Adrian Hamilton: We need an old approach for the new global politics

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Two presumptions seem to have taken hold of all discussion of the burgeoning crisis over Russia's actions in Georgia. One is that Moscow, by sending in the tanks, has changed the rules of geopolitics and destroyed the post Cold War era of calm and co-operation, as the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, argued in his sabre-rattling speech yesterday in Kiev. The other is that what we're witnessing is a return to the politics of the 19th-century, when empires ruled and great countries thought in terms of spheres of influence.

Both are nonsense, or rather they would be nonsense if only politicians didn't keep upping the rhetorical ante to make them true. This is already a major international crisis. No one should be in any doubt about that. You can't send massed troops across international boundaries without repercussions. And you can't shake the assumptions of the last generation about the balance of power in the post Cold War without forcing a radical reconsideration by all of the parties concerned. When history is written, Georgia will figure as a defining moment.

But a defining moment for what? Russia has broken the rules by its actions. But then so did the US, Britain and the rest of the world that recognised Kosovan independence. Moscow certainly acted with brutal opportunism on the ground. But then so did Georgia in trying to change the facts on the ground by sending in the troops to South Ossetia in the first place. We're not – or rather need not be – suddenly in a whole new world of geopolitics. But then neither are we back to the 19th-century world, at least in the sense that Miliband is picturing – of a return to the gobbling up of the weak by the strong.

Stop a moment and think of it in broad historical terms. What we have here – at this point – could be viewed as little more than a further outburst of a Caucasian ethnic struggle that has gone on for a century or more and which resulted in all-out war in Georgia only 16 years ago. You can leave it at that and treat it as a local power play which you must try and keep from spreading within the limitations of your power on the ground. Or you can – and this applies as much to Moscow as to Washington and London – you can erect it into a grand confrontation between powers, both of whom seek allies, in a grand confrontation of coalitions that Europe has seen for a good thousand years. In other words, you either make Ukraine the next point where lines are drawn in the sand, as Miliband seems to want and Moscow may or may not wish (we don't know yet), or you regard it as an entirely separate issue and keep it apart. These are choices, not inevitabilities.

Even if you can contain it all – after all who, besides Russia and a few close allies is ever going to recognise South Ossetia – the world, or rather the western world, has clearly been changed by the crisis. For what it forebodes above all is a return to regional politics. That is a dramatic change from the Bush era, when Vice President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld enunciated a philosophy of global reach based on America's pre-eminence as sole hyperpower. Iraq was invaded, US bases were built around the world on the grounds of combating world terrorism, NATO and the EU expanded, all on the assumption that a new global order was being achieved. It wasn't. That was clear well before Georgia, with the rise of China and India and the failures of occupation in Iraq. It is regions that matter and the regional players – Russia and the EU in Europe, Iran and the rich Arab states in the Middle East, China in Asia, Brazil and Venezuela in Latin America.

The US has influence. Britain can tag along behind, claiming to punch above its weight with soldiery and experience. But no settlement is possible without taking the interests and the ambitions of the regional players into account. And that requires a quite different politics than we've been witnessing since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. For a start, you have to take each situation as specific to itself, which is what we clearly are not doing in the case of the Caucuses.

You also need to make best use of international institutions, which is again not happening as all the sides wish the UN to intervene only to support them... Finally, and most important of all, you must have a clearly defined view of your own interests, and the limits of your own power, in any given situation.

These are things that foreign secretaries have understood for the past two centuries, although not, apparently, their latest successor.