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Ossetia: Crocodile Tears & the Rhetoric of Big-Power Unilateralism


The irony is breathtaking. The rhetoric of big-power unilateralism – and military humanism – is being thrown back in the face of the members of the New American Century Club. The American eagle finds itself beak to beak with the Russian one. According to the spin put on things by the spokesperson for the Moscow government, Russian citizens were being attacked and killed, peacekeepers were being attacked, helpless citizens were being targeted by a military operation, so that Russia simply "had no choice" but to intervene militarily to put a stop to the havoc being produced in Ossetia by the armed forces of Georgia. These are of course crocodile tears – from the people who brought us a particularly brutal war of repression in a place called Chechnya.  Be that as it may, I am nonetheless led to believe that the media in Moscow are representing the Georgians as aggressors and the Russian military as knights in shining armour coming to the aid of the helpless and the hapless.

After a period of shocked silence, American officialdom responded with crocodile tears of its own.  It is, for them, suddenly unacceptable that a major power like Russia should unilaterally launch an attack upon a sovereign country! 

Well, dear me, yes! But it’s been a long time since we’ve heard speeches like that!  In a sequel, we can hope to be lectured about the United Nations Charter, multilateralism and the principles international law! 

Not so long ago, Russia was opposed to American intervention against the sovereign state of Serbia over the Kosovo question. Now the respective positions of Russians and Americans are precisely reversed – as in a mirror image – over the Russian intervention against the sovereign state of Georgia over the question of South Ossetia.

Under the system of big-power unilateralism, the big power calls the shots. And big powers can change their minds.

Astoundingly and without a trace of embarrassment, president George Bush is also strongly critical of the Russians for their failure to protect Georgian citizens. These are also words which we haven’t heard for a while. Military commanders have a duty to minimize the harm caused to civilian populations by their operations. As my grandmother used to say, "Yes, I always thought so!" 

We have also heard the US president reflect upon how Russia is damaging its international reputation by its actions.  He is speaking from experience.

Meanwhile, the old saw about not repeating the errors of Munich by letting dictators like Hitler get away with aggression is trotted out once again – not in Washington but in Moscow!  And this time it is the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is cast in the role of Hitler. Ironically, Hitler was himself an early practitioner of military humanism – intervening (ostensibly) to protect the German-speaking populations of Czechoslovakian Sudetenland – but we should perhaps let this line of musing drop before it gets out of hand…

The problem is not the humanism, by the way. Nor should sovereignty always trump the moral imperative to do something to bring help to severely distressed populations. The problem is when the intervention is both forcible and unilateral.

Like the Wright brothers’ flying machines, the embryonic institutions of multilateralism and international law are based (mostly) on good ideas, but they still don’t work very well. The hope and the potential are there, though. Big-power unilateralism is, by comparison, messy, dangerous, expensive and scarey, especially when, as it turns out, there is more than one big power, after all.

Is a multilateral world possible, a multilateral world working towards the effective institution of international law? Or are we condemned to return to the atmosphere of the 1850s, 1870s and 1914, only this time with far more deadly weapons?  Multilateralism requires a lot of slogging, generosity and good nerves. Unilateralism is the path of apparent facility and simplicity. But the risk of blowback is high. In the present situation (Aug. 13, 2008), American unilateralism, particularly over Iraq, Kosovo and missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, has blown back in the form of Russian unilateralism in Georgia.

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