ISET Economist Blog

Modern Quagmire and Georgia's Trump Card?
Monday, 13 February, 2017

“The fundamental problem for Georgian security is that Russia holds all the major cards and no one is reshuffling the deck in Georgia’s favor”, writes Neil MacFarlane in his 2016 article on Georgia’s security situation. Georgia has a mighty neighbor that is not democratic, does not respect the right of self-determination of nations, and, most importantly, actually brings its military power to bear whenever Russian (legitimate or illegitimate) interests are not sufficiently honored. To add insult to injury, Russia’s military strength is uncontested in the Caucasus, because Russia is the only major power for which this area of the world is important enough to put the lives of soldiers on the line.

Russia is very outspoken about its geopolitical stance: it does not want its neighbors to align with the West, let alone aspire for NATO membership. And Russia actually means it – countries not exercising self-restraint when casting their own destiny may well notice the Russian saber-rattling soon enough. Rather than some phony solidarity with the South Ossetians, the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest may have been the true reason for Russia’s military invasion into Georgia in the same year. At that summit, NATO was discussing Georgia and Ukraine’s paths to membership, and “these states’ membership in NATO was unacceptable to Russia” (MacFarlane). Even more obvious, Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine was triggered by the country’s NATO aspirations.


After the Second World War, Austria saw itself in a situation quite similar to Georgia’s situation today. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Austrians themselves, like the Georgians today, had clear preferences, seeing themselves as a member of the Western family of nations. Yet, they faced a firm demand by Stalin: Austria (where Stalin had lived for some time – another similarity with Georgia) should not become a member of the Western military bloc. If that demand was to be honored, however, Moscow was willing to grant Austria self-determination in those areas that really mattered, namely economics and internal politics. Understanding that full sovereignty is only valuable if one has the power to enforce it, the Austrian parliament enacted its famous Declaration of Neutrality on the 26th of October 1955, which until today is constitutional for Austrian (geo)political identity.

Over the years, neutrality yielded many advantages for Austria though. First of all, Austria could reduce its military expenditures to lowermost levels. In 2015, Austria spent only 0.7% of its GDP on its military, which is much less than what NATO countries spend on their defense (2.4% of their total GDP) and also less than Georgia’s expenditures (2.3%, coming down from more than 9% in 2007). If Austria had been attacked, nobody was obliged to come to the rescue, and even with higher defense spending, Austria alone would not have withstood the Red Army. Thus, Austria had no rationale for maintaining an expensive army.

Secondly, Austria was not attacked over all these years. Attacking a neutral country is a breach of international law, and while that did not protect a country like Belgium, whose neutrality was violated by Germany twice in the 20th Century, Switzerland shows that even dictators are reluctant to invade neutral countries. Belgium’s off-putting experiences with neutrality are due to its unfortunate geographical position between Germany and France, yet Switzerland, not situated between warring nations, was left alone even by Hitler.

Thirdly, a neutral country can attract international organizations much more easily, which is a considerable economic factor, more so for Georgia than for Switzerland and Austria. Geneva benefits big time from the presence of various international organizations, and also Vienna got its share. Why not Tbilisi?


There is no question that Georgia should do everything to become a truly Western country in terms of economy and society. The Austrian and Swiss examples show that this is possible without being militarily aligned with the West. Moreover, the Swiss and Austrians became exceptionally rich. Those who fear that a neutral Georgia would resemble Armenia, with a society that is strongly dominated by Russian economic and cultural influence, forget that Armenia crucially depends on Russian military support to survive in a hostile environment. Russia can therefore play out its influence in Armenia much more ruthlessly. Russia would not have such leverage vis-à-vis a neutral Georgia.

In the past, countries like Georgia and Ukraine have sought protection from Russian aggression by huddling under NATO’s umbrella, but through this very act they brought about Russia’s aggression. If Georgia declared once and for all that it does not want to enter NATO anymore and, moreover, that it will also be militarily neutral in reality and not become a de facto member of the Western bloc, this would mitigate Russian fears of “encirclement”. It would take away the very reason why Russia wants to control Georgia. Would this be a smart choice? As Georgia’s Western friends are not willing to provide the arms and military assistance that would be necessary to stand up to the Russian army, let alone deploying their own forces to defend this country, perhaps one should give in to reality. And what is that reality after Donald J. Trump ascended to the US presidency?

If judged by statements and staffing of the new administration, what the US may be suggesting is to drive its foreign policy course to a qualitatively new model of realpolitik which we would rather term as transactional diplomacy. This course may deviate from the previously known bi-polar or multi-polar setups but also precludes a deep retrenchment. Contrary to the isolationism or selective intervention, the United States under Trump would more likely pursue a stately molded corporate pattern, dealing with other state actors on a direct engagement basis. In other words, the new administration heralds tactical decision-making and implementation processes without a coherent strategy frame: specific circumstances surrounding a case would be assessed in isolation from their links with the rest of global challenges, trade-offs would be taken into account, and resources (either diplomatic, economic, military or altogether) available to achieve an end would be laid out on an as-needed basis. There are some clear indications that a plethora of international conventions and rules may well be "trumped" by corporate interests, and US foreign policy may be driven by such interests.

Given that reality, Georgia faces two unprecedented challenges: it has to adapt itself to the mainstream of its NATO aspirations and carve out a very unique approach to the new winds from across the Atlantic, as those apparently run against the spirit we witnessed in the course of the NATO expansion in the 1990s. Hence is the notion of transacting in foreign policy-making, when expediency of firmly aligning Georgia's own interest with interests of new US "visionaries" – corporate influential groups –  becomes ever more demanding. Coming years would obtrusively witness non-state actors – big businesses clouted with state insignia – to exercise a powerful say in new security architecture. And Georgia, as the West civilization's bulwark in the Caucasus, should be ready to face that new setup through chiseling its own geopolitically-driven subsidiarity by reshaping its profile in the national and regional context.

It is high time to bid a farewell to outdated means of diplomacy since they fail to produce plausible credits. They do not fit to the forceful shift from the Wilsonian era of racing for universal liberties to narrowly-focused newly styled pragmatism which discards what is moral and indulges in cherry-picking in pursuing its own interests. With that in mind, has Georgia ceased complaining about morality since the world of tomorrow will ostensibly applaud to a mere raison d'etat instead of a heart-warming liberty-equality-fraternity tirade?

Times will show and soon enough. It is deplorable to say that our times may repeatedly demonstrate that history will favor power over morality. Moreover, in view of transactionality and tacticality of foreign affairs, the country will most likely be adrift, and maverick capabilities to charter its course for reaching safe shores are critically needed at this historical juncture.

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.