Thomas de Waal’s piece in Foreign Policy on the poverty of the traditional great power approach to the Caucuses is worth a glance. As I was reading it, though, I couldn’t help but think about Christopher Beam’s piece on what the news would look like if it were written by political scientists. De Waal is a distinguished journalist with a long record of reporting on the Caucuses, making me especially reluctant to tread on comparatively unfamiliar terrain, but experience aside, it seems that de Waal is too prone to viewing fundamentally structural conflicts as mere problems of perception and attitude. He also has a tendency to posit as contradictory ideas or situations which are in fact entirely compatible.
Consider the first of the “dangerous mirages” through which, according to de Waal, the international community gains a skewed picture of the Caucuses:
The first mirage may be the oldest: the notion that the region is a “Great Chessboard” where the big powers push the locals around like pawns to serve their own goals. That is not what actually happens. In actual fact, however the geopolitical weather changes, the locals always manage to manipulate the outside powers at least as much as the other way round.
In the 21st century the Caucasus is still the Caucasus, in all its complexity and variety — not an assimilated province of Russia, Turkey, or Iran. The peoples of the Caucasus may be too weak to prosper, but they remain strong enough to withstand fading into their bigger neighbors. You could call it a “balance of insecurity.” Over the course of history, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, as well as the region’s other smaller ethnic groups, have all persistently survived invasion and resisted assimilation. It’s true the price of survival has come in the form of Faustian pacts with other Great Powers, in which the Azerbaijanis allied themselves with Turks and British; Georgians with Germans and British; Armenians, Abkhaz and Ossetians with Russians.
So, to recap, it’s a mistake for the great powers to view the Caucuses as a chessboard because, in reality, its peoples act like… chess pieces? Saying that local politicians are often able to manipulate their great power patrons doesn’t somehow single the Caucuses out as an unsuitable imperial prize. People living on strategic territory the world over have generally been able to play that game (consider the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and South Asia for starters), and intelligent imperialists factor such manipulation into the costs of doing business, for better or worse.
When the discussion turns to energy routes – the principal interest that most non-Russian powers have in the region – de Waal once again treats zero-sum competition as a matter of perception rather than structure. He also has a tendency to switch back and forth between discussing the interests of Caucuses states themselves versus those of their great power patrons without being entirely clear which he’s talking about:
In energy terms, the South Caucasus is indeed an important transport corridor for Caspian Sea oil and gas; there were good reasons why Azerbaijan needed pipeline routes independent of Russia and Iran. Oil pumped through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline has also brought billions of dollars of much-needed revenue to Azerbaijan — and rather less to Georgia. Caspian Sea gas has lessened the reliance of both countries on Russian gas. But many Western policymakers have incorrectly treated pipeline policy as a zero-sum strategic game [...] And the idea of a “Great Game” comparing the new interest in the South Caucasus with the struggle for influence between tsarist Russia and Great Britain in Central Asia and Afghanistan in the 19th century cast the locals as passive objects and Moscow in the role of a deadly rival. These metaphors unduly raised the hopes of small nations that they were essential to the West, while antagonizing Russia. In retrospect, strategic ambitions to establish a position in the region ran ahead of a more sober assessment of its place on the European energy map and its economic needs.
I’ll agree that the West probably let its eyes get bigger than its stomach in the years leading up to the 2008 war in Georgia, and that NATO in particular shouldn’t have been writing checks to the Georgians that it wasn’t willing to let them cash. It’s worth remembering, though, that the energy security of the Caucuses state themselves is likely of little concern to great power policymakers. The Caucuses are strategic in terms of energy because of the opportunity they afford for pumping energy supplies to Europe along routes that aren’t controlled, directly or indirectly, by Russia. I see little prospect for that strategic conflict to become less zero-sum, because relative position is the foundational objective of all sides.
Now, to be clear, I think life for people in the Caucuses would almost certainly be better if they didn’t have great powers using them as chess pieces all the time. The same would probably be true for residents of the Persian Gulf, the Levant, Latin America and Southeast Asia. If de Waal is making an essentially moral case (‘treating the Caucuses like a chessboard is leading to the immiseration of millions of people, so the world should stop doing that’), he should just make the moral case and not try to argue that meddling in the Caucuses is strategically misguided. If he’s making a strategic case, then he needs to actually demonstrate why the foundational assumptions that fuel great power conflict in the region are wrong. By trying to do half of each, he ends up accomplishing neither.