Friday, January 30, 2009

Picking Up The Pieces: What Obama Inherits in Georgia

The issue may seem obscure, overshadowed, or worse--passe--in light of recent events in the Middle East. Civilians are suffering, nation states are bracing, and solutions seem slow in coming. But as much as this depiction realistically renders the current situation in Gaza, it's as accurate a portrayal of the Georgia-Russia standoff.

The only difference is the uneasy calm prevailing in the latter.

But this is usually what results from negotiations between two diametrically opposed parties. A settlement acceptable to no one and optimal in no way. A status quo everyone shoulders and no one embraces. The best analogue is Cross-Strait relations immediately following the end of the Chinese Civil War. Whose was China's to represent legally? The PRC? The ROC? The Constitutions of both expressly rejected the claims of the other--and they still do.

But, see, after fifty years, this begrudgingly accepted stalemate--foe of all and friend to none--has become ironically benefical. Competition and paranoia forced both the PRC and ROC into modernizing and courting the international community. And the domestic benefits all this tension conferred raised expectations amongst their populations these benefits would continue in the future. Of course, none of this would be possible unless the course were stayed--international honor maintained. None of this would be possible without a lasting peace.

So, uneasy peaces may be humanity's best friend. More topically, however, they may be America's best friend. But why?

Enter, Chief Justice John Roberts. Last session, the polarizing Chief Justice authored an even more polarizing opinion in Medellin v. Texas. Among clarifying the extent of obligation a number of international commitments place upon member states, Roberts specifically addressed International Court of Justice decisions. As most ICJ decisions are binding only insofar as Article 94 of the UN Charter mandates, and the Article's power to bind is somewhat weak by virtue of its particular language, the US's power over global governance is quite extensive. This is because member states wishing to solidify ICJ decisions into more powerful, authoritative directives must seek enforcement from the UN Security Council (of which the United States is a member with full veto power).

Obviously, it would diminish American potence in the present global governance regime if this were to change. But such a change is exactly what derailment of the Georgia-Russia stalemate threatens.

Recently, the ICJ has issued a ruling essentially approving of the fragile Georgia-Russia status quo. Imagine if this equilibrium were disturbed. Imagine if Russia unilaterally annexed South Ossetia or Abkhazia outright. Imagine if Georgia attempted the same. Some of us might feel the current state of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independence contrary to Georgian territorial integrity, or Russian claims to legal title. But the counterfactual threatens the US role in international government.

Consider the uncoupling of the careful equipoise affirmed in the abovementioned ruling. Either Georgia or Russia would then have to petition the Security Council for enforcement, right? But no matter how compelling the case might be for enforcement, the petition would prove unavailing. Russia (also a Security Council member with veto authority) would always veto Georgian attempts at enforcement. And the US would likely do the same for one by Russia. What results? The Security Council's reputation of benevolent arbiter is only further undermined, and an institution key to American power projection loses more of its strength.

Lesson: what Obama inherits in Georgia is the necessity of a careful balancing of interests, crucial to the future of American overseas authority. Let's hope he's equal to the task.

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