Dented hegemony and Georgia’s nasty little war

Issue: 120

The media has been full of talk of a “new Cold War” since the brief war between Russia and Georgia. It is more accurate to talk of the latest episode of the “war on terror”—that is, of the US’s attempt to use military might to assert global hegemony. The setbacks for its project in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon explain its arming of its Georgian client Mikheil Saakashvili—and the hypocritical anguish with which those who connive in rendition kidnappings have screamed about human rights in the Caucasus when he got a beating.

The Russian angle is very different to that presented in the liberal as well as conservative media. When the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989-91 the political representatives of the American ruling class believed it removed a smaller, but heavily armed, rival imperialism that had been an obstacle to their global economic and military hegemony. This was supposed to give them a free hand to eliminate anyone else who might stand in their way—invading Panama to kidnap their former agent Manuel Noriega in December 1989, bombing Baghdad (with Soviet acquiescence) to bring another recent ally to order in 1991, playing their own part in tearing the Balkans apart by promoting Bosnian independence in 1992 and then bombing the Serbian capital, Belgrade, in 1999.

But key figures still felt they were far from achieving the global dominance they had expected. The Iranian regime that had humiliated them in the late 1970s remained in power. Their troops were forced to withdraw from Somalia in 1994. The world’s fastest growing economy, that of China, was open to US multinationals but it was not beholden to the US state. And there was the underlying worry that the European ruling classes would assert their own interests more forcefully now they no longer feared Russia would exploit US weakness.

Henry Kissinger could be blunt about the problem:

The end of the Cold War has created what some observers have called a “unipolar” or “one superpower” world. But the US is actually in no better position to dictate the global agenda unilaterally than it was at the beginning of the Cold War… The United States will face economic competition of a kind it never experienced during the Cold War…domination of a single power of either Europe or Asia…remains a good definition of strategic danger to America… Such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip America economically… China is on the road to superpower status… China’s Gross National Product will approach that of the United States by the end of the second decade of the 21st century.1

Similar concerns among Bill Clinton’s advisors in the mid-1990s led to a conscious strategy of expanding US influence into countries once under Russian influence in the Eurasian landmass. Those in Europe were encouraged to join Nato and the European Union; the Central Asian former Soviet Republics were encouraged to accept US bases. The US’s aims were to counter any tendencies towards independence from “old Europe” (particularly the enlarged Germany), to pre-empt any growth of Chinese influence, to pen in Russia if it showed any signs of reviving as a “regional” power, and to have the means at hand to crush wayward smaller powers in the oil rich Middle East, especially Iraq and Iran.

The Bush presidency gave influence to neocons who believed their predecessors (and even cabinet colleagues such as Colin Powell) were too soft when applying this strategy. That was the message behind the “Project for a New American Century” and the motivation for an attack on Iraq. This was to be the decisive move that would establish a century of unchallengeable hegemony.

Paying for a failed gamble

That strategy has backfired completely. The US’s ability to achieve what it wants elsewhere in the world has been damaged by the way its troops have been tied down in Iraq, with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff worrying whether “the military could provide the 10,000 extra troops” requested by commanders in Afghanistan. The military “surge” in Iraq over the past 18 months may have achieved more than some of us expected but not much more. It has brought some limited stability but not clear victory. General Petraeus, who was sent in to oversee the surge, could still warn before the summer, “We haven’t turned any corners. We haven’t seen any lights at the end of a tunnel. The progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible”.2 And he repeated the warning, in a more subdued tone, at the beginning of September: “innumerable challenges are out there still. Make no bones about it”.3

The real “challenge” is that any stabilisation has depended on the attitude of Iraqi groups that do not accept long-term occupation or control of the oil by US firms. They are also deeply antagonistic to one another. The “Awakening Councils” of Sunni former resistance groups took American arms and money in order to eliminate the threat to their own position from Al Qaida in Iraq. But they are deeply hostile to the US’s firmest allies, the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Mahdi Army of radical Shia cleric Muqtata al-Sadr may be avoiding military confrontation with US troops, but that is because its leader, currently in Iran, ordered it to do so to avoid dissipating its strength.4

Even the corrupt politicians who have worked with the US occupation for five years have been wary of agreeing to the US’s goals. They have blocked US companies from getting long-term contracts for Iraqi oil, while “in the race among global oil majors to re-enter Iraq, China scored the first win”.5 Patrick Cockburn, writing on negotiations for a new security accord between the US and the Iraqi government, argues:

The new accord is very different from the one the US proposed as recently as March which would simply have continued the US occupation… If it is implemented as expected the US will cease to be the predominant military power in Iraq from next summer.6

A lot of things could upset this arrangement, which would leave an Iraqi government asserting its independence by balancing between US and Iranian pressures. But the very fact that it is under consideration represents a blow to the dream of US hegemony.

That hegemony is also under pressure elsewhere. Jonathan Neale’s account of Afghanistan’s 30 years of wars in this issue shows how close the US and its allies are to facing the same fate that beset the USSR’s occupation. The Ethiopian government is threatening to withdraw its troops from Somalia because of the degree of resistance to its US-backed invasion. Iran is refusing to make a humiliating climbdown in the face of US sanctions and threats. Central Asian republics that used to court the US are now courting Russia again.

Such blows to US hegemony explain its determination to turn a small war into a major international crisis. They also explain the Russian government’s response.

Putin’s goal

For most of the past two decades Russia’s rulers felt they could do little to reassert their interests in the face of growing US pressure around their borders. They had lost control of half the former USSR and industrial production had fallen 50 percent in the rump Russian Federation. Former state capitalist nomenklaturists transmogrified into private capitalist oligarchs roamed wild, and the armed forces had faced difficulty dealing with resistance from the mere 1.1 million inhabitants of Chechnya.

Things have begun to change since the late 1990s. Putin was able to marshal enough military brutality to finally crush resistance in Chechnya, and reassert fighting discipline within what is still one of the world’s most powerful militaries. He was able to exile some of the oligarchs and draw others into his camp. The global rises in oil and gas prices enabled the economy to escape from slump and become one of the fastest growing in the world. They also enabled Russia to exert pressure on, as well as be pressurised by, the states of the European Union.

Now dents to US power in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided Russia with the chance to respond to US challenges close to its borders, just as they have made it easier for China to pursue its own imperial projects in Africa, for Iran to defy the US, and for Venezuela to challenge US power in Latin America. No wonder the US political establishment and their hangers on this side of the Atlantic are so upset.

The two wings of New Labour have responded as you might expect. David Miliband has been running round Europe with Brown’s support calling for the building of a new alliance against Russia. Editorialists and liberal commentators have denounced ethnic cleansing with references to Hungary in 1956 and Hitler’s move across Czechoslovakia’s borders in 1938. There has been ethnic cleansing on both sides, just as both sides have been exploiting experiences of national oppression, of Georgians by Russians under Tsarism and Stalinism, and, more recently, of Ossetians and Abkhazians by Georgians. Putin has exploited the situation because he wants to extend the influence of the Russian state beyond its own borders, in the Ukraine as well as the Caucasus. But the comparison of the diminished Russia of today with the USSR or Germany when they were the world’s second economic and military powers is absurd. Putin’s imperialism is a mini-imperialism, on nothing like the scale of that practised by those who have occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

Further flashpoints

The US’s aim is to try to rescue something out of the Georgian debacle by raising fears about Russia in order to try to get the European powers to accept its global agenda. This might work with those Eastern European states with memories of domination by a much more powerful Russia—although even with those there are problems, as is shown by a split in the Ukrainian government between the two figures who stage-managed the country’s supposed “Orange Revolution” four years ago, with the president accusing the prime minister of plotting an “anti-constitutional coup”.7 It is not working with Germany, France or even Berlusconi’s Italy. They are dependent on Russian energy and their big firms want to benefit from Russian economic growth. They are prepared to make a lot of noise over Georgia in order to strengthen their position to bargain with Putin, but posturing in public is accompanied by efforts at conciliation in private. Singing to the US’s tune is not the same as dancing to it.

The US’s problems should not, however, be a cause for complacency on anyone’s part. It will attempt to recoup its position and still has immense resources for trying to do so. The tactical advance it has made in Latin America with its attacks on the Farc guerillas in Colombia show its continued capacity (see Mike Gonzalez’s article in this issue). As we have repeatedly stressed in this journal, a beast that is wounded but still alive is a dangerous beast. The next flashpoint in the war on terror probably won’t be in Georgia. The front could shift to Iran, Pakistan, Africa or somewhere else entirely. But there will be a next flashpoint—with the usual piles of corpses and thousands of devastated lives. We have to be prepared to respond. And we must always remember an old slogan, especially when there is a clash between a big imperialism and the little imperialisms that will not bow down to it: “The main enemy is at home.”


1: Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (1994), p809.

2: Quoted by Voice of America, 10 April 2008.

3: “US Says Troops Could Quit Baghdad Soon”, Financial Times, 3 September 2008.

4: “Crucial to the success of the government against the Mahdi Army has been the support of Iran. It is they who arranged for the Shia militiamen to go home” Patrick Cockburn, Counterpunch, 3 September 2008.

5:, 28 August 2008.

6: Patrick Cockburn, “The Big Questions about Iraq”, Counterpunch, 26 August 2008,

7: Financial Times, 4 September 2008.