Georgia fiasco could spell the end of Nato

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am

Nato is a remarkable case of institutional survival in the face of changing circumstances. It was created in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Soviet threat and, in 1989, the Soviet threat vanished. Yet Nato not only survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but expanded, taking in all the former satellite states of Eastern Europe and even the Baltic republics that had been part of the Russian empire for more than 200 years. But the Georgian debacle could break Nato.

In those Eastern European countries that were so recently ruled from Moscow, the presence of Russian troops in Georgia has reawakened all the old fears. On Thursday, Poland hastily agreed to let the US place anti-ballistic-missile sites on its soil, on condition that there must also be a fully fledged US military base in the country. Why? Because then, if Russia attacked Poland, the US would automatically become involved.

The rhetoric in the new Nato members has been almost as hysterical as that in Georgia itself, where President Mikhail Saakashvili has been calling the Russians '21st-century barbarians' who 'despise everything new, everything modern, everything European, everything civilised'. Similar rhetoric pervades the parallel universe of the US media, where the fact that it was Georgia that started this war by unleashing a merciless artillery barrage on South Ossetia, and then invading it, has been virtually erased from the storyline.

It's a rousing morality tale that hits all the right notes for an American sensibility, and it's not just Georgia's public relations firms that are pushing this line. It's also the US State Department and the Pentagon, which had been building Georgia up as a key US ally on Russia's southern flank. Yet, on Friday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looked deeply uncomfortable in Tbilisi as she stood beside the ranting Mr Saakashvili.

Perhaps she was pondering the fact that, while the 'new Europe' of former Soviet-bloc countries uncritically backs Georgia and the US commitment there, the 'old Europe' of Germany, France, Italy and their neighbours mostly does not. This is a problem if she wishes to pursue her goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into Nato.

Any US secretary of state can rely on the reflex loyalty of the British government, but none of the other great states of western Europe thinks having a confrontation with Russia over Georgia is a good idea.

But if the US pursues its goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into Nato, there are only three options. If 'old Europe' digs in its heals and refuses, on the grounds that it does not need Russia as an enemy, then either the US drops its demand, or Nato breaks up.

The third alternative (and perhaps the likeliest) is that 'old Europe' agrees to let the two former Soviet republics join - but with the unspoken reservation that they will never actually go to war with Russia to protect them. That would be a less dramatic end for Nato, but an end all the same. A two-tier alliance is no alliance at all.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries