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A return to 1815 is the way forward

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Those who think that there is such a thing as progress in international affairs - that we are capable of learning the lessons of history - have been brutally disabused by the Georgian crisis. You can have all the rules you like to discipline international behaviour; but they are not worth the paper they are written on if they run against fierce nationalisms and ethnic passion.


Ethnic and nationalist rivalry is as old as sin, and as inextinguishable. As a diplomat in Britain's Moscow Embassy during the Cold War, I spent time in two of the Caucasian republics, Georgia and Azerbaijan. They were then under Moscow's heel as part of the Soviet Union. Their loathing of Russians was palpable.


At the time of my visits, Stalin, a Georgian by birth, was still officially a non-person, airbrushed by his successors from the annals of Soviet history. But in defiance of Moscow his portraits could still be seen in Georgian state farms and government offices. I asked a Georgian official why this was so. “Because he killed so many Russians,” came the sardonic reply.


The feeling was mutual. Later in Moscow I related my Caucasian experiences to Leonid Brezhnev's interpreter, Viktor Sukhodrev. “That's no place for a white man,” he said with his impeccable North London accent (he had equally good American).


Recent events have shown no weakening in these ancient hatreds. But the Western powers behaved as if caught on the hop. Last year a French diplomat warned me that once Kosovo got its independence (itself the unnatural product of Balkan hatreds), Russia would feel free to make its move in Georgia. And so it has come to pass.


As a Times leader put it recently, history has resumed, leaving Francis Fukuyama, the apostle of its end, trailing in its wake. But Professor Fukuyama was adrift from the very start. Once the iron fists of the former Soviet Union and Tito's Yugoslavia had been removed, nationalist and ethnic tensions broke surface with the murderous velocity of the long suppressed.


Contrary to what [British Foreign Secretary] David Miliband has been telling us, the glacial years of the Cold War were “the period of calm”. The years since have been marked by the constant turmoil of history's march.


Globalisation and interdependence were supposed to have swept aside these ancient feuds and rivalries. Theories of the postmodern state now abound. Tony Blair preached how national interest would be trumped by the spread of “global values”. This is self-evident rubbish. For here is the paradox of the modern world. Money, people, culture, business and electronic information cross porous frontiers in ever-increasing volume.


But as national boundaries dissolve in cyberspace, so everywhere the sense of nationhood and national interest strengthens. Five minutes in Beijing, Washington, Tehran or Moscow will tell you that. What is the European Union if not the 21st-century arena for the intense and competitive prosecution of the national interest by its 27 member states?


It is useless to say that nationalism and ethnic tribalism have no place in the international relations of the 21st century. If anything the spread of Western-style democracy has amplified their appeal and resonance. The supreme fallacy in foreign policy is to take the world as we would wish it to be and not as it actually is. In Britain's case, the delusion is compounded when we are powerless to effect the outcome we desire.


This has been particularly the case with Russia, where we have managed to be both impotent and provocative. If we really want to put a halt to bad Russian behaviour, let us do so where we can make a difference, and where it is justified - starting with the expulsion of the vast nest of Russian intelligence officers in London, as Labour and Conservative governments did not hesitate to do in the 1970s.


We can foolishly downgrade national interest within the armoury of British diplomacy, if we wish. But we had better not underestimate its driving force in the international behaviour of others. That is the road to dangerous miscalculation.


Take Russia, China and Iran. Each seethes at the recollection of what it considers historical humiliations visited on it by Western powers. For all three the beginning of the 21st century has opened opportunities for payback - for getting respect as a nation (just look at recent Russian newspapers). You don't have to like or approve of these regimes.


But not to understand their histories is not to understand the mainspring of their external policies - in Russia's case its determination to rebuild its greatness, dismantled, as millions of Russians see it, by Mikhail Gorbachev and his Georgian Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, aided and abetted by the West. I would bet a sackful of roubles that Russian foreign policy would not be one jot different if it were a fully functioning democracy of the kind that we appear keen to spread around the globe.


What is to be done, as Lenin once put it? The first thing is to sweep away any rose-tinted illusions left from the Blair-Bush era. For the democracies of North America and Europe, relations with Russia are always going to be awkward and bumpy, at best co-operative and adversarial in equal measure.


The fall of the Soviet Union did not wipe the slate clean. The Russia that we are dealing with today, with its fear of encirclement, its suspicion of foreigners and natural appetite for autocracy, is as old as the hills, long pre-dating communism. It is a Russia that will never be reassured by the West's protestations of pacific intent as it pushes Nato and the EU ever eastwards.


Most important of all, Russia and the West need to draw up rules of the road for the 21st century. Mr Miliband and others have condemned the notion of returning to the geopolitics of the Congress of Vienna which, in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, divided Europe into spheres of influence between empires and nations. They perhaps forget that what was agreed at Vienna held at bay for almost a century a general European war.


Something similar is needed today, based again on spheres of influence. Nato must renounce the provocative folly of being open to Georgian or, worse, Ukrainian membership. This strikes at the heart of the Russian national interest and offers no enhanced security to either Tbilisi or Kiev. As for Russia, it must be made unambiguously clear where any revanchist lunge westwards would provoke a military response by Nato.


This may sound shocking and anachronistic to the modern sensibility. But, there is no other way to remove the scope for miscalculation, the mother of far too many wars.


Sir Christopher Meyer was Britain’s Ambassador to Washington, 1997-2003. This comment was published on September 2, 2008

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