What can we learn from the war in Georgia? Without going into the rights and wrongs of the combatants, what I’m interested in is the geo-strategic implications, specifically the future of the democratisation project. And it’s not a pretty picture.
See, for a while everything seemed to be going well with democratisation. The two great counter-ideologies of modernity, fascism and communism, collapsed leaving the democratic powers ascendant and free to aid democratic forces within other countries. OK, so maybe this was/is a type of democratic imperialism but so what? We’re part of this project, we’re a liberal democracy and we like to see other countries become liberal democracies, and we give aid to help that happen. Democracy is better than any other form of government we have to choose from and it’s not a true imperialism because countries that are incorporated into the project are not directly controlled from the centre and are ultimately free to choose policies that run country to the interest of the democratic powers. We’ve seen this recently in the election of anti-American socialist governments in South America.
So, democracy spread through the 1990s and 2000s, and it was a good thing – more free people, more responsible governments. Fukuyama announced the end of history, but Fukuyama was a fool because he didn’t take into account two things – the rise of China and the end of cheap energy.
China now accounts for the lion’s share of economic growth, within a decade it will be the largest economy in the world. It is using the power that economic muscle brings to build alliances with other non-democratic countries. These are natural allies because of their similar governments and many are exporters of energy or other resources, fueling it’s ravenous industry. By propping up these governments, China bulwarks them and, ultimately, itself against the West’s democratisation programmes, builds trade networks for itself and a friendly voting bloc are international fora. China’s massive economic power and the West’s increased dependence on a growing China to underwrite our own growth gives the democratic powers little way of stopping this process at governmental level (and even at a hearts and minds level). We see this process in the Pacific as bad governments turn away from the West’s conditional aid to China and in Africa, where Chinese patronage is propping up governments in Angola, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere.
Add to the mix the end of cheap energy. Every time the price of oil goes up, and as long as it stays at high levels, a massive transfer of wealth from the energy-importing West to undemocratic Russia and the Middle East takes place. That wealth (and good relations with China) buys military hardware for those countries and makes them less dependent on the West to buy their resources, while the West grows ever more desperate to stay in the energy suppliers’ good books. Thus, we see Russia cutting gas supplies to countries that displease it and Iran hanging the Sword of Damocles over the Straits of Hormuz.
Coming back to Georgia, we see that energy-rich non-democratic Russia is able to waltz into a democratic country and elicit no real response from the democratic powers – no sanctions, no Western peacekeeping force, nothing. Why? Because a non-democratic bloc based around China can block action through the UN, because Russia can threaten to turn off the gas pipelines into Europe (Europe needs the gas more than Russia need the cash), and the bulk of Western military power is already tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan in what, depending on your point of view, are either the disastrous final overreach of democratic imperialism or a desperate bid to secure strategic dominance of the Middle East for the West before peak oil strikes. Now, we’ve seen that their economic power and the West’s energy dependency mean non-democratic powers like Russia and China can not only stymie democratisation, they are the ones with the freedom to act militarily.
If there’s a lesson from Georgia its that, while Russia and China remain undemocratic and the world economic remains dependent on oil, the waves of democratisation are over, and things are going to start going the other way. Geo-strategically speaking, we’re fucked.