Tskhinvali is not Sarejevo in 1914. South Ossetia will not be the start-line of the Third World War. But it is a ghastly mess, all the more depressing because the West is partly to blame. In diplomacy, strategy and geopolitics, our political leaders have been guilty of multiple failures over many years.
First, diplomacy. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia is a headstrong fellow. Reference has been made to his Harvard education as if that should ensure sound judgement. Alas, however, the President's tutor was not the greatest of Harvard diplomatists, Henry Kissinger – but Anthony Eden at Suez. Mr Saakashvili has only one defence against the charge of criminal irresponsibility: a plea of insanity.
So where were the Western diplomats with straitjackets and hard words? It may be that the President was so headstrong as to be beyond counsel, but it would have been worth trying: pointing out to him that his intended actions would have inevitable consequences and that Georgia would be facing them on its own. Even if it might not have worked, it should have been tried. Yet just when the game was in a crucial phase, British and American diplomats took their eye off the ball.
There is a further diplomatic problem. Georgia would like to join Nato, for obvious if naive reasons. Most Georgians have persuaded themselves that if they were Nato members, we would defend our freedoms shoulder to shoulder with theirs, on the Georgian-Russian frontier. That is nonsense. The moment Nato extended guarantees to Georgia or the Ukraine would be the moment Nato either ceased to exist as a credible defensive alliance or – more likely – turned into an organised hypocrisy. It would become a two-tier structure, in which new members were invited to contribute troops but not offered protection when they most needed it.
Alas, however, all the talk about Nato encouraged Georgian adventurism. It helped President Saakashvili to think that he could behave like a founder member. He concluded that he could provoke Russia with impunity. The Russians concluded that it was time to teach him a lesson.
That should not have been necessary. Rather than waiting for the Russians to instil the fear of death, the West should have taught Georgia the facts of life. We ought to have reminded them that they were living in a dangerous neighbourhood. A small nation that has only recently become independent from a neighbouring superpower still resentful at many of the changes which have overtaken it must tread warily. Eighty per cent of Georgians would like to join Nato. One suspects that a similar percentage of Taiwanese would like to become fully independent. Neither country is in the position to conduct its foreign affairs by writing letters to Santa Claus.
Over time, the Taiwanese have come to accept this; the Georgians should have been helped to do so.
The West's diplomatic weakness rests on the shoulders of a longer-term strategic incompetence. We failed to think through the consequences of our victory in the Cold War. As a result, we have not done enough to consolidate our gains. We failed to build on the geo-strategic triumphs of the Reagan-Thatcher era. In 1979, Mrs Thatcher was threatened by socialism at home – abetted by Soviet fellow-travellers – and by Finlandisation on the Continent. That latter contest was equally important to the Americans. The West won, and our victory was even more impressive for costing so little in blood.
But that was not the sole diplomatic achievement of the great Reagan-Thatcher era. Both the President and the Prime Minister were alert to changing circumstances. They recognised Mr Gorbachev as a bridge to a new era, even before he had decided to cross it. They understood the Churchillian maxim: "In victory, magnanimity."
By 1990, there was a powerful case for scrapping the West's Cold War concepts while keeping our weapons systems, just in case. Despite their reputation for intransigence, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would have been ready to exploit new opportunities. They would have understood the need to move beyond Nato, now that it had served its original purposes. By the early 1990s, there was a need for a new system of collective security in Europe, embracing the Russians. Once Moscow had renounced the ill-gotten gains of 1944-45, we should have welcomed the Russians back to a Europe which had been spiritually impoverished by their absence.
On a practical level, we should have pressed on with Mr Reagan's offer to share anti-ballistic missile technology with the Russians: why not employ some of their scientists in the research work? Once the Communist threat was lifted and the Soviet Empire dismantled, we had no quarrel with Russia. A sustained peace-making effort over the past 15 years would have created a diplomatic means of solving the Georgian question before it became one.
Instead, we have a sullen and truculent Russia demanding respect with menaces. It is possible to make some excuses for all this. The Russian version of history moves from the sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War to the voluntary renunciation of Empire, neither of them receiving adequate gratitude from the West. More recently, on a smaller scale, there is the independence of Kosovo. If Kosovo, why not South Ossetia or Abkhazia? Most Russians do not accept that they have done anything wrong. The Putin-Medvedev administration has a higher popularity score than George Bush and Gordon Brown put together.
The excuses only go so far. The Russians are not fighting Georgia to defend the rights of small nations. They also want to remind Europe where much of its energy comes from. A secure pipeline through Georgia would enable the West to receive oil supplies from Azerbaijan which did not pass through Russian territory. That pipeline is no longer secure, which is why Georgia is more than a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.
This brings us to the failure of geopolitical thinking. Whichever brute or blaggard made the world, he has a black sense of humour. Much of the oil on which the West depends is located in countries upon whom no one would wish to depend. But this is not a new problem. It has been apparent for two decades, which is why the French in particular have moved so heavily into nuclear power.
We in Britain, less far-sighted, have a choice between clapped-out power stations, fantasies about renewable energy and the vagaries of the international oil market. Our failure to find a nuclear alternative is comparable to our failure to rearm in the late 1930s. Now, as then, it could open us to blackmail and condemn us to appeasement.
Those are longer-term questions, which is no excuse for not addressing them as a matter of urgency. In the short-run, Britain, the EU and above all the US will have the task of bringing some relief to the battered people of Georgia. There is little that we can do beyond calling for restraint, urging a ceasefire, begging all men of goodwill etc. The Georgians will have to give up the struggle to hold on to South Ossetia and they may as well prepare themselves to lose Abkhazia as well. If only that were the end of the problem.
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