Towards a New Security Strategy for Georgia

Like many Americans who study, or if you prefer, kibitz about Georgia, I have recently been contacted by quite a few people in Georgian media, government and civil society who are concerned about how the election of Donald Trump will effect Georgia and what Georgia can do to ensure its survival and security given the rapid and not quite predictable pace of change in the US, and globally.

As I begin to answer these questions, I am struck by how many Georgians expressed similar concern about President Obama when he was elected in 2008. Nobody thought Obama was erratic or dangerous, as they do about Trump, but many in Georgia believed that Obama, as a liberal Democrat, was somehow insufficiently committed to American security and to Georgia. Before we turn to what Georgia can do to survive the Trump era, it is worth noting that during his eight years in office, President Obama was a pretty good friend to Georgia.

There is no reason, at least for the moment, the same can be said of President Trump. It is therefore of the utmost importance for Georgia to craft a strategy that reflects the evolving political dynamics and that this strategy go considerably beyond hoping that Georgia’s friends in the US will succeed in influencing the new administration.

For years, Georgia’s long term security strategy has been built around the hope of joining the NATO alliance at some point in the not too distant future. While it would be foolish to abandon that aspiration entirely, that aspiration looks a lot different today than it did a year or two ago for two distinct reasons. First, Georgia’s chances of getting into NATO are significantly less than they were a year ago. NATO, in general, is likely entering a period of chaos as the American role in, and commitment to, NATO is in question for the first time since the alliance was founded. In this context, there will be little desire for expansion, and whatever desire for expansion within the alliance there is will likely get very little traction from most of the member countries. Additionally, it is hard to imagine that the US will continue to be a strong advocate for Georgia to get into NATO. The best Georgia can expect from the US is a kind of benign neglect, but even that may be optimistic. Without strong support from the US, Georgia’s prospects for NATO membership will drop substantially.

Second, even if, through some set of unforeseen circumstances, Georgia was able to advance its efforts to get into NATO, it could turn out the prize is ultimately hollow. Although there is no doubt that it is better to be in NATO than not, it is equally beyond doubt that membership in NATO would mean a lot less to Georgia today that it would have one, two, five or ten years ago.

Georgia’s security now depends on pivoting away from a NATO-centric approach and instead seeking to become part of a more global political environment. The Georgian government’s successful effort to deepen its economic ties with China should be seen in this regard. While this is primarily, at least on the surface, an economic strategy, it has national security implications as well. If China is heavily invested in Georgia, that means there is one more powerful country that does not want to see Russia invade or otherwise destabilize Georgia.

Even good strategic relations like this one, however, offer little guarantee in this changing environment. For years, Russia has cultivated, and at times exaggerated, the existence of a Moscow-Beijing axis that is a global counter to American power. With an American President who campaigned on economic saber-rattling towards China, and who is at best more sympathetic to, and at worst a stooge of, Russia, Moscow may be less concerned with China’s view on a potential incursion into Georgia. Nonetheless, on balance, creating conflict with China for any reason is still not a wise move for Russia, so a stronger Georgia-China relationship is a sound strategic move for Tbilisi.

It is not, however, enough. China, like most western countries, would be very unlikely to provide military support should a Russia-Georgia conflict occur, and would be only slightly more likely to rupture its economic relationship with Russia over Georgia. Georgia can help itself by trying to build more bilateral economic ties of the kind it is developing with China, but this kind of advice is a bit like telling a poor person that to solve their problems, they just need more money. Drawing foreign investments, generating trade and the like is difficult work, and work that Georgia has sought to do, with varying degrees of success for almost three decades, simply hoping that Georgia gets better at it, is not a plan.

Despite this, by strengthening its ties to China and other non-western powers, integrating more into the new Silk Road, Silk Belt and the like, Georgia can gradually remove itself from the crosshairs of the US-Russia binary dynamic that has framed most of its recent history. Even when this dynamic is straightforward and the US position has been clear, it has not been easy for Georgia. The current complexity and possible dramatic shift of the American position in the bilateral US-Russia relationship underscores the necessity for Georgia to be perceived, and to indeed be, something other than a pawn in that great power-love-hate relationship.

There are some things Georgia can do to increase the likelihood that its international alliances and relationships will be an important part of its security structure, but there are no guarantees. Accordingly, Georgia must pursue other directions as well. The most obvious direction is to position Georgia so that if Russia were to invade, the world’s sympathies would be with Georgia, not Russia- and more dauntingly, that the world would care. This is a difficult, but not impossible task.

The first step Georgia has taken to this end is to position itself as the reasonable one in this dispute. While those who are paying attention see Russia moving border fences, seeking to strengthen their ties to the breakaway regions and wreaking havoc in eastern Ukraine, Georgia’s rhetoric has been strong but calm, and not threatening. This has been a difficult balance for the government to achieve, but it has been reasonably successful.

This all points to the need for Georgia to develop a national security strategy that has a global perspective, but that also takes into consideration Georgia’s broader geographical context, regional considerations and the evolving geopolitical environment. Some caution is required here as for too long many in and around Georgia have believed that its unique location is the key to its future prosperity and national security. At times this has veered in intellectual laziness and magical thinking. After all, every country has a unique location and can tell a story about why its location is critically important to global, or at least regional, trade and stability.

This may, in fact, be more true of Georgia than most countries, but that alone is not enough. Nor are good but still limited ideas like a new Silk Road enough. Instead, Georgia’s longer term security rests on positioning itself in a complex and rapidly changing region. In the past, Georgia sought to do this by becoming one of America’s strongest allies in the region, but that is no longer enough. As the US-Russia relationship changes, Iran simultaneously becomes more open to trade with much of the world and a possible target of the next American war, conflicts in Syria and Iraq show little signs of abating, the Ukraine conflict goes on and international Islamic movements take new forms and move in new directions, Georgia must also rethink its place and create a role for itself where it is more valuable to both Russia and the West as a functioning sovereign state than yet another conflict region.

Again, this suggestion will be very difficult to implement, and more importantly to even think through, but this is precisely why it is important. In today’s world, simply pushing as hard as possible for NATO and hoping for the best is no longer the best strategy or even one that is possible. The soft bipolarity of politics in the Caucasus in recent years may have created problems for Georgia, but at least it brought clarity and made Georgia’s options relatively straightforward.

It also no longer really applies. The sooner Georgia is able to recognize that and adapt accordingly, the more easily it will be able to address its security related challenges. This may mean building new relationships, thinking of strategic relations differently, and changing the way international affairs are discussed domestically in Georgia. Just as Georgia’s foreign policy must become more complex and multi-vectored as it has been doing in recent years, domestic politics that are too often contests to see which party can announce its pro-west orientation the loudest, will be decreasingly relevant.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet region.

Lincoln Mitchell

09 February 2017 21:05