Is that "appeasement" we see sidling shyly out of the closet of history? Are we doomed to recall the infamous remark by a Western leader that it was "fantastic" to think Europe should involve itself in "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of which we know nothing"? As the United States and the Europeans feverishly debate how to respond to Russia's onslaught on Georgia, are the ghosts of Europe's bloody history rising from their shallow graves?
As those of a certain age will recall, "appeasement" encapsulated the determination of British governments of the 1930s to avoid war in Europe, even if it mean capitulating to the ever-increasing demands of Adolf Hitler. The nadir came in 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain acceded to Hitler's demand to take over the western slice of Czechoslovakia—a dispute Chamberlain so derisively dismissed.
It is impossible to view the Russian onslaught against Georgia without these bloodstained memories rising to mind. In history, as the great French President Charles de Gaulle remarked—no doubt plagiarising someone else—the only constant is geography. And through centuries of European history the only constant has been that small countries, doomed by geography to lie between great powers, are destined to be the cockpit for their imperial ambitions. That's held true since the Low Countries' agony under Spanish power in the 1500s. And the lichen has not yet spread over the gravestones of Europe and America that mark the toll of the two European wars of the 20th century—both having their roots in struggles between rival empires to assert power over the luckless nations of central Europe.
This time, the cockpit lies further east. In the wake of the cold war, the West providentially summoned the nerve to push NATO eastward to incorporate the former Warsaw Pact vassals of the Soviet Union—presciently doing this while post-Soviet Russia was too weak to resist. But once Moscow got its breath back, anyone with historical wit could foresee a revived Russian push for influence in central Europe. Many argued against this NATO expansion, calling it "premature" and "sure to inflame Russia." The usual arguments. Those naysayers might now look at the Russian offensive in Georgia, and ponder how much greater this crisis would be had it involved, say, Poland or Hungary or the Czech Republic. At least central Europe is now under the umbrella of NATO Article 5 guarantees.
Instead, what we see are conflicts at the new margins of the West's sway: Ukraine, the Balkans, now Georgia. These conflicts have one common factor: a resurgent Russia determined to exploit local grievances to beat back Western influence—in shorthand, democracy—on its shrunken frontiers. Using, in all cases, precisely the argument (a Russian right to protect its citizens, in Serbia its co-religionists) that Hitler used in the 1930s. The Sudeten Czechs were Germans, after all. Just as the South Ossetians now are, well, sort of Russian—having at any rate been issued Russian passports.
The European urge to appease Russia will be strong. In the '30s, ghastly memories of World War I dominated the political debate. Besides, Western governments' most pressing need was to recover from the Depression. Who wanted war or the threat of war? Now, Europe relaxes after near-50 years of cold war, and struggles to avoid recession after the subprime banking crash. The more things change …
Just as their forebears in the 1930s sought refuge in the League of Nations, the United States and Europe duly take the Georgian crisis to the United Nations. But the U.N. is, by definition, as impotent now as the League of Nations was then. Russia can, and clearly will, veto any resolution of significance. And what power, other than words, could the United Nations deploy anyway? Sanctions? Against Russia, which supplies Europe with most of its energy, just as winter approaches?
Whether Russia intends to fully invade Georgia is unclear. It's plausible that Moscow has not made up its mind, and is waiting to gauge the West's response. Two things are clear. Russia's bombing campaign against Georgia is now targeting more than military targets. At the least, Russia seems determined to set back Georgia's economy for years. It also seems clear—from what Vitaly Churkin, Russia's able ambassador at the U.N., said Sunday—that Russia is demanding, presumably as part of the price of a ceasefire, the ousting of Georgia's pro-Western leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would be wise to remember what happened to a pro-Western leader in nearby Ukraine; Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned and nearly died.
So what can the West do? The Europeans are unlikely to do anything beyond hand-wringing. The first responses in the comment columns of Britain's leftish newspaper The Guardian show its readers closing ranks around the comforting but irrelevant thought that this is all somehow George W. Bush's fault. Besides, with post-cold-war defense budgets now barely visible to the naked eye, the Europeans lack the capacity to intervene. They don't have even the transport aircraft.
The United States, on the other hand, does have the capability to actually do something. Not to expel Russian forces from South Ossetia—that ethnic tangle is best left to negotiation—but to guarantee Georgia's sovereignty and independence. Georgia's right to self-defense is unquestionable: it needs no U.N. resolution to say that. Washington has every right to send "peace-keeping" troops into Georgia if Saakashvili requests it. The 82nd Airborne, its brigades newly returned from Iraq, could be mustered as a guarantor force. Numbers are not critical. What matters is the message: the Soviet-style attack on Georgia will not to be dismissed Chamberlain-style. President Bush racheted up the rhetoric Monday afternoon, when he blasted Russia for invading "a sovereign neighboring state … Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century … The Russian government must respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty."
And if the West does not react forcefully to protect Georgia? Russia, and all the nations on its periphery, will draw the obvious lessons. Will Putin follow history and demand next a Russian right to move troops into Estonia, a NATO member, to "protect" its Russian population?
There are few lessons safely drawn from history—except that of George Santayana: "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."