With all of the excellent almost-real-time analysis going on around here lately, I haven’t felt the need to chime in myself; my Duck colleagues are doing an excellent job, and they are more up-to-date on the specifics of Russian-Georgian relations and the various on-the-ground issues. So I’ve been a consumer like the rest of our readers, watching events unfold out of the corner of one eye as I struggle to get some book chapters cranked out before the academic year starts up again. I told myself that I’d only post if I had anything distinctive to add.

And now I think I do. Not about the interests or goals of any of the parties involved in the conflict, and certainly not about their relative war material and strategic effectiveness; others can do and have done that better than I could. And I think it’s perhaps too early for the blame game; we won’t know which counterfactual scenarios were plausible, and therefore which might have come to pass if certain things had been different, until analysts have a chance to work over the relevant material a bit more thoroughly. Rather, I want to highlight what the Georgian situation says about the relative strengths of two rather different logics for organizing world politics — two candidates for global order that seem to have collided, not so much in Georgia as in the responses offered to both Georgia and Russia by third parties, especially the United States.

What we are seeing here, I think, is a clash between universal claims and civilizational claims. And what’s most striking to me is that the United States seems incapable of making up its collective mind about which logic to follow.

First, some definitions. By “universal claims” I mean the appeal to transcendent, globally-binding principles that are supposed to set the standards for everyone> regardless of their particular histories or situations. Universal claims brook no compromises — one either adheres to them or one explains one’s deviation from them in apologetic tones, usually accompanying the apology with a promise to do better. The usual form a such an apology is “we know we ought to do X, but here are a set of idiosyncratic reasons why we can’t at the moment…and we’re working on alleviating them.” So the important thing about a universal claim is that it is in some sense non-negotiable, as there are no valid grounds on which to explain one’s permanent deviation from it. At least no grounds that would be considered valid by the claim-maker.

Not all claims are universal, however — not even all claims that are made on state action are made in universal terms. Indeed, many claims on a state are made in more particularist or even ethnocentric terms: we ought to do this because it’s right for us, irrespective of whether it’s right for anyone else. In fact, a particularist claim leaves open, at least implicitly if not explicitly, the possibility that what might be right for one state representing one community might not be right for another state. “Civilizational” claims are a subset of particularist claims, since they posit only that some course of action is right for members of a given civilization, and refrain from making a claim that is in principle binding on everyone, even those outside of a given civilization. “Democracy is the right form of government for Western countries” is a civilizational claim, not a universal one; “democracy is the right form of government” is a universal claim.

Note that we’re operating in the realm of political claims about identity here, and not in the realm of social-scientific propositions that can be evaluated empirically. There’s no way to empirically ascertain whether democracy is the “right” form of government, either in general or for a given civilization; the best one might hope to do is to demonstrate that given certain goals and values, democracy is the best means for reaching those goals. And while one might argue that democracy is or is not most congruent with some set of values, doing so would necessitate specifying that set of values — no problem if one is trying to make a normative argument, but empirically specifying a set of values shared either by everyone or by the supposed members of a given civilization is a considerably trickier endeavor. So let’s just save ourselves the trouble and ask, not about the truth or falsity of these claims, but about their practical political efficacy.

So with the distinction between universal and civilizational claims in mind, let’s think through a stylized sequence of events involving Russia, Georgia, and the United States. First of all, even though the United States has been making universal claims and placing its foreign policy on universal grounds for centuries, not all universalisms are the same — and the differences between them are significant. As I’ve said on this blog before, we have to be particularly careful to differentiate the kind of universalism in US foreign policy that comes from a celebration of American exceptionalism from the kind of universalism that comes from a subordination of the United States to transcendent standards: ‘civilization’, or its equivalent. The former is neoconservatism, and claims for the US the right to decide what counts as a universal value; the latter is the TR/Wilson/FDR (and arguably Bush I) commitment to a global order based on values that transcend the United States and therefore require the willing, multilateral participation of other countries and other voices. These two universalisms have very different policy prescriptions: ‘coalitions of the willing’ for neocons, broad-based global coalitions defending international law for the other universalism. Gulf War II and Gulf War I, respectively, exemplify these two alternatives.

So when the current Bush administration talks about “democracy” it does so in a neoconservative register — becoming a democracy means choosing light over darkness, salvation over sin. All of the praise heaped on the Rose Revolution by the Administration has that tone: congratulations for choosing the right path, now you’re on the side of the angels. But because this is a neoconservative perspective, becoming a democracy doesn’t carry any obligations for the US, but simply takes a country off of the list of places to be redeemed by force if necessary. Similarly, the Georgian contribution to US military operations carries no obligations for the US, because coalitions of the willing are by definition short-term hook-ups of mutual convenience, not marriages.

Shift the camera a bit, to the Georgian and Russian view. “Democracy” in that context doesn’t play as a universal value, but as a civilizational one, and in particular as one associated (for generations, going back to the old Slavophile/Westernizer debates) with ‘the West’. Hence becoming a democracy means moving closer not to some universal ideal, but to a concrete cultural community — and that does carry obligations for other community-members. A civilizational claim is in that sense more like a marriage, or maybe a courtship: we’re joining the club, we’re on the team, we’re joined to you in fundamental ways. Note that this is not just how Georgians see things, but it’s also how the Russians see these things, including NATO expansion, which of course Georgia has long been pressing for.

Set it in motion: Georgia and Russia get into a military confrontation on Georgian territory, Georgia appeals to ‘the West’ for assistance, and all of a sudden it becomes clear that ‘the West’ doesn’t seem to feel itself to be under any particular obligation to intervene. Sure, in part this is probably because not enough cultural and discursive work preceded that appeal, so that Georgia’s ‘Western’ identity didn’t resonate with enough domestic populations to enable any kind of rhetorical coercion — there was no public outcry of the sort that we might expect to see if Russian troops showed up in Warsaw or Prague, because those places are more securely ‘Western’ in the public imagination and the US and its ‘Western’ allies do have a civilizational obligation to defend them. Even if leaders didn’t want to for whatever instrumental reasons they might have, I think they could probably be rhetorically coerced pretty easily into having to intervene in Poland or the Czech Republic — but not in Georgia, apparently. But this is only part of the story, and I think that the other part is that what the Georgians and Russians understood as a set of civilizational claims was understood by the US as a set of universal claims, and neoconservative universal at that. They thus carried no particular obligation to saddle up a posse and ride into Georgia with guns blazing.

But it’s not quite that simple, because the US — in the form of its ambassador to the UN — also deployed a civilizational claim about its response to the conflict. To wit, Zalmay Khalizad declared that “the days of overthrowing leaders by military means in Europe — those days are gone.” “In Europe” is of course the key phrase here, but not so much because of its deft exclusion of the US actions in Iraq (which it certainly does do) as because of its exception-making for “Europe.” The logic here is a civilizational one: there are certain courses of action that are unacceptable in Europe or for Europeans, but that says nothing about the global status of the actions. And by implication, by the fact that it’s the US making that claim, a special connection between the US and Europe is also asserted, so ‘the West’ remains in evidence. In this light, the calls for a cease-fire and some kind of international monitoring are placed into a civilizational context: we should do these things not becuase they’re universally right or correct, but because they’re right for our civilization.

It seems that the US can’t decide which way to frame this. One the one hand, neoconservative universalism, carrying no obligations for the US beyond its own unilateral strategic calculations. On the other hand, ‘Western’ solidarity, and a return to the cultural logic of the Cold War, which is also the cultural logic of Samuel Huntington and civilizational balancing. What’s fascinating here is that the Georgians and the Russians are much less undecided about this, as both are pretty unambiguously invoking the civilizational strategy. It remains to be seen which world will ultimately prevail in US debates.