In August 1924, the small nation of Georgia, occupied by Soviet Russia since 1921, rose up against Soviet rule. On Sept. 16, 1924, The Times of London reported on an appeal by the president of the Georgian Republic to the League of Nations. While “sympathetic reference to his country’s efforts was made” in the Assembly, the Times said,,“it is realized that the League is incapable of rendering material aid, and that the moral influence which may be a powerful force with civilized countries is unlikely to make any impression upon Soviet Russia.”(my emphasis)
“Unlikely” was an understatement. Georgians did not enjoy freedom again until 1991.
Today, the Vladimir Putins and Hu Jintaos and Mahmoud Ahmadinejads of the world – to say nothing of their junior counterparts in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea – are no more likely than were Soviet leaders in 1924 to be swayed by “moral influence.” Dictators aren’t moved by the claims of justice unarmed; aggressors aren’t intimidated by diplomacy absent the credible threat of force; fanatics aren’t deterred by the disapproval of men of moderation or refinement.(my emphasis)
The good news is that today we don’t face threats of the magnitude of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Each of those regimes combined ruthless internal control, a willingness to engage in external aggression, and fervent adherence to an extreme ideology. Today these elements don’t coexist in one place. Russia is aggressive, China despotic and Iran messianic – but none is as dangerous as the 20th-century totalitarian states.
The further good news is that 2008 has been, in one respect, an auspicious year for freedom and democracy. In Iraq, we and our Iraqi allies are on the verge of a strategic victory over the jihadists in what they have called the central front of their struggle. This joint victory has the potential to weaken the jihadist impulse throughout the Middle East.
On the other hand, the ability of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas to get away with murder (literally), and above all the ability of Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions effectively unchecked, are setbacks for hopes of peace and progress.
And there is no evidence that China’s hosting of the Olympics has led to moderation of its authoritarianism. Meanwhile, Russia has sent troops and tanks across an international border, and now seems to be widening its war against Georgia more than its original – and in any case illegitimate – casus belli would justify.
Will the United States put real pressure on Russia to stop? In a news analysis on Sunday, the New York Times reporter Helene Cooper accurately captured what I gather is the prevailing view in our State Department: “While America considers Georgia its strongest ally in the bloc of former Soviet countries, Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia.”
But Georgia, a nation of about 4.6 million, has had the third-largest military presence – about 2,000 troops – fighting along with U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq. For this reason alone, we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty. Surely we cannot simply stand by as an autocratic aggressor gobbles up part of – and perhaps destabilizes all of – a friendly democratic nation that we were sponsoring for NATO membership a few months ago.
For that matter, consider the implications of our turning away from Georgia for other aspiring pro-Western governments in the neighborhood, like Ukraine’s. Shouldn’t we therefore now insist that normal relations with Russia are impossible as long as the aggression continues, strongly reiterate our commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine, and offer emergency military aid to Georgia?
Incidentally, has Russia really been helping much on Iran? It has gone along with – while delaying – three United Nations Security Council resolutions that have imposed mild sanctions on Iran. But it has also supplied material for Iran’s nuclear program, and is now selling Iran antiaircraft systems to protect military and nuclear installations.
It’s striking that dictatorial and aggressive and fanatical regimes – whatever their differences – seem happy to work together to weaken the influence of the United States and its democratic allies. So Russia helps Iran. Iran and North Korea help Syria. Russia and China block Security Council sanctions against Zimbabwe. China props up the regimes in Burma and North Korea.
The United States, of course, is not without resources and allies to deal with these problems and threats. But at times we seem oddly timid and uncertain.
When the “civilized world” expostulated with Russia about Georgia in 1924, the Soviet regime was still weak. In Germany, Hitler was in jail. Only 16 years later, Britain stood virtually alone against a Nazi-Soviet axis. Is it not true today, as it was in the 1920s and ’30s, that delay and irresolution on the part of the democracies simply invite future threats and graver dangers?