No Way to Treat Our Friends: Recasting Recent U.S.-Georgian Relations

Cooley, Alexander A.; Mitchell, Lincoln A.

The tragic August conflict between Georgia and Russia has initiated a wave of accusations about which side was to blame for the outbreak of full-scale war. The war and its aftermath have ratcheted tensions between the West and Russia, as the international community pressures Moscow to withdraw its troops from Georgian territory and abide by its ceasefire obligations. Russia's reckless decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia not only contravenes international law regarding sovereign statehood, but if allowed to stand, would establish the unacceptable precedent that countries can justify military intervention in the territory of a neighbor by invoking the rights of their ethnic citizens. Not surprisingly, Moscow has found little support in the international community for its heavy-handed actions, even among countries friendly to Russia. Yet, as analysts focus on the Russian-Georgian relationship, the questions of how the United States—Georgia's friend and patron—failed to anticipate the conflict and prevent its escalation need to be addressed. Two unequivocal, but ultimately flawed, principles guided recent U.S. policy towards Georgia. First, the United States supported the Saakashvili government, rather than promoting broader Georgian democratic development. Second, the United States backed reuniting Georgia's territorial integrity, rather than acting as an honest broker to resolve the frozen conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The strong personalized ties that developed between Washington and Tbilisi prevented the United States from using its power and influence to credibly restrain the Saakashvili government from adopting a military solution. U.S. reluctance to encourage Georgia to consider alternative sovereign formulas to resolve the frozen conflicts further emboldened Georgian hardliners. Over time, the Georgian regime's domestic policies and priorities themselves became official U.S. policies and goals, leading to an unhealthy capture of U.S. foreign policy by Tbilisi. Looking forward, the United States must continue to offer robust and sustained support to Georgia and its democratic development, but should do so by reversing these demonstrably flawed principles. What policies should the new U.S. administration adopt that would preserve its friendly relations with Georgia, while seeking to resolve the ongoing tensions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?


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Harriman Institute
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September 14, 2011