Friday, August 22, 2008

A must-read analysis of the Georgia/Russia conflict

No, it's not my analysis.

Paul Berman writes for The National Review (TNR) and has written several books on terrorism, power, and politics. He has posted a devastating and important piece on TNR online that paints the Russian invasion of Georgia as a watershed moment in international relations: namely, the end of the post-1989 era.

I've been reading a lot about how this invasion means the Cold War is over, mainly as a way to illustrate how the Republican nominee is most at home when dealing with old-school military conflicts. However, Berman points out seven "nail-biting" thoughts that Russia's invasion of a tiny, seemingly inconsequential neighbor shifts the balance of power around the world, and not in the favor of the U.S. or its democratic allies.

I admit to paying very little attention to the conflict when Georgia and Russia squared off over a couple of small pro-Russia Georgian provinces that wanted independence from Tblisi. Now, my attention will be glued to this conflict and what might develop in the months to come.

Berman acknowledges the need to blame Bush/Cheney, but to exercise restraint:

The invasion of Georgia offers yet another astounding display of incompetence on the part of the Bush administration, on top of the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the mortgage crisis. The Georgian disaster possesses, however, the potential of outdoing the sum total of those other disasters.

To heap blame and contempt on the Bush administration is therefore a just, reasonable, and hygienic thing to do--but only for five minutes. On the sixth minute, which has already arrived, it will be necessary to come up with a response.

Berman's very nuanced suggestion for a response is to wean ourselves off of petroleum and to distance ourselves from the conflicts inherent in working with the non-democratic countries that deal us the black stuff. He rightly points out that Russian's leaders are afraid, and this fear is what drove them to invade Georgia. At first I didn't get it, but as it relates to the development of a "green" U.S. economy, I see clearly now that American efforts to become less oil independent will have serious repercussions to what Berman calls their "primitive prosperity."

Think about it: we reduced our driving by 12 billion miles in the month of July alone; 10 billion miles in June. I have marvelled at how uncrowded the 405 Freeway has become on weekends. Earlier this year, the 23 mile drive from my in-laws' house to mine on a Sunday evening would have taken me 45 minutes or longer; now, I cruise the trip in under 25 minutes door to door. Now, the speed with which we have seemingly adapted to higher fuel prices is mind-boggling. This has to be sending shock waves throughout the petro-world, from oil companies to governments. If serious efforts are then made by the next president to transition this country away from fossil fuels and towards a greener future, I predict you will see spasms of anxiety all over the world. Oil prices will fall as OPEC nations look for buyers to take up the slack (which will be harder to come by as the U.S. assumes the lead toward greener technology). The Russian economy which depends largely on oil revenues will be sent spinning downward, and might force it to seek help from -- of all countries -- China, fast becoming the next world economic superpower. The U.S. dollar will strengthen and a new worldwide economic expansion will take place, with the green and petro sides competing against one another for dominance.

Of course, a lot of this expansion could be short-lived. Americans are notoriously lazy; the last time we cut back consumption over high oil prices, OPEC reacted and prices plummeted, and we gave up the fight. Would we do that again this time? Hard to say. But I bet there are many who have learned their lessons. Most of us see the folly in increasing offshore drilling as a way to insure a supply of oil for us in the future. As Berman puts it, "fossil fuels have become the engine of reaction, all over the world...."

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