A hot war is no way to prevent a cold one

Posted in NATO , Russia , Asia | 06-Sep-08 | Author: Malcolm Rifkind| Source: International Herald Tribune

A Georgian refugee looks at the sky in front of tents at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp in Gori.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Lord Palmerston strode to the House of Commons during the Crimean crisis. He noted that "the policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance."

Most Western European governments, including my own, have struck a realistic tone on the recent crisis in Georgia. We are right to support the democratic government in Tbilisi and to remind Moscow that the Cold war only ended because of the Kremlin's willingness to abandon the aggressive nature that had characterized its actions since the end of the Second World War. Its behavior in recent weeks jeopardizes the security of Europe, and opens the possibility of renewed polarization of East-West relations.

However, if we are not careful, we may end up with a new Crimean War in the not too distant future. Western Europe's strategic interests in the Caucasus are only slightly greater than democracy and the rule of law in Zimbabwe and Tibet.

Yet some leaders across Europe and on both sides of the Atlantic have acted as if Georgia represents such a fundamental interest that they would deploy troops to defend. That could well be the consequence of inviting Georgia or Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, has repeatedly suggested that both nations are free to join NATO if they meet the criteria for membership.

He and many others appear to be ignoring a vital consideration. A tough reaction by the West over Georgia and South Ossetia is necessary because Russia will be emboldened to repeat its behavior if it sees the West as weak.

Yet weak is exactly how the West will be perceived if it extends NATO membership to nations it has no intention of defending. Had Georgia already been a member of the defensive alliance, it is less likely that Russia would have behaved in the way it did.

However, it is not unlikely. The Caucasus are vital to the security of Russia's most southerly regions. Had deterrence failed, there is very little chance that the Russian invasion could have been repelled. As a result, the guarantee of Article Five which Western European countries have relied on since the dawn of the Cold War would have been shattered, together with NATO's credibility.

The issue at hand, at least for political leaders in Western Europe, is not just whether it is in the interests of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. It is whether it is in the interests of existing members to admit them.

I would assert that it is not. Extending Article Five to cover countries far more likely to invoke it than most current members would require major increases in defense expenditure. Likewise, if NATO deterrence proved to be an hollow threat, similar increases would be required to revitalize national deterrence or establish an alternative collective security organization under the auspices of the European Union.

Neither option is attractive given the economic trauma currently taking its toll throughout Europe and the latent hostility to further EU integration.

Some in the United States may be fairly relaxed about the prospect of NATO becoming more of a political alliance and less of a mutual defense pact. After all it is the Americans who provide most of the military guarantee.

Yet the issue is far more fundamental to Western Europe and we are doing no good service by pretending otherwise. Inviting Georgians or Ukrainians could jeopardize the relationship between the countries of Western and Eastern Europe by making it more likely that the former would have to fight for the latter. It would also imperil the security of existing members by exchanging modest gains in the security of Russia's neighbors for a major weakening of the NATO alliance.

There are appropriate responses to Russia's actions, including tough diplomacy and the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine in the European Union. However, inviting them into a collective defense mechanism is a knee jerk reaction that lacks strategic logic. It could be like the origin of the First World War, when binding large nations' security to the fortunes of smaller ones created Armageddon after the murder of an archduke.

As any student of European history can tell you, that is a poor plan for deterring conflict. Inviting a hot war is no way to prevent a cold one.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Britain's foreign secretary in 1995-1997.