Saturday, September 13, 2008

Stratfor CEO on Georgia conflict

Map Source: NY Review of Books.

Stratfor CEO George Friedman has written a provocative account of the Georgia conflict and how it is affecting global and regional balances of power. The essay can be found in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, and is available here.

What I find especially interesting about the article is the author's use of social-psychological principles to make sense of large-scale, geopolitical relations. His interest is in figuring out how countries 'think' -- how they interpret their competitors and the world around them -- and how these thoughts shape their interactions with other countries. Take the following passage.

To understand Russian thinking, we need to look at two events. The first is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. From the US and European points of view, the Orange Revolution repre-sented a triumph of democracy and Western influence. From the Russian point of view, as Moscow made clear, the Orange Revolution was a CIA-funded intrusion into the internal affairs of Ukraine, designed to draw Ukraine into NATO and add to the encirclement of Russia. US Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had promised the Russians that NATO would not expand into the former Soviet empire.

One event. Multiple perspectives. Friedman sees 'reality' in this case as including, by definition, both the American and Russian perspectives. Neither perspective is more true than the other. What I mean is that, to Friedman the analyst, both perspectives are data; they provide clues on how to understand present action and anticipate future action.

This kind of social-psychological analysis is important, but it is not easy, and requires varying tools. From sociology we get an important one: the concept of 'taking the role of the other' -- an analytical tool developed by the 'pragmatists' in the early twentieth century. The 'pragmatists' in this case are American philosophers George Herbert Mead and, to a slightly lesser extent, John Dewey. 'Taking the role of the other,' developed mainly by Mead, is a social-psychological concept meant to accentuate the broader notion that individual interpretation of reality plays a crucial role in creating reality.

A successful foreign policy must take the role of multiple others; the ability to anticipate and be prepared for events depends on it. Mr. Friedman uses the concept to analyze large-scale international interaction. He suggests that a country is best off if it knows not only its own interests, but also how its competitors are interpreting their interests. Toward this end, it is important to be able to see the world in terms of how your competitor sees the world: to above all understand how they see you.

However, Mr. Friedman's article is useful for more than just his social-psychological approach. He also offers a succinct, straightforward account of the four or five days in which the conflict escalated. These are the days, he writes, that announced "the balance of power [in Eurasia] had already shifted." You want to know what actually went on in those days? The following is Friedman's account:

Let's begin simply by reviewing recent events. On the night of Thursday, August 7, forces of the Republic of Georgia moved across the border of South Ossetia, a secessionist region of Georgia that has functioned as an independent entity since the fall of the Soviet Union (see map). They drove on to the capital, Tskhinvali, which is close to the border. Georgian forces got bogged down while trying to take the city. In spite of heavy fighting, they never fully secured it, nor the rest of South Ossetia.

On the morning of August 8, Russian forces entered South Ossetia, using armored and motorized infantry forces along with air power. South Ossetia was informally aligned with Russia, and Russia acted to prevent the region's absorption by Georgia. In view of the speed with which the Russians responded—within hours of the Georgian attack—they had been expecting it and were themselves at their jumping-off points. The counterattack was carefully planned and competently executed, and over the next forty-eight hours the Russians succeeded in defeating the main Georgian force and compelling a retreat. By Sunday, August 10, they had consolidated their position in South Ossetia.

On Monday, August 11, the Russians extended their offensive into Georgia proper, attacking on two axes. One was south from South Ossetia to the Georgian city of Gori. The other was from Abkhazia, another secessionist region of Georgia aligned with the Russians. (On August 26, Russia recognized South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, turning the de facto situation of the last sixteen years into a de jure one.) This drive was designed to cut the road between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its Black Sea ports, Poti and Batumi. By this point, the Russians had bombed the Georgian military airfields at Marneuli and Vaziani and appeared to have disabled radars at the international airport in Tbilisi. These moves brought Russian forces to within forty miles of the Georgian capital, while making outside re-inforcement and resupply of Georgian forces extremely difficult should anyone wish to undertake it.

Edward Lucas, a correspondent for The Economist, offers a smart response to Friedman's essay.

No comments: