World War II history has tragically made a comeback this week. Whether the world has learned any history lessons is critically important in several ways.
This column was to have been about the Beijing Olympics, about the rightness - or wrongness - of allowing a rising power like China to showcase its talents to the world when there are so many problems associated with that rise. As opening ceremonies commenced with a bang at 8:08 pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008, China strove to mask the negative images created by its role in Tibet, in Darfur and Iran or by the banning of politically inconvenient athletes and its massive problems with pollution.
How does the world integrate such a power to achieve a benign result? It failed horribly with Nazi Germany, host of the 1936 Olympics. Will we succeed better this time? As it happened, Russia chose the very moment, over the weekend - when the Olympics held the attention of the world - to launch an attack on Georgia, a small neighboring nation. Though the attack was in reaction to Georgian military actions against its separatist province of South Ossetia, the disproportionate Russian military reaction looked like nothing so much as the German land grab against Czechoslovakia that served as a prelude to World War II. It sends an extremely haunting signal to other nations once part of the Soviet empire that Russia is back and ready to reclaim its sphere of influence.
The indifference of world reaction in 1938, when the Germans entered the Czech Sudetenland, focused mainly on placating Adolf Hitler. It earned British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain a place of ignominy in history, and led Winston Churchill to describe Czechoslovakia as a “small nation thrown to the wolves.” Again, the historical parallels are haunting.
The twin challenges of rising China and resurgent Russia are among the most thorny and critical issues facing President Bush in his last months in office as well as his successor. We had better pray that the next man in the Oval Office will be someone who knows about international affairs and the uses of military power, for the stakes have just been raised dramatically. Leadership in Washington will be critically important in managing these challenges.
The Beijing Olympics will run their course. Having made this bid for international prominence, China should now be asked to meet international standards of behavior. This covers a range of problems from treatment of minorities, to suppression of political dissent, to upholding international agreements on human rights, copyrights, trade liberalization, peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, etc.
Meanwhile, as far as Russia and Georgia are concerned, we don’t have the luxury of planning. The crisis is here and now. As of this writing, Russian military forces have moved far outside South Ossetia and effectively cut Georgia in two, disrupting military supply lines. The Russian military stands poised to take the capital of Tiblisi and the Russian government is demanding “regime change” in a democratic nation that was one of the first to break away from the Soviet embrace in 1990 at the price of considerable bloodshed. Georgia has since defied Russia by seeking closer ties with the West, petitioning for membership of NATO and potentially of the European Union as well.
In Europe, some are blaming American encouragement of Georgia’s NATO aspirations for lulling the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili into a false sense of security that caused him to act provocatively. Russians have been acting as “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia, though occupying forces could be another way of describing their presence. The European argument reflects a classic appeasement mindset that always blames the victim first.
A better argument might be that Georgian NATO membership might have stopped Russia in its tracks. Now, a very public show of unity by the nations of the world condemning Russian actions is critical - from the U.N. Security Council to Washington and the capitals of Europe. It will assuredly be up to Washington to take the lead in effort, which should spell out the harsh international-pariah consequences for Russia if aggression persists.
President Bush was clearly distracted this weekend - as was the rest of the world - by the excitement of watching the Olympic athletes. Now forceful signals have to be sent from Washington that the moment of distraction is over, and that Georgia will not be thrown to the wolves.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.