Department of wishful thinking?
Welcoming Joe Biden to Tbilisi yesterday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that “in America, as anywhere on earth you can find lots of cynics and realpolitik followers. But in America, idealists ultimately run the show.” It’s easy to understand why Saakashvili said this: he’s desperate for American backing and that requires portraying Georgia as a ...
Welcoming Joe Biden to Tbilisi yesterday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili declared that “in America, as anywhere on earth you can find lots of cynics and realpolitik followers. But in America, idealists ultimately run the show.”
It’s easy to understand why Saakashvili said this: he’s desperate for American backing and that requires portraying Georgia as a beacon of democracy and freedom and making a none-too-subtle appeal to America’s commitment to defend these values everywhere. Why? Because it requires real creativity to divine a powerful strategic interest for an alliance with Georgia, especially when Washington is trying to get Russian cooperation on issues that clearly matter more, like Iran. It also requires overlooking Saakashvili’s less-than-democratic behavior in the past, and the foolish war that he launched a year ago.
In any case, I hope Saakashvili also read the Times piece on U.S. policy in Central Asia, where human rights and other idealistic considerations are taking a back seat to strategic interests (i.e., the need for regional backing for the U.S. war in Afghanistan). It suggests that Saakashvili has got American foreign policy exactly backwards: yes, you can always find lots of “idealists” trying to get the United States to take on various philanthropic projects overseas, and of course U.S. leaders will always invoke cherished U.S. ideals when describing their policies. But in the end, realpolitik tends to win out, even if we don’t like to say so too openly. To be sure, sometimes various special interest groups succeed in getting their pet projects onto the policy agenda, especially if they know how to work the American political system, and sometimes hubris leads U.S. leaders to take on grandiose plans to spread democracy or human rights, or other admittedly desirable things. Indeed, because the United States is so strong and comparatively secure, it’s been able to take on more of these projects than anyone else, and probably more than it should.
But when push comes to shove, U.S. leaders usually fall back on the less sentimental calculations of realpolitik, and they are rarely willing to risk much blood or treasure on behalf of purely moral concerns. I hope the Georgians keep that in mind.
VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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