America’s Vital Interests in Georgia: The Case for Engagement
“World history is often made in remote, obscure countries. It is being made in Georgia today. It is the responsibility of the leading nations of the world to ensure that history continues to be a record of humanity’s progress toward respecting the values and security of free people.’’
-Sen. John McCain, August 2008
On Aug. 8, the ninth anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, William Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute published in these pages a highly charged argument for American isolationism, focused on the case of Georgia. Ruger argued that Georgia is weak, small, and geographically disconnected from the United States, and that defending it would impose disproportionate costs and risk provoking Russia into more aggressive actions. In this article, we attempt to prove the opposite: that Georgia is a tested, reliable, and important partner for the United States and has extraordinary value for the continued success of the free world.
Before exploring the specific case of Georgia, it is worth pondering briefly the foundations of U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy. Past U.S. administrations have sought to pursue the 4Ps (Power, Principles, Prosperity and Peace). Under this framework, America sought to demonstrate its superior military power, achieve prosperity for its citizens through wider access to global markets and economic growth, and use its power to defend the values and principles of freedom and democracy. Adherence to these ideals has not been uniform. Still, this grand-strategic approach toward international peace is all the more relevant in today’s globalized world where security has no geography and relates only in part to the traditional standards of size and power.
Today, major security threats to the free world include Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the “rocket man” of North Korea, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and various non-state actors, often performing as proxies for authoritarian regimes. Although these threats each have their own causes and context, Putin has used them all, to varying degrees, in a larger struggle against the free world, waged through hybrid, indirect, and other nontraditional lines of effort. The primary targets of this struggle are the United States, its allies, and the international order that they have, since World War II, tried to underwrite. It is a struggle that expresses itself globally, that has no boundaries, and that, increasingly, is successfully penetrating and attacking the domestic political affairs of its adversaries, not least the United States.
So, on to Georgia. Georgia enjoys a longstanding strategic partnership with the United States reflected in the Strategic Partnership Charter, designed by the Bush administration following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, institutionalized by the Obama administration, and reinforced by the Trump administration’s legislative acts and the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to Georgia in August. In May, Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which sent a support signal to Georgia; the bill declared Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be Russian-occupied territories and banned financial support for any country recognizing their independence — a clear endorsement of Georgia’s non-recognition policy. One of the credible steps towards further implementing these policies would be to accelerate Georgia’s NATO membership. But, Ruger might ask, what is the vital U.S. interest in all of this?
Ruger presents the relationship between NATO and Georgia as one-sided, with NATO providing and Georgia consuming. This lens fails to capture the full strategic nature of the relationship. Georgia represents the mutual dependence that NATO, and the entire European project, rest upon, and that allows them to resist renewed threats. The question turns not only on NATO obligations, but also on what Georgia does, and could yet do, for the alliance. Already, Georgia acts as a willing foothold for NATO and the United States to secure key interests and maintain strategic options regionally.
In geopolitical terms, the broader Black Sea region serves as a link between the Caspian, Aegean, and Mediterranean basins, as well as a lucrative corridor to the Middle East. The United States has sought influence in the region in order to promote democratic values, combat terrorism in the Middle East, and diversify energy infrastructure and resources. On all three fronts, Georgia has proved a significant stronghold and partner. Solid U.S.-Georgian relations have also helped advance U.S. outreach to the strategically important regions of the Middle East, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia.
Today, Russia’s aggressive revisionism in the region and its attempted power projection towards the Middle East have increased the strategic significance of the Black Sea area, and given further reason for the United States to cement, rather than abandon, its commitment to Georgia. U.S policy in recent years reflects these realities. In June 2014, three months after the annexation of Crimea, the Obama administration signed off on the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) through which it would, both through NATO and bilaterally, increase the U.S. presence in Europe to deter further Russian aggression. Indeed, recent U.S.-Georgia military exercises, Noble Partner and Agile Spirit, with significant participation by NATO allies, have strongly demonstrated Georgia’s ideal location as a necessary U.S. military foothold in the region, both for exercises and for contingency deployments further afield. Perhaps for this reason, the Trump administration boosted funding for ERI by $1.4bn, a 40 percent increase. An important component of this policy is the ongoing growth of NATO’s presence in Georgia and its contribution to the modernization of the Georgian Armed Forces, intended to deter Russian military threats and harassment.
Similarly, through the General Security of Information Agreement (GSOIA) recently signed with Georgia, the United States obtains important access to intelligence, informational, and counterintelligence operations for the global fight against terrorism and against hybrid threats. These partnerships must not be squandered, but rather, enhanced — by reaching out to include a new member that has demonstrated its will and capabilities, yet has been left waiting.
Georgia has also become more economically important for the United States and its European allies. The New Silk Road and East-West trading corridors are becoming critical pathways for moving goods between Europe and Asia, whether for military or commercial purposes. Georgia is a key player along these corridors, particularly given the ongoing investment in deep-sea port projects such as the Anaklia overhaul. Georgia also plays a significant role in supplying energy resources from the Caspian Sea region to the West, a function that needs to be protected and secured. If Georgia falls into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, Russia will be able to control, or even block, the only alternative route for dry cargo, as well as for hydrocarbons, from the Caspian basin to Europe. Georgian membership in NATO would also cut short Russia’s strategic goal of creating an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) zone around the Black Sea.
Not only is there much to be won by engaging with Georgia, there is also much to be lost by abandoning it, as Ruger recommends. The entrenched strategic relationship between Georgia and the United States has fostered goodwill and a spirit of mutual support. When the United States was attacked on 9/11 and NATO allies for the first time in history invoked Article 5 of the collective defense treaty, Georgia was among the first non-NATO partner countries to join the antiterrorist coalition. This act was not only a gesture of gratitude for America’s strong support of its sovereignty but, more importantly, a sign of solidarity by a new democratic nation to defend the common values of freedom. Georgia in per-capita terms is the biggest non-NATO troop contributor to NATO operations. In fact, Georgia’s contribution is greater than that of many NATO members: It has spent more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense every year since 2005, thereby exceeding a NATO benchmark met only by five of its own members.
Since regaining independence after the breakup of the USSR, Georgia has become the most pro-American nation in the region (as reflected in public opinion polls such as those conducted by the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute). Not coincidentally, Georgia has also been a constant target of the full spectrum of Russian hybrid coercion. U.S. support has been invaluable in making Georgia resilient, helping it not just to survive but to further develop and transform itself into a beacon of democracy in the region. Up to 90 percent of Georgians are, partly for this reason, strong supporters of the West and of Georgia’s Western orientation.
Yet this support cannot be taken for granted; it will certainly wither if the United States disengages from Georgia. Pro-Western sentiment in the country is already under constant attack by Russian active measures. Arguments like Ruger’s inadvertently and regrettably confirm much of what Russian propaganda would have Georgians believe — that no one in the West cares, or ought to care, about a tiny nation of four million people. The inescapable inference is that Georgia should be left to its fate, abandon its popular pro-Western policies, and become Russia’s satellite.
Such an outcome, likely if the United States disengages, would have ramifications that extend far beyond Georgia. Following the 2008 invasion in Georgia, Putin’s capture of Crimea and armed activities in eastern Ukraine signaled the first violent rearrangement of European borders since 1945. How the West reacts to these sorts of provocations by Russia bears heavily on Euro-Atlantic security and its rules-based conception of the international system. Protecting the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia is crucial for the West precisely because European security and stability are at stake, regardless of whether and when these countries join European and Euro-Atlantic structures. The only alternative to including Georgia within NATO’s security umbrella, or otherwise guaranteeing its independence and stability, will be to legitimize new dividing lines in Eastern Europe, and to recognize Russian spheres of influence over countries and peoples resisting its will.
This delineation appears also to be Ruger’s preference. He notes, somewhat tendentiously, that Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, is, after all, 1,600 miles from Berlin — a distance that creates “logistical and defensive headaches.” And yet Lisbon, 1,727 miles from Berlin, was never thought too remote for Western values, interests, and protection. In the end, the exact distances are secondary to Ruger’s isolationist and reductive understanding of NATO, one that tellingly separates “significant member nations” from the rest, those “disconnected geographically from the core industrial heartland of Europe.” This logic and rhetoric are unhelpful in maintaining a strategic alliance and shielding it against external attempts at rupture.
When the author purports to speak for those Americans who might be called upon to defend this “small country in the Caucasus,” he raises an emotive point but ignores the most important principle that all democracies are meant to share — solidarity. It is not a given that American soldiers who might be called to defend Georgia, and who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with many thousands of Georgians in Afghanistan and Iraq, will necessarily agree with Ruger’s conclusions when he speaks on their behalf. Also, though the prospect of deploying troops overseas is always difficult to justify, there is little comfort to be found in the erroneous suggestion that America’s interests stop at its shores.
Indeed, contrary to Ruger’s fears that defending Georgia may provoke Russia, the best way to deter a future conflict may be to demonstrate resolve in protecting America’s friends prior to the outbreak of crisis. It was not increased assurances by NATO that compelled Russia to act violently in Ukraine and Georgia, but rather Putin’s calculation, correct in these instances, that no one would come to their defense. The decision at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit not to offer Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan showcased the alliance’s lack of unity on the matter and opened the door for Russian aggression. It is no coincidence that we have yet to see a similarly stark exercise of Russian power against NATO member-states.
To check this Russian campaign of intimidation on NATO’s borders, and to avoid the type of U.S. military deployments to Eastern Europe that are currently underway in Ukraine, the United States should underwrite credible commitments to these apparently “strategically inconsequential” countries, all while engaging diplomatically with Russia as needed. Extending such commitments has protected other states in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region from aggression; in the case of Georgia, it can work again.
More than just a nation of four million on the front lines of democracy, Georgia symbolizes freedom itself and the success of America’s democratic values, now under serious threat by authoritarian regimes and their proxies. Failure to protect Georgian democracy under Russian pressure will be Georgia’s tragedy. It will also undermine the West’s credibility and the strategic vision it has pursued since World War II and, in particular, since the collapse of the Soviet regime: a Europe whole, free, and at peace. This concept has been gradually realized through the piecemeal inclusion of willing and able partners in alliances and international regimes. Countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that were thought to be beyond the West’s reach in 1989 are now ensconced in security arrangements that have made them, and the region, more secure. This important job is not yet finished.
Ambassador Shota Gvineria serves as the Deputy Secretary at the National Security Council of Georgia and is a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Research Center. Before this, he covered NATO integration and security policy related issues as Ambassador at Large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.
David H. Ucko is associate professor and the director of the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA), located within the U.S. National Defense University (NDU). He is writing in his personal capacity; the opinions expressed here do not represent the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the NDU.
Image: U.S. Army/A.M. LaVey