The recent war in Georgia has shocked and frightened all of Europe. Thankfully, it is coming to a halt, but whether that halt will prove temporary or permanent is beyond the judgement of this blog (and indeed any blog).
Some thoughts about what caused the war, though, are worth airing. The fighting started when the Georgian government attempted to reassert control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia, which required an attack on the Russian forces that were stationed there (nominally as peacekeepers, but in fact as the advance guard of an occupation). The Russians then responded with overwhelming force, not entirely unlike a full-scale military invasion.
The argument that Georgian membership of Nato would have prevented the war seems to me a little odd. Would the Russians have been dissuaded from their reaction if Georgia had been a member of Nato? I doubt it. Those Nato members that are most sympathetic to the Georgian case have no troops to send (or no troops to spare, as they are already in Afghanistan and Iraq), while those countries that do have soldiers available (because they’ve not been sent to Afghanistan) would be even less likely to want to the fight the Russians. On the other hand, a Georgian government that believed it had the military protection of America and Europe would have been no less likely to have embarked on its doomed military mission in the first place.
Nato members would then have been faced with a terrible dilemma. Either fight the Russians, or allow the mutual defence commitment that is central to the Nato alliance to evaporate into thin air. Anyone who says that Georgia should have been admitted to Nato membership at the summit in Bucharest in April 2008 has got to say which of those two they would prefer.
The fundamental problem is that Nato does not add to its mutual defence guarantee any meaningful way of making common policies. During the Cold War, this did not matter: the threat was obviously from the Soviet Union and America was obviously the leader of the free world. The United States could therefore make decisions on behalf of the entire alliance, although there was controversy even over some of those, such as the decision to deploy Tomahawk and Pershing missiles in the early 1980s.
Now that the threat and the leadership role are not quite so clear, what can be done? There would have been no question of a Nato member during the Cold War embarking on the kind of adventure that Georgia has just done: the Americans would not have allowed it. The assumption that Georgian membership of Nato would have led it to follow wider Nato policies is surely wrong. More likely, Nato membership would have emboldened Georgia to continue with its existing policy, in the belief that it had the support of the rest of the west. As the Georgians have found out to their cost, they don’t.
The European Union is more realistic that Nato in this regard, recognising that joint policy-making has got to accompany mutual obligations. Of course, joint policy-making is hard, which why the EU has a relatively limited competence in foreign affairs and security at present. But the EU is more likely to prove a useful vehicle for cooperation in these areas in future precisely because it has a better way of taking decisions.