With the Confrontation in the Caucasus seemingly over, I wanted to try to think through some of the implications for US foreign policy. Although it was a short conflagration, these past 5 days have the feeling of an important turning point. I don’t think that the Confrontation itself has fundamentally altered the nature of International Politics, but rather it seems endemic of a slow shift that had been underway for some time. Though the past order may have eroded gradually, Russia’s stark exploitation of the situation reveals the full extent of the shift.

First, US credibility and influence has taken a severe blow. Georgia had been a “darling” of the US, sending troops to Iraq, a model of democracy and liberalism in the Caucasus, and potential NATO member. There are clearly mixed signals as to who knew what when. Georgia seems to think that it had either implicit US backing for its moves in South Ossetia or a tacit promise of support should Russia retaliate. Russia seems to have at least thought it had a free hand to intervene within South Ossetia. Its possible the US signaled all of this, just as its possible that the US didn’t intend to signal any of this. As Rob points out, mixed signals happen all the time in IR and we have no shortage of theories to explain it. (Update: The NYT does some reporting on the mixed messages sent by the US).

Regardless of who may have said what to whom, what matters now is who is affixing what meaning to who’s actions. Importantly, Russia’s ability to escalate with relative impunity against a Western ally coupled with such a tepid US, European, NATO, and Western response certainly sends a message. First and foremost: Sending troops to Iraq doesn’t buy you much, get the Article V guarantee first. In other words, aligning with the US doesn’t buy you much in terms of real security because there really isn’t much the US can do in a situation like this. No one (rather I should say no credible and sane person) has suggested that the US intervene to support Georgia and take in Russia.

In a sense, it sounds like the opening chapter of some of the novels on my table for beach reading on my upcoming vacation: A set of covert and suspicious circumstances halfway around the world from two leaders determined to advance their own power agendas leads to a conflict that soon spirals out of control. Pressure builds, and the US is on the verge of intervention, which would mean war between nuclear superpowers, the nightmare of nuclear World War III everyone thought had died in 1991. Only Jack Ryan / Mitch Rapp / Austin Powers can stop nuclear Armageddon…

That’s fiction. The reality is that the limits of US influence have been exposed. Russia had a relatively free hand to do what it did in Georgia and there was nothing that the US (or anyone else for that matter) was going to do about it. If you’re Poland, do you think twice about hosting a missile defense site? If you’re Estonia, do you think twice about your statues? Now, these are NATO allies, but they will now require reassurance, a complex intra-Alliance game. More to the point, what of the rest of the Caucuses and central Asia? What does China think about Taiwan or Mongolia?

It also forces a re-thinking of Bush’s foreign policy legacy. Now, the Administration itself has already completed this process, moving far away from its first term international activism to a more traditional second term pragmatism. The greatest element of Bush’s policy was its promotion of democracy. The multi-colored revolutions, including the Rose in Georgia, were seen, in part, as a successful demonstration effect of Bush’s democratization agenda. This agenda was threatening to Russia and China (and Iran…), where democracy promotion is seen as a form of US imperialism. From a US perspective, the success of Democracy in the Ukraine, Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and such pressures Russia, China, Iran, and such. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia was able to spank Georgia’s Rose Revolution, again setting a marker limiting the influence of US-backed democratization movements.

While democracy promotion may be a normatively preferred plank in US strategy, it suffered a blow here. The pleadings of neoconservatives, still committed to the original Bush project, for intervention on behalf of Georgia drives the agenda to its logical end, a reduction-ad-absurdum that somehow bolsters the appeal of a more traditional realpolitik.

Finally, it shows the end of the unipolar moment. While the US may still enjoy its position of hegemony (and probably will for some time), the end of US Unipolarity has come. Dan’s insight here is prescient and bears repeating:

Russia wants status, wealth, and predominance in what it considers its sphere of influence. Only the last goal brings it into conflict with the US, and perhaps it is time that a less subtle, and more credible, discussion of precisely what that sphere of influence entails needs to happen. It obviously cannot include the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania–and this is one reason why NATO cohesion must be at the top of the US agenda. But there’s something odd in claims that “sphere of influence” are somehow inherently immoral; the real issue seems to be that, in a “unipolar world,” a bid for a sphere of influence means relatively less influence for the US.

In a unipolar world, there is only one sphere of influence—the whole world is the US’s sphere of influence. Russia’s ability to carve any sphere of influence effectively ends Unipolarity (if there ever was such a moment).

The significance of the Confrontation in the Caucasus is not that it ended the Unipolar moment, but that it signaled the end of a unipolar order. Russia has taken an aggressive step in the art of the possible, pushing the boundaries of what a great power can do in this new age of multipolar / non-polar US hegemony.

Edited to correct my spelling mistakes.