The miscalculation of small nations

Linked with Fred Halliday – Ireland.

Published on openDemocracy, by Fred Halliday, Aug 26, 2008.

(The Russia-Georgia war emphasises the need for a nuanced understanding of international politics … )

… 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 …

… 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 … (full long text).

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