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Commentary: U.S. interest or sympathy in Georgia?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 7, 2011 - As the world anxiously watched Congress decide between debt and default in early August, a newspaper headline in the Republic of Georgia read: "Tbilisi Welcomes US Senate Resolution." The authoritative English language paper The Messenger gave top billing to the Senate support for the territorial integrity of Georgia, especially the need to "recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as regions of Georgia occupied by the Russian Federation."

In Georgia it sounded as though a major debate had gone on in the U.S. Senate declaring the country's territorial integrity to be an issue of national importance for us. From an American perspective, this was hardly the case, but something had occurred, and differences in how this something is interpreted could have major implications for Georgia, the U.S. and other places around the world.

A few days after the Senate resolution I had a conversation in Tbilisi with Tedo Japaridze, the former Georgian ambassador to the U.S., and he suggested that what might be at issue in this case is the difference between American sympathy and American interest. This distinction has special significance at a time of increasing anxiety about American intentions in the world, and we need to make clear which is implied in our official statements.

Those who see American interest at stake in Georgia might point to Georgia's contribution to the American war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq (a small but significant number of troops) or to its role in the pipeline transit of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea basin to the West. But the wars are winding down and only about 1 percent of the world's oil supply flows through Georgia, making it unrealistic to believe that America takes this former Soviet republic of 4.7 million people to be vital to its national interest.

Instead, it's probably more appropriate to talk about American sympathy in this case. At least since the "Rose Revolution" in 2003, we have viewed Georgia as an admirable experiment in democracy and taken pride in fostering it. This reflects our basic national narrative about being a "city upon a hill," a beacon of light for others. And for some Americans it doesn't hurt that this episode of democracy building is taking place on the borders of Russia, our old Cold War foe.

To be sure, Western observers have become increasingly frustrated with episodes of political repression, media control and the failure to develop an independent judiciary in Georgia, but by comparison with other countries in its neighborhood it remains on a promising trajectory.

In thinking about cases like Georgia's, some analysts in the U.S. have gone so far as to proudly call America a "dangerous nation," something that is embedded in nearly four centuries of our culture. By this, they mean that we have been a source of ideas and inspiration that are dangerous to monarchies and other forms of authoritarian governance. But what makes America a dangerous nation in a positive sense can also make it dangerous in a more ominous and destructive way. More than one episode in our past involves arms shipments or escalating military action that grew out of confusing American sympathy with American interest. The former all too easily morphs into the latter in our public discourse.

For all its warts and frustrations, Georgia is an important experiment in democracy in a vital but troubled part of the world. In my view, America should continue to express its sympathy for the challenges inherent in this experiment as well as contribute both moral and financial support. However, it is also important to avoid giving the impression that the U.S. takes the territorial integrity of Georgia to be a matter of crucial American national interest.

Some may think it should be, but it is not, and if push ever came to shove in a confrontation with Russia in this region, this could have tragic consequences for Georgia and a much larger set of players as well. Indeed misinterpreting American sympathy for American interest may have been a factor that led to the brief but brutal 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. It's in everyone's interest to avoid such confusion in the future.

James V. Wertsch is associate vice chancellor for international affairs at Washington University and the co-editor with Zurab Karumidze of the 2005 book "Enough!: The Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia in 2003." 

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