Leading article: Inaction speaks louder than fierce words

Nato ministers offer Georgia only minimal consolation

Yesterday's emergency meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels had two main tasks. The first was to present a united front and show that the alliance, caught on the hop by the war that flared up between Georgia and Russia just as the Olympics Games were opening, could speak and act with one voice. The second was to agree a coherent and effective position for the alliance in response to Georgia's desperate appeals for help – a position that, ideally, would hold until the next Nato meeting in December and pave the way for a long-term policy towards Georgia, Russia and the region.

In the sense that no one stayed away from a meeting called at short notice in mid-August, and that a closing statement was agreed, the first task was accomplished. Not a nimble organisation at the best of times, Nato convened almost a week after EU ministers had met, and days after the two warring sides had agreed a ceasefire. But it did manage to bring everyone together and it did hammer out a joint position. The difficulty for the alliance, whose prime reason for existing is still mutual defence, is that this position was very much the lowest common denominator and represented no advance on what had been decided – or rather not decided – in Bucharest last April. Financial and material assistance was pledged to repair damage in Georgia, but no military aid or additional hardware – which is what Georgia really wanted.

In this sense, the meeting served only to expose Nato's divisions once again. Even in such acute circumstances as those created by the Georgia-Russia conflict, Nato was split between backing a small, aspiring member and not provoking a stand-off with Russia. Some of Nato's words, of course, sounded fearsome, as is always the case when there is weakness to be disguised. Read past the uncompromising rhetoric, however, and Nato has done no more than reaffirm the non-decision at Bucharest, where the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for Nato membership were essentially put on hold and the fast track favoured by Washington rejected. No one can pretend that weakness in a military alliance is a good thing. But there are times when inaction is preferable to overhasty and ill-considered reaction – and this is one of them. The violence that broke out between Georgia and Russia two weeks ago was not an argument for Georgia to be rushed into Nato; as the statement implicitly recognises, there were faults on both sides. It was rather an argument for training a new international spotlight on the "frozen conflicts" left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union and trying to prevent them from becoming a pretext for wider conflicts.

Perhaps the most positive result of yesterday's meeting was the support expressed by Nato for EU diplomacy, and for the agreement on ending hostilities brokered by France in its capacity as EU president. So long as both sides keep to their undertakings – and that means Russia withdrawing all its forces to their positions before 6 August – then the disputes over Georgia's enclaves have a chance of returning to the political arena, which is the only place they can realistically be settled.