British politicians love playing Winston Churchill. Tory leader David Cameron was at it last week when he flew to Georgia. According to the Guardian, Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili invited him after he compared the situation there to “the appeasement of Hitler”.
But in fact the famous conflict between Churchill and his great rival and predecessor Neville Chamberlain in the late 1930s was over whom to appease. Britain was confronted by two rising imperialist powers, Germany and the US.
Since it couldn’t take both of them on, the British ruling class had to choose which one to appease and which, if necessary, to fight. Distrusting the US, Chamberlain chose to appease Hitler – thus earning the scorn of posterity.
But in order to defeat Germany, Churchill had to throw himself at the mercy of the US. His grovelling towards the US president Franklin Roosevelt has been repeated by every subsequent British prime minister.
True to form, foreign secretary David Miliband appeared on the Today programme on Wednesday of last week to denounce Russia’s “blatant aggression” against Georgia. “The sight of Russian tanks rolling into parts of a sovereign country on its neighbouring borders will have brought a chill down the spine of many people,” he declared.
Actually the sight of US and British tanks rolling into Iraq in March 2003 sent a chill down the spines of hundreds, if not thousands of millions of people. Listening to Miliband, I wondered whether he was being consciously hypocritical in ignoring such an obvious comparison.
My guess is that he probably wasn’t. The leaders of the Western powers genuinely believe they are the “international community” and are entitled to make up the rules as they go along. Consistency is for other weaker states that must obey their commands.
George Bush displayed the same attitude when he said last Saturday that the Russian-controlled enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were “part of Georgia” and that they “lie within [Georgia’s] internationally recognised borders”. He added, “Georgia’s borders should command the same respect as every other nation’s.”
But why aren’t Serbia’s borders entitled to “the same respect”? The US and the main European powers have supported the breakaway of Kosovo from Serbia, even though this hasn’t been sanctioned by the United Nations security council.
Nevertheless in the present crisis, the European Union (EU) as a whole has been far less bullish in backing the US against Russia. At the Nato summit in Bucharest last April, France and Germany vetoed Bush’s demand that Ukraine and Georgia be admitted to the alliance.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, brokered last week’s truce between Russia and Georgia. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, flew to meet Dimitri Medvedev, the Russian president. Germany has been relatively muted in its criticisms of Russia and has stated its opposition to US talk of expelling Russia from the G8.
Of course, this attitude is connected with German and French awareness that the EU depends on natural gas imported through Russia.
While it is cynical, the stance of France and Germany is at least rational. By contrast, the debate here in Britain is dominated by a race to see who can be toughest on Russia. Gordon Brown has ordered Miliband off to Georgia in Cameron’s wake. Meanwhile the Tory leader demands that “Russia must pay a price” and that Nato offers Georgia “a clear pathway to membership”.
Miliband, Cameron and company should answer a simple question. Would they be willing to go to war with Russia to defend Georgia’s “internationally recognised borders”? If Georgia was a Nato member it would be entitled to expect this.
Bush has shown that even he isn’t prepared to go this far. As the Washington Post bluntly put it, the US “has neither the wherewithal nor the willingness to enter into a military conflict with Russia on its territorial border”. But the support Saakashvili has been getting may encourage him into more adventures. Georgia’s Western backers are playing a dangerous game.