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Is this the beginning of a major geopolitical conflict?

ASK THIS | August 18, 2008

Richard Falk warns that the Russian invasion of Georgia could be the first significant collision between the U.S.’s new global conception of security and the more traditional sphere-of-influence view. And he suggests it's time to consider the adverse consequences of antagonizing Russia.

By Dan Froomkin

After initial reports that made it sound like the Russian invasion of Georgia came out of nowhere, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, although a massive and brutal overreaction, it was only launched after an impulsive military move by the Georgian government. And after several years of American provocation in the region, as well.

But journalists may still be missing a key part of the story. Noted international law expert Richard Falk worries about the wider – and potentially dangerous -- geopolitical dimensions of the fight.

“What I believe is really at risk here is the collision between two conceptions of security operative in the world,” Falk said in an interview today. “The Russians are reasserting a sphere-of-influence view. The U.S. is continuing to pursue what might be called a global conception of security, where there are no acknowledged geographical limitations.”

Falk, who  is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the current U.S. approach the “globalization of the Monroe Doctrine” – a sort of “anything anywhere” approach to our own security interests, based in part on our notion that we are a “vehicle of democracy” and in part on the post-9/11 view that “it is a matter of national security to regard any threat posed anywhere on the planet as something that we are reasonably entitled to address.”

This view, Falk points out, not surprisingly “collides with the more traditional Russian conception.” And China doesn’t like it either. “I think this is the first skirmish that brings this issue into the open so vividly,” Falk says.

Bush’s expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and his push for a missile shield looks, from Moscow, like an effort to encircle Russia with an American-led military alliance. But the Russians are finally in a position to push back. “The changed Russian position is I think a very important element,” Falk says. “They have a leadership that is supported by the population. They have had sustained economic growth. They have vast energy reserves in a market that shows increased scarcity. And they’ve been pushed around; their security interests have been ignored.”

Falk’s fear is that Russia, “with a lot of resources now to play with, will be very tempted to enter into a kind of arms race with the U.S.  -- and that will certainly generate tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era.”

Journalists should be asking administration policymakers what thought they’ve given to the adverse consequences of antagonizing Russia, Falk says. And they should also be asked about their views of the wider implications – and possible consequences -- of this clash of worldviews.

At the very least, Falk says, prudence is called for. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili would appear to be “a kind of loose cannon,” Falk says. “And we embraced him in a way that may have encouraged him to be an even looser cannon.”

Falk says there’s no evidence Bush has been at all sensitive to the issue of what an antagonized Russia might do. “I think he sort of thought if he served barbeque to Putin in Crawford, that everything else would be forgiven.”

Falk also warns that the media’s tendency to create a simple narrative, where there is a clear good guy and a clear bad guy, needs to be kept in check on this story. The Caucasus – like the Middle East – is one of those regions in the world where nothing is ever simple. There are “a very tricky set of self-determination issues there," Falk says. “Diverse interpretations are quite reasonable depending on how the facts are understood.”

Posted by gregorylent
08/24/2008, 04:43 PM

the underlying assumption, that the u.s. has power, is ridiculous. they can disrupt, but they have no power of creating coherence or anything useful for the world. they are a laughingstock, and nothing more than a bully.

you have to ask different questions, and get out of the box, if you want to have a globally significant dialogue. academics and wonks in america may like what you write, but to me it is simply silly. might as well be doing art criticism.

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