The situation on the ground in Georgia appears to be quieting, which is not the same as saying it has been resolved. The contested region of South Ossetia is more detached from Georgia; Russian "peacekeepers" inside the country have expanded in number and location. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's decision to reassert his government's authority in South Ossetia looks rash: he underestimated the Russian response, and he overestimated what the United States and others would do on his behalf. Both Senators McCain and Obama have been robust in their denunciations of Russian actions. But the fact is that there is little the United States can do to help Georgia. The real question is how the next president will deal with Russia come January.
Doing so will not be simple. Russia may no longer be a superpower, but despite its declining population, it remains a major power, one in a position to influence the opening decades of the 21st century. Russia possesses approximately half the world's nuclear weapons, is the largest producer of natural gas and the second largest producer of oil, is a major exporter of modern arms, holds dollar reserves nearing $300 billion and, with its seat on the U.N. Security Council, is positioned to facilitate or frustrate a good deal of U.S. foreign policy.
Anyone questioning this last point need only consider Iran, which will undoubtedly present a major foreign-policy test during the first two years of the next administration. Iran is nearing the capacity to enrich uranium, the central ingredient of a nuclear weapon, on a large scale. The only way to head this off other than through a high-risk military attack is through diplomacy. Iran must be presented with a clear sense of the costs of proceeding. The choices become starker if Russia participates in what is offered and what is threatened. The surest road to Tehran runs through Moscow.
Or take existing nuclear weapons. U.S. and Russian stockpiles remain dangerously high, as does the chance of accidental or un-authorized use. We want to move to a world of fewer nuclear weapons in fewer hands. Bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia remain the best and only way to get from here to there.
The Bush administration has said that so long as Russia occupies parts of Georgia there will be no return to "business as usual" in U.S.–Russian relations. This suggests a form of linkage, a policy from the cold war, where bilateral ties across the board are adversely affected because of disagreement over a particular issue, in this case Georgia. This is a questionable strategy for the United States at a time when so much else on our agenda involves Russia. Instead, U.S. policy ought to be for the two countries to cooperate where they can—and to disagree and compete within constraints where they must.
We should lower U.S. barriers to Russia's joining the World Trade Organization, not raise them. We want Russia to live by the rule of law and to be more transparent and accountable. Autocratic Russia is more likely to evolve into something more open if it is integrated into modern institutions than if it is left outside. This argues, too, for keeping Russia in the G8 or, better yet, an expanded G8 (one that includes China, India and Brazil). The goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to get Russia to play by the rules, not try to circumvent them. What Richard Nixon said 40 years ago about China—that "taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors"—applies equally now to Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that "the U.S. will have to choose between its virtual Georgia project and its much broader partnership with Russia." This, too, is linkage. It is unacceptable, but the fact Lavrov could say it reflects how much leverage Moscow has now. Over time, the best way to moderate Russian behavior is by reducing the wealth Russia derives from oil and gas. Russian policy toward Georgia would likely be less assertive if oil were $40 a barrel. Prices will move in this direction only when the United States reduces what it consumes and when it increases the supply of both oil and alternatives. Energy policy is national-security policy.
This will all take years and probably decades. In the meantime, Georgia need not be ignored. The United States is providing humanitarian help to Georgia and should look for other ways to but-tress its government. Negotiating the removal of Russian troops from Georgia and replacing them with legitimate international peacekeepers is worth pursuing. Bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the EU and NATO should remain on the agenda, although the timing and terms of further enlargement needs to be a matter of consultation with European allies—and with Russia as well.
Taking Russian concerns into account as we design and implement U.S. foreign policy is not appeasement. Nor does it give Moscow a veto. The point is that the United States cannot make policy toward Georgia or any other country in isolation. We have a range of interests, and Russia, for better or worse, is critical to many of them. Defining interests and determining priorities is the beginning of strategy. The 44th president will need one for Russia.