The miscalculation of small nations

Fred Halliday
26 August 2008

The brief and vicious war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia has killed an untold number of people and displaced and traumatised many thousands more; promised a lengthy and abrasive aftermath; postponed even further the prospects of a settlement over this and the region's other territory lost to Georgia's control in the early 1990s, Abkhazia; created new enmities as well as poisoning existing ones; and planted seeds of yet further conflict.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region, including the war of August 2008:

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008),

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008),

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008),

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008),

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008),

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008),

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008),

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008),

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008),

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008),

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008).

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.

In the wake of the disaster, the urgent need is via an intense effort of humanitarian mobilisation and sensitive diplomacy to assist and protect the civilian victims from its continuing ravages. Beyond that, a survey of the freshly ruined landscape is needed to assess how the region, the continent and the notional "international community" can begin to pick up the pieces. But between the immediate and the strategic, an interim political assessment of this war suggests a lesson that relates both to Georgia itself and to the political leaderships of other local actors (and especially "small nations") who have found themselves - or chosen to be - involved in military contest with bigger neighbours.

The puff of ideology

Where Georgia itself is concerned, the lesson can be summed up in a phrase: pity (and of course help) the Georgians, but condemn their leaders. For if most western governments and commentators have focused on the high politics and historical echoes of the conflict - from Russia's excessive military response to the implications for Georgia's entry into Nato, from the role of the United States to echoes of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1968 - less attention than is warranted has been paid to Tbilisi's contribution to the disaster.

In strict terms, the chief responsibility belongs to Georgia's reckless and demagogic president, Mikhail Saakashvili. His precipitous launch of a brutal assault on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on the night of 7-8 August 2008 is worse than a crime: it is a terrible blunder. More broadly, however, the responsibility devolves onto the self-inflating nationalist ideology which traps Saakashvili and Georgians who think like him. Here, indeed, is a local manifestation of a universal problem. For while the particular circumstances of the latest Caucasian war have been ably analysed (not least on openDemocracy), it is important to broaden the discussion by exploring the role that the nationalist ideology of Saakashvili's type - with its heady mix of vanity, presumption and miscalculation - has played in the modern world.

There is still a reluctance among many analysts of international relations to believe that local and / or "small" actors in a political situation - in this case the Georgian leadership - have their own agency, freedom of manoeuvre, and responsibility (a flaw that is shared by that particular kind of American - and of course "anti-American" - leftist for whom everything that happens in the world must by definition be the United States's responsibility: an understudied genre of vulgar imperialism).

In fact, it is routinely impossible to make sense of almost any conflict or region without registering how much local states, opposition groups, or minority movements can act with considerable autonomy in pursuit of their own interests - even to the extent of manipulating (and on occasion deceiving) distant and more powerful "allies". There are many cases during the cold war, for example, where "third-world" states attacked their neighbours on their own accord yet were widely characterised as having acted on orders - as "clients", "proxies", "agents", "pawns"'. They include: Israel in attacking Egypt in 1967, and Lebanon in 1982; Turkey in invading Cyprus in 1974; Egypt in attacking Israel in 1973; Cuba in sending troops to Angola in 1975; Iraq in attacking Iran in 1980, and Kuwait in 1990.

The international context matters, but it is not determinant: what is determinant is the reading of that international situation, and the calculation of risks and opportunities, which the local leaders and political forces make. Sometimes they get it right. Cuba's judgment that Washington, battered by defeat in Vietnam, would not stop its forces crossing the Atlantic to Angola in 1975, was one such - yet before he took that decision, Fidel Castro asked for a detailed analysis of opinion in the US Congress. More frequently, the leaders concerned are not so careful.

If the supreme responsibility of democratic leaders is indeed to protect their own peoples, then the briefest of comparative overview can show just how pernicious the impact of the kind of nationalist delusion displayed by Mikhail Saakashvili. His blundering into war over South Ossetia is but the latest example of how the nationalist obsession with the fetish of "territorial integrity" corrupts their worldview: for it entails a multiple refusal to look at reasonable, humane compromises; a misreading of international political realities; and a resort to destructive and often useless violence.

Here, the flaws of nationalism can match or exceed those of religion, in a way that offers a sidelight on the much-vaunted catch-all ascription of responsibility for modern conflicts to a supposed "clash of civilisations" (by which is usually meant "Islam"). But South Ossetia and its neighbours share a history where Christianity intermingles with empire (Georgian, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet) in the experience of its peoples. The chief agent of destruction is not to be found in "culture" (in the guise of religion or some other vague source of identity) but in the arrogance, recklessness and ignorance born of nationalist excess - which, to be sure, often uses religion and associated "cultural" offerings as part of its packaging. The problem is a political one; and where "cultural" differences are small - as in Transcaucasia, parts of the Balkans and Northern Ireland - the political conflicts can more than compensate.

The wind of blame

The case of Cyprus is illustrative in this regard. In July 1974 a group of right-wing Greek Cypriots, with the support of the junta in Athens, toppled the elected (and more moderate) government of Archbishop Makarios. At first it seemed that the world - even Turkey - had accepted it. I was in Cyprus at the time, and recall well conversations with Greek Cypriots to the effect that "The Turks will never invade. The Russians will stop them." So it went until the sky north of Nikosia was filled with the transport-planes despatched by Turkish prime minister Bülent Ecevit, out of which floated the Turkish paratroops coming to occupy the north of the city, and of the island - where they remain to this day.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI)

His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The recent articles include:

"Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007),

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007),

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007),

"Cyprus's risky stalemate" (26 August 2007),

"Justice in Madrid: the "11M" verdict" (5 November 2007),

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007),

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008),

"Mediterranean mirage: Europe's sunken politics" (29 July 2008).

Ever since, the Greek Cypriots have blamed everyone but themselves for this debacle: the Americans (who encouraged the Turks to invade because they wanted a base in northern Cyprus, at Kyrenia); the British (committed under a 1960 treaty to defending the integrity of Cyprus and with two bases on the island, who did nothing and so showed their historic "pro-Turkish" bias); the European Union and the United Nations (who have sought to impose unwanted solutions).

Similar miscalculations have dominated in the Palestine conflict. Few nationalist leaderships have shown such little strategic sense; ever since the re-emergence of a nationalist movement in the 1960s, policy has been led by militaristic rhetoric, a misjudgment of the regional and international situation, and misconceived sense of how friend and foes alike would react.

On two occasions the Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation, found themselves with forces, and considerable political support, in neighbouring Arab states: Jordan (1967-70) and Lebanon (1970-82). On each occasion the movement was carried away by delusions of power and of allied support far in excess of the reality, which led them needlessly to provoke local political forces and armed groups; the result was the destruction of their local bases and their expulsion from the country. In 2000, Arafat, faced with the failure of peace talks with Ehud Barak, agreed to support and promote a "spontaneous" uprising (the second intifada) He apparently imagined that, in so doing, he could break Barak's political will and obtain more concessions: instead he got Ariel Sharon, who had ideas about to provoke a spontaneous uprising, and did a far better job of it in September 2000.

The Israelis themselves are possessed of a military efficiency, a strong international ally and a historic self-righteousness that at times has served them ill; but they have also repeatedly overplayed their own hand. They missed the historic opportunity to resolve the Palestinian issue in the aftermath of the 1967 war by withdrawing promptly from the territories they had occupied by force. In 1982 they blundered into a war in Lebanon, where they failed either to destroy their enemies, or to instal a client regime, and ended up eighteen years later in unconditional flight with a ferocious Hizbollah enemy on their tail.

For years the Israelis boasted that they had achieved complete control of Gaza, only in the end to pull out, leaving the terrain open for Hamas. Many citizens of the Israeli state must wonder what the costs of long-term intransigence and settlement expansion will be; and indeed if such a posture may, in the end, not produce the very dire consequences that Israel seeks to avoid.

The tide of failure

The blunders brought on by nationalist (and associated revolutionary) delusion of the 20th century are indeed global. There was the disastrous attempt by North Korea's then president Kim Il-sung to seize South Korea in a sudden attack in June 1950, to be repulsed by a rapidly mobilised United States expeditionary force. Only the massive intervention of Chinese "volunteers" saved the communist regime from annihilation. The inhabitants of Baghdad may also recall the miscalculations of Saddam Hussein, in his invasions of Iran (1980) and Kuwait (1990). These comparatively more recent examples were long preceded by the classic such miscalculation of the Easter uprising of 1916 in Dublin. On that occasion a poorly armed insurrectionary force was defeated, and part of the city destroyed, by a British riposte as rapid and predictable as that of the Russian in Tskhinvali.

True, such miscalculations about the capabilities of one's own forces and the reactions of others are not confined to small nations. Most major nations have many and larger blunders to their name: the Americans in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq; the British in Suez; the French in Vietnam, Suez and Algeria; the Russians in Afghanistan; the Italians and Germans in the 1930s and 1940s. The difference is that except in the most extreme of cases - notably Nazi Germany - these large states have been able to recuperate their losses and in large measure continue to inhabit their illusions of grandeur. Smaller peoples pay a higher price.

It is said that, when he took over from veteran Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze in 2004, Mikhail Saakashvili told the older man - known in Georgian as tetri melia (the white fox) - that he had had the chance to be the great founder of a new Georgia, but that he had missed the opportunity. Saakashvili‘s entrapment in nationalist delusion was always going to backfire. In the moment of Georgia's latest agony, it will be little consolation that he has brought his country into the modern world in a very different way.

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