Dying empires leave dangerous legacies. Rome gave way to darkness. As the Spanish empire declined, so did Spain – and the post-Imperial history of the Spanish colonies hardly vindicated Bolivar's hopes. Admittedly, the Monroe doctrine ensured that however chaotic it became, Latin America was not a cockpit of super-powerrivalry, until the little matter of the Cuban missile crisis.
Apropos missiles, the most dangerous moments since 1962 have occurred in the former British empire, when India and Pakistan were confronting each other. Although we British pride ourselves on the skilful way in which we dismantled the empire, the sleep of reason in formerly British Africa has already brought forth monsters, with a lot more to come. Even the first British empire was no exception. First, the Americans seized their independence before they learned to play cricket, so that they still regard rounders as a suitable game for grown-up males. Second, the ambivalences about federalism and slavery in the 13 colonies led to a civil war, and have still not been fully resolved.
More recently, there was also Austria-Hungary, with the Balkans; Ottoman Turkey, with Iraq; France, with Algeria and more African failed states. Now, we have Russia and the Caucasus. A week ago, there were grounds for cautious hope. It seemed possible that the Russians were planning a mere Bismarckian war; clear objectives, overwhelming force, a brief timetable, a limited expenditure of blood and treasure – and no uncontrollable threat to international order (Bismarck was not to blame for 1914).
As regards Georgia, this now seems over-optimistic. Admittedly, events may still settle down in that direction, but for the time being a fiery curtain of confrontational language stretches from the Caucasus to the Baltic, while a new problem has emerged which is far graver than Georgia; Ukraine, the Crimea and Russian naval facilities. In the 1850s, we blundered into a pointless war in Crimea. It had only one merit; a limited scope.
That might not apply to the Crimean missile crisis. Within a few months, we will probably have forgotten whether Ossetia is a place or a type of caviar. We will not be able to forget the Ukraine. It would help if we knew what the Russians wanted and what sort of society Russia will become. But that is not possible. How could it be? The Russians themselves do not know the answer to those questions. Everything depends on four related developments: the Russian economy, the growth of the middle class, the development of civil society and the passage of time. They all provide reasons for wary optimism.
Given its natural resources, Russia is bound to prosper. Its people will continue to enjoy the previously unimaginable luxury of being paid on time in a worthwhile currency. This will lead to the expansion of the middle class, which is the foundation of social stability. Despite difficulties in recent years, a society run by the middle classes will inevitably become a civil society.
Nor is there any reason why Messrs Putin and Medvedev should impede the growth of a democratic culture. Why should they, when they would have no difficulty in winning free elections? The passage of time will ease the pain of post-Soviet trauma. Many older Russians resent the loss of the Soviet Union. As they gave the best years of their lives to its service, this is hardly surprising. But political self-pity among older Russians is a major contributory factor to the fall in life expectancy. This does not affect the rising age groups. The more their elders sink into nostalgia and vodka, the quicker they will take charge.
Mr Putin comes from the transitional generation: career rooted in the old order, but young enough to adapt. Although much has been made of his KGB past, this was not necessarily adisadvantage. The KGB had one asset denied to ordinary Russians: information. A KGB operative stationed in the West and tasked with upholding the superiority of the Soviet system must have felt like a member of the Flat-Earth Society on a round-the-world cruise.
Nor should we assume that all KGB men were ideological fanatics. You are a young Russian in the 1970s. Like almost everyone in the world, you assume that the Soviet system will outlast your lifetime. You are not the stuff from which heroes are made (Vladimir Putin does not look heroic). You decide, therefore, that the KGB offers an interesting life with lots of travel plus good pay and rations.
A few years ago it seemed as if Mr Putin had no regard for old Soviet methods. He appeared to believe that the previous economic system had no merit and that the answer to reform lay in markets. He also seemed ready to think that there might be a link between markets and democracy. Although he may not have understood either markets or democracy, he did seem convinced that Russia had to change.
It may not be too late to revive that conviction. We in the West have to persuade Mr Putin that it is possible for him to be a patriot who believes in a strong Russia without coming into conflict either with us or with his immediate neighbours. This creates a dilemma. How can we avoid the danger of a crisis over the Ukraine without giving the Russians the impression that they can do what they like in that country?
This is an urgent task which is not assisted either by reverting to Cold War rhetoric, or by NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union. As soon as peace has been restored in Georgia, the West should launch a major diplomatic offensive with the object of creating a new system of collective security in which disagreements could be resolved. This will only work if it is presented as an overture to Russia and not as a diplomatic offensive to unite Russia's neighbours against her. It would help if we announced that the negotiations would lead to the Treaty of Moscow.
It would also be foolish to exclude Russia either from the G8 or the World Trade Organisation. We all want to see a Russia which aspires to belong to those bodies – not a great power which pursues a nationalist course with the constant threat of conflict.
If only our diplomacy could be conducted in secret, without any need to appeal to the West's electorates. We need diplomats who are the intellectual heirs of Castlereagh, Kissinger, Metternich, Salisbury and Talleyrand; with the temperaments of Peter Carrington or Douglas Hurd, steeped in experience, wisdom, realism and cynicism.
We do not know whether it was wisdom or cynicism which has prevented Gordon Brown from deploying his diplomatic skills. It was an extraordinary absence. An international crisis is usually good for prime ministers. As they uphold the national interest in weighty discussions with foreign leaders, they can put a distance between themselves and the opposition leaders. They can speak and act for the whole country.
Not Mr Brown: he has been far less interested in Georgia than in Milibadev's attacks on Gordia. There is only one conclusion to be drawn from his unwillingness to involve himself in great events, and it is not a new one. This man is not fit to be Prime Minister.
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