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Obama and (the Republic of) Georgia

Monday, July 28
Guest Editorial

Lasha Tchantouridze

US presidential candidate Barak Obama has been talking hard-line about Iran, and he has also called for more pragmatism toward Russia. During his recent tour of the Middle East, Mr. Obama called for “tough diplomacy” toward Tehran, which plans to defend its soil from potential air attacks by anti-air missiles supplied by Moscow. Potential attacks by Israeli or US air forces are likely due Iran’s nuclear program, seen as a precursor to Tehran’s nuclear arms.

Senator Obama, the presumptive nominee of the US Democratic Party, tends to say and make contradictory promises. He has been reprimanded among others by his erstwhile supporters for reneging on some of most liberal promises he had made during his long-drawn showdown with Senator Hilary Clinton. Jesse Jackson, the first black American to win a primary from a major party in a US presidential race in the 1980s, has recently expressed keen desire “to cut his nuts off,” apparently out of frustration at Mr. Obama’s perceived courtship with a US conservative agenda.

Despite such not so uncommon political sins, Mr. Obama is widely expected to be the next president of the United States—that is, unless he says or does something really stupid. This should not be expected however, as the Obama campaign managers keep their charge’s comings and goings under strict control. So far the Illinois senator has spoken and behaved very well—his ability to speak well and act according to social circumstances in public stands in a sharp contrast with President Bush’s frequent linguistic antiques, and occasional appearance gaffes.

What should Georgia expect if Mr. Obama were to win in November? For starters, Washington’s strong support for ‘the democratic Georgia’ project is likely to tone down, and appeasement gestures to Moscow would probably increase. US Democrats have historically been more willing to adopt a wait and see approach toward Russia, especially when it came to Kremlin’s disputes with former members of the Soviet Union. The most telling example of this has been Clinton’s visit to Moscow in 1994, when he commended President Yeltsin for “helping” Shevardnadze in Georgia, after Russian armed forces helped the Abkhaz rebels to defeat Georgia, and forced Tbilisi to join the CIS.

Eventually US foreign policy toward the Caucasus and greater Eurasia would most likely regain priorities established by the Bush administration. Georgia will undoubtedly benefit from this, provided the country does not descend into chaos during the Obama transitional period. Sooner or later, the US will most likely lock horns with Russia, whether it ends up under McCain or Obama, especially if Russia continues to show no desire to let its imperial perceptions of international politics go.

In his July 24 Berlin speech delivered to thousands of spectators, Mr. Obama called for the rejection of “the Cold War mind-set of the past” referring to resurgent Russian power. He also called to “work with Russia when we can, to stand up for our values when we must, and to seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent." These are noble proposals, but they could only work in the atmosphere of reciprocity. However, the Russian Federation has been rather reluctant to abandon its “Cold War mind-set of the past” as the Kremlin continues to pursue foreign policies assuming zero-sum outcomes, and the existence of ‘spheres of influence,’ ‘buffer zones,’ and ‘red lines.’

The United States under George W. Bush has maintained continuity in its foreign policy priorities that are aimed at opening up the world and making it as transparent and interdependent as possible in trade, financial, political, and military affairs. Although the two Bush administrations have been plagued by a Homer Simpson approach to foreign policy—jump into things first and think afterwards—they nevertheless have maintained the grand strategy of an open world pursued by all the US administrations since the 1940s.

In the end, the new American administration will not care as much about democratic reforms in Georgia or thriving authoritarianism in Russia or Shi’ia revival in the Middle East as it will care for the markets, and especially energy markets in greater Eurasia and the Middle East to remain open for economic, but not for military competition. No matter who assumes the top job in the White House in January 2009, the countries of the Caspian Basin, especially Georgia, will perform well depending on how they align themselves with this crucial US interest.

Lasha Tchantouridze, PhD, is Research Associate and Adjunct Professor at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies