The Russian-Georgian war should remind everyone of a very important point regarding NATO and the European Union. Specifically, just as John Lewis Gaddis said about the Cold War, reassurance was as important as deterrence, and this made self-deterrence very important indeed.
NATO members benefited from a common deterrent towards the Soviet Union, but also from reassurance that they wouldn’t face any threats within Europe – one of the reasons NATO militaries spend so much time cooperating in multinational HQs is precisely this. NATO also provided, and provides, a degree of certainty that US, British, and French nuclear weapons are available to deter an attack on other Europeans. But, as Gaddis pointed out, the balance of power was so stable because as well as the prospect of a formidable conventional defence and a devastating nuclear counteroffensive, NATO also offered the Soviet Union confidence that nobody would do anything stupid. Reassurance was as important as deterrence, and its most important form was self-deterrence.
Self-deterrence? Yes. It was a provocative way of saying it, but what was meant was that everyone agreed to observe a policy of non-provocation towards the other side. The results of actually triggering the common deterrent were, after all, so awful that nobody would take the risk. The upshot, in Europe, was that the European club’s entry requirement is as follows: you must hand in your historical baggage to be searched. If they find any irredenta in there, you’ll have to get rid of them before you’re coming in.
So, surely, we all ought to be delighted Georgia didn’t get into NATO. Right? What the hell were they thinking?
There’s a problem here, though; if we assume that Georgia, and specifically Mikhail Saakashvili’s version of it, wasn’t sufficiently responsible (adult, civilised, possibly even white?) to play, how do we explain that Germany got to join in 1955, when a whole great chunk of it was in the other side’s hands? Or Turkey and Greece, who despite being profoundly NATO-integrated regularly use their NATO-standard air defence infrastructure to play cowboys and Indians over the Aegean? One of the reasons for extending membership of NATO, and the EU, has been to reach out first; that it’s better to offer membership, and hope the requirements shape some country’s thinking, than to wait forever for perfection. If this was good enough for Germany, surely it can be good enough for Georgia.
However, it’s a hell of a big risk, and you have to wonder what possible guarantees would have sealed the deal; only a peaceful solution of the frozen conflicts would have been enough to provide NATO with the necessary reassurance that Georgia wouldn’t get them into trouble, and that would have got rid of much of the point of NATO membership for Georgia and also have been politically unacceptable to Georgians. Sometimes there is no good solution, although you have to wonder whether some European power shouldn’t find Georgia a supply of portable anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, which have the advantage of not being anywhere near as useful aggressively as Grad MLRS batteries.