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
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
The feeling was mutual. Later in
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),
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
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
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
This has been particularly the case with
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.
But not to understand their histories is not to understand the mainspring of their external policies - in
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
The fall of the
Most important of all,
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
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