For most of the history of independent Georgia, the view towards Washington has looked more or less the same. The US has been a strong supporter of Georgia and has been one of the most countries most interested in bringing Georgia into Euro-Atlantic organizations, or to phrase it another way, into the US sphere of influence. Washington has been a strong advocate for Georgia joining NATO, has provided military support and training to Tbilisi, and, from about 2008-2016, was a strong critic of Russia in the region as well.
The US relationship with Georgia has been driven by the interests of both countries as well as by personal politics. In the years from 1993-2002 when Georgia was led by Eduard Shevardnadze, his position and role in the last years of the Cold War made him, and therefore Georgia, stand out in Washington as not just another former Soviet state. Shevardnadze’s network of relationships and strong stature in the west was very helpful for Georgia in those years. After the Rose Revolution of 2003-4, when Mikheil Saakashvili became Georgia’s president, the personal dynamic of this relationship continued as Saakashvili built a strong bond with then US President George W. Bush. Saakashvili built that relationship through his libertarian and neoconservative rhetoric that dovetailed with that of the administration. Additionally, Saakashvili’s fluency in English and familiarity with American policy and politics helped him build a strong network in the American foreign policy community.
This bilateral relationship was forged simply on personal relations. For Georgia, the US was the most powerful ally they could have. By casting its lot with the US, Georgia made it more difficult for Russia to dominate the region-and Georgia. Additionally, Georgia’s relationship with the US and Europe help the nascent state define itself as part of the white, Christian occident. This was a softer identity based Georgian perceptions, but to underestimate its importance would be a grave mistake. Georgia, in turn, served a useful role for the US. In addition to making it possible for the US to expand its influence deep into what was once the Soviet Union, Georgia was a stalwart ally only a short flight away from many countries in the Middle East, a region that by the first years of the 21st century was becoming increasingly central to American foreign policy.
In addition, the Rose Revolution briefly elevated Georgia in the minds of many western foreign policy because the ascendancy of Saakashvili’s government with its masterful use of the rhetoric and imagery of democracy dovetailed with George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Thus, at a time when the US was looking for examples of countries that had sloughed off authoritarian regimes and were moving towards free markets and democracy, Georgia with its dynamic, young English speaking leadership, was an excellent fit. Saakashvili reinforced his rhetoric and image by his support for the US led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Georgian troops were sent to fight alongside Americans in those conflicts.
By 2008, Georgia could no longer plausibly present itself to Washington, outside of the most die-hard neoconservative circles, as what President George W. Bush once referred to as a “beacon of democracy.” Instead, Saakashvili repositioned Georgia as a bulwark against Russia. Saakashvili’s increasingly emboldened and virulent anti-Putin rhetoric provide geopolitical succor to American hawks, primarily in the Republican Party, who were seeking to constrain an increasingly aggressive Russia.
The change of government in Georgia in 2012 when the Georgian Dream (GD) defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) brought a new regime into power in Georgia that sought to balance the western orientation of the UNM with ratcheting down tension while increasing commercial and other ties with Russia. The new government, while lacking the personal ties or Washington savvy of either Saakashvili’s or Shevardnadze’s governments, nonetheless continued to be a strong American ally.
A major component of Georgian foreign policy, and its relationship with the US, since the early Saakashvili years has been its efforts to join NATO. For Tbilisi, NATO membership has long been a central national security goal. Over the last fifteen years, the west has given a series of mixed messages on NATO to Georgia. In 2008 in Bucharest the NATO countries declared that Georgia would become a part of NATO. However, their unwillingness to assign a date to that statement or to link it to a Membership Action Plan (MAP) rendered those words empty.
Since 2008, Georgia has crept closer to NATO, which was recognized in 2014 by the Substantial NATO Georgia Package (SNGP). The SNGP brought Georgia closer to the NATO countries, but absent a MAP did not meaningfully change the likelihood of Georgia becoming a member of NATO. In the more than decade since 2008, Georgia has reformed its military and made other advances to get into NATO, but the promise made that year remains unfulfilled.
Many NATO members are wary of bringing Georgia into NATO for several reasons. First, the presence of Russian troops, and Russian backed regimes, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia means that Georgia still does not exercise sovereignty over all of its territory. Second, and most significantly, many NATO members are wary of extending NATO membership, and along with it Article Five protections, to a country that is under such constant threat from Russia. For policy makers in these countries, bringing Georgia into NATO increases the chances of a larger war with Russia. Lastly, while Georgia has made advances with regards to civil liberties and other freedoms in recent years, its democracy is still a work in progress. This is also a concern for NATO countries who see NATO not just as a security treaty organization, but as a symbol of western democracy. There are other countries, most apparently Turkey, which are NATO members and not democracies, but this for many this does not qualify as a strong argument in favor of Georgian membership in NATO.
In recent years, an unspoken agreement has emerged regarding how Georgia’s allies address Georgia’s aspirations. It is recognized outside of Tbilisi that Georgia will not get into NATO in the foreseeable future, but representatives of NATO and NATO member states agree, explicitly or not, to never say this out loud. This allows the Georgian government to continue to tell citizens of Georgia that NATO membership is still imminently achievable. This also locks Georgia into a foreign policy at the center of which is a goal that will not be reached anytime soon. This position, while meeting the short term needs of the Georgia, the US and other NATO countries, does nothing to advance the real and longer term security challenges facing Georgia.
The major problem of Georgia’s pro-west position is not only that NATO membership is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Rather, it is that the world, and the west, have changed dramatically in the last few years and that to craft a foreign policy orientation, and set of goals, around a reality that no longer exists is unwise. The victory for the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s successful campaign for President in 2016 threw two of the most powerful NATO members into political turmoil. Looming over that turmoil was the Kremlin who had played a role in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns. Since becoming President of the United States in 2017, Donald Trump has demonstrated a willingness to advance Russia’s goals that should be very troubling for Georgia.
If Georgia was not exploring an alternate geopolitical orientation as a way to ensure their security and sovereignty before 2016 because they still believed NATO membership was a possibility, that was somewhat understandable, but to cling to that view today is a much bigger mistake. For Georgia NATO membership only has value if the alliance is strong, unified and stable. Getting into NATO just as it is tipping into instability and declining relevance would be pyrrhic and ironic victory for Georgia.
Unfortunately, if Georgia were to get into NATO in the next 3-5 years, an admittedly unlikely scenario, that could well be the case. In ten or twenty years, a more likely outcome for Georgia, NATO membership could be even less valuable. The American president has spent much of his time in office berating NATO allies while holding private meetings with Vladimir Putin. Turkey, a key NATO member for decades, is slipping further into authoritarianism and continues to pursue interests that are very different than the rest of NATO. The UK, long one of the key members of NATO, is wrestling with its own domestic instability and a wave of anti-European sentiment that could easily expand to anti-NATO sentiment. This is not a NATO that is likely to be of any value to Georgia.
Georgia’s NATO aspirations have been based on the belief that NATO is the only way to guarantee Georgia’s security, but Georgia is better served by policies that focus on how to achieve the ends-in this case security rather than a means, NATO, that is less achievable and less of a security guarantee than seemed to be the case a decade ago. Therefore, Georgia should reevaluate its security goals, or more accurately, the most effective means of achieving its security goals.
As part of that effort, Georgia should not rule out a more neutral position. While Georgia should not rush to neutrality without thinking it through, it should not exclude the possibility either. Neutrality may, at first, seem daunting or off-putting to Georgians, but to some extent that is already their de facto position. Recent history, not least the 2008 war, has shown that while Georgia has not become part of Moscow’s sphere of privileged influence, it is also not part of the west. It aspires to be the west, but for almost a quarter of a century those aspirations not borne enough fruit.
Pivoting to a more defined neutrality would allow Georgia to craft its own relationships with a range of partners, including China and some countries in the Middle East without spending psychic and political energy hoping that NATO membership would finally materialize. It would also allow Georgia to become to take control of its own foreign policy rather than having it be hostage to the decisions by other NATO countries.
Georgia’s neutrality would not only effect Georgia, but other countries as well. Here again, the context is very different than it was five or ten years ago. For much of the first fifteen years Georgia had become a trusted, if minor, ally of western powers, particularly the US. Georgia cooperated with George W. Bush’s War on Terror, sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and was on the front lines of the west’s anti-Russia policies, but since then a lot has changed. The US has sought to wind down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the American president has pivoted to what appears to be a more isolationist view of the world in which American allies are shunted aside in favor of more authoritarian leaders. The symbolism of Georgia’s support for the US before 2016 was significant, but not enough. Today, even that symbolism is much less potent.
The US commitment to Georgia has long been based by a strongly articulated, but not always persuasive, view of Georgia as strategically important to the US. Georgia’s strategic import was explained as being a result of it lying at a crossroads, close to the Middle East, pro-west and a bulwark against Russia. These are the kind of vague platitudes that are true of many countries, but they don’t capture the real nature of the relationship. The US commitment to Georgia was always based on an American affinity for Georgia that was solidified during the Rose Revolution when the Saakashvili and Bush administrations shared similar neoconservative views on foreign policy and neoliberal views on economics. In other words, the US was committed to Georgia because the US liked Georgia. That initial dynamic led to increased foreign assistance to Georgia which was then rationalized by a post-facto explanation of Georgia’s strategic importance. In other words, Georgia is strategically important because the US gives it a lot of money, not the reverse.
This is important because as the US and Georgian governments change, these affinities will naturally begin to break down-and in some respects they already have. For example, few would argue that there are any close personal ties between Trump and Ivanishvili’s governments. As those personal ties begin to erode, the rationale for the close ties, that have long been based upon relationships rather than interests will likely erode as well.
While Americans value the relationship and most of the foreign policy establishment likes Georgia, few view Georgia as an essential partner. Rather, it is one of many countries that the US likes, can craft a rationale for its strategic import and contributes financial assistance to, but not one that the US needs. This means that should Georgia decide to pursue a more multi-vectored foreign policy, or move to neutrality, they will not encounter resistance or hostility from the US. The US would most likely accept it, move on and be grateful there is one fewer country in the world about which they have to worry quite so much.
Simply beginning to pursue a neutral multi-vectored foreign policy by, for example, reducing domestic rhetoric about the necessity of joining NATO, building stronger ties to other powers and not supporting every American foreign policy adventure, while continuing to cooperate with the US on a few essential matters, would be wise. That approach would likely be greeted with support from the US as most policy makers their represent that ultimately Georgia’s quest for NATO membership is a Sisyphean one. It is also essential, from the perspective of Washington that Georgian neutrality be just that-neutral. If neutrality is perceived as a tilt towards Russia, that would introduce tensions into the US-Georgia relations, particularly if the current President is replaced by one who is less sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As Tbilisi ponders how to ensure its security in the post-2015 context, where the future of NATO is less clear than ever, the US President has, at best, a curious relationship with Russia, NATO membership for Georgia is not on the table in the short or medium term, and the threat posed by an aggressive Russia remains, all options should be considered. Additionally, the role of other powers, most significantly China, in helping enhance Georgia’s security should not be ensured. While Georgia is right to be wary of eliciting a negative reaction from Washington, Tbilisi should also recognize how little leverage the US has over countries like Georgia. In the US, cutting of assistance or otherwise damaging Georgia and the relationship in ways that Georgia likely fears, would be seen as failures of US policy, so are very unlikely. The power and persistence of bureaucratic logic in US foreign policy is still substantial and, as long as Georgia doesn’t turn towards Moscow, will continue to help Tbilisi.