A Georgian embassy official accused the Russians of “attempting to conquer
I have been thinking a lot about democracy lately. Not just democracy, but liberal democracy, the broader inculcation of the sort of society that is the staple of the modern world (and will be a staple of the postmodern world). It's not an easy subject, but there's one conclusion I have drawn with confidence: democracy is excruciatingly fragile. I remember playing a version of the game Civilisation not that long ago, in which you control and build-up a society from the dawn of history. In it selecting democracy for your nation would confer extraordinary benefits: but it is also tendentiously volatile, collapsing into anarchy if unrest persists more than one turn. Real democracy works not much differently - and so far I am only speaking internally.
Democracy is constantly under threat from predatory regimes. This seems self-evident, but in the case of Georgia it is especially important to understand how. The earliest modern democracies, namely the United States and Great Britain, were countries with some kind of decisive geopolitical advantage. The United States was very far away from the centers of power, and was thus able to create one in the New World; Britain was invulnerable to the huge land armies of autocratic France, Spain and Austria and was able to build up a significant navy (which requires a large population base but a small standing force) precisely because of the prosperty its nascent democratic traditions allowed via a surging middle class. The Dutch maintained a democracy too; but with all of Britain's weaknesses and none of its advantages eventually succumbed, half to invasion and half to the lure of autocracy as a response to itself.
If we accept the idea that dictatorships tend to be unresponsive to the needs of the people and thus promote poverty and erode wealth (a country with a free press doesn't have famines, after all), but we also accept the idea that a dictatorship must at least prevent itself from gaining the unwavering enmity of the people, then we must find a relief valve. Nationalism, that bastard creation of democracy itself, is an easy way out - but "[people X]ians don't allow other [people X]ians to starve in the streets." So how to use nationalism? Direct it against somebody else, a foreign enemy on whom woes can be blamed. Preferably a small country, in land area if not in population, preferably weak, even better if it's rich - or whose people are at least demonstrably better than yours. Otherwise pick one big and outwardly menacing but either distant or superficially powerful (i.e. as Prussia used France).
So democracies were powerful or dead. Given that fact and their unique susceptibility to shifting public opinions they were also paranoid, which inspired much the same imperialistic instinct as did the cloistered rule of the great autocrats. Democracies were, at least, generally clever enough to note that other democracies made poor meals (Poland, for instance, being easier to swallow than to digest) and otherwise were not threats; and so democracies, like authoritarian regimes, tended to spread themselves. As they did - and as authoritarian regimes hurled themselves at the emergent democracies and were defeated each in turn - the world got broadly safer, if less predictable. Smaller nations were able to enter the stage and establish a credible existence. In 1900 there were only 1/3 the number of nations as in 2000; and a much larger percentage of those countries were capable of significant power projection or under the protection of a larger entity. The triumph of democracy, despite the menace of the Soviet Union, allowed peoples around their world to have a chance at a destiny. (Though in previous writings I have taken issue with the wisdom of their choice, they have at least had the choice; given the events in Georgia I hold to that point).
And I come to Russia. There is no better example of how feeble democracy and how seductive authoritarianism truly is than that of Russia, where the influence of an doddering and suicidal drunk was enough to snuff out the democracy he had tried to create just five years earlier. Make no mistake that it was gone by the time Putin arrived; Putin was just better at his job. And now he's in a new one, acclimating to a change of position (if not one of influence). The need for a renewed demonstration of power is necessary to prove to everyone (not least the Russian people) where control still lies, and why Russia is to be considered a "great power." Unfortunately Chechnya was no longer suitable as a whipping boy - it had already been eviscerated. What was really needed was some minor blunder. Democracy, unfortunately, is uniquely susceptible to such tiny mistakes. Saakashvili made that mistake, and at a uniquely poor time, out of ham-handedness rather than strategem. Putin and Medvedev got their chance and now everybody knows who is in charge.
Democracy is fragile - and democracy has always relied for defense less upon itself than upon the aid of other democracies. It was so in the Peloponnesian Wars and it was so in the Second World War. It remains so today. The clash of powers today unfolds much like the Battle at Kruger: the few, sinister autocrats are lions, waiting constantly to prey on the weakness of others. The many democracies are buffalo: devastatingly powerful in a group but blithely unaware of it, vulnerable and skittish and prone to bad decisions individually. Georgia is surely not yet a mature democracy; they have a long way to go, and the process is never fully complete. But that does not make them less worthy of help - indeed it makes us more culpable in her plight. America's idiotic missile shield (perhaps no longer so idiotic) and our head fake about NATO membership was the crucial hesitation in the face of the Russian lion - and now Georgia, a child among nations, is stricken and on the verge of being slain. We listen to them cry out in fear and pain, and we demand that Putin halt and show proper restraint and for God's sake be reasonable, as a lion would find it reasonable to give up dinner for the sake of cross-species equity. He is not reasonable, not by liberal democratic standards, because he has no interest in peace. He is not one of us. He is trying to devour us. And if we sit idly by she will grow stronger and come back for a bigger meal, sooner or later.
And now the limb. It must not be allowed. Putin should be forced to withdraw from Georgia - all of it - and if he does not he should be tossed in the air by our collective might. War in such a situation is not an option but a necessity and the risks are infinitely worth it and infinitely right. We do not leave our own behind. Not when we can still hear Georgia's cries for help, not when it needn't be so - not when it means that we are next.