About three years ago, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili acted rashly and triggered a war with Russia. But Saakashvili didn't think he was rash -- the United States, he was sure, had his back. He was wrong -- the U.S. had supported Georgia as a strategic bulwark for a big oil pipeline, but that differed from going to battle with a nuclear-armed former superpower. As a result, Russia seized two regions comprising a fifth of Georgian territory, and recognized them as private nations. Since then, Saakashvili has labored with mixed results to rebuild his economy, Thomas De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment writes in a comprehensive look at Saakashvili's Georgia.
Today, Vietnam is conducting live-fire drills in the South China Sea in a show that it won't be intimidated in a push-and-shove dispute with China over waters suspected of containing significant oil reserves. Over the weekend, Hanoi urged its former enemy -- the United States -- to help pull the row back from the flashpoint, reports the Financial Times' Ben Bland. In this case, the U.S. will oblige -- to a degree.
Last Friday, the U.S. State Department said it is "troubled" by the rise in tensions. Though for the last year the U.S. has met a request by southeast Asian nations to resist its instincts to defend them, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last summer suggested the nation was prepared to do, one can imagine a sturdy U.S. response in the Vietnam situation. Not to say that President Barack Obama would dispatch an aircraft carrier square into the disputed zone -- the U.S. will stay well back from rattling its war sword. But there could be stern new warnings from Clinton among other steps, under the presumption that Beijing will temper its behavior accordingly.
Ultimately both regions are vulnerable -- the Caucasus to Moscow, and the southeast Asian nations of the South China Sea to Beijing -- and must more or less fend for themselves. That is just one factor separating the 1990s from now. The South China Sea events demonstrate that, in a fight, China cannot rely on perceptions of its ostensible place in the new age to smooth its way out of potential confrontation. In the Caucasus, the U.S. is pragmatically prepared for all the world to observe its limits. Not so much in the South China Sea, where far more is at stake. Yet at some point, China will do more than just hang back.
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The main activity in which the United States government currently engages around the world, apart from fighting two wars, is an attempt to export its brand of politics and economics -- such as supporting the formation and training of political parties, paying for agricultural development, and helping women entrepreneurs. These are fine ideas, but do they succeed -- for example, can one draw a straight line between the Arab Spring and U.S. foreign policy? The most one can conclude at this point is that a lot of people would like to know.
One reason U.S. approaches don't work is that in almost no case anywhere in history has democracy been brought in from the outside and unpacked like an Ikea bunkbed. The other reason is that the U.S. sends few of its chefs as emissaries of good will. But it should. Consider Kelly Macdonald, executive chef for a California vineyard-tour company called the Napa Valley Wine Train, who spent the last week providing gourmet cooking demonstrations to the chefs of Georgia.
Georgia has been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy since an ultra-strategic 1-million-barrel-a-day oil pipeline was built across its territory to the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. worries about the democracy credentials of President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose police last week beat participants in a protest against the government in which there were four deaths including a policeman, but Macdonald seems a more effective way of spreading the message than finger-wagging.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.