Crossroads of Culture: The Republic of Georgia and the New Fault Line of Democracy
SWJ Editor’s Note: The Republic of Georgia is a loyal U.S. ally and the largest non-NATO contributing nation to Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Georgia’s geographic location combined with firmly entrenched western values amongst its engaged populace make Tbilisi an ideal partner for both today and the foreseeable future in the contest against regional near-peer enemies. This article provides needed context and background regarding this important U.S. military partner.
“Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
-- The Melian Dialogue in The Peloponnesian War[i]
In a traditional restaurant 30 minutes from the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and in the shadow of Russian tank advances during the 2008 War, around 400 soldiers gathered for an annual event. From the head table, the Minister of Defense rose from his seat with glass in hand. The room of well-dressed officers and soldiers quickly silenced in anticipation of the Ministers next toast, which would be dedicated to the fallen heroes. A solemn toast consisting of a brief but eloquent remembrance to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice while defending the history, language, and religion of the Georgian people. The soldiers stood, bowed their heads reflectively and drank their glass to the bottom.
Devout in Christian faith, proud of its unique language, and well-versed in a long and rich history, the people of The Republic of Georgia continue a multi-generational heroic struggle to preserve western orientated core values. The front-line country does this despite immense pressures from dominating neighbors. The United States can do more to assist in this struggle.
True to the Melian Dialogue alluded to above, the story of Georgia is a chronicle of suffering as a must and receiving support where she can. The small country rich in tradition is located between the Black and Caspian Seas and tucked amongst the more powerful neighbors of Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Georgia in every sense, occupies the crossroads of history. Contemporary times accompanied with modern technologies have not altered this inherited reality. Knowing sovereignty and independence only sporadically in its long history, Georgia has managed to survive while protecting most valued intangible treasures and today strives to preserve this history through a clear-sighted westward path.
Over 243 years ago Americans began a battle for independence. Since claiming victory at Yorktown, the United States has progressively developed unencumbered from outside interference. Over that same time period however, Georgians have endured menacing invasions, brutal occupations, and unspeakable injustices from neighboring Ottomans, Persians, Imperial Russia,[ii] and finally the Soviet Union.[iii] In 2008, Georgia was once again invaded and both the territories of Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) and the prime real estate of Sukhumi (Abkhazia), a full 20% of the country, was occupied by Russian military forces.[iv] (By point of comparison, 20% of the U.S. consists of nearly the entire Southeast stretching from West Texas to the Atlantic Ocean).[v] Consequently, Moscow looms as large as the formidable Caucus Mountain Range over decisions made in the capital of Tbilisi. Notwithstanding this pressure, Georgia boldly looks westward, forging her own route to greater integration with the Euro-Atlantic Community by deepening bilateral ties with the United States and aspiring to NATO membership.
The response of the United States to Georgian efforts is generous. In 2017 and 2018 combined, the American taxpayer delivered well over $200 million in assistance to the people of Georgia.[vi] In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has displayed substantial backing totaling over $3.2 billion since 1992.[vii] This is a staggering amount considering Georgia has a population roughly equivalent to the State of Oklahoma. This large contribution combined with questionable notions of national interest lead to reasonable inquiries about why the United States is invested so heavily in this small nation stuck in the middle of a very difficult neighborhood.
A series of policy related articles from various think tanks have articulated core answers to such questions. The strongest arguments articulated by Luke Coffey and others include:[viii]
- Geography: Between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, as well as occupying a key transit corridor for Caspian based natural resources, Georgia is an important U.S. ally located in a geo-strategically important region.[ix]
- Military Contribution: Beginning in 2003 Georgia has sent thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Georgia is the highest per capita troop contributing nation in Afghanistan. Bottom Line: Georgia is a net contributor to transatlantic security.
- International Norms: Russian violation of the six-point ceasefire agreement which ended hostilities in the 2008 war continues to deter NATO’s stated open-door policy enabling membership for Georgia into the NATO alliance.[x]
In addition to the three points, there are other objective/pragmatic reasons the U.S. supports Georgia’s westward path:
- Reliable transit lane between the Black and Caspian Seas for logistics to Afghanistan.[xi]
- Simplification of processes makes Georgia a friendly place for foreign business[xii]
- The occupation of 20% of Georgian territory by Russian troops violates international law.
- Georgia spends 2% of GDP on defense and 20% of the defense budget on major acquisitions in alignment with NATO standards.[xiii]
- Military training ranges support numerous international and bilateral exercises annually with limited live-fire restrictions compared to Western European allies.[xiv]
Although such pragmatic concepts justify presence and investment, alone they fail to inspire. The U.S. provides significant support because Georgian subjective factors align with Western principles.[xv] Georgia holds reoccurring free and fair elections, possesses a dynamic civil society, has a free press, ample space for political debate, and is the strongest ally of western ideals in the Caucuses and Central Asia.[xvi] Put succinctly, Georgian constructive norms align and integrate with western culture at multiple levels, and culture matters.[xvii] Subjective factors, like culture, specifically matter when front line states take enormous risk to integrate towards NATO and Euro-Atlantic partnerships.
In a recent speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation titled “Preserving the West[xviii]” The Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell lucidly outlined the administration’s policy towards Europe. In it, Europe is identified as a new place of serious geopolitical competition requiring sober attention. Georgia is specifically named as “part of the west, both by virtue of history, and the choices of (the) people.” Mitchell argues that it is necessary the United States strengthen ties with vulnerable states (like Georgia), or “expect to lose them.”
Georgia is not only at the edge of Europe geographically, but ideologically as well. Authoritarian systems are the norm in the Caucuses and Central Asia and failure to compete intensely on the borderlands of Western ideals abdicates ground to great power adversaries. As mentioned above, the United States Congress recognizes this reality and provides considerable bipartisan financial support to underwrite Georgia’s path. Nevertheless, opportunities for increased demonstrations of backing still exist. The options are multiple and serve as a deterrent to those who challenge Georgia’s western orientations. Expanding the complexity and intensity to the rotating annual exercises of Noble Partner and Agile Spirit, increasing frequency of port calls from U.S. Naval ships to Georgian stops on the Black Sea, escalating the presence of high-level visits from U.S. representatives, and deepening the rhetoric of support during multilateral forums are simply four options amongst a wide array of tools that strengthen engagement with those in Georgia most firmly aligned with Euro-Atlantic partnerships.
Engagement, presence, and deterrence do not solely provide hardware to prevent a foreign military from crossing a border, but otherwise embolden the moral belief in the supremacy of those ideas which they accompany. Western concepts are broadly popular. 83% of polled Georgians support EU membership, 78% support NATO membership, 92% say living in a democracy is important, 53% agree that western style democracy is the best form of governance for Georgia, and over 70% of those eligible turned out to vote in presidential elections during the fall/winter of 2018.[xix] These polling results demonstrate a strong majority of the Georgian people ascribe to the values that unite Western nations. Values described as protection of personal liberties, freedoms of expression and assembly, individual rights under the rule of law, and transparency amongst elected leaders.
Such altruistic words can echo hollow within the context of the recent historical array of Western-led, well-intentioned disasters which sought to expand democracy in the quest for the “End of History.”[xx] But the power of ideas and Georgia’s westward path is not some dream isolated to exclusive parlors where self-appointed intellectuals sip expensive whiskey while selling out their nation’s core to foreign concepts. The ideals of Western liberty in vulnerable places like Georgia are visible, apparent, and percolate throughout the country. This is not only clear in the polling data, but also in the spirit of debate amongst everyday people. I witnessed this first hand while traveling extensively in Georgia during my time as the Marine Attaché.
The Georgian Supra is a traditional meal where family, friends, and colleagues gather to share memories, food, and of course, wine. The Tamada, or toast master, will periodically rise and deliver a prescribed series of toasts. Initially the topic of the toasts is regulated, but as the event progresses, toasts range drastically in tone, theme, and tempo. What the Supra represents in its purest form is Georgian culture, a celebration of a shared identity that despite the efforts of her neighbors, has preserved its language, history, and religion.[xxi] It is a romantic cause that should not be romanticized. A contemporary battle of an underdog fighting for western oriented principles while doing what it must to defend itself against a totalitarian neighbor. An admirable endeavor closely aligned with American values. An endeavor worthy of assistance.
[iii] Tamar Svanidze, “Georgia Marks Anniversary of Bolshevik Red Army Invasion,” Georgia Today, 25 February 2016, http://georgiatoday.ge/news/3078/Georgia-Marks-Anniversary-of-Bolshevik-Red-Army-Invasion.
[iv] Michael Kofman, “The August War, Ten Years On: A Retrospective on the Russo-Georgian War,” War on the Rocks, August 17, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-august-war-ten-years-on-a-retrospective-on-the-russo-georgian-war/.
[v] “List of U.S. states and territories by area,” Wikipedia, accessed 15 March 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_area#Area_by_region.
[vi] “Georgia: Foreign Assistance,” U.S. Department of State, accessed 15 March 2019, https://www.foreignassistance.gov/explore/country/Georgia.
[vii] “Foreign Operations Assistance: Georgia,” U.S. Department of State Fact Sheet, April 2018, https://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/fs/2018/284739.htm.
[viii] Luke Coffey, “NATO Membership for Georgia: In U.S. and European Interest,” Heritage Foundation, January 29, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/nato-membership-georgia-us-and-european-interest.
[ix] William Courtney, Daniel Fried, and Kenneth Yalowitz, “Georgia’s Path Westward,” Atlantic Council: Eurasia Center, (May 2018) p 2, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/publications/AC-GeorgiaPathWestward-WEB.pdf.
[x] George Tsereteli, “Here’s Why Georgia Needs to be on the Agenda of a Trump-Putin Summit,” Atlantic Council, June 18, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/here-s-why-georgia-must-be-on-the-agenda-of-a-trump-putin-summit.
[xi] Batu Kutelia, Shota Gvineria, and David Ucko, ”America’s Vital Interests in Georgia: The Case for Engagement,” War on the Rocks, November 14, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/11/americas-vital-interests-georgia/.
[xii] “Doing Business : Georgia Has Moved Up to 6th Place in the Global Rankings,” The World Bank: Press Release, October 31, 2018, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/10/31/doing-business-georgia-has-moved-up-to-6th-place-in-the-global-rankings.
[xiii] “Georgia: Ratio of Military Spending to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 2007 to 2017,” Statista, accessed 17 March, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/810404/ratio-of-military-expenditure-to-gross-domestic-product-gdp-georgia/ .
[xiv] Vasil Rukhadze, “Georgia Hosts Large-Scale, Multinational Military Drills,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 14, Issue 113, (September 18, 2017), https://jamestown.org/program/georgia-hosts-large-scale-multinational-military-drills/.
[xv] Madeleine Albright, “Concluding Remarks: Third Seminar on NATO’s Strategic Concept,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, January 14, 2010, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/opinions_60761.htm. In this speech, Secretary Albright lays out a framework for understanding the variables of motivation for global leaders. One of the five factors is the subjective factors, or “how a country feels about itself.”
[xvi] Courtney et al. “Georgia’s Westward Path,” 2.
[xvii] Sarina Theys, “Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory,” E-International Relations Student, February 23, 2018, https://www.e-ir.info/2018/02/23/introducing-constructivism-in-international-relations-theory/.
[xviii] Wess Mitchell, “The Transatlantic Bond: Preserving the West,” The Heritage Foundation, October 2, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/global-politics/report/the-transatlantic-bond-preserving-the-west.
[xix] Laura Thornton and Koba Turmanidze, “Public Attitudes in Georgia: Results of December 2018 Survey,” National Democratic Institute, December 2018, 7-22, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20Georgia_Political%20Poll%20Presentation_December%202018_English_Final.pdf.
[xx] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (Free Press 1992).
[xxi] Pesha Magid, “Why the World’s Greatest Toasts Happen in Georgia: Saying Cheers is for Amateurs,” Atlas Obscura, January 26, 2018, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/georgia-toastmaster-tamada-supra-feast.