war on the rocks

Can Georgia be a Useful American Ally?

August 8, 2017

Georgians — citizens of the country of Georgia, not inhabitants of the Peach State — must have been thrilled last week. Sure, they live in a tough neighborhood with a long, tension-laced border with Russia. In fact, the two countries went to war in 2008 over the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, given last Tuesday’s visit by Vice President Mike Pence and his reassuring words that the United States has Georgia’s back, Georgians have reason to rejoice.

Pence stated, “President Trump and the United States stand firmly behind the 2008 NATO Bucharest statement which made it clear that Georgia will, someday, become a member.” Indeed, Pence practically suggested Georgia is already an ally with security guarantees, pointing out that “The joint military operations that are taking place today we hope are a visible sign of our commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and to her internationally recognized borders.”

Later, in response to a question, he continued:

We strongly support Georgia’s aspiration to become a member of NATO. And we’ll continue to work closely with this Prime Minister and the government of Georgia broadly to advance the policies that will facilitate becoming a NATO member.

Georgians couldn’t have realistically asked for more right now. But was this pledge good for the United States?

Americans, who could be called upon to defend this small country in the Caucasus, cannot share Georgians’ enthusiasm. U.S. foreign policy should have a laser-like focus on America’s safety. It is the government’s most important job. Unfortunately, suggesting the United States will guarantee Georgian security could undermine its own. Accepting that country into NATO would be even worse. Georgia is a weak, vulnerable, and strategically inconsequential country. Committing to defend it would unnecessarily risk American lives and even nuclear war with Russia.

Georgia is too weak to meaningfully add to the security of the United States or the strength of the alliance. The country is only slightly bigger in geographic size than West Virginia, with a population of less than four million. Its economy ranks only 116th in the world in terms of overall GDP, less than half the size of the economy of Vermont, which has the smallest economy of all the American states. Its economic future is mixed at best. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment runs through its many economic problems, including slow growth, stagnating living standards, a high poverty rate, and lack of diversity in its economy. Georgia also faces demographic challenges, including net negative migration rates and below replacement level fertility.

More important, Georgia is disconnected geographically from the core industrial heartland of Europe that NATO is meant to defend. And despite sharing a border with Turkey, it is far away from the most significant member nations. Its capital is 1600 miles from Berlin and 6000 miles from Washington — creating logistical and defensive headaches. Georgia would be a serious challenge to defend given the long border it shares with its most likely sparring partner, Russia. NATO — meaning, mostly the United States — would need to station troops there just to provide a tripwire and delaying force. A serious defense of Georgia would require a commitment far in excess of its strategic value. And in the unlikely event of a conventional theatre-wide conflict between NATO and Russia, protecting Georgia would only drain resources from vital ground in the heart of Europe.

Georgia’s military is also no heavyweight. It is composed of approximately 35,000 active duty personnel, with a defense budget of only about $315 million. This is significantly less than the United States spends on its military bands and their 6,500 musicians. Georgia’s troop numbers also pale in comparison to Russia’s 780,000 active forces, and its military is significantly smaller than that of its neighbor — and Russia’s friend — Armenia.

And when it comes to military performance, we shouldn’t forget that Georgia lasted all of five days in its war with Russia in 2008. Tbilisi’s forces failed to secure two contested provinces, and Russian troops marched deep into Georgia before the cease-fire. Although we shouldn’t overlook the Georgian military’s brave sacrifices in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the War on Terror, we shouldn’t kid ourselves either that it has been indispensable.

Given Georgia’s military and economic weakness, it is difficult to imagine a serious case for how allying with a security dependent like Georgia would contribute to the safety of a superpower like the United States, rather than draining attention and resources from core defensive missions. It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra famously said: Similar concerns were raised and dismissed during the debate over NATO enlargement to include the Baltics, and the alliance is now dealing with the hard challenges resulting from that decision. Georgia is simply a place of little strategic consequence for the United States and its allies. It is worth remembering that the United States won the Cold War with Georgia not just outside of NATO, but in fact a part of the Soviet Union.

If Georgia’s inability to significantly augment NATO’s power were the sole issue, it might be worthwhile to bring this country deeper into the Western fold. But efforts to do so actually undermine our safety by stoking Russian fears. That, in turn, could lead to actions and reactions that increase tensions, instability, and the likelihood of conflict.

This is International Relations 101. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Russia said, in 2008 when Georgian membership was being discussed in Bucharest, that “We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders … as a direct threat to the security of our country.” The Russian government this year said:

We believe this threatens our security and the balance of forces in the Eurasian region. It goes without saying that Russia is taking all necessary measures to rebalance the situation and protect its own interests and its own security.

One doesn’t have to trust (or like) Putin’s Russia to appreciate that our moves are tapping into common concerns faced by all states. We wouldn’t appreciate it if another power did this on our doorstep.

U.S. guarantees could also have a dangerous impact on Georgia’s behavior, and thus even Georgians might not want to celebrate the close ties too much. MIT scholar Barry Posen has found alliances can incentivize “reckless driving” — where weak allies are emboldened to take risks that they might not otherwise since “they can count on the United States to defend them.” Arguably, Georgia already drove recklessly prior to the 2008 war. If Georgia does so as a NATO member and provokes war with Russia, this could trigger Article 5. Then the United States would have to choose between fighting a nuclear power for this faraway, strategically inconsequential country or potentially breaking its collective security agreement — and maybe NATO with it. The danger of reckless driving is made more real by the fact that Georgia continues to be a party in two serious border disputes with Russia.

Americans need to be alert to the reality that an alliance with Georgia ultimately risks the safety of their country and the lives of their troops. The United States should not take on such obligations lightly, and they must be rooted in its own interests first. Adding a weak dependent like Georgia creates more costs and problems than benefits. This is not a good deal for Americans and their safety.


Will Ruger is the Charles Koch Institute Vice President for Research and Policy
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Image: Sgt. Daniel Cole, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs