Zakaria: Russia's Strategic Blunder

Many in Washington have described Russia's attack on Georgia as a turning point in international affairs. Pundits thunder that we are returning to an age of great-power conflicts. Globalization and integration have been exposed as shams. Russia is playing this new Great Game with ruthless brilliance and we—the United States and Europe—are foundering. As events unfold, however, almost all of this instant analysis will prove sensationalist, misguided and incorrect. It's certainly true that today's world is characterized by the emergence of new powers like China, Russia and India (a phenomenon I have termed "the rise of the rest"). This is not a contradiction of globalization but a consequence of it. Economic growth is producing new centers of influence. And that's leading to greater national pride, confidence and assertiveness. But there are also powerful new countervailing forces—yes, of globalization and integration—that are working to mitigate nationalism and unilateralism.

The attack on Georgia will go down not as the dawn of a new era of Russian power but as a major strategic blunder. Look at what has happened. Russia has scared its neighboring states witless, driving them firmly into the arms of the West. For almost two years, Poland had been dragging its feet on the American proposal to deploy missile interceptors in that country as part of a continent wide shield (a few months ago public support for the shield varied between 15 and 25 percent). Within days of the Russian attack, Warsaw agreed to the deployment. Ukraine had long been divided on whether to have closer ties to the West. A few years ago, 60 percent of the country wanted some kind of federation with Russia instead. Now the Kiev government has unhesitatingly asked for a path to NATO membership.

Vladimir Putin has done more for transatlantic unity than a President Barack Obama ever could. The United States and Europe are now in greater strategic agreement than at any point in the last two decades. Even the autocracies in the Caucasus have reacted negatively to the attack, refusing to endorse Russia's actions and legitimize the new facts on the ground. China has refused its support. And what did Russia get for all this? Seventy thousand South Ossetians.

Several diplomats and commentators have compared the attack on Georgia to the Soviet Union's invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. I think a more telling historical parallel might prove to be the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Then, as now, a Kremlin elite drunk on high oil prices foolishly overreached and triggered a countervailing reaction in the region and across the world.

The truth is, we're not in the 19th century, where the Russian intervention would have been standard operating procedure for a great power. In fact, only 50 years ago Britain and France clung to their colonies—in Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, Cyprus—with much greater determination and violence than has Moscow. By contrast, this is the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union that Russia has sent troops into a neighboring country (a country that it had ruled since 1801). Its actions are deplorable but the reaction to them —worldwide—is a sign of how much the rules have changed. President George W. Bush seemed to understand this when he spoke of Russia's behavior as being unacceptable "in the 21st century."

Diplomats are now searching for ways to make Moscow pay some price for its actions, to weaken its standing in international bodies, suspend some agreements, break some joint enterprises. These are all worth looking into but it's also worth noting that we only have this leverage with the Russians because we have spent the last two decades building up ties with them. In fact, the real challenge we face in dealing with Moscow is that we have too few such ties and, as a result, too little leverage.

The problem is not that Russia has been integrated into a world order that has failed to deter it, but rather that the country remains largely unintegrated—and thus feels it has little to lose by breaking the rules. Some of Moscow's isolation may have been caused by Western foreign policy—certainly that is the Russian perception—but more has to do with oil. As the price of oil and other natural resources has risen over the past decade, Russia has become more dysfunctional, corrupt, dictatorial and assertive. And oil wealth everywhere—from Venezuela to Iran to Russia—breeds independence from and indifference to international norms, markets and rules.

The single best strategy for bringing Russia in line with the civilized world would be to dramatically lower oil prices, which would force the country to integrate or stagnate. Pending that, we should shore up Georgia and assist countries like Poland and Ukraine. At the same time we should stay engaged with the Russians so that we continue to work on issues of common concern—like nuclear proliferation—but also to develop leverage with them. A strategy that further isolates Moscow would only reduce the levers that we have to affect its behavior.

Imagine if we had kicked Russia out of the G8 and broken most ties with Moscow—as the Republican nominee, John McCain, and many neoconservatives have long wanted to do. Then, when the Russians attacked Georgia, we would have had only two options—appeasement or war.