President Obama and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili were all smiles after their meeting at the White House earlier today. Obama reportedly told Saakashvili he wants a U.S.-Georgia free trade agreement, and the two leaders discussed security cooperation as well.
Obama also made a verbal gesture toward Georgia that everyone pretends to be reassured by even though it’s usually utterly meaningless: He reaffirmed American support for Georgia’s acceptance into NATO. But in this case, Obama’s NATO comments are actually important, whether the NATO bid goes anywhere or not. That’s because the reasons to keep Georgia out of NATO have disappeared, and we’ll find out whether the West’s commitment to its allies and to global security are all, as Obama might say, “just words.”
To backtrack a few years, when George W. Bush used his last NATO conference in 2008 to argue forcefully for granting Georgia and Ukraine membership action plans (MAP), the first step toward NATO accession, he was rebuffed by France and Germany who found Bush’s defense of America’s allies to be, according to the New York Times, “annoying.”
Germany’s official reason for selling Georgia out to Moscow was that the periodic Russian invasions of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were “frozen conflicts,” and until such matters were settled it would be dangerous to pledge to protect Georgia. What the Germans were doing–unintentionally but still reprehensibly–was signaling to Russia that as long as they continued to attack sovereign Georgian territory every so often, Germany would continue to keep Georgia out of NATO. Unsurprisingly, four months after that conference, Russia invaded.
In case anyone thought that wasn’t the reason for it, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently gave two speeches in which he plainly said the 2008 invasion was carried out specifically to keep Georgia out of NATO. That Bush tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to stop Germany from encouraging a Russia-Georgia war seems to be water under the bridge. But so is the “frozen conflict” the Germans were so worried about. Last month, Russia was finally admitted to the World Trade Organization. Georgia had been holding up Russia’s admission into the group over Russia’s refusal to agree to a reasonable border-security arrangement, but the two sides finally did come to such an agreement, so that should remove Germany’s excuse.
That Times story from the 2008 conference also suggests that Bush’s attempt to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO risked upsetting Russia over missile defense sites in Eastern Europe. But early on in his administration, Obama helpfully took care of that by scrapping the missile defense anyway (and in the most offensive manner possible–this was an early indicator of “smart” power).
So, Russia’s concerns have been tended to. Germany’s excuses have dissipated. Georgia’s good-faith gestures, however, thus far have been unilateral. Unless Barack Obama’s gift for diplomacy cannot even convince our allies to support our other allies, what’s the holdup?