euro is ultimately not long for this world as member states find it to their advantage to be no longer chained to it (And trends have yet to persuade me otherwise–especially as Europe slides into recession).
Further, as the latest imbroligo over immigration with Denmark shows, sooner or later nations who feel that their vital interests are at odds with the socialist ukases issued by faceless and virtually unaccountable EU bureaucrats will come to the conclusion that the EU is more trouble than it is worth–the greater glories of harmonization of standards for frozen chicken parts notwithstanding.


Mrs Tilton 08.13.08 at 10:16 am

Dave @94,

Virgil, why the aggression?

The thing is, Dave, Virgil doesn’t seem to be very bright. There’s no sin in dimness, of course, but dimness combined with rote memorisation of 40 year old right-wing talking points does tend to faciliate posts that are as aggressive as they are tedious. I for one shall not be surprised should I ever stumble upon a comment by Victor telling us that the United States is a republic, not a democracy.


Mrs Tilton 08.13.08 at 10:33 am

Mikidutza @96,

People in the US or other countries have every right to complain but claiming to not be living in a democracy it’s a different thing

I don’t think that’s what people in America would complain about. Except insofar as the Republicans succeed in nullifying elections or disenfranchising voters, the USA is unquestionably a democracy. The complaint would be, rather, that the actions of certain state elements were beyond the bounds the constitution and statute law imposed on those elements. Not a breakdown in democracy, then, but a breakdown in the rule of law.

That’s a different complaint altogether, and one having nothing to do with democracy or its absence. There were certain times in the couple of years immediate following 9/11 when a referendum in the US on (say) summary execution of Muslims might have won a popular vote. If so, such acts would have enjoyed democratic legitimacy.

And they’d still have been unconstitutional. It is irrelevant to one’s objection to many of the acts of the current American adminstration, and one’s desire to see the people ordering them tried and punished (or at the very least excluded from power), that crowds of mouthbreathing yahoos have hooted and hollered their approval of those acts.


engels 08.13.08 at 11:33 am

The UK is a democracy? Hmm

In the UK, an opinion poll in the Times newspaper this week found that 51% of those questioned saw Tony Blair as a US poodle – although 47% trusted him to do the right thing. An overwhelming 86% wanted more time for weapons inspections, and only 25% thought enough evidence had been found to justify a war. BBC News 11/2/03

Which, if any, of the following statements comes closest to your own view about the war in Iraq?

I supported the war and I support it now 11%

I supported the war but do not support it now 22%

I did not support the war but I support it now 3%

I did not support the war and I do not support it now 61%

Source: Ipsos-MORI Poll May 11 to May 13, 2007


engels 08.13.08 at 11:53 am

(None of which is to ‘compare’ the UK’s form of oligarchy with Russia’s or Romania’s, or to claim that they are equally oppressive.)


engels 08.13.08 at 12:30 pm

Support for War (Pew Research Center 18/3/2003)

Favor Oppose Don’t know (%)
US 59 30 11
Join the war?
UK 39 51 10
Italy 17 81 2
Spain 13 81 7


RCMoya 08.13.08 at 1:31 pm

@ 93, virgil – Dave put it succinctly enough. I would caution you, Virgil, not to read too much into ‘British exceptionalism’, as it is itself no different from French exceptionalism or Spanish exceptionalism, nor obviously even German power at the height of their power. Spain and France identify strongly with their former colonies–through ‘la Francophonie’ for France, and through the notion of ‘iberoamérica’ for Spain. All three, coincidentally, still manage to operate within the European Union, the Council of Europe, NATO, the OSCE, et al. But perhaps you’ve already proved the point on your own, in mentioning the plenty of examples of cultural differences from other European nations that seem to give pause to Euro-enthusiasts. (How, pray tell, is Britain therefore any different?)

The irony, of course, is pretty obvious: British exceptionalism has been neither all that exceptional, nor even all that British. (It was Charles I/V of Spain/Hapsburg who first defined his empire as one in which the sun ‘never sets’.) And one last thing…Britain was even physically a part of the continent up until the last ice age, after which rising seas made Britain, well, an island. I wouldn’t be too relieved at those rising seas, as they’ll spell trouble for Britons in the coming decades…

@ 96, novakant – LOL agreed. Perhaps a more appropriate definition: ‘mise-en-scène: whatever the hell one’s drama/film professor wants it to be.’ :-)


RCMoya 08.13.08 at 1:33 pm

…oops, I meant ‘German exceptionalism’ above. Again, why can’t we edit our previous comments?


virgil xenophon 08.13.08 at 5:09 pm

LOL Moya. I said to myself, the way this thread is going pretty soon they will haul up the continental connection due to last ice age–and voila!
Can’t argue with geology, can I? And yes, no one would ever confuse the Irish with the English, and so on. But still, there still remains the physical separation issue (admittedly somewhat modified by the Chunnel) that seems to have played on the British psyche in ways common to all insular peoples. The knock on America is our “insular.”
inward-looking preoccupation with ourselves and general ignorance of the world at large, is it not? I will never forget watching one of those end-of-the-year journalist round-tables on BBC years back with several journalists from the continent–German, French, etc. The classic example they threw out in support of their complaint about British insularity were all the headlines in the English newspapers
sports pages about the French Grand Prix. “Phil Hill comes in third”, the headlines blare–no mention at all as to who won, or even who finished second.

So while yes, GB is not totally unique in their “exceptionalism,” I still maintain that geography alone allows them to wollow in it more than most. (and thanks for not disappointing in bringing up the land-bridge historical reference)


Righteous Bubba 08.13.08 at 5:26 pm

The classic example they threw out in support of their complaint about British insularity were all the headlines in the English newspapers
sports pages about the French Grand Prix. “Phil Hill comes in third”, the headlines blare—no mention at all as to who won, or even who finished second.

Obviously I don’t have the context but this must have been around 40 years ago and Phil Hill is American.

Those interested in a weirder angle on Phil Hill might want to check out David Cronenberg’s uniquely packaged script:



Righteous Bubba 08.13.08 at 5:45 pm

It seems to me that I misread Virgil’s intention but that he may also have intended to write “American newspapers” where “English newspapers” exists. Either way my apologies for adding to the confusion.


RCMoya 08.13.08 at 6:33 pm

So while yes, GB is not totally unique in their “exceptionalism,” I still maintain that geography alone allows them to wollow in it more than most. (and thanks for not disappointing in bringing up the land-bridge historical reference)

Ah foresight: when unspoken, far from ascribed; when spoken, often wrong. :-)

Take comfort in the geology reference all you like, mate, but the point stands. And, while you’re at it, don’t forget the many other points one can make to back up that statement: whether it be British history, its founding myths, its cultural evolution, its normative evolution, etc. Paint the canvas any way you like–you begin to see Britain as just another European state with its own sociocultural quirks. The ‘insularity’ argument doesn’t wash. The same, again, can be said of the French–from their literature, their news output, their (supposed) yearning for ‘la France profonde.’ Or any other people, European or otherwise. People care about what happens to them. I’ve seen BBC reporters going on about Team GB athletes during these Olympics for a week now; and yet I switch on over to France24 and get the same parochial view point. (The same goes for other ‘national champion’ news agencies across Europe, like Deutsche-Welle.)

If you pull back just a bit–I know, terribly hard–you’d see just how parochial YOUR arguments are. Those fortunate enough to compare across borders find that tabloid-fronted argument for ‘exception’ and ‘insularity’ ludicrous.


virgil xenophon 08.13.08 at 8:17 pm

You are right about one thing, Moya, no one ever accused the French as being derivative, that’s for sure. Again, I full well realize that parochial and chauvinistic tendencies abide in most nations. You’re right, every state has it’s own sociocultural quirks–that’s intuitively obvious. But it’s still pretty hard to ignore the fact that in many key aspects which shape the life of a nation and it’s people, geography is destiny. Else why should so much be made of the great fortune of the US to have historically been “protected” by two great oceans? I sense your arguments stem more from your dislike of American foreign policy under Bush and a desire to see the British detached from it by claiming the end of the “special relationship” and Britain’s oneness
with Europe. Funny, the other European’s don’t always see it that way.
Wasn’t it Petain who famously said that he was certain of the steadfastness of England as the English would fight the Germans until the last drop of French blood? England did not achieve the mantle of “Perfidious Albion” because it was historically a fully integrated team player in the European community–no matter how
inbred the ruling classes of the variously nations were. I remain unrepentant in my advocacy of the view that England is neither especially European in its sensibilities nor especially non-European–but especially neither.


virgil xenophon 08.13.08 at 8:21 pm

PS: I meant to say Stirling Moss, not Phil Hill. And yes, it was some 40 years ago–I’m 64.


RCMoya 08.14.08 at 12:42 am

‘…dislike of American foreign policy under Bush…British detached…’

You’re only partially right there, Virgil. I’m an American, born and raised, and repellent as my country’s actions have been in the last 7 years I do quite strongly believe America can be a force for good in the world. It needs to re-learn the importance of the Rule of Law, in my book, but I digress…

Let me be frank: I’ve never held starry-eyed views of the ‘special relationship’, as it does nothing to put UK-US relations in a historical context. America was no friend of Britain’s (the object of its jealousy) and Britain was no friends of America’s (the object of its derision) up until the turn of the last century. You can read about that elsewhere. The current relationship is one the British smartly chose to develop, and culturally learned to accept, asymmetrical though it was for them, because they believed they had no choice when faced with the prospect of German recidivism and Soviet aggression. (The great Tory Party shift from natural anti-Americanism to full-blooded support is precisely what I’m talking about by ‘cultural’ learning.) Insofar as those threats have been reduced to a minimum since 1991 it is no longer apparent to me why the UK should continue its consistent fealty to Washington, and not pursue its more appropriate long-term relationship with its continental neighbours. (The Lebanon-Israel war of 2006 put that into stark relief, where the vast majority of Britain’s people, the ruling party, and the opposition isolated Tony Blair and his pro-US/Israeli position.) The degree to which Mr. Blair aligned himself to President Bush still managed to shock people in this country, as multiple polls demonstrated. One, in fact, showed 65% of the UK population agreeing with the statement, ‘Britain ‘s future lies more with Europe than with America.’ (Which was more, incidentally, than thought the US ‘special relationship’ was important to UK security—58%.)

Now, on the wider question: what exactly do you mean by ‘European’ sensibilities or even a ‘European’ identity? You seem to suggest that Britain isn’t meeting certain criteria by which to screen its interests, its culture and its people as ‘European’…but pray tell, what are those criteria? What standard makes one ‘European’? That Britain is historically, culturally, geographically and even institutionally linked to Europe seems beyond reproach to me…but does that mean there is a ‘single’ European-ness to begin with? Yours is a category error: you argue that Britain is not ‘European’ without defining what that empty signifier means; my argument is, if I may say so myself, more humble and realistic.

Also, geography doesn’t differentiate or subsume cultures in quite the way you suggest–by that view what do you do when defining Germany, France, Finland and Romania? For some ridiculous reason I sense you’d hesitate to say either/or, either they’re obviously similar or they’re clearly not. What do I mean to say with that? Precisely that you put an inordinate amount of importance on the existence of the English Channel to separate Britain from its neighbours, whilst being unable to do the same (or not) with equal objectivity to the states I listed above. You’re placing way too much emphasis on this notion that Britain is separated by a slither of sea water–whilst studiously ignoring all else that has, does and will bind Europe, including–yes–the fact of that very narrow body of water. What could one say that would bind Finland to Spain, but not Britain to Germany…or, indeed, not all to each other? I’ll be damned if you think there’s a shared ‘sensibility’ that makes walking through Madrid and walking through Helsinki a similar experience!

Many Europeans I know don’t see Britain as ‘non-European’ (not that it would in itself mean anything), but rather a ‘deluded European’ nation with a chip on its shoulder, LOL. Deluded because it thinks it can make Washington think its way, and that it should at all costs, and carrying a chip that has everything to do with wanting to play with the big boys on the world stage with a smaller pool of resources than before. The UK’s answer was to bind itself to the US and hope the former can influence the latter. It’s a silly strategy, if you ask me, but hey…(Its love of all things American–excepting Americans–is in itself not all that special either; ever wondered why northern Europeans sound like they could be in ‘Friends’ and not ‘Coronation Street’?)

The crux, here, is how that ‘difference’ compares to the view Europeans have for other non-UK Europeans…for example, most Swedes I know (and London is awash with them, thankfully) don’t see Spaniards as ‘more’ European than Britons. Why? Because quantifying a European identity (a loose concept as I’ve already suggested) is nonsensical from the start. You’re committing precisely that error.

You’re narrowly defining ‘European-ness’ by an oddly rigid (though from what you’ve said non-extant) checklist, when ‘Europeans’ have never been narrowly classifiable, neat and consistent. Europe, for all its wealth and stability, is not that at all: and thank heavens for it! It is what gives this (sub)continent that extra frisson I appreciate–that rubbing up (often to the point of chaffing) of very different cultures, languages and dispositions, which more often than not are bound to the fate of their neighbours. That is the Europe I’m talking about, not some silly checklist of ‘European-ness’ by which you differentiate Britain.


jay bee 08.14.08 at 7:50 am

Just caught up with this thread and have only read the early comments.

P O’Neill at no. 4 referenced Ulster and gave me an inspiration – wouldn’t a Boundary Commission sort out all this business about territorial norms?

Henry suggests at no. 30 that South Ossetia is just too small a state to be viable. So gerrymander the border to make it just about viable, say they get 6 counties instead of just 4?


virgil xenophon 08.14.08 at 4:59 pm


You rightly say that there is no such thing as a single “European” identity which is quite factually true; Helsinki is indeed not Madrid. Believe me, I am not trying to force the quite disparate European mosaic of cultures into the same common cultural Procrustian bed out of ignorance of history or culture. Compliments of the USAF I spent some six years in the European “Theatre” at one time or another–from Norway to Turkey and Libya–and everywhere in between. Rather, for purposes of argument, I am suggesting that
there is a palpable “otherness” to the British psyche that is difficult to describe. It is like what one Supreme Court justice famously said of obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” And I don’t think I the only one who feels this way. The travel writer Paul Theroux
picked up on this vibe in his walking tour of GB in the book “Kingdom by the Sea.” (It was not well received, btw, probably because he really did paint the English as so “alien.” And the book was published at the height of his popularity!) So—–I’m not arguing that the English have
NO cultural or historical ties to the Continent, only that they they have that (And here ironically I’m using a “European” descriptive phrase) “je ne sais quois” qualitative difference so tough to pin down
in a precise academic way. Agree or not, that’s MY take–which is why I ended my last post with the “neither…. nor…..but especially neither”

I do find it amusing, however, to see you argue against a common “European” identity and yet cite a public opinion poll in support of part of your argument (“Britain’s future lies more with Europe than America”) which assumes just such a describable common identity
as a valid concept in use of the term “European.” Be that as it may, our differences are probable more a matter of degree than absolutes,
and I feel have more to do with current politics than history and cultural anthropology.


c.l. ball 08.14.08 at 6:42 pm

There is no inherent conflict between these norms, as formally stated. The problem is that territorially-concentrated minority groups cannot effectively invoke self-determination democratically if a vote for secession would include the would-be rump-state majority (the Serbian majority won’t consent to Kosovo’s secession). The only way a determined minority can secede successfully is if it has the support of another state. This is where territorial integrity norms get violated; the secessionist state is created only by the military aid of a neighboring state (e.g., East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh via Indian intervention).

I’m not sure that primarily internal secession — e.g., Eritrea from Ethiopia — violates the territorial integrity norm (a second state is not violating the first’s integrity; the first state has de-amalgamated).

The problem arises when the seceding state does not constitute itself as a state, but instead amalgamates with a 3rd state. Will Russia allow N. Ossetia to secede and join S. Ossetia as a unified Ossetia? Russia is seeking to annex S. Ossetia, not provide for Ossetian self-determination.

I’m skeptical of the “viable state” argument as well — but it is fair to question whether a secessionist state could maintain an economy if relations are shot between it and the rump-state. Given that Ossetia would presumably have good relations with Russia, I don’t think this would be a concern.


RCMoya 08.16.08 at 12:08 pm

Well, Virgil, this is my last contribution here, and it’s brief. Sorry, but this debate’s become stale. ;-)

* I think I’ve always described why, again, that ‘otherness’ is itself a product of a national narrative of specialness that simply doesn’t hold. It is easier for you to feel that ‘otherness’ because you yourself identify somewhat with the culture you’re describing, i.e. the British. To you, as an Anglophone, the Brits ‘make sense’; to you, however, other Europeans will naturally fall into the category of ‘the other’ precisely because yours is a limited experience. (That’s the beauty of being raised a polyglot with an admittedly diffuse view of his personal culture–it’s difficult not to empathise with ‘the other’.) Having lived elsewhere in Europe and having tried to get a feel for ‘the psyche’ (whatever that means) of other European nations, you get a sense that there is, again, a sense of isolation in every national story–even in the tiniest of European nations. Is it any wonder the Brits try to define themselves against the German or French experience? Hardly, due to history. But likewise, the French have done so with the Brits and the Germans, and the Poles with the Russians the Germans.

* I’d also like to point out that a lot of the examples you use are rather romantic, but not entirely all that helpful. Every nation wishes to explain its character as exceptional to the national character of others (and hence the hard nationalism so endemic in the last century–despite, again, the porous nation of ‘national character’ to begin with.) That myth holds, of course, so it becomes easier for one to be in Paris and say, ‘wow, this feels so different to London!’ Find yourself in Seville a week later, however, and my do inter-country comparisons seem foolish! (My point: no European country, culture, or even region is that similar to another; that is a most superficial observation.)

* The opinion poll was in relation to politics and foreign policy. It has nothing to do with thinking Britain will become more European–again, that is a foolish thing for anyone to say. It is thus more indicative of the reality of the British experience. But perhaps you’d only agree with me if I let Thomas Paine do the talking: ‘England and America…belong to different systems. England to Europe: America to itself.’ That is ‘Common Sense’ indeed.

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